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Joshua Lawrence, 1778-1843
The American Telescope, by a Clodhopper, of North Carolina
Philadelphia: Printed for the author, 1825.


During the early nineteenth century, the Primitive (or Old School) Baptists emerged as a distinct denomination largely in response to the growth of missionary societies in the Baptist church, which were created primarily to work with Native American populations ("Primitive Baptists"). As many Baptist congregations formed missionary societies, Sunday schools, and seminaries, more conservative Baptists stepped forward to argue that such organizations, which required funding and paid workers, were not in line with the Bible and the churches of apostolic times ("Primitive Baptists"). Baptist minister and farmer Joshua Lawrence, of Edgecombe County, North Carolina, was sent as a delegate to North Carolina's Kehukee Baptist Association in 1803; missionary efforts began within the Association that same year, resulting in growing separation between missionary and Primitive Baptists over the next twenty-four years, until they finally separated ("Joshua Lawrence, 1778-1843"). Lawrence had received little formal education and could not read well but was regarded as an excellent preacher. He began holding meetings in Tarboro, North Carolina, in 1817, becoming the first regular minister of Tarboro Baptist Church when it was formed in 1819, and continuing as minister of the Primitive Baptist church in Tarboro from the split in the church in 1829 until his death in 1843 ("Joshua Lawrence, 1778-1843").

Lawrence was also a pamphleteer, and his pamphlet The American Telescope, By a Clodhopper, Of North Carolina was published in 1825. It is a denunciation of the missionary cause in the Baptist church and of money-driven missionary societies in particular, and also a critique of the seminaries emerging among the Baptists. Lawrence, like most Primitive Baptist preachers, donated his labor and received his income from another source, farming. In The American Telescope, he disapproves of the men sent out by missionary boards to collect money, who earn a fee for their services by "begging the poor labourers for their money" while clothed "in the finest black and blue broad cloth, with fur hats, boots, spurs, silk jackets . . . &c. &c." (p. 8). He is concerned that "no man [can] be found among all the seeming feeling ones for poor Indian souls, that would comply with the command of Christ: to take neither gold, nor silver, nor scrip; neither two coats; and go into all the world and preach the gospel" (p. 3). Instead, the missionary boards' cry is: "money! money! Let the people give us of their money, and the mighty work can be done" (p. 4). "How unlike the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, the apostles, a Luther, a George Whitfield, a Wesley, a Dow, and a thousand others, who are ornaments to the free gospel of Christ," writes Lawrence, "who go forth taking up their cross, denying themselves, and devoting themselves to the work of God . . . depend[e]nt on God, without begging or being shamefully backed by monied societies" (pp. 4-5).

Lawrence criticizes the bureaucracy of the societies, as well, which meet to appoint delegates, lay plans, hold councils, and collect funds, in order to convert "poor Indian souls" (p. 4) and sometimes come back to donors years later and say "that if any man that had given, wanted his money back, he could have it, by applying" and "plead the hostility of the Indians, and want of proper persons to teach school" (p. 5). He compares the bureaucracy of these societies to that of "the church of Rome," of which he heartily disapproves, saying: "when they began to create titles, bishops, cardinals, arch-bishops . . . Christ's vicar, prince of the apostles . . . These measures were as innocent, I conceive, in their first appearance, as presidents, vice-presidents, corresponding secretaries, recording secretaries, board of directors, &c. which are all unscriptural titles, names and offices, unbecoming God's people" (pp. 11-12).

Lawrence goes on to attack seminaries, which he calls "polishing machines" (p. 19). The "young doctors" who go through these institutions, he says, "would prefer to show themselves approved men for talents and learning, than study to show themselves approved of God for a holy, pious, humble life; or diligence in the ministry, knowledge of the holy Scriptures, having their ministry written on the tables of many hearts" (p. 19). Once they have finished their study, he says, they will be "let loose" like "devouring locusts . . . flying to the most populous towns and cities . . . where the fattest purse is to be had; in order to live on the labours of others, in pomp and style" (p. 19). He argues, as well, that "God has chosen the poor and unlearned to preach his word" throughout history, rather than the educated (p. 20).

The final concern that Lawrence expresses is that an educated body of preachers will endeavor "to bring together church and state," which he calls an "unnatural connexion" (p. 23). He argues that "[m]oney and learning out of their proper place, or improperly used, corrupt the church and ministry of God," and that history shows that "these corrupting societies overturn any government, however strong its foundation may be at first laid" (p. 23).

Works Consulted: Crowley, John G., "Primitive Baptists," New Georgia Encyclopedia, (accessed December 12, 2010); Fields, William C., "Joshua Lawrence, 1778-1843," Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, ed. William S. Powell, available from Documenting the American South, (accessed December 2, 2010); Guthman, Joshua Aaron, What I am ‘tis hard to know: Primitive Baptists, the Protestant Self, and the American Religious Imagination, Dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008; Proceedings of the Baptist Convention for Missionary Purposes; Held in Philadelphia, in May 1814, Philadelphia: Ann Coles, 1814, available online, (accessed December 2, 2010).

Erin Bartels

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