W. Austin Gardner
Discrediting of Luther Rice
One of the less lovely aspects of the 1826 meeting was the discrediting and dismissal of Luther Rice as agent of the convention. Actually, he had already begun to give less time to convention tasks and more to Columbian College.
In retrospect, Rice was apparently a man of great virtues and equally great faults. His vision for Baptists was vast, but he attempted to bring it to reality too rapidly. With him, expansion quickly became overexpansion; whatever needed to be done he tried to do at once, confidently expecting the money would come later.
Time and time again, he appears to have gone beyond convention authorization in various projects. Repeatedly the convention instructed Rice not to proceed until the cash was in hand; just as repeatedly, he branched out on pledges and sometimes just on hopes.
Rice’s vague financial records concerned some. At times as debts mounted, Rice would allot funds given for one cause to some other cause, always intending to replace them. Some thought the college benefited at the expense of foreign missions.
Some Baptists even accused Rice of dishonesty in handling funds. That prompted Rice to demand an investigation of his own conduct, both personal and official.
The “Committee on the Conduct of Mr. Rice,” chaired by Lucius Bolles, one of Rice’s critics, seemed determined to discover some serious transgression but found none. Their 1826 report criticized Rice as “a very loose accountant,” called him “too loose in all his dealings,” and set out in painful detail the “many imprudences … laid to his charge.”
However, the committee concluded, “We can find nothing censurable in Mr. Rice, … nothing like corruption or selfish design.”39
Perhaps the crowning indignity came when even Rice’s friends agreed that, while he could continue to raise funds, the disbursement of the funds had to be taken out of his hands.
Thus publicly discredited, even though officially exonerated, Rice gradually withdrew from denominational leadership.
Rice died in 1836, exhausted in body and soul. He labored to the last for his beloved college; on his deathbed he instructed friends to sell his horse, Columbus, and his sulky and give the proceeds to the college.
He died as he lived, alone.
Though he had proposed marriage to different women, none accepted him.
While his old colleagues overseas, the Judsons, were elevated to a status near sainthood, Rice, who labored at home to build a strong denomination, was vilified by many.
Rice’s faults were glaringly real, but the twentieth century has seen a renewed appreciation for his pioneer contributions in transforming scattered churches into a great denomination.
39 Brackney, Journal, pp. 157–158.
H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1987), 359–360.