Of all the names in Baptist history, William Staughton (1770–1829) is almost surely not a familiar one. Most would not know if he was an English or American Baptist. Most would be hard-pressed to point to the events that Staughton was connected with. Up to a short while ago, I would have been able to recognize his name and one or two events to which he was connected, but really only a few basics. As I’ve been doing some recent research I found reason to dive deeper into Staughton’s life, and I was amazed at all the places and events where he pops up. His fascinating life is filled with famous names and momentous occasions. He was the Baptist everywhere man.
Staughton in England
Staughton was born in the English city of Coventry. His father was a deacon in the local church there, and when the family moved to London when William was young they joined the famous Baptist church pastored by John Rippon (which church claimed previous pastors Benjamin Keach and John Gill and, later on, Charles Spurgeon). Young William both pursued a career as a silversmith and had some health problems, and so lived at various times in Northampton and Birmingham, where he was baptized into the Cannon Street Church in April 1786. Shortly after Staughton’s joining the church, the church called Samuel Pearce as its pastor. Pearce influenced Staughton toward ministry, and so Staughton enrolled at Bristol Baptist Academy, where he showed great promise. In 1792, Staughton joined Pearce at Kettering to attend the Northamptonshire Baptists meeting at the home of the widow Wallis as they planned and organized what would become the Baptist Missionary Society. As a matter of fact, Staughton was the student present who promised to give a half-guinea to the cause of overseas missions.
After this meeting, Staughton was being considered as a replacement for John Ryland in his church in Northampton. The church would eventually call Staughton, but he never accepted. Instead, a letter arrived from America, from a South Carolina pastor named Richard Furman. Furman asked if his English brethren could recommend someone to come to South Carolina and pastor the church in Georgetown. The English pastors all pointed to Staughton as the obvious choice, and Staughton himself was happy to take the call. And so, in 1793, Staughton left his native England for the newly established United States of America.
Staughton in America
When Staughton arrived in America, one of the first things that he did was get married to a previously-married woman named Maria (who made the trip to the new world with William; the circumstances of their marriage and the relationship before their marriage—while Maria was previously married—created no small amount of controversy—see the Nettles article linked below for a lengthy treatment of the controversies surrounding this marriage) by Furman. Once at Georgetown, Staughton struggled to settle due to both the hot and humid weather and also the culture of slavery. In 1795, Staughton relocated north to New Jersey, where he served at a few churches, taught in a couple local schools, and also was chosen as the one to write the regular “circular letters” for the Philadelphia Baptist Association. His endeavors were noticed to the point that Princeton gave him an honorary Doctor of Divinity (D.D.) degree. As Staughton’s recognition grew, he was called to pastor the famous First Baptist Church in Philadelphia in 1805 (this church could claim Morgan Edwards among its previous pastors). Under Staughton, the church grew and regularly would send out its members to start new churches. The church was stunned in 1810–1811 when Staughton decided to join one of these new church plants: the Sansom Street Baptist Church.
At this point in the story, Staughton’s life gets extraordinarily busy and complicated. I can only give a brief listing of events. Staughton was active in starting local missions agencies, including the Philadelphia Missionary Society and also the first women’s Bible society. Staughton was instrumental in the starting of the Baptist General Missionary (Triennial) Convention. Staughton’s push for this went back to as early as 1799. He saw the Convention idea as important and wanted to see this national group be the force behind many different Baptist efforts, from missions to education and beyond. He was busy as correspondent, compiler, reporter, and author of missions reports connected with this group. He regularly wrote to and about William Carey and his colleagues, Adoniram Judson, Andrew Fuller, and many other Baptists. When 22 societies joined to formally organize the Triennial Convention in 1814, he served as the first secretary and was the editor of its magazine: the Latter Day Luminary.
At about this time, the Baptist Education Society in the Middle States named Staughton their official tutor, thereby giving official status to the apprenticeship school he had run out of his home for a few years. The need for Baptist education only grew. In 1817, Richard Furman introduced to the Triennial Convention the need for support for education. As a result, Staughton was appointed principal of the institution in Philadelphia supported by the Convention. By 1820, through the work of Staughton and also especially Luther Rice, the Baptists decided to establish a permanent school in the nation’s capital, with Staughton as its head (he was to be professor of general history, belles lettres, and rhetoric and moral philosophy in the classical departments, and also professor of divinity and pulpit eloquence in the theology department). The school, Columbian College, formally opened in 1821, and Staughton would travel to Washington D.C. for weeks at a time to fulfill his responsibilities.
In 1823, Staughton’s wife died and he moved to Washington. Columbian College was quite ambitious, purchasing land close to the Capital Building (they even received donations from John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and John C. Calhoun). The idea was for a Baptist flagship to be right in the middle of what was happening in the new country. For a while, it was working. The first commencement in 1824 was attended by the President (Monroe), the secretary of state (J. Q. Adams), the secretary of war (Calhoun), the speaker of the house (Henry Clay), and the world famous French General, the Marquis de Lafayette (who was doing a grand tour of the US in 1824). Staughton made a special presentation to Lafayette and then hosted all the dignitaries at his home. Staughton’s stature in Washington was also on display when he was asked to preach a memorial sermon (on July 16) to Congress just days after the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826.
Unfortunately, the good times did not last. The theological school struggled to get going, with its leading professor, Irah Chase, leaving to pursue other ventures. Staughton and Rice proved naive (at best) about the financial commitments made to the school and had unrealistic expectations as to how much the national Baptist group would get behind a national educational endeavor. As a last-ditch effort, Staughton was tasked to travel and raise money. By 1827 it was clear it was failing, first the majority of the board and then Staughton resigned (the school would be bailed out by Congress, detached from the Triennial Convention, then detached from Baptists altogether and eventually renamed George Washington University). Staughton moved back to Philadelphia, preaching in a few places before receiving a call to become president of the Literary and Theological Institution in Georgetown, Kentucky. In August of 1829, Staughton remarried, then began his move a few months after. He never made it to Kentucky, however. While traveling through Washington, D.C., in December 1829, he became ill and passed away in a few weeks.
Staughton’s Many Fingers
This was a rapid look at an incredibly interesting Baptist. Staughton was connected to leading Baptist pastors in England and the United States (including, Rippon, Pearce, Ryland, Carey, Fuller, Furman, Judson, Wayland, and Rice). He was instrumental in the founding of missions work in England (with the Baptist Missionary Society) and in America (with the Baptist General Missionary Convention). He was at the center of educational efforts in America (having hosted an apprenticeship school, then tried his hand at the Columbian College, and then looked west to Kentucky). He was also a leading Baptist statesmen who attempted to bring Baptists into the mainstream of American life. He not only knew more people and was present at more events than most, he had more longstanding influence than most.
This short post tracing the life of William Staughton has been littered full of name drops (English and American, religious and political). Staughton loomed large in Baptist life. He had his fingers in many different endeavors. Without questions, he would be a fascinating figure for more prolonged study. Yet, more than just being interesting, he stood at a crossroads in Baptist life. Time does not permit me to tell of how the Triennial Convention he helped found went a different direction than he hoped (the conventionalism of the Southern Baptist Convention was what he would have loved), or even how the educational direction of Baptists of the North departed from his views (both in terms of denominational support and theological content; again, he would have appreciated the SBC model more). Of his efforts, the missions work was clearly the most successful, even world-changing. His was a story of starts and stops, all in the context of a rapidly changing country and denomination. Staughton, for all his ubiquity, is an example of how the variety of one’s efforts do not always solidify and certainly do not always continue on the path one intends, yet God works through our feeble efforts for his pleasure and glory.
There are a few places to start if you want to read more on Staughton, I’ll list them below. I’ve been compiling bibliographies for a larger project, so there are other pertinent sources that could be pointed to, but these will give the basic facts as I’ve presented above. The Nettles essay also gives a nearly comprehensive list of works by Staughton. Hayden also wrote a 1965 B.D. thesis on Staughton at Cambridge, though I have not been able to get my hands on it.
Brown, Obadiah B. “Memoir of Rev. William Staughton, D.D.” The American Baptist Magazine 11, no. 5 (May 1831): 129–36.
Hayden, Roger. “Rev. William Staughton, D.D., (1770–1829). Baptist Quarterly 20, no. 5 (1964): 226–28.
Hayden, Roger. “Kettering 1792 and Philadelphia 1814.” Baptist Quarterly 21 (1965): no. 1 pages 3–20, and no. 2 pages 64–72.
Hayden, Roger. “William Staughton: Baptist Educator and Missionary Advocate.” Foundations 10, no. 1 (January–March 1967): 19–35.
Lynd, Samuel W., Daniel Sharp, and Thomas Mitchell. “William Staughton, D.D.” In Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit, ed. William B. Sprague, 334–44. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1865.
Lynd, Samuel W. Memoir of the Rev. William Staughton, D.D. Boston: Lincoln, Edmands, and Company, 1834. The longest treatment of Staughton’s life. Lynn was a son-in-law to Staughton.
Nettles, Thomas J. “William Staughton.” In A Noble Company: Biographical Essays on Notable Particular-Regular Baptists in America, edited by Terry Wolever. Volume Seven. 85–140. Springfield, MO: Particular Baptist Press, 2016. Includes a lot of discussion about the controversy surrounding Staughton’s marriage.
“Staughton, William.” In The National Cyclopedia of American Biography. Volume III. New York: James T. White & Company, 1893. 3:151–2. This has the references to the 1824 commencement at Columbian College.