(b. near Litchfield, Conn., Oct. 31, 1789; d. Rock Spring, Ill., Mar. 14, 1858). Pioneer missionary in the West, educator, journalist. Reared on a farm, Peck received little formal education; nevertheless, in 1807 he began to teach. In Dec., 1807, he was converted in a revival in the Litchfield Congregation Church. There he met Sally Paine, a New Yorker living in Litchfield, and they married on May 8, 1809.
Early in 1811 the Pecks moved to Greene County, New York, near Sally’s home. Having come to the Baptist position concerning believer’s baptism, they presented themselves to the New Durham Church in August and were baptized in Oct., 1811. A month later Peck declared that God was calling him to preach; the church immediately gave him liberty to exercise and improve his gift within their bounds. He later served two New York churches (Catskill, 1812-13; Amenia, 1814-16) as pastor, teaching school to supplement his income. Shortly after his ordination in June, 1813, Peck, inspired by foreign mission reports, recognized that "there is an abundant field for missionary labor" in the United States and prayed for God to "open a door for my usefulness and labors in this way." Two years later Luther Rice visited Warwick Association (New York), and Peck invited Rice to his home. At Rice’s request, Peck successfully visited several associations in behalf of foreign missions, thereby further exciting his mission interest and winning a valuable friend in Rice. By early 1816 Peck, encouraged by Rice, proposed to offer himself to the Triennial Convention’s board as a domestic missionary in the West.
Peck went to Philadelphia in May, 1816, to study under William Staughton while awaiting appointment. There he met James E. Welch, also seeking domestic appointment. The board, however, postponed action on home missions, and they remained in Philadelphia until their appointment in May, 1817, "as missionaries to the Missouri Territory." Late in 1817 the Pecks and Welches arrived in St. Louis. Peck and Welch preached, taught school, and organized churches, Sunday schools, and female "mite" societies around St. Louis, in Missouri and Illinois. The first missionary society in the West, United Society for the Spread of the Gospel, was organized in 1818 under Peck’s leadership.
In July, 1820, the board discontinued home mission efforts because of inadequate funds, expecting ministerial migration to be adequate for frontier needs, and because of opposition from the West. Peck was instructed to go to northeast Indiana to work with Isaac McCoy among Indians, but convinced that St. Louis was God’s place for him, Peck refused to leave. He independently conducted missions in the St. Louis area until Mar., 1822, when the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society employed him at a salary of $5 a week (when engaged in mission activities). In Apr., 1822, he moved to a farm at Rock Spring, Ill., which thereafter was his official residence. Antimissioners were most vocal during the 1820’s, but Peck successfully defended missions, noticing that the root of opposition lay in the ignorance, bigotry, and selfishness of preachers, such as Daniel Parker, who feared the loss of their influence. Peck’s slowly developed strategy included organization of Bible and Sunday school societies, systematic itineration, theological education, and journalism–in the order cited.
In Nov., 1823, Peck began to devote his efforts to organizing Bible societies, reasoning that antimissioners would harm themselves by opposing the distribution of Bibles. Within two years numerous societies were organized; on one tour in 1824 Peck organized eight, and on another, five. In Apr., 1824, he began to organize Sunday school societies, believing that they, in training laymen, would "silently undermine the prejudices against missions." Realizing that societies would die without periodic visitation, Peck conceived a system of regular, circuit itineration by a missionary. In 1826 he proposed this to the Massachusetts society, but no action was taken. In response to Peck’s insistence, Jonathan Going was sent in 1831 "to explore the conditions of Baptists in the West," and for three months Peck guided Going through the valley of the Mississippi and its tributaries. Before parting, they agreed upon a new society, which was organized in 1832 as the American Baptist Home Mission Society, with Going as secretary.
Peck had theological education in mind as early as 1817, but after 1825 it became an obsession. Peck realized that Baptists could not rise above their preachers. In the East in 1826 he raised over $500, and early in 1827 he began to build Rock Springs Seminary on his farm. His first attempt to secure a charter failed when an antimission preacher-legislator cast the deciding vote. In 1832 the school was moved to Upper Alton. To prevent its closing, Peck went East in 1835 to raise funds. Benjamin Shurtleff, M.D., of Boston, donated $10,000, and in 1836 the school was renamed Shurtleff College. In 1836 the Illinois Baptist Education Society was formed, with peck as secretary.
After 1830 Peck’s efforts were spent, not in field work, but in leadership roles where they counted most. In 1837 he became an emergency solicitor in raising funds to support American Baptist Home Mission Society missionaries whose livelihood was jeopardized by the eastern depression. In 1838 he explored northern Missouri and Iowa for American Baptist Home Mission Society, and from 1837 to 1839 he served as general agent (therefore supervisor of American Baptist Home Mission Society agents in Illinois) of the Illinois Baptist Convention. In 1840 Western Baptists organized into a convention. Many desired an independent publication society, but due to Peck’s strong insistence and leadership (general agent, 1841-43) the Western Baptist Publication Society maintained co-operation with the American Baptist Publication Society in Philadelphia. Peck’s extensive travels and thorough knowledge of the West convinced him that the West could not sustain its own literature. Therefore, in Feb., 1843, he accepted the secretaryship and general agency of American Baptist Publication Society, hoping to unite all Baptists behind one society; this objective was largely realized before his retirement in Dec., 1845. Peck encouraged efforts to preserve Baptist history; in 1840 he became the first secretary of the Western Baptist Historical Society, and in 1853 he urged the creation of the American Baptist Historical Society, an adjunct of the American Baptist Publication Society.
Peck’s last 12 years were less active, but his reputation, both among and beyond Baptists as a pioneer statesman grew. In 1837 he accepted the quarter-time pastorate at Rock Springs, but it was only after 1846 that he gave much time to churches; most were located near Rock Springs, but he served briefly in St. Louis and Covington, Ky. In 1852 Harvard conferred on him an honorary degree. After his burial at Rock Spring, Peck’s body was removed to Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis.
Hayne, Coe. Vangard of the caravans: a life story of John Mason Peck, 1931.
Lawrence, Matthew. John Mason Peck, the pioneer missionary: a biographical sketch, 1940.
Archival sources in Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.
Journal of John Mason Peck, 1854-1856. MF 738.