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"Go West Young Man": Edwin Charles Dargan's: Abbreviated Mission to the Baptists of California, 1887-1888.

Edwin Charles Dargan was a Southern Baptist minister in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a seminary professor, and a denominational leader of national reputation. The pastor of significant churches in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia, three times he was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The final chapter of his career was as editor at the Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville, Tennessee, to which he donated his personal library upon his retirement. (Those volumes formed the nucleus of what came to be known as the Dargan-Carver Library.) This article focuses on Edwin Dargan's emerging sense of Baptist denominationalism during a fourteen-month period of service among the Baptists of California in 1887-1888.

Edwin Dargan was born in 1852 near Darlington, South Carolina to John Orr Beasley Dargan, a Baptist preacher and plantation owner, and his wife Margaret Frances Lide Dargan. Following his formal education at Furman University and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary--both located in Greenville, South Carolina at the time--Edwin Dargan served as pastor of several Virginia churches. These included three struggling Baptist congregations in the Roanoke Valley (Enon in Botetourt Springs; Big Lick, later renamed First Baptist, Roanoke; and Bonsack) and the more established First Baptist of Petersburg. From all indications, Dargan's ministry at this latter congregation was marked by strong preaching, successful annual revival meetings, and improving finances in the years following the Civil War.

Yet, Dargan abruptly resigned as pastor of the Petersburg church in 1887 and moved his family three thousand miles west to California for reasons not fully understood. In fact, he accepted the call to First Baptist in Dixon, California, effective September 1, 1887, at a considerable reduction in salary. Dargan was perhaps "influenced by the condition of his health and his opportunities for greater usefulness." (1) He confessed to his mentor John A. Broadus in a letter the following fall that the move primarily resulted out of the "consideration of health both for myself and wife. ... It grew out of no dissatisfaction on either my part or that of the church at Petersburg." (2) Lucy and Edwin Dargan lost a second child in infancy sometime during the period 1886-1888, which perhaps also had a bearing on the continuing state of Lucy's physical and psychological health in Petersburg. (3)

Despite these troubling factors surrounding his departure, Dargan was respected and admired as a young Baptist minister in the South and poised for great success. J. William Jones observed that Dargan's move to California constituted "a serious loss to our Virginia pulpit, as he is conceded to be one of the most scholarly men, one of the most effective preachers, and one of the best pastors we have ever had in the State." (4) Moving west in late 1887, Dargan began to approach middle age, his understanding of pastoral ministry, and Southern Baptist denominationalism from entirely new perspectives.

For fourteen months in 1887-1888, Dargan and his family resided in Dixon, California, where he served the members of First Baptist Church and enjoyed a prominence within Baptist circles greater even than that experienced in Virginia. Yet as a consequence of this period of radical separation from familiar culture, Dargan developed a homesickness for the South, its institutions and relationships, and formed perhaps his first original ideas relating to Baptist denominationalism.

Sojourn in Northern Solano

The region of California in which the Dargans settled in the fall of 1887 was known as "Northern Solano," described by one local newspaper as "the most productive grainfield in the world." Due to the area's excellent climate for growing crops, especially wheat and all varieties of fruits, land values had increased eightfold within less than twenty years. Rail service linked the region with nearby Sacramento and with San Francisco, some seventy miles to the southwest. (5) Dixon was a thriving shipping center and business community in Northern Solano. Born with the railroad in 1868, the city was founded on a "barren" site with only two houses and not a single shade tree. Just seventeen years later, however, the town enjoyed a population of approximately thirteen hundred, public schools serving two hundred students, a prosperous bank, a private Dixon Academy, a fire company, an opera house, a park, and numerous other businesses and societies. Its several dirt or graveled streets were "regularly laid out, wide and many well-graded," and bordered by plank sidewalks with coal oil lamps. Progressive minds looked forward to the installation of additional "asphaltum sidewalks," gas or electric lighting on the streets, along with "the community's bright and promising future." (6)

The Baptist congregation at Dixon had experienced a checkered career in its brief history. Organized at Pleasant Retreat Schoolhouse, Vaca Valley, in October of 1856, the church subsequently moved to a school building near Batavia and again to Silveyville in 1861. Its greatest period of growth followed relocation to Dixon in 1876, where a large brick edifice, considered "the most elegantly appointed church building in Dixon," housed a "strong and wealthy" congregation. (7) The church's most prominent lay leader was the Honorable H.E. McCune, the banker and benefactor of California Baptist College at Highland Park for whom the Dargan's son Henry McCune was named in 1889. (8) Baptists composed possibly the most affluent congregation among the five denominations represented in Dixon, the others including Methodists, Presbyterians, German Lutherans, and Roman Catholics. (9)

The reasons for Dargan's early fascination with this church may never be fully understood. Concerns for his health and that of his wife played a crucial role, yet these do not completely explain why Dargan traveled three thousand miles just to achieve a change in climate. Dargan likely had read the Religious Herald's notice of J. Herndon Garnett resigning the church at Dixon to accept the pastorate at East Oakland, California, a church that had quadrupled its membership within nine years. (10) Dargan was perhaps affected by a sense of missionary imperative, fueled as well by knowledge of John A. Broadus' own calls to California in 1852 and 1854. (11) Then again, Dargan may have determined that he might make a difference among struggling Baptists of the West as others could not; he wrote to Broadus, just after his arrival: "I felt sure that there must be a great field of usefulness and the need for laborers more urgent than where I was." (12) Factors that also claim attention in the analysis of Dargan's motivation toward the Dixon church include the lessening of ties to South Carolina with the death of both his parents by 1886, the need for a fresh challenge once success had been achieved in Petersburg, and the redefinition of his life's goals accompanying the onset of middle age.

The congregation at Dixon royally greeted Dargan and his family upon their arrival the first Friday in September of 1887; within ten days he had been duly installed as pastor. (13) The local newspaper reported that "the Baptists seem to be well pleased with the new pastor, Rev. Mr. Dargan," a fortunate reaction in that their minister had been called sight unseen. (14) Dargan, however, appears to have been somewhat less taken by his new parish. In a letter to John Broadus just after his arrival, he wrote: "Now that I have come and have been here a little over a month I am inclined to think that the glories and benefits of the climate were a trifle overpraised; but as a field of work this country is a great place for a young man to come to." (15) He also confessed to feeling "the truth of what Paul said about Ephesus," quoting in Greek from 1 Corinthians 16:9: "For a great door and effectual is opened unto me here, and there are many adversaries." (16)

Nevertheless, Dargan seems to have plunged into the new ministry and enjoyed a measure of freedom he had not experienced in Petersburg, primarily because his workload was "much lighter than it had ever been." Dargan wrote to his mentor in Louisville that he carefully revised sermons prior to preaching them, yet admitted "that the accumulated material of ten years renders the weekly sermon problem of much easier solution than formerly." He had more time available for family, personal writing, and study in works such as Charles Rollin's The Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians and Grecians; Theodor Mommsen's The History of Rome; and a second reading of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. One must recognize, however, that this self-description of Dargan's activities reflects a certain dissatisfaction with California and perhaps even the desire to follow up on an earlier hint by Broadus of a possible professorship at the seminary, for Dargan prefaced his remarks by saying, "You ought to have an assistant now in the work of exercise correction." (17)

Interpreter of Baptist Life

With many of his earlier ministerial pressures relieved, Dargan suddenly had time for leisurely excursions by train to San Francisco, Oakland, and other nearby towns where he observed Baptist work in its various phases and began to draw his own conclusions concerning the work of the denomination in the West. The result of this turn of events was that Dargan became, and fancied himself to be, a national reporter on Baptist life in California. The Examiner, a Baptist weekly based in New York, printed lengthy articles by Dargan on no less than ten occasions between November, 1887 and July, 1888. The Religious Herald likewise published two letters from Dargan late in 1887. Included in these essays were comparisons of Baptists east and west; descriptions of local scenery, weather patterns, crops, and immigrants; details on the various Baptist churches of the region and their pastors; and commentaries on important current issues for the denomination such as temperance, revivals, and mission work. In addition, Dargan provided the official report of the California Baptist State Convention meeting of May, 1888, in which he gave attention to program and personalities, the latter category including H.E. McCune, the Dixon layman who presided as vice president of the convention. (18) Dargan's enthusiasm for this type of travel and reporting is further illustrated by the mention of possible trips to Alaska and Honolulu, along with the generous proposal: "I hereby offer my services to any enterprising journal that will pay all expenses to undertake either one of these excursions and report the trip! Don't all speak at once!" (19)

Dargan's views on such subjects indicate that by 1888 he had formed some lasting impressions of Baptist life in the West and had attained a new sophistication as an observer of denominational affairs. In the first case, he noted with sadness the disunity of Baptist work in California, the struggling condition of the denomination's schools and newspapers, the lack of an "earnest, united and aggressive leadership," and the apathy toward foreign missions. (20) In the second instance, by March of 1888, Dargan began advocating the creation of a new Western Baptist Convention that would function as an autonomous organization alongside the Northern and Southern bodies. He voiced his desire in a letter to Broadus:
My conviction is that sooner or later it must be done. Our cause
languishes for lack of an organization that we can touch or in some
measure control. We cannot attend the Anniversaries, and the system is
not working as well as might be. Further in the future we must have a
seminary either in San Francisco or Denver. Our new preachers come from
the East. We need some native and homebred. (21)

These and other imaginative ideas were published in The Examiner in June of 1888 under the title, "The Question of Baptist Organization for the Whole Country" and constituted Dargan's most original thoughts on denominationalism to that point in this life. Basically, his proposal suggested that Southern and Black Baptists unite, and in turn cooperate with, Northern Baptists and a new western body in a "National Baptist Convention" that would meet every four or five years. The new "general organization" would have as its work the consideration of the American Baptist Publication Society (already functioning on a national scale), foreign and home missions, educational concerns, and perhaps the work of the Baptist Congress, a semi-national movement then discussing leading questions of the day. (22)

Interestingly, Dargan advocated but one Baptist publication arm, the American Baptist Publication Society, in opposition to the views held by Isaac Taylor Tichenor of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board and others who vociferously preferred Southern Baptist Sunday School literature for churches in the South. (23) Also telling is the way in which the frequency of meeting, purview, and feeling of fraternal unity found in Dargan's proposal for a new denominational body anticipate, at least on a national scale, several functions of the Baptist World Alliance when created in 1905.

The denominational system envisioned by Dargan proves that his understanding of Baptist life in the late 1880s was far larger than one limited to a single convention or region. Possibly, the move to California provided enough distance, both geographical and perspicacious, so as to allow the formulation of such a plan. Still, as J.L. Rosser observed, Dargan remained "intensely Southern in his sympathies" throughout his lifetime, and, by late 1888, had returned to his native South Carolina to occupy its most prestigious pulpit. (24)

The call of the Citadel Square Baptist Church in Charleston--the largest Baptist church in South Carolina at the time--sent Dargan back to the Palmetto State where he ministered to a congregation typifying that city's rising Baptist constituency. The years of that pastorate, 1888-1892, witnessed Dargan's rise to his full power as a pastor and preacher, along with his elevation to the most trusted levels of denominational service in Southern Baptist life. He would later go on to serve as John Broadus' successor as homiletics professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville; as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Macon, Georgia, during which time he served three terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention; and finally as an editor at the Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville, Tennessee. Yet it may have been Dargan's brief fourteen-month sojourn in Northern Solano during an abbreviated mission to California Baptists where he first began to think strategically about the organization of Baptists in North America and the denominational identity of the Baptist family.


(1) "Tidings from the Field," Religious Herald, June 30, 1887, 2.

(2) E.C. Dargan to John A. Broadus, October 8, 1887, John Albert Broadus Papers, 1844-1895, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Archives.

(3) Henry McCune Dargan, "The South Carolina Dargan Family" (original typed manuscript dated March 14, 1941 in the possession of Marjorie Dargan Carter, St. Petersburg, Florida); "Edwin Charles Dargan," Who Was Who in America, 1 (Chicago: A.N. Marquis Co., 1942), 294.

(4) Langley [J. William Jones], "Virginia News and Notes," The Examiner, August 4, 1887, 4.

(5) "Dixon: A Review of the Business Interests, Etc.," Dixon Tribune, November 5, 1887, 2.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.

(8) "Local Brevities," Dixon Tribune, August 27, 1887, 2.

(9) "Solano County, Calif.," Dixon Tribune, November 5, 1887, 8.

(10) "Tidings from the Field," Religious Herald, Mach 24, 1887, 2.

(11) James Roland Barron, "The Contribution of John A. Broadus to Southern Baptists" (Th.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1972), 22.

(12) E.C. Dargan to John A. Broadus, October 8, 1887, Broadus Papers.

(13) "Local Brevities," Dixon Tribune, September 3, 1887, 3; E[dwin] C[harles] D[argan], "Letter from Rev. E.C. Dargan," Religious Herald, October 6, 1887, 1.

(14) "Local Brevities," Dixon Tribune, September 10, 1887, 3.

(15) E.C. Dargan to John A. Broadus, March 27, 1888, Broadus Papers.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Ibid.

(18) See E[dwin] C[harles] D[argan], "From California," The Examiner, November 10, 1887, 4.; December 1, 1887, 4; December 29, 1887, 4; February 2, 1888, 4; March 1, 1888, 4; March 29, 1888, 4; May 10, 1888, 4; Dargan, "The California State Convention," The Examiner, May 31, 1888, 4-5; Dargan, "From California," The Examiner, July 12, 1888, 4; Dargan, "Letter from Rev. E.C. Dargan," Religious Herald, October 6, 1887, 1; Dargan, "Our California Letter," Religious Herald, December 29, 1887, 1.

(19) E[dwin] C[harles] D[argan], "From California," The Examiner, May 10, 1888, 4.

(20) E.C. Dargan to John A. Broadus, March 27, 1888, Broadus Papers. For additional insight on the struggling nature of Baptists in the state, see Samuel Harvey, "The Southern Baptist Contrihution to the Baptist Cause in California Prior to 1890" (Th.M. thesis, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, 1958).

(21) E.C. Dargan to John A. Broadus, March 27, 1888, Broadus Papers.

(22) E.C. Dargan, "The Question of Baptist Organization for the Whole Country," The Examiner, June 7, 1888, 2.

(23) Ibid.; Walter B. Shurden, The Sunday School Board: Ninety Years of Service (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1981), 21-22; Robert A. Baker, The Story of the Sunday School Board (Nashville: Convention Press, 1966), 34-38.

(24) J.L. Rosser, "Dr. E.C. Dargan," Religious Herald, February 12, 1931, 12.

John M. Finley

John M. Finley is executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society.
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Author:Finley, John M.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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