JOHN MASON PECK was arguably “the greatest of the pioneers to set foot in early St. Louis” (St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, M-111).
“Writer, missionary, educator, humanitarian, Peck set about the process of bringing the civilization he knew and loved to the Mississippi Valley.” (ibid.) As George Washington was serving his first term as President, John Mason Peck was born in 1789 in Connecticut. He came from Puritan heritage with ancestors arriving in America in 1634. After the birth of his first son, John and Sally Peck concluded from their study of scripture that baptism was meant for believers, not infants. They were baptized in 1811. He became a Baptist pastor in the Catskill Mountains of New York but wrote in his diary, “A large part of the American continent…is in darkness. In the United States there is an abundant field for missionary labor. How I should rejoice if Providence should open a door for my usefulness and labors in this way.” In May of 1817, John Mason Peck and James Ely Welch, a fellow theological student in Philadelphia, were appointed missionaries to the Missouri Territory, and $1,000 was appropriated for their expenses. After being commissioned by the American Baptists, Sally and John Peck and their three children, along with the James Welch family, made the 1,200 mile journey over 129 days in their one-horse wagon for mission work in St. Louis. At this point, he wrote, “I have now put my hand to the plow. O Lord, may I never turn back—never regret this step. It is my duty to live, to labor, to die as a kind of pioneer in advancing the Gospel.” Upon crossing the Mississippi, Peck was too weak to walk or stand and had to be carried ashore on a stretcher. They arrived in St. Louis three years before it became a city. St. Louis was just awakening to the consciousness of its importance as a gateway to the West.
Baptists were hardly a welcome sight in St. Louis. At the time, it was a wild frontier settlement without a school, but crowded with saloons, gambling dens and trading posts. There were all kinds of people—trappers, traders, cowboys, Native people, hunters, settlers, gamblers, vagabonds, robbers, but not many active Christians. Peck wrote that the “boast was often made that the Sabbath never had crossed and never could cross the Mississippi.” When Missouri was under the control of the Spanish governor whose headquarters was at Cape Girardeau, an edict was issued, “No preacher of any religion but the Catholic shall be allowed in this province.” The law further stated that “Freedom of conscience is not to be extended beyond the first generation: the children of immigrants must be Catholics.” The early Baptists existed undercover without formal church structures in cabins in the wilderness. After the Louisiana Purchase, these laws were revoked, making way for missionaries like John Mason Peck.
Soon after Peck and Welch arrived, they found seven Baptists residing in St. Louis. They rented a room at the rear of a store and opened an Academy, which met during the week. The room served as a sanctuary on Sundays. On Feb. 18, 1818, Peck organized The Baptist Church of St. Louis, the first Protestant church in the city. In April, they held a baptismal service on the river bank, immersing two converts. This was the first time the Mississippi River was used for such a purpose. Soon, they built a new structure. The lower three floors housed the Western Mission Society and the upper floor, the Baptist church. Peck encouraged the use of the building by newly-arrived Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists in hopes of furthering Protestantism in St. Louis. He formed the first missionary society in the West, the United Society for the Spread of the Gospel. He helped organize the American Baptist Home Mission Society in 1832. He established the first institution of higher learning in Illinois, the Rock Spring Seminary, and Shurtleff College. During his 40-year ministry, Peck contributed to the establishment of 900 Baptist churches and saw 600 pastors ordained.
Peck had strong anti-slavery sentiments. With John Berry Meachum, a promising young freedman, a Sunday School for black children and adults was opened. Peck baptized the first black convert in St. Louis. On August 24, 1828, the black members of The Baptist Church of St. Louis petitioned to be organized into a separate church. On September 7, 1828, this was organized into the first church for African Americans as The African Church of St. Louis, later to be known as the First Baptist Church of St. Louis. Of the 220 founding members of this church, 200 were slaves at the time. Meachum was ordained by Peck and became its illustrious pastor. Peck took an active, prominent and leading part in the struggle of 1823-4 that prevented the introduction of slavery in Illinois. The second Governor of Illinois, Edward Coles, stated, “But the man who accomplished the most (to prevent Illinois becoming a slave state) was the Rev. John M. Peck of St. Clair County… He preached a crusade against slavery wherever he went.” Peck also started many women’s societies to support missionaries among Native Americans. One scholar has stated that we find in John Mason Peck the forerunner of the social gospel in America, a combination of spiritual zeal and public vision.
Anti-missionary Baptists opposed Peck throughout southern Illinois, and yet he persevered, organizing Bible and mission societies. In 1834, he was elected the first President of the Illinois Baptist State Convention. From 1837-1839, Peck was the supervisor of American Baptist Home Mission Society agents in Illinois. In 1843, he became general secretary of the newly-formed American Baptist Publication Society until his retirement in 1845. In 1852, Harvard University conferred on him an honorary degree. He became a prolific lecturer and writer on agriculture, aboriginal, and early Western history. Peck began a weekly religious journal called The Western Pioneer. In 1854, he was commissioned by the Illinois legislature to write a history of the state.
Peck was greatly concerned for pioneer children who, if they attended school at all, largely studied under the tutelage of illiterate and often drunken teachers. Within a few years, he organized fifty public schools in remote settlements and brought in many trained teachers from the East. Finding that many pioneer families lacked Bibles, he organized the Missouri Bible Society. Through mud and rain, snow and ice, he rode horseback, his saddlebags weighed down with Bibles and tracts. He would knock at the doors of cabins in the wilderness and enter with a brisk, warmhearted greeting. He never left a cabin, however poor, without a gracious prayer and if, possible, without leaving a Bible as a gift. Peck spent much time alone on horseback, sometimes falling asleep and having to retrace his path. He once offered directions to others for spending a comfortable night in the wilderness:
“The first thing is to select the right place in some hollow or ravine protected from the wind, and if possible behind some old forest giant which the storms of winter have prostrated. And then, reader, don’t build your fire against the tree, for this is the place for your head and shoulders to lie, and around which the smoke and heated air may curl. Then don’t be so childish as to lie on the wet or cold frozen earth, without a bed. Gather a quantity of grass, leaves and a small brush and after you have cleared away the snow and provided for protection from the wet or cold earth, you may sleep comfortably. If you have a piece of jerked venison, and a bit of pone with a cup of water, you may make out a splendid supper, provided you think so, ‘for as a man thinketh so he is.’”
On one of his trips, Peck met the famous pioneer, Daniel Boone, who was 80 years old at the time. Later, Peck wrote a book about Boone’s life.
With four children to care for and a husband often away in his work, Sally Peck started a Sunday school in their home for black slave children. She nursed the sick when a plague of what was called prairie fever struck the community, taking the lives of her young son Eli and her own brother. Later, when John founded a theological seminary, Sally managed the kitchen and supervised the food budget.
Second Baptist Church was founded on January 6, 1833 when the Baptist Church of St. Louis voted itself out of existence assigning its assets and most of its members to the new church. John Mason Peck served as an interim pastor or pulpit supply (1841, 1844 and 1849) three times in the history of Second Baptist Church. He was well-known to the members of Second Baptist Church and deeply admired. He placed his membership in Second Baptist Church in 1849.
Peck saw that his life was dedicated to building “the city of God,” but also to building “the cities of this earth.” Peck was not only a preacher, but also a builder of the secular city.
He died in Rock Spring, Illinois, on March 14, 1858, and was buried in Rock Spring, Illinois, beside his wife, who died two years earlier. On April 12, 1858, his remains were moved to the Baptist Lot in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, the relocation authorized by William McPherson, a prominent member of Second Baptist Church at the time.
John Mason Peck was a mighty man. One colleague said of him, “He was, undoubtedly, one of the most remarkable self-made men of his day.” He was among Baptists in the frontier American West what Adoniram Judson was to overseas mission work. Dr. J.B. Jeter, pastor of Second Baptist Church who knew John Mason Peck well said of him, “Perhaps no man of the class did more than he to guide the thoughts, mould the manners and form the institutions of the West.” He is rightly called “the father of home missions.