“Missionaries or Presidents”? Newton Theological Institution’s contribution to the founding of HBCUs

Newton Theological Institution was the first Baptist seminary in America (1825), and during the nineteenth century the school was massively influential in American Baptist life, as seen in the hundreds of graduates who served in pastorates, denominational leadership, education, and the mission field.  A number of Newton graduates went on to work in education, serving as presidents or professors in various colleges and seminaries. Particularly, after the Civil War, “Christian men were needed to train leaders among the freedmen of the South, and Newton alumni stepped into responsible positions as educators” (Historical Addresses, 7). Many of these schools would go on to become what we know today as HBCUs.

Henry Jones Ripley

Henry J. Ripley, professor at Newton Theological Institution (1826–60)

Henry J. Ripley (1798–1875) could be considered the grandfather of the Baptist HBCUs founded by Newton graduates. Ripley was the second professor hired at Newton and served thirty four years from 1826–1860. He had entered Harvard University at the age of fourteen, and then attended Andover Theological Seminary, graduating in 1819. While at Andover, he “became interested in the religious welfare of the colored people of the South.” Ripley said this was “partly, perhaps, because a number of colored families were settled in a lane not far from my parents’ residence, among whom, in my vacations, I used to hold religious meetings, and whom I visited, family by family, for religious purposes” (A Tribute, 10). Ripley’s interest was also awakened by reading Thomas Clarkson’s The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament. Ripley was appointed as a missionary in Savannah, Georgia and served a pastor and evangelist among the Black population between 1819 and 1826. Interestingly after his 34 years of service at Newton, “his early passion for ‘the elevation of the colored race in the United States returned,” and after the war Ripley served again in Savannah, Georgia for nine months as an American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) missionary (A Tribute, 33). It seems likely that it was Ripley’s example that multiplied among his students, as seen in almost two dozen Newton graduates who followed his example in going south to work among either enslaved people or freedmen.

The Choicest Jewels

J.L.A. Fish, president of the Florida Institute (1880–1890)

Alvah Hovey (Newton president, 1868–1898) held these men in high esteem: “whether the honored brethren at the head of these schools be called missionaries or presidents, or, rather, be supposed to unite these two forms of Christian service in one person, they are doing a great and good work in a very satisfactory manner, and we number them among the choicest jewels which adorn the brow of our alma mater” (Historical Address, 51). Even in 1926, Newton was still proud of this heritage: “To the stolen sons and daughters of Africa, Newton has provided a brilliant list of missionaries, nearly all of them commissioned by the Home Mission Society” (Historical Addresses, 30).

Charles H. Corey, president of Richmond Theological Seminary (1868–99)

In their reflections, one can detect a tinge of pride and paternalism: “The annals of sacrificial devotion to the cause of backward and oppressed peoples contain no more shining names than those of the Newton men who have given their lives to educate the Negro youth of our southern states” (Historical Addresses, 48). This dynamic, the “well educated minister” serving among the “backward and oppressed” people of the south, would continue through Reconstruction and beyond. In 1926, it was noted that “altogether twenty-three Newton men have taught in the Negro colleges of the South, of whom sixteen have been presidents and seven professors.” A few of the most notable included:

  • Lewis Colby (graduated 1835), agent for the Benedict Institution, Columbia, SC (1865–75)
  • Daniel W. Phillips (1840), president of Roger Williams University in Nashville, TN (1864–90)
  • Charles Ayer (1852) president Natchez Seminary, Natchez, Mississippi (1877–83) and Jackson College (1883–94)
  • Edward Mitchell (1853), president Leland University (LA) (1887–1900)
  • Joseph Leroy Atwell Fish (1856), president of the Florida Institute (1880–1890)
  • George M.P. King (1860), president Wayland Seminary (1869–1897)
  • Charles H. Corey (1861), president of  Richmond Theological Seminary (1868–99)
  • Henry Martyn Tupper (1862), president of Shaw University, North Carolina (1866–93)
  • George Rice Hovey (1885), professor at Richmond Theological Seminary (1887–91) Wayland Seminary (1897–99), president of Virginia Union University (1899–1918)

Detailed study remains to be done on most of these figures. A spreadsheet with a nearly complete listing of all Newton graduates who served in HBCUs can be found here, sortable by name, date, and institution: Newton Graduates who served in HBCUs


Nice surveys of Newton’s history can be found here:

Books exploring the complex dynamics between white Northern Baptists and Black Baptist in the south:

  • James Melvin Washington, Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986)
  • James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988)
  • William E Montgomery, Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South, 1865-1900 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993)
  • Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994)
  • Jay Riley Case, “From the Native Ministry to the Talented Tenth: The Foreign Missionary Origins of White Support for Black Colleges,” in The Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home: Explorations in North American Cultural History. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003: 60–74.

Books on specific Newton graduates serving at HBCUs: