Irah Chase (1793–1864)

There are a few figures who left behind a significant heritage for their denomination. Sometimes, these figures become lost as time and denominations move on. Irah Chase is one of those figures. The denomination he influenced was the early American Baptists (and the North more than the South). The area he influenced was theological education. More than a historical curiosity, Chase influenced the nature of Baptist theological education. 

Born in Massachusetts to a farming family, his own delicate health meant he was not cut out for life on a farm. He was educated at Middlebury College where he received a liberal arts education and made friends with a local pastor named Nathaniel Kendrick (who would go on to be another significant figure in Baptist education, being the first professor of theology at the theological school of Hamilton, NY). Chase related that when he finished his studies in 1814 an important experience gave direction to his life. It happened on September 11, 1814, that the Battle of Lake Champlain (the last British attempt to invade during the War of 1812) was near to Chase’s home. He could hear the war and then walked among the wounded and dead with his father. The firsthand experience of the cries of agony and the general aftermath of battle and war turned his eyes toward gospel ministry. “The actual view which I then had of some of the evils of war, and reflection on the source of various wrongs inflicted by men upon each other, in disregard to the authority of God, were adapted to remind me of the great remedy which the gospel proclaims, and to confirm my purpose of preparing myself to labor in promoting its influence.”1

Chase enrolled at Andover Theological Seminary, being by his own description the only Baptist student at the congregational school. While there he was a member of the church pastored by Thomas Baldwin in Boston and became convinced of the need for Baptists to have their own theological school. At this time, Baptists claimed Brown University as their only school of higher education, and it was not a theological school. The scandal was even greater because of the size of the country and the growing influence of the Baptists. Chase felt that the energy that Baptists were then demonstrating meant that the time was right to act. Chase and some others in the Boston area even drew up some plans for a theological school and what it might look like. 

These plans took time to come to fruition. Chase was ordained to ministry and called to be a temporary evangelist in western Virginia (an experience which again solidified his conviction for the need of an educated leadership) before receiving two offers to join new Baptist schools. One of these was Waterville College in Maine and one was a theological school in Philadelphia headed up by William Staughton. Chase was more intrigued by the idea of a theological school and by its placement in the middle states and so moved to Philadelphia. This school was short-lived, moving to Washington, D.C. in 1820 to be part of the Colombian College. Chase was never pleased with this arrangement as he recognized the financial difficulties the Colombian College was having as well as the lack of attention on the theological school meant the school never developed. Chase was able to take an extended trip to Europe for theological education in 1823–1824, but when he returned, he soon made the decision to look for a better form for a theological school. 

The idea of having a theological school in the middle states still made sense, since it could service the entirety of the country. After trying both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., Chase thought some about New York City, but there was now a theological school attached to the Literary and Theological school in Madison, NY (under the direction of Nathaniel Kendrick, Chase’s old pastor). This meant that the New York Baptists were committed there. Chase was then drawn to his old environs of Boston. There was great enthusiasm among well-to-do Massachusetts Baptists, and in late 1825, a new theological school was born in the Western outskirts of Boston: Newton Theological Institute. 

Newton was the first stand-alone theological college in the United States. It became perhaps the most influential Baptist seminary throughout the nineteenth century producing more denominational leaders than any other Baptist school. It was Chase who was the architect of this school, and this deserves attention. While Newton long retained prominence, some parts of its makeup were controversial among Baptists. This is a key point of the Chase legacy.

While at Andover, Chase studied under the famous biblical scholar, Moses Stuart. Stuart is known for his method of biblical interpretation and his insistence that biblical interpretation ought not be influenced by theological systems. This method is often described as biblicist and it is certainly what Chase learned. What this means can be helpfully illustrated through Chase’s design for theological education. At the Philadelphia/Washington school, they had three professors: Staughton taught Divinity, Alva Woods taught Church History, and Chase taught languages and biblical literature. As Chase’s biographer described it: “This arrangement was after the old mediaeval fashion of theological schools, and assigned no place to a chair of Biblical Theology, nor scarcely any sign of an approach to a conception of an idea that it enfold. The professorships of divinity, generally, taught systematic theology as a series of propositions set forth by some standard writer, and on some accepted formulary of doctrines that had already acquired the weight acknowledged authority,—propositions based on abstract and speculative principles, logically reasoned out, and supposed on an aggregate to constitute a science of religion.”2 This method was not what Chase had learned under Stuart and was not his preferred. The critique is that this somehow predisposes the interpreter to what the Bible must say, and so they are spoiled as an interpreter before they even begin.

When he went to Newton, Chase was able to upend this design, despite being fully aware that it would fly in the face of how Protestants had always performed the task. “Instead of allowing the student to have his mind subjected to a logically-compacted system anticipatory of what he would find in the Scriptures, and thus prejudging what he ought to find, to constrain him to become thoroughly grounded in the original Scriptures themselves, and to make him, like Apollos, mighty in those Scriptures by a conscious mastery of their meaning, their scope, and of their applications, according to those fixed principles of interpretation that would stand the test of the severest scrutiny like pure gold tried by the fiery crucible” (23).3 

This was not just a new method of interpretation, but a new method of theology and theological education. The Newton curriculum replaced systematic theology (divinity) with biblical theology, with Chase being the professor of biblical theology. He used the textbook of Storr and Flatt, translated and edited by Schmucker (of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg) because it also followed such a method. This method was self-consciously a new one. Newton was largely modeled on Andover, but this was a major departure, as was Newton’s decision to not adopt any confession of faith as a standard. In another writing, I have referred to Chase’s method as one of “biblicist theological reasoning.” By this I mean: “(1) utilize a scientific approach to Scripture, to (2) resist allowing any theological system of statement to influence biblical interpretation, to (3) utilize any source of truth, and to (4) build a positive theology from this basis.”4 This method was passed on to many thousands of students over the years by Chase, by Chase’s protégé, Barnas Sears, and by Sears’s three most influential students, Alvah Hovey, Ebenezer Dodge, and Ezekiel Gilman Robinson (these three men collectively taught theology to all Northern Baptist theology professors through the end of the nineteenth century).

While Chase was pleased to utilize such a method, not all Baptists were. Southern Baptists founded their own seminary in 1859, in part because they did not approve the method of Chase (some other reasons were because they did not like the Northern ethos and did not like the option of sending their young men to the schools of other denominations). Augustus Strong noted in the 1890s that Chase’s method had always been uncomfortable for many Baptists and was a prime reason many pastors sent their young men to alternative schools.

Irah Chase was a chief architect of Baptist theology in the Northern United States throughout their founding. It was not without its critics, yet Chase’s vision for theological education dominated the landscape among early American Baptist seminary professors and gave shape to what was Northern Baptist theological method.


References:

  1. Irah Chase, “Rev. Irah Chase, D.D.: An Autobiographical Sketch,” The Baptist Memorial and Monthly Record 9, no. 2 (1850), 73.
  2. William Hague, A Discourse on the Life and Character of Rev. Irah Chase, D. D. (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1866), 21–22.
  3. Hague, Life and Character of Rev. Irah Chase, 23.
  4. Matthew C. Shrader, Thoughtful Christianity: Alvah Hovey and the Problem of Authority Within the Context of Nineteenth-Century Northern Baptists. Monographs in Baptist History (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2021), 31n65.

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