Reverend James Manning (1738-1791), Baptist clergyman and founding president of Rhode Island College (now Brown University), was born in Elizabeth Township, New Jersey, to parents who were probably of Irish origin. He attended Hopewell Academy, a Baptist grammar school, and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), a school that operated under Presbyterian auspices. In 1764, after ordination as a Baptist minister, Manning and his wife Margaret Stiles moved to Warren, Rhode Island, where he founded a Latin school and a Baptist church. When the region’s Baptists decided, after much debate and controversy, to establish a college in Warren, they obtained a charter from the General Assembly in 1764, after more debate and controversy. Shortly after that, the fellows of Rhode Island College chose the Reverend James Manning as the school’s first president. By 1770, the college’s financial problems and the persuasion of Providence civic leaders, especially Stephen Hopkins and the Brown brothers, led to its relocation, and Manning moved with it to Providence.
As a Calvinist with an evangelical spirit, Manning was more suited to action than to scholarship. However, he taught his students classical languages, moral philosophy, and rhetoric. Under Manning’s leadership, his college attracted and accommodated several religious minorities, including Quakers and Jews.
Manning’s arrival in Providence caused a temporary schism in the First Baptist Church. When the pastor and some of the congregation of that church withdrew, Manning became the church’s pastor, a position he held from 1770 until 1791. Under his leadership, the First Baptist Church introduced congregational singing, expanded the terms of communion to include more Baptists, and moved to a more stringent Calvinistic theology.
During his twenty-one-year tenure in Providence, Manning became a prominent civic leader and even served Rhode Island as a delegate to the Confederation Congress in 1786. Although he was a reluctant revolutionary, Manning became a staunch advocate of the federal Constitution, and he was very instrumental in securing support for its ratification from Baptists in Rhode Island and in Massachusetts, a state which he had criticized for compelling Baptists to pay taxes that supported the established Congregational Church.
Joining the Providence Abolition Society in 1789, Manning was one of the earliest New England Baptists to become involved in the abolitionist movement. In April 1791, he resigned as pastor of the First Baptist Church and requested that the college find a new president. He was still serving in the latter capacity when he suffered a fatal stroke and died childless in July 1791.
According to his biographers, Manning’s greatest significance lies in his contributions to the institutional development of the Baptist denomination. While the college became a focus of Baptist identity, Manning worked to develop his denomination in other ways, and his influence helped reestablish Calvinism as the theological standard among New England Baptists. This Calvinism, says biographer Charles Dunn, “was not a theological straightjacket, but served as a common reference around which disparate New England Baptists could coalesce and from which they could evolve.”
Rev. James Manning was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1999.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.