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The first Baptist university in America


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The first Baptist college in America was Rhode Island College founded in 1764, now known as Brown University. The school was begun at Warren, Rhode Island, but moved to Providence in 1770. It became Brown University in 1804 and was named for Nicholas Brown, an alumnus.

Rhode Island College was founded primarily to train young men for the ministry. The college was promoted by the Philadelphia, Charleston, and Warren Baptist associations. It fostered religious liberty and freedom in its teachings and practice. The 1764 charter specified that there would be no creedal barriers to student admission. Students and faculty had no religious tests required and by 1770 Jews were also admitted as students. This commitment to religious liberty gave the school a reputation of stability and openness. The school had only nine presidents in its first 150 years of existence.

Baptist Brown was an answer to the Congregationalist Yale and Harvard, Presbyterian Princeton, Episcopalian Penn and Columbia. The school was begun in Rhode Island because many of its legislators were Baptists and were in favor of religious liberty.

The school had financial struggles from the beginning. Morgan Edwards toured England to raise funds and Hezekiah Smith toured the south to raise money and support. Nicholas Brown gave a total of $160,000 to the school and set an example in giving and concern for higher education.

Brown organized a medical program in 1811, graduate school in 1850 and first admitted women in 1891. Brown does not have a Baptist affiliation in 2009, but proudly publicizes the early influence of Roger Williams.

One of the most influential presidents of Brown University was Francis Wayland (1796-1865). He was born in New York City, the son of a Baptist preacher. Wayland graduated from Union College in 1813 and after three years of medical studies was called into the ministry. In 1821, Wayland became pastor of First Baptist Church, Boston (1821-1826), and in 1827 became the fourth president of Brown University. Since Brown was only the seventh college in America, Wayland had the opportunity to be very innovative in academics and set some policies that are still followed nearly 200 years later.

Wayland served as president of Brown for 28 years (1827-1855) and introduced courses in science and modern languages. His primary academic contribution was in the area of curriculum. In 1850, Wayland wrote: “The various courses should be so arranged that, insofar as practicable, every student might study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose.” This open ended course selection was innovative and reached out again to the concepts of religious liberty and personal freedom.

Francis Wayland did not have the gift of preaching, but had the gifts of administration and communication. He supported local church autonomy, missions and was one of the earliest Baptist writers who wrote against the evils of slavery.

Jerry Windsor is executive secretary of the Florida Baptist Historical Society and retired professor of preaching at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville.