Luther Rice and a Lasting Legacy in Baptist Missions

This fall, as we celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, it is fitting that we remember our own Baptist “Luther” as perhaps one of the most influential leaders in our four centuries of heritage, though he did not begin that way.

Luther Rice was born the last of nine children to Amos and Sarah Rice on March 25, 1783, in Northborough, Massachusetts. His town lay fifty miles east of Northampton where, in the 1740s, the Congregationalists had experienced the First Great Awakening under Jonathan Edwards. The Rice family was also Congregationalist. On Sundays, the Luther family would rise early, complete their farm chores, and attend church in the village. In his late teen years, Luther trusted Christ as his Savior and determined to live for him alone.

As a young adult, Luther wanted more than anything else to attend college. His one-room schoolhouse had provided a strong foundation for his education, but this bright young man longed to know and see the world. Luther enrolled in Williams College, where a deeply spiritual environment nourished his faith.

Influential Friendships

He met friends whose longings to know Christ were similar to his own, and whose hearts had been turned to international missions through their study of the New Testament, the writings of English Baptists, William Carey and Andrew Fuller, and the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

These young Congregationalist ministers, known as the Society of the Brethren, were part of the famous “Haystack Meeting,” when part of the group waited out a rainstorm and prayed that God would open a way for a foreign mission-sending agency to be established by their denomination. There were no international mission-sending agencies in the US at that time.

With great faith, however, they lived by their prayer motto, “We can do this if we will.” Soon, Luther’s brother, Asaph received a letter from Luther stating, “I have deliberately made up my mind to preach the gospel to the heathen, and I do not know but it may be Asia.”[1]

“I have deliberately made up my mind to preach the gospel to the heathen, and I do not know but it may be Asia.”

In 1810, several of the Brethren moved to Andover Seminary for further ministry preparation. One of the first persons they met was Adoniram Judson, newly born again and passionate about missions. Together these young men petitioned the Congregationalist denominational leadership at its annual gathering to form a mission-sending society to support international missions. The leadership responded, and the next day formed the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

Two years later in Salem, Massachusetts, members of many congregations attended the momentous ordination service where five young ministers were ordained to the gospel ministry and commissioned as missionaries. Within two weeks, Adoniram and Ann Judson and Samuel and Harriet Newell sailed for India on one ship, and were followed five days later by Samuel Nott, Gordon Hall, and Luther Rice.

November 1: A New Beginning

While crossing the ocean, after much prayer and study in the Greek New Testament, Adoniram and Ann Judson came to an understanding of believer’s baptism by immersion as opposed to infant baptism. When they disembarked in Calcutta, they were baptized by William Carey.

Luther Rice had a similar experience a few weeks later and was baptized by William Ward on November 1. These missionaries now found themselves in a quandary. There was no Baptist mission-sending agency in America and no financial support for their work. They wrote their resignations to the Congregationalist body with faith that God would provide for their needs.

Luther Rice returned home to New England to preach and teach about the Great Commission and to form mission support societies in Baptist churches. He traveled from town to village on horseback and formed dozens of groups, which became a network of mission support. In 1814 Rice was instrumental in forming The General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions (also called the Triennial Convention).

This visionary enterprise included a national convention structure that would build strong, local mission-focused churches, support foreign and home missions, colleges, seminaries, and benevolence and social justice ministries. For the first time, Baptists in America cooperated at the national level, and missions was the vision that directed their work together.

“For the first time, Baptists in America cooperated at the national level and missions was the vision that directed their work together.”

An Enduring Legacy

Luther’s enduring legacy is multifaceted, including the mentoring of many others who gave their life to the cause of missions. One of those was the former slave Lott Cary, one of the first American missionaries to Africa, who later founded the African Missionary Society of Richmond and established the first Baptist church in Liberia in the 1820s. Rice also influenced John Mason Peck, a significant figure in home missions work as America exploded westward. Peck, Isaac McCoy, and others carried forward the vision and work of evangelistic outreach, ministry with Native Americans and the founding of educational institutions.

In 1824 Rice and others helped to form the Baptist General Tract Society, which later became the American Baptist Publication Society. It printed tracts, books, and curriculum, some of which was distributed by men and women “colporters” from chapel train cars as the railroads connected the east and west coasts. Rice’s heart never ceased to yearn for people without Christ. During his lifetime, the Triennial Convention’s membership grew from eight thousand to six hundred thousand. He helped to establish 25 missions with 112 missionaries, and 15 Baptist universities and colleges.

Luther Rice continued working until the day he died on September 25, 1836, in Saluda, South Carolina, while traveling through the South to raise funds for missions and seminaries. Within a decade of his death, the Triennial Convention split in half, when the southern territory became the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. He had paved the path for Baptist missions in America by helping to organize a national denomination of cooperative Baptist churches whose incessant heartbeat was missions and church planting.

Four years and three months after his death, a tiny daughter was born to a Baptist family in Virginia who would walk a similar path all the way to China and give her life for missions too. Our beloved Lottie Moon knew of Luther’s work. She was transformed by the living God and set her face toward missions, just as Rice had done before her. She and was able to go and serve, in part, because Luther Rice’s humble service had laid the Baptist foundation for missions in America.

Dr. Karen Bullock earned MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is a professor of Christian heritage and the director of PhD program at B. H. Carroll Theological Institute in Arlington, Texas. Fascinated about all areas of Christian heritage, she is especially passionate about missions, Baptist history, the persecuted church, and justice.

She lives in Granbury, Texas, with her husband John. They have two grown, married children and six grandchildren, age eleven and under.

[1] Thompson, Evelyn Wingo. Luther Rice: Believer in Tomorrow (Broadman Press, 1967), p.36.