Beginning in mid-June, Wake Forest University’s Samuel Wait Collection will be accessible through the Z. Smith Reynolds Library Web site thanks to a $23,500 grant from the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
The grant, written and developed by the library’s special collections and technology teams, is paid for with federal Library Services and Technology Act funds provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
The Samuel Wait Collection contains the personal and professional papers of Samuel Wait, who was a founding member of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and Wake Forest University. These documents reveal the early history of the convention and the university, and illustrate what life was like in the early 1800s. They range from letters that date back to 1813 and sales receipts for the construction of campus buildings to the first baccalaureate address given at graduation in 1839.
In addition to Samuel Wait’s professional papers, the Wait Collection includes letters he exchanged with his wife between 1820 and 1857. His wife’s given name was Sarah, but she chose to go by Sally throughout her life. It also contains their diaries and an 1843 daguerreotype of Samuel Wait.
“The papers are significant because they uncover early Baptist history in North Carolina and tell the early history of Wake Forest University,” said Sharon Snow, director of special collections at the Z. Smith Reynolds Library. “The couple’s letters are also important because Sally records to the last detail what a woman’s life was like in 19th century North Carolina.”
The $23,500 grant to the library is part of the cultural resources department’s N.C. E.C.H.O. (Explore Cultural History Online) project that aims to make historical documents about the state available to anyone with Internet access.
The grant provided the library with a new computer, digital camera, large scanner and other equipment necessary to digitize the documents. Part of the money was used to pay students Mark Tolliver and Bob Numbers, who have helped with the project, and for staff training.
“I cannot think of a more important collection for our first grant-funded project,” said Lisa Persinger, special collections librarian. “It has been very rewarding to oversee the digitization of these papers and see history revived on-line.”
Selected letters and both diaries were individually scanned for display on the library’s Web site. Images of each original document will be shown in the top left corner of the computer screen with a transcription below. This will give viewers the opportunity to see the original documents without having to come to the library to handle them, Snow said.
The papers in the collection include correspondence from 1826 when Samuel Wait worked for Columbian College (now George Washington University). The school sent him to the South to solicit donations for the school. Sally Wait and their young daughter stayed back in Brandon, Vt., with family. One of the letters from that trip recalls a wagon accident that stranded him in New Bern where he was invited to preach at the Baptist church several times. This ultimately led to his being offered the pulpit at the New Bern Church in 1827.
“To tell the whole truth, I do not now know of a more important opening,” Samuel Wait wrote home in a March 9, 1827 letter. “The state of the ministry all around in that region is deplorable.” (At the time, there were only four college-trained Baptist ministers in the state.)
In the letter, Samuel Wait also writes that New Bern was the largest city in North Carolina at the time, “with 8,000 residents.”
The Waits moved to New Bern in the fall of 1827. Three years into Samuel Wait’s tenure as head pastor at New Bern, he took a lead role in founding the Baptist State Convention. He and other convention members were adamant that a school must be founded to train new clergy.
In 1833, the Baptist State Convention approved Wait’s proposal to establish a literary institute for the training of ministers, and supported his idea to combine study with manual labor. The convention bought a farm in Wake County as the site for the school and Wait became the principal, supervising more than 70 students when the school opened in 1834 as Wake Forest Manual Labor Institute. The manual labor plan proved unsuccessful and in 1839 the state legislature changed the charter to form Wake Forest College.
Wait remained president until 1845 when he was elected chairman of the school’s board of trustees. He would later minister in several Baptist parishes and became president of Oxford Female College in Oxford, N.C., where he remained until he retired in 1857. He died 10 years later, and is buried in the town of Wake Forest.
For more information on the Wait Collection, call Snow at 336-758-5755.
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