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History of Shurtleff College and It's Founder - Rev. John Mason Peck

Madison County ILGenWeb Coordinator - Beverly Bauser


Faculty       |         Shurtleff College Newspaper Clippings


Rev. John Mason PeckJohn Mason Peck (1789-1858) was an American Baptist missionary to the western frontier of America. He was born on October 31, 1789, to Asa and Hannah Peck, at Litchfield South Farms, Connecticut. For eighteen years, he was reared in simplicity and industry as a child of Puritans. Two of his ancestors were Deacon Paul Peck and his wife, Martha, who immigrated in 1634 from Essex County, England, and founded the town of Hartford, Connecticut. Paul Peck died there on December 23, 1695, at age eighty-seven.

Asa Peck, John’s father, was afflicted with lameness, which placed a large share of the farm work on John’s young shoulders. From the time he was fourteen, his summers were devoted to the farm, and in the winter months, he attended the local common schools. Peck later stated that the school he attended must have been inferior to others at that period, as he was more stupid and sluggish than ordinary lads. Others claimed that while John was uncultivated, he was no simpleton. At the age of eighteen, on December 15, 1807, he attended a church meeting, where the work of God’s converting grace brought John to see himself as a guilty sinner, deserving God’s wrath. By the end of the week, he converted to Christianity and accepted God’s grace of salvation.

In 1807, John Peck began to teach school. He soon met Sally Paine, a native of New York. Sally, whose legal name was Sarah, was an extraordinary young woman. Her mother had died before she was twelve years old, and she assumed the housework and charge of three younger siblings for two years. When her father remarried, she went to reside with her mother’s parents in Litchfield, Connecticut. There she met Peck, and they married on May 8, 1809. They lived with his father and mother about two years, and in 1811 they moved to Windham, Greene County, New York, near her family’s home. Shortly after the birth of their first son, they joined the Baptist Church. Peck taught school, and served as pastor at the Baptist churches in Catskill and Amenia, New York. He became interested in missionary work after meeting Luther Rice, and went to Philadelphia to study under William Staughton. There, Peck met James Ely Welch, a Baptist minister, who became his missionary partner. The Peck and Welch families traveled to St. Louis in December 1817. The population of that “village” was about 3,000, of which one-third were slaves. He later stated, “One half, at least, of the Anglo-American population were infidels of a low and indecent grade, and utterly worthless for any useful purposes of society.”

Peck and Welch organized the First Baptist Church of St. Louis, and baptized two converts in the Mississippi River in February 1818. They founded the first missionary society in the West – The United Society for the Spread of the Gospel. With the missionary support withdrawn, Peck refused to move back East, and continued his ministry in St. Louis. Two years later, the Baptist Mission Society employed Peck at $5 a week. He established Bible societies and Sunday Schools, and ministered to the rural population. In 1818 he traveled to Kaskaskia, then the seat of government of Illinois.

In February 1819, Peck felt it was time to establish a seminary for the common and higher branches of education. It was a goal of his before leaving the East – to train minds in habits of thinking and logical reasoning, to educate in the gospel of truth, and to train in Christian duties. It was deemed necessary to visit several locations within fifty miles of St. Louis, in which to establish his seminary. Rufus Easton of St. Louis, who projected the site of Alton, made Peck promise that he would not locate his planned seminary until he explored the village known as Upper Alton. On February 22, 1819, Peck traveled to St. Charles, Missouri, and rode to the “Missouri Point.” He took Smeltzer’s Ferry across the Mississippi to Illinois, and traveled eastward to a small settlement where Alton would later be established. He found four cabins, and obtained directions on how to find the village of Upper Alton. The previous year, Peck had met Doctor Erastus Brown, who had moved to Upper Alton, and planned to make a visit to him there. Emerging from the “forest” in Upper Alton, Peck found campfires and piles of brush glowing with heat. There was a tavern or boarding house, where he entered and found a table with rough, newly-sawed boards with an old, filthy cloth covering it. The landlord, dirty in appearance, supplied supper and a stable for his weary horse. Peck found a boy and offered him a dime to take him to Dr. Brown’s newly-built log cabin. There, Peck found Brown, his wife, and two or three children. They welcomed him, and provided tea and food. He slept in a small bedroom, and found comfort from the cold. In the morning, Dr. Brown showed him around Upper Alton. There were 40-50 families living in log cabins, shanties, covered wagons, and camps. At least 20 families were destitute of houses, but were gathering materials and getting ready to build. There was a school of 25-30 boys and girls, taught by a backwoods fellow. Peck wondered where enough scholars could be found to fill a seminary at Upper Alton. He made his way back to Smeltzer’s ferry, and it was 3 or 4 years until he visited Upper Alton again.

Rev. Thomas Lippincott later wrote of John M. Peck that he was an able man, with great zeal, power, and success. But he was not received with cordiality by the brethren of the old churches. They considered him an innovator, and after a few years, broke fellowship with him. Lippincott seldom saw a man of physical and moral vigor combined in one person equal to John M. Peck. He was always ready, and sought all occasions to preach the gospel. Peck was just the man, determined and able to build a seminary.

In the Autumn of 1820, Peck’s first son, a promising lad of about ten years of age, came down with a fever and became so ill, that he clung between life and death. His father and mother prayed for God to spare him, but such was not the will of God. His son passed away, and two days later Peck’s brother-in-law, Mr. S. Paine, also died. Even in the midst of trials, Peck looked to God with reverence and love and said, “Though he slay me, I will trust in Him.” Peck was also afflicted with illness, but he was spared.

In 1822, Peck was appointed as the missionary of the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society. His first commission in their service, signed by the honored names of Thomas Baldwin, President, and Daniel Sharp, Secretary, was dated March 12, 1822. Peck was to earn five dollars a week, and was expected to raise money on the field of his labors. His family remained for some time in the vicinity of St. Charles, Missouri, but he was found in St. Louis, cheering on the feeble Baptist churches there. At the end of April 1822, Peck moved to St. Clair County, Illinois, which soon became his family residence. He bought a half-section of unimproved land, and with a little assistance from kind neighbors, he built a home and began cultivating the land to support his family. He called his farm “Rock Spring.” A band of brethren, chiefly from Georgia, had settled around the new home he had chosen, and they desired to form a church. On May 26, 1822, the church was organized. Peck founded a circuit to visit the various societies and churches in Missouri and Illinois. He preached the word of God, baptizing and ministering unto the people. On one trip, he visited Daniel Boone, then nearly 80 years of age, and later wrote a book of the frontiersman’s life.

On February 22, 1826, Peck left his home to journey back to the East. By the end of March, he reached Washington DC, and found himself with old friends, Rice and Dr. Staughton, who welcomed him. He visited the capitol, and heard speakers of that era. He preached both in the city and in the college chapel, and in company with members of Congress, he met President Adams, whom he had much admiration for (Peck had just named his youngest son after the President). He continued his journey, preaching and greeting old friends, until he reached his mother’s home in Connecticut. He visited old friends and neighbors, preached in the churches, and visited colleges, to gain knowledge of the practices of New England toward education. He found his mother living in poverty, paid her debts and decided to bring her to his home in the West. He purchased a two-horse carriage, and set forth for the difficult journey home.
Rock Spring Seminary
Arriving safely at home, Peck began riding the circuit once again. He visited Vandalia, then the seat of government, and conferred with as many brethren, ministers, and public-spirited citizens as possible for the formation of a seminary. A meeting was held at Rock Spring on January 1, 1827, and an organization of trustees formed. They decided to locate the seminary at Rock Spring, on land given by Mr. Peck for this purpose. By the end of May 1827, a seminary building had been erected. Nearly everything connected with this effort rested on his shoulders, and he was performing the work of two or three men, besides his own duties preaching. However, Peck was successful in the establishment of the seminary, which opened with 25 students of both sexes. Rev. Joshua Bradley was the first principal of the seminary. The number of students increased to 100 in a few weeks. In 1828, an agreement was reached with Rev. T. P. Green and Mr. Peck, that a religious paper would be issued from Rock Spring Seminary, with Peck as its editor. In about the middle of December 1828, the “Pioneer” appeared. In 1829, the faculty at Rock Spring Seminary was John Russell, Principal; Rev. John M. Peck, Theology; and John Messenger, Mathematics, etc.

Loomis Hall, Shurtleff College, Upper Alton, ILAlthough the seminary was thriving, it was operated on a small scale. In 1832, Peck purchased a new site for a seminary in Upper Alton, where he had once visited so long ago. He renamed his college Alton Seminary, and a new organization was established under the name of “The Board of Trustees of Alton Seminary.” Rev. Hubbel Loomis, who had been teaching a seminary in Kaskaskia, was persuaded by Peck to teach at the Alton Seminary. Loomis was elected Principal. Loomis Hall, the first building of the Seminary in Upper Alton, was erected in 1832 for a cost of $1500 or $2000. It housed the administrative offices, classrooms, and the library. This building still stands today, and houses the Alton Museum of History and Art.

Benjamin ShurtleffOn April 11, 1835, Peck left home at Rock Spring for the East once again. He arrived at the capital on April 25. He preached among the churches, and pleaded the cause of his Western institution. He visited Dr. Shurtleff in Boston, and appealed for aid. Shurtleff proposed giving $10,000 (which would be $250,958.07 in 2019, according to the inflation calculator) for building purposes, if the college would be renamed Shurtleff College, and a professorship of rhetoric and elocution was formed. On October 9, Peck left New England, and on November 18, he reached his home at Rock Spring and found his family well. In January 1836, the charter of the seminary was amended by changing the name of the Board to The Trustees of Shurtleff College of Alton, Illinois.

Between 1836 – 1841, the average number of students in attendance was eighty-eight, with four instructors. The price for lodging at the college in 1842 was from $1.50 to $1.75 per week. Food was an additional $1.00 per week. The faculty in 1839 was Rev. Washington Leverett, A. M., President and Professor of Moral Philosophy, Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, Oratory, Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, and Ancient Languages; Rev. Warren Leverett, A. M., Principal of the Preparatory Department; and Rev. Zenas B. Newman, Assistant English and Classical Tutor.

On June 13 1852, Peck mentioned in his diary of having his five sons, with two of their wives and two grandchildren, at home and surrounding the supper table together. They were five strong, hardy men, from 21 – 38 years of age. On November 18, 1852, the original Rock Spring Seminary building – where it all began – was destroyed by fire. His son was working in the lower story and had a fire in the fireplace. Leaving for a few moments, he returned and found the wind had scattered fire among the combustibles around his workbench, and the flames soon reached the ceiling above. John Peck’s collection of files of papers, periodicals, and pamphlets, amounting to several thousand volumes, were all destroyed. In January 1853, he gathered his scattered and charred books - 1,500 volumes - into the largest room in his house, which then became his library and study.

Peck resigned his duties on March 19, 1854, after receiving news from his doctor that he had lung disease. He became frail as some men at the age of 86. At the end of the year, he received news of the death of his son, Harvey Jenks Peck, who died in Iowa on December 17, 1854, a little over 41 years of age. For the remainder of his life, Peck wrote in his diary and visited with friends, including Cyrus Edwards of Upper Alton. On Sunday, March 14, 1858, he passed away in his family home at Rock Spring, and was buried in the Rock Springs Cemetery in O’Fallon. Twenty-nine days later, at the special request of many friends and colleagues, his body was disinterred and reburied in the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, to rest with other pioneer Baptist ministers.

Shurtleff College, main building - erected 1865In June 1865, the cornerstone was laid for a new college building, 185 feet in length, and 81 feet in width, four stories high, and built of stone. It was located about 55 yards northeast from Loomis Hall, and cost $75,000. This building was destroyed by fire in 1938, and a new building erected in 1940.

In June 1873, the Board of Trustees of Shurtleff College purchased the private residence of Mr. Hiram N. Kendall for $20,000, for the purpose of the women’s department.

In 1877, Doctor Benjamin Franklin Edwards passed away. His connection to Shurtleff College dated back to 1827, when Rock Spring Seminary was founded. Edwards served on the board of trustees for the seminary from its beginning.


Carnegie Library, Shurtleff College, Upper Alton, IL



In 1907, wealthy businessman Andrew Carnegie gave $15,000 to Shurtleff College for the purpose of building a library. The college had to raise $15,000, in addition to Carnegie’s donation. Carnegie had first objected to giving money to Shurtleff, as he heard that too many students were educated for free, and he protested against this, expressing his belief that students should pay for their education. At last he was convinced to give, and the Carnegie Library was erected.


                                        Shurtleff College, College Avenue, Upper Alton


The original main building, erected in 1865, was destroyed by fire in 1938. It was replaced with a large, two-story, stone building in 1940, which still stands today.

Shurtleff College continued to grow and prosper throughout the years, ending its existence on June 30, 1957. The college reached its peak of enrollment in 1950, with 700 students. After its closure, the college because part of the Southern Illinois University system.




1829 (Rock Spring Seminary)

Principal – John Russell

Rev. John Mason Peck – Theology

John Messenger – Mathematics, etc.


1839 – Shurtleff College

Rev. Washington Leverett, A. M. – Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Oratory, Rhetoric, Fine Literature

Rev. Warren Leverett, A. M. – Preparatory Department

Rev. Zenas B. Newman – Assistant English and Classical Tutor



Rev. Washington Leverett, A. M. – Mathematics and Natural Philosophy

Rev. Warren Leverett, A. M., Latin and Greek Languages

Erastus Adkins, A. M. – Oratory, Rhetoric, Fine Literature, Chemistry, Mineralogy

Rev. Justus Bulkley, A. B. – Tutor and Principal of Preparatory Dept.

William Cunningham, A. B. – Tutor and Principal of Preparatory Dept.



Rev. Daniel Read, LL. D., President – Mental and Moral Science

Oscar Howes, A. M. – Latin and Greek Language, Literature

Charles Fairman, A. M. – Mathematics, Natural Philosophy

Orlando L. Castle, A. M. – Oratory, Rhetoric, Fine Literature

Ebenezer Marsh Jr., A. M. Ph.D – Chemistry, Geology, Mineralogy

Edward A. Haight, A. B. – Principal of Preparatory Department

Rev. Edward C. Mitchell, A. M. – biblical Literature and Interpretation

Rev. Robert E. Pattison, D. D. – Systematic Theology, History of Doctrine

Rev. Justus Bulkley, D. D. – Church History and Polity



Rev. A. A. Kendrick, D. D., President – Systematic Theology

Orlando L. Castle, LL. D. – Oratory, Rhetoric, Fine Literature

Rev. Justus Bulkley, D. D. – Church History and Polity, Biblical Literature and Interpretation

Charles Fairman, LL. D. – Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, chemistry, Geology, Mineralogy

David G. Ray, A. M. – Latin and Greek Language, Literature

L. F. Schussler, M. D. – Physiology



Austen Kennedy De Blois, PhD., LL. D., President – Psychology, Ethics

Rev. Justus Bulkley, D. D., LL. D. – History

George Ernest Chipman, A. M., LL. B. – Political and Social Science

Samuel Ellis Swartz, PhD. – Natural Science

David George Ray, A. M. – Latin and Greek

Charles Hoben Day, A. M. – Modern Languages

Victor Leroy Duke, A. B. – Mathematics

David H. Jackson, B. L. – Physiology, Physical Culture

James Primrose Whyte, A. B. – English Literature, Oratory

 Edward C. Lemen, A. M., M. D. – Medical Examiner



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