By Joyce H. Munro
During the first years of his ministry, some of Eben Rice’s diary accounts are nonchalant—household chores, sermon preparation, visiting with church members in far-flung homes and long meetings. Other accounts are gripping—the distain of a Presbyterian minister, a disastrous chimney fire, sickness caused by rotten food, Mary’s miscarriage while Eben was away candidating for a church.
Eben’s diaries evoke the complexity of his character. In most situations, he was even-tempered, out-going, and caring. He coped well with hardship and health issues. And his diaries are full of signs that he was truly called to the ministry. He dedicated every morning to study, read scripture with his family mornings and evenings, faithfully visited church members and recorded statistics of his ministry at the end of every month. Honesty about his performance was one of his strengths. Some Sabbaths he felt “liberal in the pulpit” and others he was quite dissatisfied. And occasionally, church members told him that his sermon was the best one ever preached in their church.
Other aspects of Eben’s life were not so strong and positive. Relationships with his mother’s relatives were strained at best. When he was in his teens, he vowed never to step foot in the home of his grandfather Ebenezer Muir without a direct invitation. More than once, he turned his back on the opportunity to advance in his career with his uncles. And he got into a fierce battle of wills with his Aunt Tenie (Quintina Muir Foley). Try as he might to stand his ground, relatives in Montréal demanded his allegiance to family beliefs and customs, going so far as apprenticing him to one, then another of their vocations. The family must have had mixed feelings when Eben stepped foot back in Willow Cottage for the Muir’s fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1863. His diary entries that summer show how resolute Eben was to stay calm and get along. Falling in love with Hattie Farrar probably helped distract him.
Of all the characteristics of this fledgling young minister that emerge page after page in his diaries, the most striking is Eben’s penchant for debate. Eben did not shy away from confrontation. Whether an editorial to the Illinois Baptist newspaper, a letter of retort to Aunt Tenie, a stormy church meeting, or a face-to-face encounter, Eben stated his position with clarity and conviction. He meticulously recorded points of argument and important letters in his diaries, in case he needed to refer back to them.
A chief and chronic worry for Eben was financial stability. During his student days at the Canadian Literary Institute, he learned ministers were not paid enough. Eben roused the theology students to draft a resolution not to preach at the Beachville church until its members paid a respectable amount—sixty-three cents from the collection plate was not worth the long, muddy trek out and back. It’s not clear whether the resolution made it into the hands of the Beachville deacons, but Eben never preached there again while a student.
Through the years, Eben’s salary did increase with each church he served, however it was never enough to make ends meet, not even with dividends from the Muir family trust, sent regularly by his Uncle George Barclay Muir, an attorney in Montréal.
Eben and Mary sold produce from their garden to neighbors and rarely bought anything that was not absolutely needed—except new clothes for photographs. While at Woodstock, Eben had his photo taken each year to exchange with friends, especially female friends. And he continued to have photos made after marriage, sending them along to relatives in Canada and the States. Anyone so willing to have photos taken was probably not bad looking. No photos have been found that might confirm this.
In 1861, during his first term at the Institute, Eben learned he had an enlarged heart and was predisposed to consumption. The doctor advised Eben to give up training for the ministry and move to a warmer climate. As was Eben’s inclination, he chose not to listen to the doctor, declaring in his diary that he had no right to quit. God had called him and would give him strength. And if not, it still didn’t alter his obligation to obey. There were days Eben felt tired or had a headache, but he was not obsessed with his medical condition. So it comes as a shock to learn that, ten months after his final diary entry in 1870, Eben died.1
Sadly, he did not attain what he wanted most:
I am two months over 30 years old as I close this diary. I do not believe that I shall even live to fill another book. I sometimes think my time is very short. Nature warns me that my frame is very frail, & I know that a little would cut me down. Oh how hard to think of leaving my family destitute. If I could only leave them with a comfortable living then I might feel more contented. May God spare me for a season that I might provide for my little ones.2
The Eben Rice diaries are a valuable first-hand resource on Canadian and American Baptist history. More than two hundred individuals are named in the diaries, a number of whom were leaders of the denomination. An annotated roster of names and transcription of the diaries have been completed. The original diaries are with the Canadian Baptist Archives at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.
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.
- See Minutes of the Illinois Baptist Pastoral Union, Twenty-Second Annual Meeting (Chicago: Church, Goodman & Donnelley, 1872), 13. The obituary of Eben Muir Rice reads in part: “As a student of the word of God, he was thorough; as a preacher, he was faithful; as a pastor, he was greatly loved by his people; and the great number that attended his funeral was evidence of the esteem in which he was held by the community.” At books.google.com
- Eben M. Rice, Diary, Vol. V, October 15, 1870. Canadian Baptist Archives, Hamilton, Ontario.
**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**