Bishop College
Historically Black College

 


REV. SYLVESTER WITT MARSTON, D. D.

(1826-1887). ReliGious Activity In Missouri (1865-1887) R. P. E.

The men whom the world calls great are they who, each in his own sphere of action, have made things come to pass. The statesman has molded or modified the policy of his nation; the editor has created public opinion; the philosopher has opened new veins of thought; the orator has stirred his hearers into unusual activity; the preacher of the gospel has given the people new zeal, new faith, new life.

The godly man, the sketch of whose life we are writing, as his record will show, was a man of varied greatness. He was great as a preacher, great as a teacher, great as an active agent in public affairs of both his Nation and his church.

He was of English parentage, having descended from a family resident on Marston Moor, and prominent in support of the parliamentary party under Oliver Cromwell in 1664.

He was born in Bedford, York County, Maine, U. S. A., July 23, 1826. His boyhood life was spent in gaining the rudimentary education usually acquired by the sons of thrifty New England parents, in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, and in helping his father in his occupation as tanner.

When he was 16 years of age, a zeal for more advanced scholarship took possession of him, but his father, a man who believed in industrial rather than scholastic efficiency, did not sympathize with the young man in his aspirations, but, wisely, instead of endeavoring to coerce his son, earnestly and clearly placed this alternative before him. We quote his words: "Stay at home and work at my trade, or, take your time, be lazy, go to school; but in the latter event, you must not expect any help from me." Young Marston realized that he had come to a turning point in his life; and, filled with a manly purpose to do the best for himself that lay within his power, he did not hesitate, but cheerfully started on the long and tedious but honorable way that one must traverse when he attempts, by his own unaided efforts, to gain a liberal education. He immediately left home, possessing nothing but an earnest vigorous will and the free right to his time that his father had given him.

Thus equipped, by dint of untiring effort he worked his way through a five years' course, first at Parsonsfield Academy, Maine, completing the course at Effingham Academy, New Hampshire. He supplemented this period of careful preparation by a four years' course at the Collegiate and Theological Seminary at New Hampton, New Hampshire. From this latter institution he was graduated with honor, in June, 1852, being then 26 years of age.

In placing the account of his scholastic efforts in one paragraph for the sake of unity, we have passed over some of the richest experiences of his young life.

He supplemented his work as a student by the work of teaching during vacations, and occasionally for longer periods. By this means he also gained the means necessary for the further prosecution of his studies. His excursions, during these periods, into the fruitful field of nature-study, and their favorable results, show that if his guiding star had led him into this province to find his vocation, he would have taken first rank therein, and with his facile pen and prolific imagination, buttressed by a thorough acquaintance with Nature in her many moods, he could have claimed a place among American authors somewhat ante-dating and quite the equal of that now held by our beloved John Burroughs.

One of his pupils, writing in reminiscence dating back into the 50's, after having enumerated several fundamental subjects in which he was well schooled to show the wide scope of Dr. Marston's scholastic acquirements, says: "And botany and zoology for Dr. Marston's specialty, if he had one, was natural history. He loved to take his boys to the woods and fields to study plant and animal life, and many of his scholars caught his enthusiasm."

But now, to revert to the experiences of earlier days: During his periods of alternating study and teaching, his mind and heart came under the sway of the Master whom he so faithfully served throughout the remainder of his life. He was baptized into the fellowship of the Baptist church, Medway, Massachusetts, during his 22nd year, November 7, 1847. At this time his heart was turned toward the work of the gospel ministry. This selection of a vocation resulted in his entering the Collegiate and Theological Seminary at New Hampton, New Hampshire, as mentioned above.

Immediately after his graduation in 1852, he was called to the pastorate of the Baptist church at Brookfield, Massachusetts. He entered upon his labor with this church in August and ministered to them, faithfully and successfully, for two years. At this time his health began to fail him and he was advised by his physician to seek established health in a milder climate. He left New England with the purpose of going to Cuba, but was providentially detained in the southern part of his own country, where he spent the winter of 1854. In the springtime, realizing a marked improvement in his health, he returned to Massachusetts. He taught for two years in Middleboro, and, at the same time, preached in the neighboring town Bedford, and casually in other places. His spiritual activity was intense, and he always found himself driven by his zeal to reach the limit of his physical endurance, in his efforts to accomplish the good that his heart purposed to do.

After two years of strenuous work in Middleboro and vicinity, he deemed it wise to come West, and from 1856 to 1860 he taught, first in the Institute, Greenville, Illinois, later in Burlington University, Iowa. A relic from that period is now before us in the shape of a card upon which is printed this legend: "Prof. S. W. Marston, Practical Naturalist and Taxidermist, No. 10, Burlington University, Burlington, Iowa," etc., emphasizing what was said above with regard to his bent for natural history.

For the ensuing five years he devoted himself entirely to the ministry as pastor of the Baptist church at Plainfield, Illinois. In 1865 he moved to Boonville, Missouri, and there took charge of the Boonville Institute, a prosperous local Seminary offering advantages superior to those that could be had at the primary school.

In those days before the public school had come into popular favor in the States that had been designated as slave-holding States, the academies and seminaries of the West and South were potent factors in the educational life and growth of these States. The wise management of institutions of that kind generally spelled both fame and fortune for the successful teacher; and to devote one's life to this work was considered occupation worthy the brightest intellect and the ripest scholarship, and, in a religious sense, a field for the exercise of spiritual influence, second only to the domain of the gospel minister.

In 1868, after the churches of the State had begun to recover from the serious disorganization of the Civil War period, a field of wider influence opened before him. The Sunday School cause in Missouri was in a languishing condition, and, at the call of the General Association, he left the school room to inaugurate a plan for the development of the Sunday School work of the State. The efficient zeal with which he worked in this great field is manifest in the splendid results.

Within the period of five years he had been instrumental in increasing the number of Baptist Sunday Schools in Missouri from seventy-four to six hundred and three, and had organized an efficient Sunday School Convention in each of the fifty-nine District Associations of the State then existent—auxiliary to the Baptist State Sunday School Convention of which he, under appointment of the General Association, was the Missionary Secretary. In the archives of the Missouri Baptist Historical Society, are ample records of the meetings and activities of these conventions, and other data, throwing a flood of light upon the God blessed activity of this great and good man.

The expressive motto of the Missouri Baptist Sunday School Convention was "The Children of Missouri for the Church." Their aims were seven, as put forth in Dr. Marston's first report.

1. To organize a Sunday School Convention in each Association in the State.

2. To secure, as far as possible, the organization of a Baptist Sunday School in every church and destitute neighborhood of the State.

3. To secure the attendance of all the members of the churches in their respective Sunday Schools, that they may grow in knowledge as well as in grace.

4. To increase the spirituality and usefulness of the members in the churches by giving them work to do for the Lord Jesus in the Sunday School.

5. To provide the means of religious instruction for the millions of unregenerate men, women and children of the State, who are perishing for the want of a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

6. To furnish the necessary means with which to supply the needy and destitute with Bibles, Testaments and a purely religious Sunday School literature.

7. To secure, as far as human instrumentality accompanied by the grace of God can be effectual, "the children of Missouri for Christ."

The "aims" will serve to show the breadth of Dr. Marston's view and comprehensive scope of his plans. He came to the office of Missionary Secretary to find "on record no satisfactory plan of work by which to be governed." He found it necessary to plunge "in medias res," and work out a plan as he went. In doing so he had to meet with indifference to the Sunday School cause in some places, and in others some openly avowed opposition. Notwithstanding these untoward influences he closed the first year of his Secretaryship having organized twenty-eight auxiliary Sunday School Conventions in as many different associations, each bearing the name of the association where organized.

It would enrich the pages of this meager biographical sketch if we had the space in which to make quotations from his luminous reports. His words come as from one who, whatever obstacles he may be called upon to meet, still hopefully moves forward with the blessed assurance that success is near. The vividness with which his faith glows in them all seems an earnest of the overcoming faith that inspires the great religious movements of the Twentieth Century. Note the great results as recorded above. Five years' work, the number of Sunday Schools in the State increased from seventy-four to six hundred and three! We shall then be prepared for this extract from the report of the Committee on Resolutions for the fifth annual meeting of the Missouri Baptist Sunday School Convention, 1873:

"Resolved, That the remarkable success attending the labors of the Missionary Secretary of the Missouri Baptist Sabbath School Convention calls forth the devout gratitude of our hearts to Almighty God, and his peculiar adaption to the work calls for extraordinary efforts on our part to continue him in this field."

This year marked the close of his special Sunday School work. In October, 1873, he was appointed by the General Association to what was considered a larger sphere of Christian usefulness, the Superintendency of Baptist State Missions of Missouri. This position, like others that he had occupied, he filled with success, and his peculiar ability was not unmarked by those outside the Baptist ranks.

In 1876 the United States Government, U. S. Grant, President, laid compelling hands upon him, and to the regret of all Baptists he resigned the Superintendency to accept appointment as United States Agent for the 57,000 civilized Indians in the Indian Territory.

The manner in which he administered the affairs of this responsible office served greatly to emphasize the reputation for marked wisdom and ability that he had gained in less conspicuous positions, when the eyes of only a part of our great Commonwealth were directed toward him. Standing in the lime light cast upon all governmental employees, his labors revealed nothing but the faithful, efficient performance of duty that brought entire satisfaction to the Government.

In January, 1879, he was summoned by the American Baptist Home Mission Society to occupy a still wider field than that which he then held for the Government, as Superintendent of Freedmen's Missions in the South. He entered upon this labor in the following month, and, through the wisely employed means of Ministers' and Deacons' Institutes held among the colored Baptists of the South, he was able to focus the minds of these dusky brethren upon the necessity of their adopting improved methods for the social, intellectual and religious betterment of their race. Hundreds, almost amounting to thousands, of ministers and deacons were in attendance at these institutes, with a benefit that can be told only as the years progress.

During his incumbency in this office he visited Texas for the purpose of establishing a school for the colored people of that great State. A site was purchased at Marshall, Texas, and a large building, now known as Marston Hall, was erected, chiefly by money contributed by the colored citizens of the State. On account of the interest felt in the Institution by Mrs. C. C. Bishop, of New York City, this interest having been liberally attested by the generous gifts of money, it was named Bishop College.

In 1881 the American Board decided to modify and enlarge the plans of work in the South, and in August of that year appointed Dr. Marston District Secretary for the Southwest, including Southern Illinois, Missouri, Indian Territory and Texas, with headquarters at St. Louis, Missouri. This was the last office held by this faithful servant of his Master, and of his church. He labored untiringly with pen and tongue to arouse a deeper interest in spiritual matters in the churches, and, though successful in a measure that would have been gratifying to a less ardent soul, his excessive labor and his unmeasured anxiety began to tell disastrously upon his strength. In November, 1886, he was compelled to cease active duty in the field, but continued to do what he could with his pen. Shortly after this semi-retirement from official duty, he, accompanied by his wife, went to Southern California and remained through our trying winter months. Somewhat improved in strength by his sojourn in Southern California, he returned to St. Louis, but soon learned that his improvement was but temporary and began again to lose the small amount of strength he had gained. And so, hovering between apparent convalescence and real retrogression, he spent a few weeks at Eureka Springs, Arkansas. This sojourn did not avail to bring him the relief desired, and, on the morning of September 30, 1887, the fruitful life was transferred to its holy and eternal home. Sixty-one years of faithful labor here, and eternity of blissful reward there!

His remains were brought to St. Louis for interment in Bellefontaine Cemetery. Very impressive funeral services were held at the Second Baptist Church of which he was a member, and he was laid to rest from the care and fatigue of a busy life spent in the interest of the cause he loved.

As has been seen in the preceding sketch Dr. Marston was a man of native ability, unusual versatility, deep spirituality and consecrated culture. As a writer he wielded a facile pen, was classic in style and logical in thought. He was a very agreeable and forceful speaker; he had a degree of magnetism that drew men to him and that abiding quality of stability that held them. He lived an unselfish and consecrated life. His nearness to Christ gave him power with men. Had he not been elected by the Holy Spirit to be a preacher, he might have been one of the great teachers of the land; he might have been an accomplished naturalist, or instructive lecturer; a wise Christian Socialist, or a beneficent statesman. His abiding influence with those who knew him will ever show that, in all these possible spheres of consecrated activity, he wisely chose the best.

 

Missouri Baptist biography: a series of life-sketches ...‎ - Page 236

by Joseph Cowgill Maple, Richard Price Rider, Missouri Baptist Historical Society, Hubert Inman Hester - 1914

 


 280 

REV. S. W. MARSTON, D.D.

 

It was a sad telegram that we received September 30th from the son of Dr. Marston, at Eureka Springs, Ark., announcing the death of his father that morning. For months the shadow of this impending event had hung over that home. The last time we saw Dr. Marston was in September, 1886, when a marked change was observable in his appearance. In November he was compelled to give up his active duties in the field as District Secretary of the Society, though by his pen he continued for a time to do what he could.

Hoping that an entire change of climate and conditions would prove beneficial, in December he went with Mrs. Marston to Southern California, remaining there until late in the spring of 1887, when he returned to St. Louis. Though somewhat benefited, apparently, there was no radical improvement. Once and again he went down almost to death's door. Rallying again surprisingly, he seemed at times on the road to recovery. The sojourn of a few weeks at Eureka Springs proved unavailing. Death conquered. The earthly activities of a valuable life are ended.

Dr. Marston was born in York County, Maine, July 23, 1826. After his graduation at New Hampton Institute, N. H., in 1852, he became pastor of the church at Brookfield, and then supplied the church at New Bedford, Mass., while teaching for two years at Middleborough. He then went West, leaching in Illinois, and in 1860 taking the pastorate of the church at Plainfield, Ill. In 1865 he became principal of the Boonville Institute, Mo. From 1868 to 1873 he was superintendent of the Baptist Sunday school work in Missouri, and then for three years superintendent of State Missions. In 1876 General Grant appointed him agent at the important Union Agency for the five civilized nations in the Indian Territory. Here he made an excellent record.

The American Baptist Home Mission Society, at the annual meeting in 1878, recommended "that a general superintendent of our missions to the freedmen be forthwith appointed by the Board." After much attention to the subject, the Board, February i, 1879, appointed Dr. Marston to this position. Immediately he entered the field, and acting on the conviction, shared also by the Board, that the most effective missionary work for the masses can and must be done through their religious leaders, he devoted his time and attention chiefly to holding Ministers' and Deacons' Institutes in most of the Southern States.

In this service he continued for about two and a half years, during which about 1,600 ministers and 700 deacons were in attendance at these institutes. These figures are suggestive of his wide-reaching influence among the colored people.

While thus engaged, in the summer of 1880 he visited Texas with a view to the establishment of a school for the colored people of that State, who numbered more than half a million. This resulted in the purchase of the site at Marshall, Texas, where Bishop College is now located. He succeeded in eliciting liberal contributions from the colored people for the purchase of the property and the erection of the first large building, now known as " Marston Hall." The principal gift, however, was that of $10,000 "by Mrs. C. C. Bishop, of New York City, whose generous offerings since have added another building to the institution. Bishop College has had an unusually prosperous career, which afforded Dr. Marston much satisfaction for the part he had in its establishment.

In 1881 the Board decided to modify the plans of work in the South, and in August of that year Dr. Marston was appointed District Secretary for the Southwest, including Southern Illinois, Missouri, Indian Territory, and Texas. His collecting district, however, was chiefly in the first two States. In this capacity he continued until his death, though for months prior to this sad event unable to devote more than general attention to the matter of collections.

Having travelled so extensively through the South, and knowing the urgent needs of more and better Christian work among the colored people; having visited Mexico and witnessed its degradation and semi-idolatrous practices ; understanding also the great development of the West and the Southwest into which thousands from Missouri had gone, his great soul glowed with self-consuming zeal to enlist the churches in his field to come to the help of the Lord with their liberal offerings for the support of  missionaries and Christian schools therein. With pen and attractive circulars, as well as by personal appeals, he endeavored to awaken the slumbering churches. Though successful in a great measure, yet the continued strain and the anxiety of getting non-contributing churches to contribute not only once, but to keep on contributing regularly, at length began to tell upon his strong constitution and prepared the way for disease to do its swifter work. And so, a little past sixty-one years of age, he entered into his rest.

Dr. Marston was a man of fine personal presence. He was dignified and almost courtly in manner, yet with such kindness in look and in the tones of his voice that he quickly drew to himself the warm friendship of all classes. He had great persuasiveness, tact, and fertility in expedients, all controlled by an honest purpose to benefit mankind and honor God. Among the colored people of the Southwest particularly he was greatly beloved for the profound interest he took in their welfare. In many places great will be their grief as they learn of his death. His experience as a teacher fitted him for the important work to which he gave more than two years, of conducting ministers' institutes among the colored people. Having seen the establishment of the school at Marshall, Texas, he longed to see a similar institution in Arkansas, and was instrumental in the beginning of a school at Little Rock, which, though small and without the fostering care of the Society, may yet become a power for good. In everything Dr. Marston was very methodical and conscientiously painstaking. His letters and reports, beautifully written and carefully prepared, were indicative of the man. He was of a hopeful, though perhaps not a sanguine temperament, and so could patiently apply himself to tasks that would depress or discourage many.

In his death the Society has lost a valued and efficient servant, whose place it will be extremely difficult to fill. A noble, generous, consecrated Christian man has passed away. Many are those who will unite with us in saying that to have known and to have been associated with him in Christian service have afforded us great satisfaction, as henceforth they add to the treasured pictures of departed loved ones in the halls of memory.

The Baptist home mission monthly

by American Baptist Home Mission Society - 1887

 

Home