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The International Baptist Seminary: a Baptist attempt at Americanization, education, and missions in East Orange, New Jersey: Ethnicity is an important part of American and Baptist history.

Baptists have a diverse and extensive history of interaction with various ethnic groups. Unfortunately, the many successes often are shrouded by failures or masked by misconceptions. In an attempt to highlight one of the many successes, this article submits the American Baptist Home Mission Society's little-known International Baptist Seminary (1921-1941) in East Orange, New Jersey, as a valuable case study in ethnic Baptist history. (1)

Henry L. Morehouse identified the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) as the "pioneer organization" among Baptists in the work with foreign populations. (2) As early as 1845, the ABHMS was already discussing the positive and negative implications of mass immigration. In its report that year, the society noted: "The unparalleled accessions to our population from other lands add to our national strength and wealth, and aid to develop our public resources.... But, with these blessings, how many curses mingle!" (3) Ironically, in the nineteenth century, the ABHMS concerned itself with employing "the minds trained under European influences ... to assimilate the institutions of our country to European models." (4) By the first decades of the twentieth century, however, "Americanization" (i.e., assimilation or integration into American society) had replaced "Europeanization" as the telos of the assimilation process.

In the years leading up to 1914 and World War I, the average American viewed the wars and woes on Europe's horizon with an indifference cultivated by almost fifty years of relative peace. When fighting broke out in Europe after the June 14, 1914, assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, this tradition of American indifference became increasingly difficult to maintain, so difficult that "few [citizens] could avoid sympathizing with one side or the other, in spite of Woodrow Wilson's plea for complete neutrality." (5)

After 1914, when neutrality was no longer possible, the United States approached a cultural crossroad as issues related to "Americanization" coincided with increased involvement in the war. With America's attention turning toward the war, England received the majority of support. Other Americans had high hopes for the Central Powers (Germany, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Austria-Hungary). When many American immigrants exhibited signs of loyalty to their native land (e.g., Germany) instead of their new homeland, America faced an ethnically-driven identity crisis. Up to this time, most people assumed that integration of immigrants into American society would happen naturally, but now many questioned this assumption. Could complete assimilation of the various hyphenated ethnic groups be realized, or was "Americanization" only a utopian vision to be forgotten? The world's melting pot seemed now to be nothing more than a cracked cistern.

Responses to this cultural crisis varied. Parents of second-generation pupils in New York were asked to sign pledge tags, and the governor of Iowa banned all non-English speech in church services, schools, and other public venues. Lawrence B. Davis noted that for thirty years, Baptists showed "tendencies that could have led them either to the nationalist Americanization of fear or to the Americanization of love." (6) In the end, Baptists could not agree on one direction. Some Baptists, like Samuel Z. Batten, ultimately called for an end to foreign-speaking congregations altogether. As chairman of the Northern Baptist Convention's Immigration and Americanization Committee, Batten's 1920 report claimed that the continued use of foreign languages was antithetical to Americanization efforts. (7)

On the other side of the aisle, Charles A. Brooks of the ABHMS denounced any form of Americanization that devalued ancestral heritage. For Brooks, this type of Americanization "amounted to race pride degenerated into race prejudice." (8) In a 1918 report to the society, Brooks reported that "the war had made a previously indifferent populace aware of the potential dangers of a mass of foreigners unadjusted to American ways and unevangelized by the churches." (9) Brooks was adamant that the Americanization process must be culturally sensitive.

Education and theological training were key components in the process of Americanization. Northern Baptists had organized training schools for Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles, Russians, and Italians. These schools were scattered between Chicago and New York. In 1920, the ABHMS's Department of Foreign-Speaking and City Missions, under the leadership of Brooks, sought to unite these linguistically disparate and geographically scattered training schools into one "polyglot school for training of foreign-speaking pastors and workers." (10)

The minutes of the ABHMS's 1921 annual meeting demonstrated the society's awareness of the acute need for missionary work among the growing number of immigrants in the United States. In fact, immigration provided a unique convergence of international and home missions. The report noted: "No more significant work than this can be found in our country. It is a work of Home Missions ... it is also a work for Foreign Missions, as a considerable proportion of the students of our schools desire to return to their native lands to preach the gospel." (11)

A September 1920 letter questioning Americanization, immigration, and missions confirmed that these topics were not theoretical discussions for the ABHMS. The letter, written by ten recently-converted Russian soldiers, was sent shortly after the signing of the armistice to end World War I to a fellow American Baptist across the Atlantic. The Russia converts wrote with regard to the training institutes:
 Dear Brother in Christ, J. Bokmelder:

 We, Russian brethren, formerly prisoners in Germany and now residing
 in France, desire to be admitted to the privilege of devoting our
 lives to our Lord Jesus and to those who do not know him and do not
 know the path to everlasting life so as to as tell them that they
 should leave their earthly ways and should look up to our heavenly
 Father.

 [Conversion dates have been omitted]

 We have all been baptized.

 Dear Brother Bokmelder,

 We are all in German detention camps since 1914, and were suffering
 from hunger and want and were compelled to work very hard. Since May
 1, 1920, we are in France, removing the barbed wires. May 1, 1920,
 we were demobilized and are working ten hours daily, and we get ten
 francs (sixty cents per hour). Food costs six francs daily.

 We received your circular and would want to enter the institute as
 students, but we do not have the required one hundred and twelve
 dollars. This sum, though small in American money, is large in
 French money, a dollar being equal to seventeen francs. Altogether
 we have three thousand three hundred francs, which is hardly enough
 to provide for the barest necessities and incidentals required
 outside of the institute.

 We all desire to devote our lives to the service of our Lord Jesus
 and trust that it will be his will to receive us as students of the
 institute so as to enable us to work for him and all those who
 prepare for such work to receive us in their midst into the flock of
 the heavenly Shepherd.

 (Signed by the ten.) (12)


When this letter was read aloud at the 1921 ABHMS annual meeting, those in attendance expressed a desire to bring the Russians to America, but as an organization the society could not legally donate funds to bring them to the United States. By 1922, however, the Russians had not only made it to America, they "were making decided progress in the learning of the English language. The singing of their native songs is interesting to many churches and their Christian spirit is delightful." (13) The situation of the Russian soldiers, and immigrants in general, presented the society with practical obstacles and spiritual rewards. Although not using the 1845 language of "blessings" and "curses" to characterize the implications of immigration, the society members in 1921 were well aware of its potential: "The swelling tide of immigration setting in from European countries, the character of which is being carefully considered by our national committees on immigration at Washington, immediately increases our missionary opportunities and problems." (14) As the letter suggested, the society had already chosen to take advantage of the opening.

In response to these "opportunities and problems," the society purchased "suitable property" for approximately $250,000 with income from a contribution by John D. Rockefeller. (15) On October 12, 1921, the International Baptist Seminary officially opened its doors for service in East Orange, New Jersey. The charter class consisted of nineteen students (Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles, and Russians) and five faculty members.

Frank L. Anderson was selected as the seminary's first president. He had served as secretary of the Chicago Baptist Executive Council for many years and was the superintendent of a large group of foreign-speaking missions in Chicago. The 1920 ABHMS's report noted Anderson's qualifications and expertise with regard to foreign-speaking groups, claiming that "no man is more familiar with the foreign-speaking problem and what Christian Americanization means." (16) In addition, Anderson's teaching experience in the city's Slovak training school meant he was familiar with all the intricacies of the contemporary linguistic problems. (17) The other faculty members included Louis Adamus, John Bokmelder, Stephen Orosz, and V. Drashpiel.

After only one full academic year, the school's enrollment had grown to sixty-one with the addition of Czechoslovakians, Romanians, and Italians. Plans were in place for a women's department, and the school had an "immediate need for another dormitory." (18) A house had been purchased for the women's department, but before that program was started, the structure served as the Italian department and housed "other students who could not be accommodated elsewhere." (19) Enrollment continued to increase so quickly that even a house intended for professors was filled with students. (20) Given the seminary's growth rate, the ABHMS's annum report understandably reported that "the seminary is fulfilling the largest expectations of its friends." (21)

The International Baptist Seminary was considered a "junior seminary," in which English, Church History, Homiletics, History of Christian Doctrine, and Theology were taught. "The theological subjects [were] carried on in their own languages in order that they may preach the gospel to their own people in their own vernacular, and thus be able to interpret the truth of Christianity to their foreign-speaking congregations." (22) The students were also given credit for their work in local bilingual congregations.

The seminary received little attention in most annual reports from 1923 to 1938. In the 1923 and 1924 reports, the seminary continued to be "full of promise," (23) in need of more dormitory room, and functioning at "full attendance." (24) In 1925, the seminary was incorporated by the state of New Jersey as an "institution for the training of students who come from Europe" and endorsed by the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. By this time, the women's department was finally underway, bringing total enrollment to fifty-seven. (25)

Information about the seminary did not appear in the ABHMS's annual report again until its tenth anniversary in 1931. That report noted that in its first ten years, the seminary had graduated 56 and enrolled a total of 526, including 126 Russians, 123 Hungarians, 100 Poles, 92 Czechoslovaks, 44 Romanians, 19 Italians, and 22 specials. (26)

The high quality of education offered at the seminary resulted in several Northern Baptist colleges expressing "their willingness to accept [IBS] graduates in their colleges with no conditions." (27) The society placed great emphasis on education and believed that the "foreign-language groups of America need the leadership of well-trained, consecrated young men and women from the second generation" so that no racial group would "be ashamed of their pastor or Sunday school teacher." (28) Toward that end, the seminary often sponsored summer leadership classes for foreign-speaking pastors who might not have been enrolled in the seminary. (29) Yet, second-generation parishioners seemed to prefer American-trained ministers, and over time the number of churches requiring pastors from the seminary declined, negatively affecting enrollment. Despite decreasing enrollment, the 1936 ABHMS report assumed "the school will continue to render a valued service for some time to come." (30)

The 1939 ABHMS's annual report revealed that many graduates returned to their native countries if ministry positions were not available in the United States. At the same time, an increasing number of students went on to institutions of higher learning as the quality of work in the seminary improved.

In 1941, after two decades of valuable service, the seminary suddenly discontinued its classes. The governing board would continue to exist in order to "administer such funds as are available for the education in other institutions of Christian workers for foreign-speaking churches." (31) Most of these funds went to the Spanish-American seminary in Los Angeles. (32) Although the ABHMS's annual report offered no explicit explanation for the seminary's closing, minutes from the annual meetings leading up to 1941 reveal a concern for the dwindling demand for foreign-speaking pastors and limited financial resources. Thus, two decades of "valued existence" came to an end.

In conclusion, two observations may be made about ethnicity, education, and Baptist life. First, the seminary's culturally-sensitive approach to theological education is a timely example and clear reminder of successful Baptist work among various ethnic groups. Baptists, through the International Baptist Seminary, trained foreign-speaking groups in their native language for foreign-speaking ministry. Thus, the story of the International Baptist Seminary in East Orange (and the Spanish-American seminary in Los Angeles) needs to be told because its legacy debunks the myths that all Baptists are anti-intellectual or racist. If anything, the seminary encouraged Baptists to take pride in all races. Furthermore, by resurrecting the legacy of the International Baptist Seminary, one finds an overwhelming Baptist affirmation of "foreign-speaking" pastors, lay people, and congregations in the United States.

Second, a word about hyphenates and ethnicity. "American" may be one adjective that carries more baggage than "Baptist." Volumes have been written on what being "Baptist" means, and what being "Baptist" does not mean. Similarly, countless speeches have been given recently on what is "American" and what is not "American." (Incidentally, by combining these two terms, one may end up with a hyphenated designation that could mean almost anything, or nothing.) The legacy of the International Baptist Seminary is a reminder that no group, ethnic or otherwise, has a monopoly on what it means to be Baptist. Is there a Baptist group and an ethnic Baptist group? Or, like those Russian-Baptists, Hungarian-Baptists, Czechoslovakian-Baptists, Italian-Baptists, Polish-Baptists, Slovakian-Baptists, and Romanian-Baptists, are we all hyphenates? Indeed, the International Baptist Seminary reminds us that we are all "ethnic-Baptists."

(1.) The little-known story of the International Baptist Seminary in East Orange, New Jersey, points to a lacuna in Baptist history. While no comprehensive treatment exists, the seminary's legacy can be found in the annual reports of the American Baptist Home Mission Society. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, exhaustive in scope. Rather, based primarily on limited information from annual reports, the present work is offered as an introduction to an important piece of Baptist history.

(2.) Henry L. Morehouse, Home Mission Work of American Baptists (New York: American Baptist Home Mission Society, n.d.), 21-22.

(3.) The Fourteenth Report of the American Baptist Home Mission Society (New York: American Baptist Home Mission Society, 1845), 17.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Lawrence B. Davis, Immigrants, Baptists, and the Protestant Mind (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), 164.

(6.) Ibid., 175.

(7.) Samuel Zane Batten, et al., in Northern Baptist Convention Minutes (1920), 242-55.

(8.) Davis, Immigrants, Baptists, and the Protestant Mind, 177.

(9.) Ibid., 175-77.

(10.) Report of the Department of City and Foreign-Speaking Missions (New York: The American Baptist Home Mission Society Printing Office, 1920), 28.

(11.) Ibid., 33.

(12.) Ibid. (1921), 30-31.

(13.) Ibid. (1922), 32.

(14). Ibid. (1921), 38.

(15.) Ibid. (1921), 29.

(16.) Ibid. (1920), 28.

(17.) Ibid. (1920), 20, 28.

(18.) Ibid. (1922), 32.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Ibid. (1922), 33.

(23.) Ibid. (1923), 53.

(24.) Ibid. (1924), 71. The meaning of the term "full attendance" is not clear since no data is given until 1925.

(25.) Ibid. (1925), 39.

(26.) Ibid. (1931), 90. The meaning of "specials" is unclear from the annual report, but the term could refer to small numbers of various other nationalities.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) Ibid.

(29.) Ibid. (1932), 54.

(30.) Ibid. (1936), 43.

(31.) Ibid. (1941), 27.

(32.) The Spanish-American seminary, also funded by the ABHMS, did not close until 1941. Unfortunately, the Spanish-American seminary has received only slightly more attention than the International Baptist Seminary.

John D. Essick is a doctoral student at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
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Author:Essick, John D.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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