Rev. Samuel Wait was born 225 years ago today, Dec. 19, 1789 in what is now Washington County, N.Y., near Albany. Mary Tribble (’82), Senior Advisor for Engagement Strategies at Wake Forest and a direct descendent of Wait’s, offers her thoughts on the meaning of the founder’s pioneering spirit.
Just before Wake Forest founder Samuel Wait left his home state of New York for North Carolina, he gave one last sermon at his home church. In his journal, he wrote of his bittersweet feelings about the “strong sense of duty” that called him there.
“I came with reluctance to North Carolina. All the family friends of myself and my wife were left behind. It was a deeply affecting time…I was preaching in the pulpit first occupied by my venerated grandfather Wait…Within a short distance, in plain sight stood the house where I was born. Many of the older portion of the congregation had known me from infancy. As I was now about to send myself off from all the associations and endearments which naturally cluster around the place of one’s nativity, I was anxious to let them know that I was influenced solely by a conscientious view of what appeared to be duty.”
The text of his sermon was from Corinthians 6:19-20. “Ye are not your own…therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.”
Wait clearly made a difficult choice in following the call to an unfamiliar place with a somewhat quixotic mission. He had been hired by the newly formed Baptist State Convention at a sum of $1 a day to raise money and invite participation in the new organization.
His daughter Ann Eliza Brewer later described the experience: “Imagine a covered jersey wagon of good size. A seat across the middle accommodated father and mother. In front at the mother’s feet was ample room for a little space in which sat their little daughter, about 4 years old when this work was commenced. In front of the father’s feet was a good-sized lunch basket for the comfort of the travelers. Sometimes the milk was churned to butter. Behind the middle seat, there was room for three trunks of pretty good size. This conveyance was the home of the little family—all the home they had—for two or three years, as they zigzagged back and forth from the mountains to the seaboard.”
Wait delivered 243 sermons in his first year of travel.
And as if the removal from his home state, travel conditions, grueling workload and meager salary weren’t enough, Samuel Wait met resistance from the fledgling North Carolina Baptist community.
A few of the congregations were suspicious of Wait and of his mission; some went so far as to print pamphlets questioning his motivation. They asked why the convention would pay a man $40 per month to “beg money from honest laborers and the poor.”
But Samuel Wait, supported by his steadfast and patient wife Sarah, continued on, shepherding the wagon from one rural church to another. Eventually, he and convention leaders realized that the Baptist mission could only grow if more men were educated for the ministry.
In 1832, they formed an education committee, purchased a farm for $2,000 and appointed Samuel Wait principal of the Wake Forest Institute.
In February 1834, Wake Forest opened its doors to 16 students, and a college was born.
When the Institute was founded, it didn’t have a motto. President William Louis Poteat would suggest Pro Humanitate in 1908, when the seal of the College was adopted. Even though the institution of his day lacked a formal, identifying phrase , Samuel Wait surely lived a life in the Wake Forest tradition of affecting the world in a positive way.
Whether we’re called to a life of service far removed from our place of birth or nestled in a familiar hometown, we do so because we know our communities will be better for it.
We realize, as did Samuel Wait, that we are not our own.