Profile of a Fledgling Baptist Minister, part 1

By Joyce H. Munro

My hopes are high and prospects good.1

At age twenty-one, Ebenezer Muir Rice began keeping a diary. He was living in upstate New York with his uncle at the time. In his first entry on New Year’s Day, he speculated that 1861 would be “a year whose course will be freighted with either joy or sorrow to me and my connections.”2 Eben was well acquainted with “joy and sorrow mixed”—he used the phrase often in his diary. Some events of Eben’s life had been challenging, worse than most young adults experience.

Extract from E. M. Rice’s Diary

A diary wasn’t the only thing he began that year. Eben left New York to begin a new career that would take several years’ training, and he was reuniting with his fiancée, Mary Ann Bailey, in Hamilton, Ontario. For three years, Eben had apprenticed to uncles who were merchants/druggists in Montréal and Hamilton. Now he was working for a druggist in Martinsburg, New York. But Eben was no longer intent on becoming a druggist because he had experienced a religious conversion. Shortly after, he sensed a call to ministry that he couldn’t ignore. His newly chosen career would take him back to Canada for an entirely different kind of schooling.

Eben and his two sisters3 were born in the United States, but they spent their childhood in Montréal with their maternal grandparents after the sudden loss of both parents in Chicago, Illinois. Their mother, Mary Ann Muir Rice, died from complications of childbirth in 1848. A year later, their father, William Henry Rice, the young, enthusiastic pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church on LaSalle Street in Chicago, fell victim to cholera.4

Until they were in their twenties, Eben’s sisters lived at their grandparents’ home, Willow Cottage, in Montréal, but Eben was turned out at age seventeen for constantly arguing with his grandfather, Ebenezer Muir. “Left a stray waif”5 is how Eben expressed his situation, though this was not entirely true, for his grandfather arranged for him to apprentice to an Uncle in Hamilton. Eben did so for a year, then arranged to live with a relative who owned a pharmacy in Ingersoll, Ontario. For a while, he lived in Brantford, Ontario and worked at another Uncle’s hardware store. There he developed a dislike for clerking and moved again, this time to New York. Eben was determined to earn enough money to get married and bring his bride from Hamilton to New York. All that changed the day he realized—reluctantly and after much groaning—that ministry was his true vocation.6

Back in Montréal, Eben’s Muir uncles and aunts heard of his religious conversion and all ten of them agreed to pay his expenses at the Canadian Literary Institute in Woodstock, Ontario. The choice of institution was purposeful. Eben’s grandparents had emigrated to Montréal in 1819 as Scots Presbyterians. After their arrival they converted to Baptist beliefs and channeled their effort and money into establishing the first Baptist institutions in Canada, including the First Baptist Church in Montréal, the Canada Baptist Missionary Society, and Canada Baptist College of Montréal.

Woodstock College

Canadian Literary Institute, CBA

The Muirs were not alone in their efforts; fellow Scots immigrants James Thomson, James Milne, and John Dunn, with John Try from England, also gave time, money, property and passion. For a brief time, John Mockett Cramp headed the new Baptist College, then Robert Alexander Fyfe took over. There were strong religious ties among these families, and marital ties as well. Fyfe married Thomson’s daughter, Muir’s son married Cramp’s daughter, another Muir son married Milne’s daughter, and Cramp’s son married Dunn’s daughter. It is astonishing how many early Canadian Baptist forbears are in Eben’s family tree. Though he may not have been fully aware of these familial connections, for he never wrote of them in his diary.

The Canada Baptist College of Montréal, whose sole purpose was training young men for pastoral ministry, was a short-lived enterprise. But a decade later, Fyfe and his colleagues established the Canadian Literary Institute in Woodstock, Ontario, a college for males and females with a unique dual curriculum—literary and theological. In 1861, the year after the Institute opened, Ebenezer Muir Rice arrived on campus and paid his tuition, eager to begin classes in Latin, Greek, Logic, and Natural Theology. He divulged his feelings about these classes in his diary—the long hours of study, intolerable class schedules, pressure from Dr. Fyfe to preach in a nearby church every weekend. The latter he resisted for several months until he had one sermon prepared to his (and Fyfe’s) satisfaction.

In his first year, Eben expressed surprise when he realized he was getting the highest grades in his class. He was a conscientious student, spending many hours grinding out Latin declensions and developing sermon skeletons. But he also had an independent streak, which he expressed by breaking Fyfe’s rules, despite several reprimands, including a private scolding at Fyfe’s home. And he rallied students to secede from the institute’s Adelphian Society and create a new society. When Fyfe tried to convince the two societies to join together, Eben protested, declaring that Fyfe had overstepped his authority. More than once, Eben rejected Fyfe’s counsel on a family or personal matter, declaring (to his diary) that it was none of his business!

In addition to composing essays for Miss Pamelia Vining’s history class and presentations to the Adelphian Society and Judson Missionary Society, Eben delighted in sending tongue-in-cheek letters to the editor of the student newspaper, railing in jest about too much work in classes and school rules. By the end of his first term, Eben was so comfortable as a theological student that he was reluctant to leave campus for the summer:

It made me feel very sad to leave Woodstock; it felt like coming away from home, instead of going home.7

  

Joyce H. Munro has spent her career in college administration. She holds a PhD from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee and has been a member of the faculty of the School of Religious Education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and Dean of Graduate Studies at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. Her husband, James G. Munro, served as a Baptist pastor for thirty-three years and more recently as a denominational executive with the American Baptist Churches USA. He is a descendant of James Thomson, a Canadian Baptist forebear.

 

Endnotes

  1. Eben M. Rice, Diary, Vol. I, 1 January 1861. Canadian Baptist Archives, Hamilton, Ontario (hereafter CBA).
  2. Rice, Diary, Vol. I, 1 January 1861. CBA.
  3. Anne Jane Rice was born in Fort Covington, NY in 1844; Amelia Elizabeth Rice in Chicago in 1848.
  4. An account of William Rice’s final days is in A. T. Andreas, History of Chicago, Vol I (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley, 1884), 595-596. At books.google.com
  5. Rice, Diary, Vol. I, 5 November 1862. CBA.
  6. Eben described his calling to ministry in 1860 in his diary on 4 November 1861. He struggled with two scriptures: Matthew 19:29 and 10:37, 38 and wrote: “One seemed to promise what I would receive if I obeyed, the other threatened if I refused. Such a terrible struggle I never wish to pass through again.”
  7. Rice, Diary, Vol. I, 18 July 1861. CBA.

 

**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**

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