Posted Saturday morning, November 26, 2016.
This is the cemetery behind the old meeting house of the Clifton Park Center Baptist Association Church. According to the historical marker in front it was built in 1833 but it must have been on the site of a previous meeting house. The cemetery opened for business in 1801, and presumably the first customers didn’t have far to travel to their final resting place.
We're visiting the Old Mannion Family Homestead for Thanksgiving and early yesterday morning, in what has become a routine when we’re up there, I set out on a drive that took me out of the suburban precincts in which I grew up and out into the countryside on the north side of the Mohawk River. My usual practice once I’m out among the woods, cornfields, and apple orchards is to decide what roads to follow by mentally flipping a coin at the intersections. Friday’s coin flip took me out to the church, which caught my eye and roused my curiosity for its being so plain and austere.
The congregation was founded in 1794 by Reverend Abijah Peck, a veteran of the Revolution and a weaver by trade. There was no church building to start. Rev. Peck preached out of his house and his original flock was composed almost entirely of his wife and children and a few friends. When the congregation grew a bit, drawing in some of his neighbors, Peck moved operations out to his barn. A regular meeting house was built in 1801---I don’t know which was dug first, the foundation or the first graves---and it served the congregation for thirty years until this one was built. Abijah Peck lived to see it and then some. He was ninety-one when he died in 1848. He’s buried out back with his two wives on either side. His first wife and the mother of his children, Mindwell---I’m guessing pronounced as an admonition, Mind Well, her parents apparently thinking it prudent to bring her into the world with a scolding---died when she was in her early fifties. His second wife, Lydia, was a middle-aged widow, twelve years his junior. He outlived her by a couple of years.
Peck became “the subject of divine grace in his twenty-fourth year” and right off began to make himself a pest to his friends and neighbors with his God-bothering or, as his eulogist put it, “almost immediately after his conversion, he began exhorting the people upon the great concerns of the soul.”
Peck was born in Connecticut in 1758. That would have made him twenty-four in 1782. He went on as something of a lay preacher for twelve years before he moved to Clifton Park Center, then part of the village of Halfmoon, and “collected a few scattered lambs of Christ” and founded his church. He was not an ordained minister at the time. He even put off accepting ordination for a few years on the grounds of “personal unfitness.” I don’t know who or what persuaded him he’d grown fit (or to get over his false modesty) but he was finally ordained around the time the new brick meeting house was ready.
Peck had apparently long since retired as pastor when he died. He was still an active member of the church and the pastor at the time seems to have liked him very much or thought highly of him. That pastor was effusive in his praise of Peck in his eulogy.
“As a man, the deceased was well-known for industry, integrity, and punctuality; as a Christian, for consistency, humility, and benevolence; as a pastor, for untiring zeal, fidelity, and devotion to the interests of the Redeemer’s Kingdom.”
“With small advantages of education, he acquired a considerable amount of general knowledge, rich stores of spiritual wisdom, and was might in the scripture. His preaching was characterized by plainness and force. A holy unction seemed to be upon him, and he was generally successful in communicating to his hearers. His sermons often displayed much and vigorous thought. His mind was naturally strong and his judgment correct. He was in truth a peacemaker...such confidence was placed in him that in church difficulties and family contingencies, he was often selected as the only judge in the case and his decision was law.”
“He was a great friend to the young minister. He took him by the hand and led him along,giving him encouragement to press forward. To the pastor of his own church, he was all that could be asked as a friend, a brother, a counselor, and a comforter under the various trials incident to the pastor in the discharge of his responsible duties.”
[Editor's note: See below for the source of the quotes.]
Sounds like a fairly decent fellow and probably was a good pastor in his day. But I’m more interested in the younger pastor and the curious about the church politics of his tenure. Whoever he was, he had a satirical eye and there was somebody in his experience he felt deserved satire. Felt it enough that he couldn’t resist putting it into his eulogy for Peck, whom, like I said, the younger pastor genuinely liked and admired. But Peck seems to have shone brighter in his estimation in comparison to somebody else the pastor definitely did not like.
That somebody is in the eulogy as an aside justified as a description of what Peck was NOT: A meddlesome, gossiping, backstabbing troublemaker who, it sounds like, had had his pastorship voted away from him and then took his revenge on the church by making life as difficult as he could for his successor, who wrote:
“How unlovely is the conduct and unenviable the lot of that minister in like circumstances whose conduct forms a perfect contrast with his noble example. Regardless of the march of improvement, he hold onto his pastoral charge until the church to preserve its own existence or to prevent the young, enterprising, and well-informed of the congregation from abandoning their place of worship is constrained to obtain a more efficient and enlightened minister. Then he ascribes the conduct of the church to pride and popularity, looks with an envious eye upon his successor, magnifies his faults, misconstrues his motive, indulges a spirit of jealousy and distraction, tell how little he requires for preaching and what a salary this proud young man demands, although the brother by whom he is superseded may give himself wholly to the ministry, studying, visiting, preaching, praying, conversing, and abounding in the work of the Lord seven days a week; while he receives but a scanty support, he charges him with indolence, love of money, and seems to delight in counteracting his influence and destroying the peace of the church over which he presides. The very opposite was true of Abijah Peck.”
That’s the story I want to hear told. The story of Abijah Peck’s young minister friend and the young minister’s predecessor. Sounds like something out of a novel by Anthony Trollope.
There’s another story I’d like to read. But it’s part of a story I have read a number of times in a number of histories. The story of the religious history of the United States and why we’re not a Christian nation. It’s because the founders didn’t want there to be a state religion like the one that had driven many of their ancestors out of England and to North America, where they could be free to worship according as their consciences and faiths dictated. The key word in that sentence being faiths, plural.
Members of the various Christian sects that set up shop in different parts of the colonies thought theirs was the one true faith. Some of these sects were more tolerant and more kindly disposed towards the others than the others were towards them. Most of them were most of the time actively hostile towards one another. As has too often been proved by history, the persecuted are often eager to persecute in their turn.
By the time the Bill of Rights was written, things had settled down to the point that it was mostly a matter of sectarian squabbling but discrimination and outright persecution were still vexing problems. And as it happened, Baptists were still subject to suspicion and hostility from all sides when Abijah Peck move into the area.
Word of his imminent arrival and his intention of starting a church went ahead of him, and he wasn’t welcomed with open arms.
“At the time of his coming to Clifton Park, few persons were found professors of religion in the community, and among these there existed a decided opposition to the Baptists and their sentiments.”
Which sounds like there weren’t many residents who were interested not just in what Peck was preaching but in any preaching so he couldn’t expect to draw crowds. But it was the believers who were out and out hostile.
“When it was learned he was about to remove to the place, the people were warned of his dangerous doctrine and were told he would rock them to sleep in the Devil’s cradle.”
Another case of Christians prejudiced against other Christians.
When the founders came up with the Establishment Clause, they weren’t just trying to prevent an American version of the Church of England. They were trying to keep Christians from going after each other’s throats over the question, if we’re a Christian nation, whose version of Christian are we?
They didn’t succeed.
Here we are, more than two hundred and twenty years after Abijah Peck brought his “dangerous doctrine” to Clifton Park, and Right Wing Christians are still forcing us into the argument, which they feel they’ve won by treating it as a settled question.
Who’s version of Christian?
The idea that a nation that includes millions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Shintos, not to mention deists, agnostics, and atheists, and whose second largest---or largest. I keep finding differing statistics---brand of Christian is Catholicism, which the Right Wingers, truth be told, don’t regard as truly Christian, and whose fastest growing church is the Church of Latter Day Saints--- the Right Wingers regard the Mormons as practically Satan-worshippers---is a “Christian” nation, and a fundamentalist one to boot, is ignorant and bigoted, of course. But it’s also something else.
Not to mention un-Amercian.
No wonder the young, enterprising, and well-informed are abandoning their places of worship all over the country and there are to be found fewer and fewer professors of religion in the community that is the United States.
I cribbed the history contained in this post from the website of the Clifton Park Baptist Church and from a YouTube video posted by the Baptist History Preservation Society. The video is of a tour of the cemetery and the quotes are from the tour guide's commentary. It doesn't make for scintillating viewing and I don't recommend it, but it's there if you want to check on how well I did my homework. The Clifton Park Baptist Church doesn't hold services in the old meeting house anymore. They have a fairly new looking mega-church complex which I think you can see over and behind the graves of Mindwell, Abijah, and Lydia Peck. The co-pastors of the church are a young married couple. I don't know what that says about the church, if anything, relative to other Baptist churches. I do know that the Baptists people generally associate with Right Wing Evangelicals are Southern Baptists and the Southern Baptists have been at odds with each other and with other types of Baptists ever since I can remember or at least as far back when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and the scene in which Miss Maudie distinguishes between mainstream Baptists like herself and "foot-washing" Baptists like Boo Radley's father. And Jimmy Carter broke with the Southern Baptists in 2000:
''I have seen an increasing inclination on the part of Southern Baptist Convention leaders to be more rigid on what is a Southern Baptist and exclusionary of accommodating those who differ from them,'' Mr. Carter said today in a brief interview. ''In the last couple of years, this tendency of the Southern Baptist Convention leadership to ordain their creed on others has become more onerous for me and more difficult for me to accept.''
So for some folks the argument isn't just over whose version of Christian. It's whose version of Baptist?
The founders knew what they were doing.