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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Luther Rice, A Mission's Mobilizer

Luther Rice, who returned to America to arouse the Baptists to the support of Judson and foreign missions, was a most remarkable man. He was not without faults, he made mistakes, but his virtues and zeal outshone them all. He has been described as follows: By nature he was endowed with many of the essential attributes of an effective speaker. His appearance was highly prepossessing. Above the ordinary height, with a robust and perfectly erect form, there was at once produced on the mind of the beholder a most favorable impression.

None could fail to entertain respect, for it was demanded by a peculiar dignity of appearance and manner. Especially was this true, when he arose in the pulpit. With a full face, and comparatively small eyes, there was sometimes rather a dull and heavy cast of countenance, which immediately changed when he became animated by speaking; his voice was clear and melodious. He had but little action, which, however, was appropriate and graceful. He was, at all times, when he addressed an assembly, remarkable for self possession. Nothing seemed capable of discomposing his mind. Perhaps few speakers have been apparently less affected by external circumstances; whatever might be the character of the congregation, whether large or small, intelligent or ignorant, whether in the city or country, he was always distinguished for the same dignity and readiness of utterance. … The style of Mr. Rice’s sermons was, in many respects, superior. A refined, critical taste, could, perhaps, have discovered, at times, a redundancy of words and phrases; but this was no more than might have been expected from discourses which were always extemporaneous, especially when it is known that the multiplicity of other duties allowed but little time for preparation. … The moment he began to speak, attention was roused, and uniformly the interest thus awakened was kept up throughout the services. The clearness of his conceptions, the accuracy and force of his language and the solemn dignity of his manner, all contributed to render him one of the most interesting public speakers of our land. Occasionally, his eloquence was overpowering, particularly when he advocated the more sublime doctrines of our holy religion. Indeed, in the discussion of such topics, he may be regarded as having been most felicitous. There seems to have been a coincidence between the operations of his own mind, and those truths which, in their very nature, are vast and grand. The terribleness of Jehovah’s wrath, the severity of his justice, and the rectitude of all of his decisions, were themes which gave ample scope to his vigorous intellect, and in the discussion of which, he was not only instructive, but exceedingly impressive (Taylor, Memoir of Luther Rice, one of the First American Missionaries of the East, 271-273. Baltimore, 1841). A most interesting account of Rice is given by Edward Kingsford, Augusta, Georgia, December 31, 1840, describing his courage and perseverance. He says: "Nothing but absolute necessity ever prevented him from accomplishing any purpose which he had formed in his mind, or from fulfilling an engagement he had previously made. In his numerous journeys in the South, he had frequently to cross deep and rapid streams, yet he appeared never to have been disconcerted by the threatened impediment, or deterred from making the passage, however dangerous. At one time, on approaching a stream, he perceived by the turbid state of the water, that it could not be forded without some danger, he left the horse and sulky on the bank, and plunged into the river. Just as the water reached his neck, he found himself approaching the opposite shore; he then returned and with his horse and carriage, dashed through the foaming flood. At another time, on a similar occasion, discovering that he could not keep his books, papers, and other baggage dry, if he swam his horse and sulky through the water, he disengaged his horse from the vehicle, and with portions of his books, crossed the stream thirteen times, and then, wet as he was, pursued his journey. Once, when he came to a very deep and rapid river on which stood a mill, he called to the miller to help him over. ‘Help you over?’ said the man, with astonishment, ‘you will not be able to cross that river to-day.’‘Yes, I shall,’ said Rice, ‘if you will help me.’ Immediately alighting, he commenced operations. He first took one wheel off the sulky and carried it through the mill; he took off the other, and transported it in the same way. Afterwards, by the aid of the miller, he carried the body of the sulky through. By a number of successive trips, he conveyed over the harness and the baggage, then mounting his horse he swam him through the river, and then went on his way to secure the object to which he had devoted his life. Upon another occasion, a friend sent him in a carriage to a place where he was to be met by another; but the latter failed to meet him, he pursued his journey carrying a small trunk. A part of his journey was pursued through a long and dreary swamp. Being asked by friends, sometime after, if he did not feel afraid while passing through the swamp on foot and alone; he replied, ‘I thought of nothing except the object that was before me’" (The Baptist Banner and Pioneer, February 16, 1841). Such was the man American Baptists sent forth to represent their cause. While on his voyage home, March 25, he entered the following note in his journal: "This day I am thirty years old. I renewedly give myself to the Lord, renewedly devote myself to the cause of missions, and beg of God to accept me as his, and particularly as devoted to the missionary service." After spending two months in the city of St. Salvador, where he remarks, "the Catholic superstition was entirely predominant, forming a state of heathenism as bad as any other," he obtained passage to New York. On September 15, in Boston, he appeared before the American Board of Commissioners. He laid before that body a verbal and written account of his change of sentiments and the reasons for them. He was courteous and kind but received scant recognition in return. From henceforth Rice entered into a new relation; engaged in new, important and very laborious and responsible endeavors to awaken the Baptist churches in the United States to the desirableness and practicability of combining their energies in the cause of missions. taken from John T. Christian's "A History of the Baptists of the United States; From the First Settlement of the Country until 1845. pages 348-349

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