AN 1868 EXAMPLE OF MISSOURI TALK: THE PRITCHETT-SWEENEY DEBATE
Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo
Boone's Lick Heritage (Boonslick Historical Society Quarterly) 8, No. 1, March 2000, pp. 10-14.
Few books afford such insight into Missouri culture in the nineteenth century as Frances Lea McCurdy's Stump, Bar, and Pulpit: Speechmaking on the Missouri Frontier (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1969). Her starting point is the period of French and Spanish rule, when oratory, debate, and the free expression of opinion were discouraged by paternalistic governments. The Louisiana Purchase opened the way not just to American settlers but to democratic values and a premium on the spoken word. In scholarly language, the foundation of democracy is often said to be public dialogue. In the Missouri idiom, it is loud, honest talk, so that all can hear.
That demos krateo, as Senator Thomas Hart Benton referred to it, requires a literate, informed populace goes without saying. Rule by the people is impossible without public education. McCurdy's main point, difficult for today's generation to grasp, is that in Missouri's first century, the necessary education was not thought to occur principally in school. She quotes Chambers and Knapp's Missouri and Illinois Almanac for the Year of Our Lord, 1848: "Your children's scholarship depends more on what books you furnish them with, and on how much good public speaking they hear, than on how much schooling you give them" (p. 14).
Politicians, lawyers, and preachers were the three chief kinds of orator in frontier Missouri. Among the preachers, McCurdy highlights those of the "democratic faiths"—Cumberland Presbyterians, Campbellites, Baptists, and Methodists. These denominations emphasized choice and a personal experience of conversion. Of all frontier speakers, McCurdy says, clergy of these denominations were the most effective promoters of Jacksonian democracy. They preached that all men were equal in the sight of God, with special privilege for none, and that the soul of each man was of equal and inestimable value.
Part of the Boonslick heritage is a 550-page book that illustrates McCurdy's argument with unusual force: A Religious Discussion between Rev. J. H. Pritchett and Elder Jno. S. Sweeney, reported by Geo. B. Willis (St. Louis: S.W. Book & Publishing, 1869).
The title understates. This was no mere discussion. It was a rancorous, no-holds-barred debate between articulate proponents of competing democratic faiths. Pritchett, 33 years of age and resident at the time in Warren County, was a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Sweeney, older and from Winchester, Illinois, was an elder of the Christian Church, that is, the Campbellites. The debate took place in Clarksville, Mo., over a period of seven days commencing on October 28, 1868.
The Pritchett Family
The resultant book is part of Boonslick history because one of the parties to the debate, Joseph Pritchett, belonged to the most distinguished family of educators in Howard County during the second half of the nineteenth century. By the marks it eventually left on national institutions, the Pritchett family itself illustrates how open to individual enterprise, regardless of birth, upbringing, or scholastic credentials, Missouri was in the decades after the civil war.
There were two brothers, Carr W. and Joseph H., both born in Henry County, Virginia, but brought by their parents to a farm near Wright City, Missouri, in 1835. Carr was twelve years old at the time, Joseph was a baby. Their parents, Henry (1799-1857) and Martha Waller Pritchett, were of Welsh origin, but the family had been in the United States already for several generations.
Both brothers were trailblazers, but Carr especially so. He grew up with no schooling at all, reading and listening on his own in the midst of farm chores. In 1843, when he was 21, he spent eight months studying at St. Charles College, and began teaching school the following year. He became a Methodist minister in 1844. He moved to Fayette in 1851. He helped found what is now Central Methodist College in 1857-58, spent a year studying mathematics and astronomy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and became professor of these subjects on his return to Fayette. His crowning achievements were to become founding president of Pritchett School Institute in Glasgow in 1866, and then director of the Morrison Observatory there in 1874-75.
Despite having an uncredentialled president, the Pritchett Institute was no backwoods Arcadia. On the contrary, it put Glasgow on the national academic map. It was amply endowed by Rev. J. O. Swinney and Richard Earickson with wealth derived from tobacco and hemp plantations. Reflecting Missouri's egalitarian values, it was open from the start to students of both sexes. Most important, Pritchett had ties to national elites. In the Missouri supplement to the 1889 edition of Butler's Complete Geography (Philadelphia: E. H. Butler), Glasgow is referred to as "an educational centre," and singled out for more description than Columbia or Warrensburg. Carr Pritchett is identified as "one of the most distinguished astronomers of this country." Carr's successor as president, when he moved to the observatory, was Oren Root, whose brother Elihu was among the leading statesmen of turn-of-the-century America—as the lawyer who defended Boss Tweed, later as Secretary of State, Senator from New York, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1912.
Numerous graduates of the Pritchett Institute went on to prominence. A building still in use on the Central Methodist College campus is named for T. Berry Smith, longtime professor of natural science and sometime president, who received his B.A. from Pritchett in 1873, and later studied at Yale.
Probably the single most prominent graduate was Carr Pritchett's son, Henry, for whom a building on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is named. Henry received his B.A. from his father's school in 1875, when he was eighteen years old, and later his doctorate from Munich, Germany. Like his father, Henry pursued astronomy, reaching top rank in that field. He was president of M.I.T. from 1900 to 1906, then for more than twenty years president of the Carnegie Foundation.
Joseph H., Carr's younger brother and the debater in the book discussed here, followed in Carr's footsteps, but with the emphasis on humanistic as opposed to scientific learning. He was licensed as a Methodist preacher in 1855, and did pastoral work in Missouri, Kansas, and Montana until after the Civil War. Later he became president of Howard College in Fayette, and in 1881, of the school Carr had founded in Glasgow. At least two of Joseph H.'s sons also became educators. William H., holding an M.A. from Central College, was professor of languages at Pritchett Institute. Joseph J. studied at Central College and the University of Virginia, and was later president of Methodist College in Clarence, Mo.
Content of the Debate
From the foregoing it is clear that at least one of the protagonists in the "religious discussion" of 1868, Joseph H. Pritchett, was a major figure in Boonslick history. It is also clear that his debate with John S. Sweeney was regarded at the time as an event of public importance—else it would not have been transcribed, typeset by hand (the linotype came into use only twenty years later), printed, stitched, bound, and published by a St. Louis firm. The question then is what light is shed by the record of this event on Missouri culture at that time.
Today's reader is at first perplexed, even disappointed.
The propositions debated command little public interest in our secular era,
and are generally relegated to the privacy of an individual's conscience, outside
the realm of reasoned argument. There were four issues:
First, can Christian baptism be properly performed by sprinkling or pouring of water? Pritchett said yes. Sweeney insisted on immersion.
Second, should infants be baptized and counted as members of the church? Pritchett said yes. Sweeney said no.
Third, does a sinner find pardon through faith alone (Pritchett's position), or is baptism also required (Sweeney's position)?
Fourth, does the Holy Spirit act, in conversion, immediately upon the sinner's heart? Pritchett affirmed this; Sweeney denied it.
That these issues were considered fit subjects for debate itself documents the central social role that oratory and public speaking held in nineteenth-century Missouri. It was not assumed that conflicting answers to religious questions deserved equal respect, nor that each person should be left to form his or her own opinion. The assumption instead was that through a process of reasoned argument, one answer could be shown to be more worthy of belief, the contrary answer less so. Participants in discussion were alike in declaring that they might change their minds, depending on what their opponents would say. Pritchett insisted, "I shall prove what I say. If I do not, I promise to take it back and make all necessary amends" (p. 354).
Neither side permitted the other to speak as a representative
of his church, as if the debate were between the Methodist faith and the Campbellite
faith. To do so would have been thought unprotestant. Sweeney proposed at first
that they debate a fifth proposition, that the Discipline of Pritchett's
church is a schismatical book. Pritchett refused, saying public discussion of
this question would do no good, but only evil. He said he would discuss nothing
but theological propositions (p. 16). As in a duel, the debate would be between
two individual men, not the two churches to which they belonged. Neither would
be allowed to hide behind his fraternity. As Pritchett said,
As regards the announcement that my argument does not correspond with those of anybody else, it matters nothing with me, and should matter nothing with him. I am conducting this debate—not Father Wesley, the Methodist Church, or anybody else. If my arguments run across any man's path or the path of any ecclesiasticism, let him or it take care of the matter. (p. 199)
The debate was thus framed as an encounter between two individual
humans, each of them using his mind creatively to construct a more persuasive
argument than his opponent. Reliance on Scriptural authority alone, or on arguments
developed by somebody else, scored no points. Toward the end of the debate,
Pritchett read portions of his remarks, including long passages from the New
Testament. Sweeney took him severely to task:
The gentleman is a gentleman of talent—not what I would call a ready man, or a man of versatile talent. He is not an ex tempore debater. He can write and compile and read off a speech in pretty good style—mostly in the language of others.... I feel pity for him, from the bottom of heart. I commiserate his position before the audience. He read Scripture enough in his last hour's speech to make up a full half hour's speech. More than half of his speech was reading from the Scriptures.... (pp. 246f; see also p. 371)
There was nothing wrong with quoting from the Bible or other books—Sweeney did that himself—but only for the purpose of constructing on the spot an argument that directly answered the opponent's argument. The debate was supposed to be an original event.
Scriptural authority took second place to empirical kinds
of reasoning. Pritchett was unimpressed by Sweeney's insistence that in Jesus's
time, baptism meant immersion. He cited examples of dying young American men
who asked for baptism but in the end died without it, for want of an available
pool or stream:
I adduce these as instances indicative of the impracticability of the ordinance when confined to one exclusive mode. I do not adduce them as arguments against the practice of immersion when it is practicable; but against confining the administration of the ordinance to one specific mode, which is impracticable and impossible, and which contradicts reason, contradicts common sense, contradicts Scripture, contradicts all the wants and demands of the human race as they stand related to the ordinance of baptism. (p. 99)
Similarly, Pritchett defends the baptism of infants with
little recourse to the Bible:
But, as plain as this answer seems, it becomes necessary, in this enlightened age and to this intelligent community, to demonstrate the facts in the case. ... The argument shall be a practical one. (p. 166f)
Albeit in different ways, both Pritchett and Sweeney applied
the quintessential American value on individual responsibility to the questions
they debated about organized religion. Pritchett, for his part, emphasized repeatedly
that salvation depended on the individual's relation to Christ, not on membership
in any congregation:
There is no salvation out of the Church of Christ. I do not speak now of the various organizations or ecclesiasticisms that represent visibly that church to the world; because, in the first place, there are a great many men out of them that will be saved, and a great many in them that will not be saved; but I speak of the Church of Christ, to which our attention will hereafter be called in its genuine, real, spiritual character. (p. 205)
Sweeney was still more explicit. Opposing the practice of
infant baptism, he argued:
My second objection is, that it sets aside all human agency and accountability, in both being baptized and becoming a member of the Church, which is not only anti-Christian but anti-American. Has the infant any agency or accountability in becoming a member of the Church? None at all....
Style of the Debate
To today's reader, the most jarring aspect of the debate was its style. Neither party felt obliged to be nice. Christianity was not understood to require goody-goody politeness or delicacy. Every chapter of the book is laced with insult, sarcasm, abrupt objections and brusque put-downs. One might have thought that, just three years after the bloodbath of the Civil War, Pritchett and Sweeney would have felt pressure to be courteous. On the contrary, they seemed to embrace rough verbal jousting as a means of averting physical violence.
The first 25 pages of the book reprint the correspondence that initiated the debate. Pritchett had preached in Clarksville in April 1968, and attacked Campbellite beliefs. James N. Hicks, a member of the Clarksville Christian Church, therefore wrote to him proposing the debate and promising to furnish Pritchett with an opponent "that is a gentleman, a scholar and a Christian" (p. 3). Pritchett refused, saying he was too busy to deal with the Campbellites' "rantisms" and "windy boasts": "I am busy with my Master's work; I certainly have no time for the devil's." He said he would take part in no debate "unless I find it to be absolutely necessary in order to clear away rubbish that may lie between me and my legitimate work" (p. 7).
Pritchett's reply drew a still angrier one, especially because
of his suggestion that debates are a waste of effort. "And yet, sir,"
Hicks wrote, "you know, or ought to know, that to just such efforts the
Protestant world is indebted for its present religious—and, I might add,
civil—privileges." Hicks packaged Pritchett's insults and sent them
If you had written deliberately, I might, perhaps, have said to you that ugly words, insinuations and imputations, such as your letter abounds with, will pass for nothing with candid and sensible people; but as you plead writing in haste, I shall desist from writing anything further upon this matter.
By July, the dispute had reached the pages of the Clarksville Sentinel, which published a letter from a Methodist in that community protesting that Pritchett was not running out on a debate, and would in fact take part. Meanwhile John S. Sweeney had been recruited by the Christian congregation, which repeated its invitation to Pritchett, assuring him "that our sole object in such a discussion is that the truth may be elicited, and we are satisfied that the truth has nothing to fear from fair, honorable and gentlemanly discussion" (p. 14).
The debate proceeded with the same directness as the initial correspondence. Pritchett complained that he was being personally attacked. "I have not attacked him personally," Sweeney replied. "I meet him as a Christian gentleman, and shall endeavor to treat him as such. I attack his positions as I undersand them; if I have misunderstood them I will stand corrected."
A few days later, Sweeney made quite a pointed personal attack,
accusing Pritchett of reading from a manuscript copied from somebody else. The
latter objected vigorously:
As regards the assertion ... that my manuscript is copied, I want to put it before this audience and on the record, once for all, and with an emphasis, too, that it is silly, mean, contemptible and libelous, unworthy any man, much more of a professed minister of the Gospel; I, therefore, accept it as the distempered, maniacal raving of a defeated and chagrined partisan, and shall so treat it.
For his part, Sweeney stuck to his guns:
That much of the matter he has read us is copied matter I reassert with emphasis. I have the books that contain, in substance, very much of the matter. I know, generally, what I am talking about when I make such assertions. It is equally true of the matter he read here this morning. We should keep in a good humor over these matters. He says these are the utterances of "a chagrined and defeated partisan." Perhaps that is a little premature. Let the audience decide upon that....
It is worth noting that the invective in the Clarksville "religious discussion" was not at all unusual. McCurdy writes: "When preachers met in public debates on the tenets of their faith, they usually began the proceedings on a high tone by quoting from Scripture but soon descended to a lower plane and ended in angry exchanges of personalities."
Pritchett and Sweeney behaved true to form, but only until
the final couple of days. Pritchett came down with a chill the night before
debate on the last of the four issues began. He said it kept him up all night.
He begged his audience to behave with gentlemanliness and Christian propriety.
Sweeney responded amicably:
"I am very sorry that Bro. Pritchett is unwell this morning. ... He enters upon the discussion of this proposition in a spirit to which no reasonable man can object, and I hope to be able to reciprocate all the good feeling on my part." (p. 450)
By the end, the tone of debate was decidedly conciliatory. Sweeney said that "if he can admit that the Holy Spirit operates through the truth without 'setting aside the Holy Spirit altogether,' I suppose I, too, can at least try to do it" (p. 452)
As the final session came to a close, Sweeney acknowledged that his remarks had "been necessarily abrupt, a little sharp pointed sometimes," he thanked and complimented Pritchett, and he asked the audience not to let this discussion have the effect to sour your feelings toward your neighbors and friends who belong to the Methodist or any other church. You may differ with them, but love them, and they will love you. As far as you can, cooperate with them in the great work of saving the world. Do not hate them. We all love the same God, the same Savior and the same truth, although we may not understand it alike. I would ask this, also, on the part of the Methodist brethren; I believe they will reciprocate the feeling. (p. 550)
The debate ended with Pritchett, "in an impressive manner," pronouncing the benediction.
The Debate in Retrospect
To us in the present day, it matters not at all who won the oratorical confrontation between Joseph Pritchett and John Sweeney in 1868. Even at that time, the audience did not vote, and no winner is identified in the book.
What matters is the fact of an honest, reasoned encounter between two human beings: the reciprocal pitting of their differences in such a way that everybody came away with more than they contributed. The German-Israeli philosopher, Martin Buber, made the basic point this way: "that if I and another come up against one another, 'happen to one another,' ... the sum does not exactly divide, there is a remainder, somewhere, where the souls end and the world has not yet begun, and this remainder is what is essential" (Between Man and Man, Beacon Press, 1955, p. 204).
The "remainder" from Pritchett and Sweeney coming up against one another, and from all the other debates and speakings held in Missouri in the nineteenth century, paved the way to further social development in our own century, not least the enlargement of civic participation to include women, the descendants of African slaves, and a great mass of immigrants from Central Europe and elsewhere.