Samuel Wait (1789-1867)  and Sarah Merriam Wait (1794-1871)

Prepared By

Andrew McNeil Canady, Chair of the Department of History, Political Science and Religion and Associate Professor of History at Averett University

Jake Ruddiman, Associate Professor, Department of History, Wake Forest University

Mary Tribble, Senior Advisor for Engagement Strategies at Wake Forest University

Corey D.B. Walker, Wake Forest Professor of the Humanities; Inaugural Director of the Program in African American Studies

Introduction

Samuel Wait (1789-1867) was the founding president of Wake Forest and served from 1834 to 1845. After stepping down from that position, he continued his association with the college, acting as chair of the Wake Forest Board of Trustees from 1845 to 1865. In 1849 the college awarded him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. Wait was also the first pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church and served in that role until 1847. His wife Sarah “Sally” Merriam Wait (1794-1871) served the college alongside Samuel by tending early on to the student body and collecting resources for the college’s support. Contemporaneous narratives describe Wait as honorable and widely respected for his contribution to the North Carolina Baptists and the cause of education in the state.[1]

Intellectual Commitments and Values

Samuel Wait was committed to classical education as a means to further spread the gospel. Foreign missionaries in particular needed extensive education in languages, as their tasks included translation of biblical texts into foreign languages. After embarking on his ministerial career, Wait decided he needed more education to better prepare for that work as a pastor and in missions. While at Columbian College (a Baptist institution and the forerunner to George Washington University) in the 1820s, he studied and taught the classics, serving as a tutor and first Principal of the Columbian Preparatory School. During Wait’s Wake Forest presidency (1834-1845), he also was a professor for the school. Wait saw Wake Forest as part of his Christian mission; collegiate institutions rooted in the classics also supported the hierarchical class structure of elite North Carolinians.

While Samuel Wait believed black people were human beings who could be graced with salvation, he shared white supremacist views of the time that they were not equal to white people here on Earth.[2] Wait preached to free and enslaved North Carolinians at his churches in New Bern and Wake Forest, as well as at camp meetings across the state; this served both his mission goals and the paternalist expectations of the era. With regard to class, Sally Wait had a strong awareness of class dynamics and aspired to advance in status and education.[3] Samuel shared these views about respectability, aspiring to and achieving the status as landowners (by around 1850 they owned just over 100 acres, including a farm in the Wake Forest area). The Waits’ embrace of slavery and their move to become slaveholders likewise fit into their aspirations for upward mobility in the South.

The United States in the early nineteenth century heard intensifying arguments for and against slavery. Presumptions of white supremacy deepened in political and social impacts. Samuel and Sally were born in upstate New York and Vermont; once living in North Carolina, they soon became enslavers themselves. Sally’s family in particular admonished the couple for moving to a slave-holding state, but there are no written records that reveal her explicit feelings about slavery.[4] Beginning in 1830, the Waits rented two enslaved females (presumably for domestic work) as Samuel Wait served as pastor of New Bern Baptist Church. In 1839 they bought two African American females, Dicey and Hellen (a mother and daughter). From the late 1830s until Emancipation, they rented the following enslaved black men at different times: Bristor, Ransom, David, Sam, and Jordan. These men appear to have worked as laborers on their farm, while Dicey and Hellen were used as domestic workers in a boarding house the Waits ran for Wake Forest students. Fitting the language of the time, the Waits viewed themselves as paternalistic masters of an extended household, but they also considered the enslaved people under their control to be financial investments.[5] At various times they rented them out to the college and other people.[6] Sally’s writings suggest that she saw blacks as inferior to whites on earth, however, she hoped they would meet each other in heaven.[7] Real affection mixed with rigid hierarchy even into the afterlife, fitting the justifications common in the era.

Samuel Wait was chair of the Wake Forest board of trustees at the time of the Blount Estate sale in Edenton, North Carolina. As this group made plans to sell the property and slaves of this estate, the board minutes include the following instructions:

“Dr. Wait was also requested to attend the sale of said property and the wish expressed by the Board that great kindness should be shown the servants in arranging for their future homes.”[8] Masking commodification of enslaved people with this language could both be sincere and a component of the paternalist worldview enslavers built around themselves. There is no available evidence to show whether he went to Edenton or not.

With regard to comparison with his peers at the time, Samuel Wait never published a Christian pro-slavery argument as some other Southern white theologians did in that period (i.e., South Carolina Baptist, Richard Furman). While Wait was not a vocal, ideological defender of the institution of slavery in contrast to his fellow trustee, Thomas J. Pitchford, his actions were consistent with all Wake Forest professors and trustees who supported slavery and the prevailing social order.[9]

The Waits were evangelical Baptists with a mission-oriented focus in contrast with strict Calvinist Baptists such as those belonging to the Kehukee Association in North Carolina, who did not support an educated ministry or missions.[10] Wait believed his role as a pastor was to share the gospel and save souls, the afterlife being more important than the temporal world. While the written record does not provide access to his thoughts on slavery, Wait participated extensively in the South’s slave economy, supporting its hierarchical arrangement of humanity and society. Wait’s writings leave it unclear whether he saw the exploitation of slavery and reality of racial hierarchy as problems humanity was obligated to address. His actions suggest his accommodation to the structures that defined society in North Carolina.

The Waits believed in education to advance individuals and the gospel and strengthen the Baptist Church in North Carolina. They believed that ministers should be educated, which was progressive for the time in North Carolina.[11] Samuel also promoted the education of women, including for his wife Sally. When Columbian College would not accommodate women’s studies, Samuel assigned readings to Sally while he was away studying.[12] When he first moved to New Bern, he advertised a girl’s school in addition to his ministerial position at New Bern Baptist Church. After leaving the Wake Forest presidency, Wait served as president of Oxford Female College (a Baptist institution in Oxford, North Carolina) from 1851-1857.

Conception of Pro Humanitate

As mentioned above, the Waits believed that salvation was the path to well-being on earth and in the afterlife and they spent their lives working toward that end. Beyond his administration and teaching work, Samuel Wait served at various times as a fundraising agent for Columbian College, the N.C. Baptist Convention, and Wake Forest from the 1820s until his death. He saw this institutional service as key to his vocation.

Samuel Wait’s career was spent promoting liberal arts and sciences as a teacher, administrator, and fundraiser. The Waits made sacrifices for Wake Forest, including taking on personal financial responsibility for the college’s debts and continuing to work for the school despite past-due salaries.[13] Samuel Wait also remained committed to Wake Forest offering collegiate education in the 1840s, even when market forces suggested that the institution would have fared better as a less ambitious academy or preparatory school.[14]

Samuel and Sally both believed in complementarianism; Samuel considered Sally his helpmeet in his work and discussed and negotiated their calling together.[15] They were committed to foreign missions and the belief that all people are worthy of the gospel.[16] Over the course of his time in North Carolina, Samuel Wait visited prisoners (both white and black) in jail, and by 1843 began to consider the death penalty as an inappropriate punishment.[17]

From evangelical missions to classical education, the lives of Samuel and Sally Wait were intertwined with and reinforced the institution of slavery. They were very much part of the dominant social order of antebellum America.


Footnotes

[1] A student, F. M. Jordan, at Wake Forest in the early 1850s notes the following about Wait: “He was the charm of the College Hill; everybody loved and admired him.” See F. M. Jordan, Life and Labors of Elder F. M. Jordan: For Fifty Years a Preacher of the Gospel Among North Carolina Baptists (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1899), 31. A Baptist pastor, Elias Dodson, wrote Wait in early 1867, commenting, “Through God’s grace you have done a world of good in N.C. You originated Wake Forest College & been foremost in every good word & work. Your character has always been as white as snow.” See Elias Dodson to Samuel Wait, February 22, 1867, box 7, folder 11, Wait Papers. After Samuel Wait’s death, Washington Zera Wait (a cousin from the North) wrote: “Amongst all his acquaintance at the North, Samuel stood in high estimation as a minister of the Gospel and as a Christian gentleman, except perhaps a very few whose superlative fanaticism leads them to believe that every person who has been guilty of owning a slave, especially an African slave, is damned beyond redemption.” See “The Early Life of Doctor Samuel Wait,” Wake Forest Student 4 (April 1885), 317.

[2] Wait explicitly referred to African Americans as “human beings” in a letter he wrote his parents in 1843. Here he made the following comments: “The two black persons of whom I spoke in my last were executed on the 19th of this month. I did not go to see them any more, as one of our teachers was absent a short time, and I could not well leave home. Other ministers, however, visited them and some attended them to the very last. They were both willing to die. The man talked a long time. Poor creatures, I hope they have gone to rest. . . . I am getting quite out of the notion of putting human beings to death, and am much inclined to think it would be best to confine them for life in a Penitentiary, where they could earn their own living, until it should please the Lord to take them away.” See Samuel Wait to “Father and Mother,” May 22, 1843, box 5, folder 7, Wait Papers.

[3] When Sally’s father questioned her about a potential move to Washington, D.C., she deflected his question by replying “laughingly to be sure I shall. I hope then to be able to wear one of the finest cut and to have half dozen servants to wait on me.” See Sarah Merriam Wait to Samuel Wait, March 22, 1822, box 1, folder, 10, Wait Papers. When the Waits were considering a move to New Bern, N.C., Sally expressed her concern about class when she asked Samuel, “How do the members of the Baptist Church rank with members of the other churches, with regard to intelligence, and influence in society?” See Sarah Merriam Wait to Samuel Wait, April 15, 1827, box 3, folder 3, Wait Papers.

[4] Sally’s mother Sarah Conant Merriam wrote to Sally, “Can you not . . . weigh the consequences of endangering the Souls of your children and your own life also which is due to them as their earthly guardian before you settle again in a land of slavery?” See Sarah Conant Merriam to Sarah Merriam Wait, April 25, 1830, box 3, folder 5, Wait Papers.

[5] For an example of Samuel Wait considering slavery as an “investment” see Ann Eliza Brewer to Samuel and Sally Wait, July 9, 1856, box 7, folder 6, Wait Papers.

[6] Wake Forest account records show a $7 payment on June 17, 1839 to “S. Wait for servants hire for sweeping” and on December 28, 1839, $12 to “S. Wait for sweeping &c.” See “Book A,” Treasurer’s account book, 1839–1852, 111 and 113, unprocessed collection, Wake Forest University Special Collections and Archives; and Sally Wait to Samuel Wait, April 10, 1839, Wait Papers. In 1852 Samuel wrote Sally, “I hired out Hellen to Capt. Horton for $35 and usual clothing. . . . The Capt. wants her for a nurse – has 4 children – she is to have charge of the 2 youngest – something like 3 and 1 year old. Capt. Horton wants another girl to cook and wash. I thought Hellen would prefer to be nurse. If she wishes to be cook and washer, I think she can have her choice. . . . Capt. H. says he has had no trouble heretofore with his servants – thinks his wife is not hard to suit. Tell Hellen to try to do well.” See Samuel Wait to Sally Wait, January 5, 1852, box 6, folder 8, Wait Papers. Emphasis in original.

[7] Sally Wait wrote her daughter these words in 1856: ”But still I want all the dear little ones in the fold of Christ carried as lambs in his bosom. Mary, and Sammy and Carey, and Sallie and that each of their descendants, down to the end of time, should be a seed to serve God. Oh! Shall we all meet in Heaven at last! You and your children, and our Servants, Bristor and Dicey, and Hellen, and Harriet, and Ransom! God grant it for a precious Saviour’s sake. My heart and paper both are full. Your affectionate mother.” Mary, Sammy, Carey, and Sallie were Sally Wait’s grandchildren. See Sally Wait to John Merchant and Ann Eliza Brewer, October 5, 1856, box 7, folder 6, Wait Papers.

[8] Wake Forest Board of Trustee Proceedings, [166].

[9] In 1857, Pitchford had this to say about Wake Forest College: “It is an institution eminently worthy of public confidence and support. The same confidence and trust which prompts me to send my sons there, enables me to advise all others to do the same, with the assurance that they will have imparted to them all the elements of a good, sound, polite, practical and christian education. The Alumni of the Institution prove the assertion to be true. . . . the Trustees and Faculty, while determined to impart to the youth of the land all the real knowledge they can, are determined upon the exclusion of all the baneful isms of the day, Dr. Wayland and abolitionism included, any one else to the contrary notwithstanding.” See Thomas J. Pitchford, “For the Recorder,” June 25, 1857, Biblical Recorder. Emphasis in original.

[10] In his history of Wake Forest, George Washington Paschal quotes the Kehukee Association’s Elder Lawrence as saying the “‘school priests,’ are ready to rob the poor, drain the coffers of the rich, and are the most dangerous robbers and murderers and ever ready to cut throats.” See Pascal, History of Wake Forest College, page 58.

[11] See Wake Forest College, Baccalaureate address, June 20, 1839, p.3, box 9, folder 20, Wait Papers. On this occasion Wait commented, “But surely, when the nature of the work of the ambassador for Christ is duly considered, when it is recollected that it is his province to explain the oldest book under heaven, many of whose pages can be clearly understood only by a deep acquaintance with the manners, and customs, and history of ancient times, connected with a knowledge of the geography of those countries where prophets, and apostles, and the Saviour lived; when, too, it is remembered that the enemies of the cross of Christ must be met, many of whom have employed learning, and talent and wit, in their cause; and when, moreover, we keep in mind that all this should be done in a style and manner easily comprehended by common assemblies, it would seem that no one could fail to see, if not the necessity, certainly the great usefulness of learning to a minister of the gospel.”

[12] In a letter to Sally early in their marriage, Samuel stressed that “there is no place, where human beings can be found . . . but what a woman, the wife of a minister in particular, will derive much benefit from a respectable stock of information. See Samuel Wait to Sarah Merriam Wait, August 31, 1820, box 1, folder 7, Wait Papers.

[13] Wait and some of the other trustees personally signed a note to be held financially responsible for a portion of Wake Forest’s debt in the 1840s. Wait’s share was $2,000. See Samuel Wait, Biblical Recorder article, undated, p. 4, box 9, folder 9, Wait Papers; and Samuel Wait to John M. Brewer, December 18, 1844, box 5, folder 9, Wait Papers.

Wake Forest Institute/College struggled to pay faculty salaries in the 1830s and 1840s, and at times, Wait and the other professors went without full compensation. Later, the trustees used some of the college’s land holdings to compensate these teachers for unpaid salaries. See “Book A,” Treasurer’s account book, 1839–1852, p. 100, 104, and 106, unprocessed collection, Special Collections, Wake Forest University.

[14] See “Biblical Recorder article, 1844,” [February 9, 1844], box 9, folder 8, Wait Papers.

[15] For instance, as Samuel began imagining their life together after his schooling, he wrote about their future work, referring to “our studies” and joint decisions. “I have often inquired in my own mind what plan we should adopt in relation to our studies when we come to live together again. . . . How happy shall I be when we come to sit down together to make these calculations! See Samuel Wait to Sarah Merriam Wait, April 4, 1821, box 1, folder 8, Wait Papers.

[16] In an undated sermon Wait wrote, “Scarcely can we find an object more grateful to a pious heart, than the ingathering of souls to Christ. The conversion of a Burman, an African or an Indian, is an occasion of more joy and praise to God, than the sum total of all earthly blessings which ever have, or will be enjoyed, by all the human race.” See Samuel Wait, Sermon notes, undated, p. 22, box 9, folder 19, Wait Papers.

[17] See footnote 2 earlier in this report. (Samuel Wait to “Father and Mother,” May 22, 1843, box 5, folder 7, Wait Papers.)

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Research

Research subcommittees comprised of faculty were charged with conducting comprehensive research on several individuals connected to Wake Forest history.