By John Marshall
JEFFERSON CITY—The Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) began with 150 churches, 50 of which had been founded by Ebenezer Rodgers. This astounding claim is made by historian Joseph Cowgill Maples in the definitive “Missouri Baptist Bibliography” series, published by the Missouri Baptist Historical Society in 1916.
Ebenezer Rodgers was born in Wales in 1788, and was educated at Bristol College. His father, brother, and brother-in-law were also Baptist preachers.
He came to America in 1818, landing at New Orleans. It is usually difficult for a person to go from one country to another, to adapt to new surroundings, but Rodgers seemed at home in the USA from the first. He made his way to Kentucky, where he met the Baptist missionary to Missouri, James Ely Welch.
He soon left Kentucky, and in 1819 was preaching in Missouri, where this pastor/missionary from Wales would begin 50 churches though he labored in the state only16 years. He became a close friend of Thomas Fristoe and Fielding Wilhite.
Fristoe, who considered Rodgers his mentor, said of him, “So far as the ministry is concerned, he is my father. I commenced exhorting under his ministry, and when the church granted me a license to preach, he wrote that document.”
Rodgers’ college education served him well in Missouri, a place where most preachers had little schooling. When heresies and Bible questions arose, his pen usually provided the definitive answer.
Rodgers’ missionary heart had been stirred early on by his being an admirer of Andrew Fuller, William Carey’s pastor-friend. Fuller was the one who promised to “hold the ropes” for Carey. Rodgers later named one of his sons Andrew Fuller Rodgers.
After he helped found a Missouri-wide Baptist convention, he moved to Alton, Ill., where he became closely involved with the work of John Mason Peck in helping him establish his seminary and college. He was a trustee of Shurtleff College from its beginning till he died.
Rodgers died at his home in Upper Alton, Ill., April 25, 1854, and is buried in Upper Alton Cemetery. He had made in advance his own tombstone, which he kept nearby to remind him of his mortality.
The missionary efforts of Ebenezer Rodgers, Thomas Fristoe, and Fielding Wilhite made possible the founding of the MBC. As self-appointed missionaries, the three for many years avidly searched for settlements where they could preach the Gospel. Their tours began after the crops were laid by, and lasted from six weeks to two months.
Their travels centered primarily in the rapidly growing parts of the state along the Missouri River. Their main area was from the Chariton River to the west border of the state, and from the Missouri River to Iowa.
The three preached from town to town with no board to guarantee them support. They never asked for remuneration. They were bi-vocational preachers, depending mainly on their farms for support.
In autumn 1833 they met at the house of John Jackson in Howard County. Here they discussed the need for a statewide Baptist Association. In this meeting they, with tears, prayed this organization into existence.
Several factors were motivating them. Population was exploding. Also, Baptists needed a newspaper to help fight heresy, and a college to remove the reproach of many Baptist ministers being unlearned.
The main driving force was a desire to preach Jesus in those parts of the state destitute of the Gospel. It is no exaggeration to say Missouri’s first statewide Baptist convention was founded as a home missions effort for its own territory.
After the 1833 prayer meeting, the three traveled through a large portion of Missouri, testing the waters for a statewide Baptist convention. Fristoe and Rodgers went north and east as far as Paris in Monroe County. Wilhite went south and west with a William Bartee.
Interest in a state convention seemed strong. Finally they sent invitations to all 150 Baptist churches in Missouri to attend a meeting at Providence Church in Callaway County, about 10 miles north of the state capital. The meeting place was northeast of New Bloomfield, on the current grounds of the Callaway Baptist Associational camp.
Eighteen ministers and thirteen laymen arrived on Aug. 29, 1834, for the three-day meeting. Ebenezer Rodgers chaired the committee that arranged the business for the sessions. At the time, there were in Missouri 150 Baptist churches, 100 ministers, and 13 associations.
The organization was initially called the Baptist Central Society of Missouri (1834-1838), then the General Association of United Baptists in Missouri (1839-1874), the Missouri Baptist General Association (1875-1957), and since 1958, the Missouri Baptist Convention.