Harvard University does not single out many Baptist preachers for honorary degrees. But in 1852, they did such for a Baptist preacher and missionary named John Mason Peck. Let me tell you a little of the story of this fascinating man in the hopes that his life will inspire you to leave a similar legacy and impact.
John Mason Peck (1789-1858) lived in Connecticut and New York state in his early years. He heard the message of the gospel and was saved while young. Personal study of the bible led him to leave the Congregationalist church over the issue of infant baptism and become a Baptist– despite the arguments of his pastor, Lyman Beecher.
Peck grew deeply in his faith and felt a call to preach. Time spent with Luther Rice led him to a deep interest in missionary work “out west”. So Peck loaded up his family and headed to St. Louis to become one of our first “home missionaries”. He got paid a little bit of nothing, faced dangers and deprivations, but served faithfully for the rest of his life.
After arriving in St. Louis at the end of 1817, he went right to work. By early 1818 he was part of establishing First Baptist Church of St. Louis, the first protestant church in the pioneer town. He baptized the early converts of that church in the Mississippi River. He went on to establish several other churches there.
In 1822, he moved his family across the river into Illinois, to an area called Rock Springs. (Part of O’Fallon, IL today and less than a mile from FBC O’Fallon, IL where I serve as pastor.) That would become his base for the rest of his life. He farmed, was the postmaster, assisted travelers on the trail that passed by his home, wrote extensively and did his primary work of starting Baptist churches and encouraging pastors and other believers.
Peck started one of the first colleges west of the Alleghenies in 1827 and called it “Rock Springs Seminary”. Designed to train pastors and others, it faced great difficulties financially and politically and later moved to Alton, IL and became Shurtleff College.
John Mason Peck was massively influential in two major controversies in Illinois. He was antislavery, or perhaps better stated, pro-freedom. He followed in the footsteps of another Baptist pastor, friend and legislator, James Lemen, Sr., in helping lead the state of Illinois to remain a free state. He trained and ordained pastors, both black and white, and greatly encouraged racial reconciliation.
The second controversy was over missions. This will sound odd to my Baptist pastor friends now, but many Baptists in Illinois (and beyond) in those days became “anti-missions” and held to a form of “hyper-Calvinism”. Led by a “hard shell Baptist” pastor named Daniel Parker, they believed that missions or evangelistic efforts somehow infringed on the sovereignty of God. Peck was kind in the face of meanness and arrogance and continued to distribute bibles which he believed “silently undermined the opposition to missions”.
John Mason Peck ended up being instrumental in the establishment of hundreds of churches and the ordination and training of hundreds of pastors. He wrote extensively on church life and even authored the first history of the state of Illinois and a very popular biography of Daniel Boone.
So, maybe you shouldn’t count on that degree thing from Harvard. But perhaps God will use you to make a rich and lasting Christian impact upon the landscape of your community or your family. And maybe God would use the story of John Mason Peck to encourage you towards that end. That beats a degree from anywhere!