Founders Journal · Spring 2001 · pp. 16-31
Shubal Stearns and the Separate Baptist Tradition
This article was written in collaboration with Tom Nettles. Dr. Nettles has expanded and edited this material further for inclusion in The Baptists, Vol. 2.
The year was 1758 and God had richly blessed the gospel strategy of the Separate Baptists in North Carolina. Just three years before, a group led by Shubal Stearns had settled at Sandy Creek and constituted a church. Within those short three years with “a few churches having been constituted, and these having a number of branches which were fast maturing for churches,” Stearns thought it would be a good idea to start an association. The Separates’ remarkable personalities, novel practices, and fiery style of worship and preaching prompted some special attention from the Particular Baptists. Because some gave credit to disturbing reports about these ecclesiological kin, John Gano , who had been commissioned to his work in North Carolina by the Philadelphia Association, attended the 1759 meeting of the Sandy Creek Association. “He was sent, it seems, to inquire into the state of these New Light Baptists.” Robert Baylor Semple reports the visit in this way:
He was received by Stearns with great affection. But the young and illiterate preachers were afraid of him, and kept at a distance. They even refused to invite him into their Association. All this he bore patiently, sitting by while they transacted their business. He preached also every day. His preaching was in the Spirit of the Gospel. Their hearts were opened, so that before he left they were greatly attached to him…. This Association was also conducted in love, peace and harmony. When Mr. Gano returned to his own country, being asked what he thought of these Baptists, he replied, that “doubtless the power of God was among them; that although they were rather immethodical, they certainly had the root of the matter at heart.”
What made the Separates “rather immethodical,” and what did Gano mean by “the root of the matter”? At least part of the answer is found in the magnetic life and thought of Shubal Stearns.
Stearns was born on January 28, 1706, in Boston. His parents’ names were Shubal and Rebecca Larriford Stearns. Early in his life his parents moved to Tolland, Connecticut, where they joined the Congregational church. Stearns remained a Congregationalist until 1745 when he heard the evangelist George Whitefield preach. Stearns was converted and adopted the New Light understanding of revival and conversion. William G. McLoughlin summarizes the dynamic: “Religious zeal spilled over into very bitter quarrels about doctrine, church government, and ritual. By the end of the 1740’s many fervent New Lights were ready to conclude that it was impossible for them to reform established churches from within.” They must, therefore, start new churches. Their favorite verse was 2 Corinthians 6:17–“Come out from among them, and be ye separate”–from which they received the stigma of “come-outers” or “Separates.” Stearns followed suit and subsequently separated from the main stream, or Old Light, Congregational church. David Benedict states:
Soon after these reformers, who were first called New-Lights, and afterward Separates, were organized into distinct Societies, they were joined by Shubael Stearns, a native of Boston, (Mass.) who, becoming a preacher labored among them until 1751 .
In 1751 Stearns’ church became troubled with the pedobaptist-antipedobaptist controversy. In rapid succession, Stearns rejected infant baptism, received baptism from Reverend Wait Palmer, minister of Stoneington, and by March 20, 1751 was ordained into the Baptist ministry. Palmer and Joshua Morse, the pastor of New London conducted the ordination. The epithet “separate” remained with those that moved to the Baptist position, thus denominating them the Separate Baptists. The Separates brought with them the zeal and spirit of first leader, George Whitefield. By emulating his example, a fast growing body of Separate Baptists, fervent in evangelism and strong in heart-felt religion, began in New England. They were immensely different from established Baptist churches in New England. Stearns ministered as a missionary preacher to New England until the year 1754.
Three years after his adoption of the Baptist beliefs, Stearns moved South (1754), believing that the Spirit urged him to do so. He, along with several of his members, moved to Opekon, Virginia. Here Stearns joined Daniel Marshall who in 1748 had married Stearns’ sister, Martha, and already had become active in the Baptist church there. While in Virginia, Stearns and Marshall preached with such warmth and demonstrated such zeal, that some members took offense and lodged a complaint with the Philadelphia Association against them as disorderly ministers. This charge eventually was judged as groundless and those who dissented were charged “rather to nourish than complain of such gifts.”
Impatient because he had not met with the success that he had desired, Stearns decided to leave Virginia. He received information from some friends in North Carolina about the need for a preacher in that area. That was enough to convince him to move further south on November 22, 1755. “He and his party once more got under way, and, traveling about two hundred miles, came to Sandy Creek, in Guilford county North Carolina.” The group consisted of eight men, along with their wives, the majority of which were Stearns’ relatives. Not long after arriving at Sandy Creek the group constituted as a church under the same name. Benedict states:
As soon as they arrived, they built them a little meetinghouse, and these 16 persons formed themselves into a church, and chose Shubael Stearns for their pastor, who had, for his assistants at that time, Daniel Marshall and Joseph Breed, neither of whom were ordained.
Stearns remained pastor there until his death and it was from this “meetinghouse” that the revival in the South spread. The church grew from 16 to 606 in a short period. Church members spread into other areas and started other churches, and then in 1758 the Sandy Creek Association was formed. The Association grew rapidly causing Morgan Edwards to exclaim that, “in 17 years, [Sandy Creek] has spread its branches westward as far as the great river Mississippi; southward as far as Georgia; eastward to the sea and Chesopeck[sic] Bay; and northward to the waters of the Pottowmack[sic]; it, in 17 years, is become mother, grandmother, and great grandmother to 42 churches, from which sprang 125 ministers.”
A description of Stearns is necessarily dependent upon Morgan Edwards who passed through Sandy Creek in 1772, the year after Stearns’ death. From people that knew and loved Stearns dearly he developed this description.
Mr. Stearns was but a little man, but a man of good natural parts and sound judgment. Of learning he had but a small share, yet was pretty well acquainted with books. His voice was musical and strong, which he managed in such a manner as, one while, to make soft impressions on the heart, and fetch tears from the eyes in a mechanical way; and anon, to shake the very nerves and throw the animal system into tumults and perturbations . His character was indisputably good, both as a man, a Christian and a preacher.
Although there are no extant sermons from Stearns, the doctrine of the new birth appeared to be central to his preaching. This doctrine was new to his hearers in the central part of North Carolina. Although they had been raised in the Christian religion, the people “were grossly ignorant of its essential principles.” Hearing that religion was much more than outward signs seemed very odd.
The preaching style of the Separates was “much more novel than their doctrines.” Stearns was the figure to which all the Separate preachers looked. In fact, Edwards claimed that “all the Separate ministers copy after him in tones of voice and actions of body.” The group had “acquired a very warm and pathetic address, accompanied by strong gestures and a singular tone of voice” described by some as a “holy whine.” Stearns’ message was always the simple gospel, which was “easily understood even by rude frontiersmen” particularly when the preacher himself felt overwhelmed with the importance of his subject. Most of the frontier people of North Carolina had never heard such doctrine or observed such earnest preaching.
Stearns labored in this area until 1771. Just two years before his death, Stearns had a vision that he related to many friends. In turn, these friends passed it on to Edwards to procure Stearns’ legacy. Edwards relates it accordingly:
The time was Sep. 7, 1769 memorable for a great storm. As he was ascending a hill in his way home he observed in the horizon a white heap like snow; upon his drawing near he perceived the heap to stand suspended in the air 15 or 20 feet above ground. Presently it fell to the ground and divided itself into three parts; the greatest part moved northward; a less towards the south; and the third, which was less than either but much brighter, remained on the spot where the whole fell; as his eyes followed that which went northward, it vanished; he turned to look at the other, and found they also had disappeared. While the old man pondered what the phantom division [sic], and motions of it meant this thought struck him, “The bright heap is our religious interest, which will divide and spread north and south, but chiefly northward; while a small part remains at Sandy-creek.”
Through the efforts of Stearns, the Great Awakening spread deep into the South. Looking back Stearns’ explanation of the vision was proven true.
In an attempt to understand what John Gano meant by saying that the Separates were immethodical, one does not have to look far. Gano was a Particular (Calvinistic) Baptist from New Jersey that had been petitioned by the Philadelphia Association to minister at the Jersey Settlement close to Sandy Creek. He was educated and extremely polished, as were many of the Particular Baptist ministers. It was no wonder that the “illiterate ministers” were afraid of him. The methods that he would refer to as “immethodical” were then compared to those of the Philadelphia Association, as well as orthodox church practices. Their deep impressions of the Spirit, practice of nine rites, and allowance of women preaching were without a doubt in the front of Gano’s mind when he made his statement.
Stearns and the rest of the Separates following him made much of their “instructions from heaven.” Benedict states that they “had strong faith in the immediate teachings of the Spirit.” Those who earnestly sought God were given tokens of his will. Following these tokens one would “inevitably be led to the accomplishment of the two great objects of a Christian’s life–the glory of God and the salvation of men.” While in New England, Stearns felt impressed that God wanted him to move South for a great work for the gospel. Seven other families believed in Stearns’ vision “in which God bade him to take as many of his flock as would join him, and journey to the South where a great work should be done in extending His Kingdom.” Virginia did not hold promise of fulfilling the work he had envisioned. Friends informed him that in North Carolina settlers would ride forty miles to hear gospel preaching. This was his opportunity. He and his party picked up and moved two hundred miles to Sandy Creek in Guildford County, North Carolina. In retrospect Stearns’ vision appeared to be verified by the great work accomplished at Sandy Creek. Although Stearns maintained that these visions were “not contrary to reason” and one must still lean “in every step upon the same wisdom and power by which they were first actuated,” Gano would advise great caution in adopting this understanding of divine leadership.
Another method that would have been considered “immethodical” was the practice of nine rites. These nine rites were baptism, the Lord’s Supper, love feasts, laying on of hands, washing feet, anointing the sick, the right hand of fellowship, kiss of charity, and devoting children. Little information can be found concerning the origin of these rites in the Separate tradition. Even among the Separate Baptists not all churches practiced these. These rites went far beyond the two ordinances of the Philadelphia Confession and beyond Gano who believed that the Bible only ordained two; nine must have seemed excessive. This probably made other Baptist groups look in contempt toward the Separates because they believed that several of these rites were not scriptural.
The associational structure of Sandy Creek lacked the form and order of the Philadelphia Association. They elected no moderator, but waited on God to direct one of the messengers to take the lead in exercises. Such an “immethodical” meeting would have been remarkable to Gano from his highly ordered context. In addition, the Separates took less resolute action in deciding on the appropriateness of actions of church members. In 1758 they resolved that “dancing in the spirit,” though unusual and perhaps trying to some pious persons, should be tolerated “because there was a genuine work of grace among the people.”
Edwards also claims that in addition to elders, Sandy Creek Church also had eldresses and deaconesses. The allowance of women to have such a prominent role was without a doubt a practice that Gano would have frowned upon. The Philadelphia Association affirmed that women had the right, even the obligation, to speak in church on many occasions. In matters of discipline when they either accused others or defended themselves, and when called on to give testimony of a work of grace women must speak. “Hence the silence, with subjection, enjoined on all women in the church of God, is such a silence as excludes all women whomsoever from all degrees of teaching, ruling, governing, dictating, and leading in the church of God.” Martha Marshall, the wife of Daniel Marshall and sister of Stearns, became famous for her exhortations. Although little is known of her youth, it is possible that she started exhorting in New England. Quoting Semple, Catherine Brekus states, “Marshall was ‘a lady of good sense, singular piety, and surprising elocution’ who frequently ‘melted a whole concourse into tears by her prayers and exhortations.'” Knowing that this would bring great criticism from his readers, Semple shields them by stating that in her exhorting, Marshall never “usurped authority over the other sex.”
The Separate Baptists that settled at Sandy Creek and were led by Stearns lived in the spirit of the First Great Awakening and often conducted themselves as those in reaction against the severe criticisms of many who opposed the revival. J. M Cramp has set these practices in context.
They were not all suitably qualified for the work, as we should now judge; mistakes were committed and measures of doubtful propriety adopted, in some places; but such things might be expected in times of great spiritual excitement. It cannot be denied that the laborers were generally men of God, “full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.” They had deep convictions of the evil of sin and the peril of a rebellious state. The love of God in Christ overpowered their souls. Their views of the solemn realities of another world were vivid and heart-affecting . Their earnest appeals made the stout-hearted tremble, awed many a reprobate into silence, and wrung tears from daring and hardened offenders. Tens of thousand bowed before the majesty of truth . We need not be surprised at some oddities . If the churches composing the Sandy Creek Association in North Carolina were tenacious of the kiss of charity, the laying on of hands upon members, the appointment of elderesses, and such things; and if, in some respects, the fervency of New Light feelings got the better of discretion and decorum, we must bear in mind the peculiarities of the times. After a long season of cold and drought, the Lord “poured water upon him that was thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground;” the spiritual vegetation sprang up thick and strong, requiring skillful cultivators; and some detriment was experienced for want of care in pruning and training. In the course of a few years these wants were supplied, and suitable arrangement constituted. Surely we ought to prefer a revival of religion, though dished with some irregularities, to the death-like coldness of mere orthodoxy and form.
In light of these methods, the Separates were held in suspicion at the time. The respected Gano’s statement did much to help relations between his group and the Separates.
“Root of the Matter”
When Gano affirmed that the Separate Baptists had the “root of the matter” he meant they had a genuine understanding of conversion and a theology to support it. Terry Wolever judges that Gano, “did not see so much of a doctrinal problem with the Separates,” and in this “he reflected the general sentiment of the Particular Baptists towards the Separates.” This is certainly true of William Fristoe of the Ketocton Association where Stearns first made his appearance in the South. Their doctrine, in Gano’s opinion, was the “root of the matter” and formally differed little from the doctrine of the Philadelphia Confession.
Historical precedence makes this judgment virtually certain. Benjamin Miller’s visit to Opekon, Virginia, in 1754 provides a clear test of the doctrinal content of the preaching of Stearns and his brother-in-law Daniel Marshall. As mentioned above, members had complained to the Philadelphia Association about supposed irregularities in the church, particularly under the influence of Daniel Marshall. Because he had been instrumental in the reformation of the church just years earlier, the Association sent Benjamin Miller to observe and judge if the complaints had any substance.
Miller had served faithfully as a pastor, an active member of the Philadelphia Association, and as an itinerant preacher. His name first appears in the Association minutes in 1747, a year in which the messengers gave a spirited defense of the church’s duty to “call and prove their candidates for ministry” and the correlative duty of such candidates to wait with “self denying meekness, humbleness, and lowliness of mind to a further approbation from the churches.” They zealously sought to exclude those who had an indication of “a heavy, self-willed, obstinate, and ungovernable temper” and assure that the churches sufficiently tested for “the steady sound, and orthodox principles and regular behaviour” of those they would ordain to office. They had affirmed, using the ministry of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch as an example, that persons not ordained might still function as teachers if so gifted. “What reason can be given why there may not be in churches men of useful gifts, and profitable to teach all the days of their life without ordination?” Daniel Marshall would have been viewed in such a light at the time of Miller’s in 1754 visit for, though not ordained, he had been licensed to preach by the church. His son’s biographical narrative of Mr. Marshall states:
Here he became acquainted with a Baptist church belonging to the Philadelphia Association; and as the result of a close, impartial examination of their faith and order, he and my dear mother were baptized by immersion, in the forty-eighth year of his life. He was now called, as a licensed preacher, to the unrestrained exercise of his gifts; and though they were by no means above mediocrity, he was instrumental in awakening attention, in many of his hearers, to the interest of their souls.
In 1752 the Philadelphia Association considered a query “Whether a person denyng unconditional election, the doctrine of original sin, and the final perseverance of the saints, and striving to affect as many as he can, may have full communion with the church?” The answer returned to and approved by the assembly stated that such a notion “opposeth the absolute sovereignty of God over his creatures contrary to express scriptures.” They went on to affirm the three parts of the query by asserting and arguing from Scripture that “personal election is the truth of God, That we are originally sinful or partakers of the first sin of human nature [and] are justly shut out of our native happiness unless our title be restored by the second Adam…by being effectually called in time.” The word to the churches that followed this underscored the seriousness of their commitment to these principles.
Upon which fundamental doctrines of Christianity, next to the belief of an eternal God, our faith must rest; and we adopt, and would that all the churches belonging to the Baptist Association, be well grounded in accordance to our Confession of faith and catechism, and cannot allow that any are true members of our churches who deny the said principles, be their conversation outward what it will.
Two years later, 1754, the Opekon and Ketocton churches in Virginia were received into the Association. Benjamin Miller, in attendance when both statements mentioned above were approved, made his investigative trip to Virginia apparently during the few months that Marshall, and then Stearns, were with them. Robert B. Semple describes the event charmingly.
They were very zealous, had much preaching, and were remarkable warm in their religious exercises, and more particularly so after Mr. Daniel Marshall came among them. They went to such lengths that some of the more cold-hearted lodged a complaint in the Philadelphia Association. Mr. Miller was sent to see what was the matter. When he came he was highly delighted with the exercises, joined them cordially, and said if he had such warm-hearted Christians in his church he would not take gold for them. He charged those who had complained rather to nourish than complain of such gifts.
What can we conclude from these events and the very positive judgment rendered by Miller? Would Miller give such cordial approval to “exercises” or teaching inconsistent with the clear judgments recently rendered by the Association in which he was an active participant and whose integrity he was determined to uphold? Should we conclude that he cared little about the doctrinal and experiential orthodoxy of a church that he so recently had labored in to set right in these matters? When the church was “new-modeled upon the Calvinistic plan,” more was at stake than the simple imposition of a new confessional form on the church. John Gano recalled that only three of the original church could “give an account of experiencing a work of Grace.” Six others who visited with them professed faith in Christ and so were baptized. A number of the old members expressed to John Gano “their deplorable state” and said that they had been misled and hoped that the ministers, including Miller, would not blame them. Gano comforted them and spoke to them from the words, “They being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” Several of those were converted and became zealous members of the church.
Unless Miller was completely without discernment (very unlikely, as he was appointed to tasks that required careful and compassionate discernment) or had shaken off the former convictions of his soul concerning the truth and the character of gospel ministry (also highly unlikely in light of his continued work and responsible leadership in the Philadelphia Association), we may be justified in concluding several things concerning the Stearns/Marshall tandem.
First, their giftedness in proclamation and teaching appeared adequate in content and edifying in effect. Whether Miller heard either Marshall or Stearns is not clear. The “impartial examination” of Marshall’s faith and his exercising among them, however, would certainly be consistent with what Miller observed.
Second, their spirit, though exuberant, did not come under censure as arrogant, prideful, or improperly enthusiastic but as warmly spiritual. The Regular Baptists of the Philadelphia Association had experienced their share of overwhelming conviction and knew that both despair and joy can periodically overwhelm and alter physical strength. The warmth of the exercises was a delight, not an offense.
Third, their theology supported the strength of the exercises. Miller accepted the judgment of the Association that it “cannot allow that any are true members of our churches who deny the said principles” of total depravity, unconditional election, effectual calling, and the certain perseverance of God’s elect. Had the theology been error cloaked in zeal, he would never have admonished the petitioners to nourish rather than complain of such gifts. Morgan Edwards confirms this judgment in his chronicle of the Separate Baptists in Virginia. “These are called Separates,” he wrote, “not because they withdrew from the Regular-baptists but because they have hitherto declined any union with them.” He then made this doctrinal observation: “The faith and order of both are the same, except some trivial matters not sufficient to support a distinction, but less a disunion; for both avow the Century-Confession and the annexed discipline.”
These considerations combined with the extant doctrinal statements should leave little doubt about the views of truth that drove Shubal Stearns and the Separate Baptists.
Robert Devin includes the covenant of the Sandy Creek church in his history of the Grassy Creek church, founded under the influence of Daniel Marshall. The preamble establishes doctrinal parameters for their union.
Holding believers baptism; the laying on of hands; particular election of grace by the predestination of God in Christ; effectual calling by the Holy Ghost; free justification through the imputed righteousness of Christ; progressive sanctification though God’s grace and truth; the final perseverance of the saints in grace; the resurrection of these bodies after death, at that day which God has appointed to judge the quick and the dead by Jesus Christ, by the power of God, and by the resurrection of Christ; and life everlasting. Amen.
The explicit Calvinism of the preamble has given some historians pause as to whether it actually reflects the original work of Stearns. A documentary trail, however, makes the denial highly problematic from a historian’s standpoint. According to George Walsh Paschall, Stearns wrote the document around 1757, that is, everything “omitting the Calvinism, reflects the views of Stearns.” Paschall so judges because of his inveterate hostility to Calvinism. He was glad that the evangelization of North Carolina did not depend on the Regular Baptists of the Philadelphia Association because “their rigid Calvinism would have kept them from prosecuting missionary labors with success.” The blame for the lack of dominance in Eastern North Carolina, in fact, lies at the feet of the Philadelphia Association: Paschal argued, “With ministers schooled in the rigid Calvinism of the Philadelphia Confession, the wonderful progress of the Baptists of eastern North Carolina was at its end.” He claims that Stearns’s ministry provided “the indispensable corrective to the blight of hyper-Calvinism which the ministers of the Philadelphia Association imposed on the General Baptist churches on their transformation to Particular Baptist churches.”
The narrative and commendation of the evangelistic fervor of Stearns and the Separate Baptists cannot be contradicted. That fact is not under dispute. Nor can one deny that different levels of adherence to preaching the central tenets of Calvinistic theology can be observed among them. Some dug deeply for doctrinal diamonds and waded to the chin into the counsels of God and built the exhortation directly on truths thus derived. Others felt less confident in their abilities in that kind of delivery but exhibited true zeal in their exhortations to faith in a crucified and risen savior and the necessity of the new birth. Some deemed zealous and effective tended more toward Arminianism. Semple gives insight into the attitude of the Separates toward this reality at the time of the union between the Separates and Regulars in Virginia in 1787. A large majority believed “as much in their confession of faith [the Philadelphia Confession] as they [the Regulars]did themselves,” but “if there were some among them who leaned too much towards the Arminian system they were generally men of exemplary piety and great usefulness in the Redeemer’s kingdom.” They were willing to bear with some diversity than to break with such amiable Christians who had borne “the brunt and heat of persecution” and whose labors God had blessed; exclusion of such as these “would be like tearing the limbs from the body.”
Paschal’s zeal against Calvinism is unjustified, therefore, and his reasonings proceed on two misleading assumptions. The operations of these assumptions mar his presentation and that of others who have employed his line of thinking. One is that the Baptists of the Philadelphia Association were hyper-Calvinists. That simply is not the case; such an accusation shows a misjudgment of the ministers of the churches in that association and a misunderstanding of hyper-Calvinism. Accordingly, the Regulars’ action toward the General Baptist churches is maligned, even though, similar to what happened in Virginia, the burden of concern was true conversion and the affirmation of the doctrines of the new birth and justification by faith among them.
A second is that the Separates must not have been serious Calvinists since they were evangelistic. Again this is a historical misjudgment. Huggins goes so far as to suggest that Stearns was Arminian, but most prefer the safer term “modified” Calvinist. Lumpkin claims that “most Separates were modified Calvinists” by which he means that, though they avoided some of the deleterious tendencies of some Arminians, “they either rejected or had little to say about the doctrines of predestination, limited atonement, and election of Calvinism.” James Mosteller tries to demonstrate this theological middlemanship. “They sailed an even, middle course,” he reasons, “between the Scylla of hyper-Calvinism and the Charybdis of extreme Arminianism, the former of which dried up the Particular Baptists and the latter had watered down the General Baptists.”
The documents, as well as their own testimony, point in a different direction. One can conclude that they had little to say only by ignoring the documents that proclaim their beliefs. Their trust in sovereign grace injected their spirits with courage and confidence. John Leland captures this poetically in musing about the eternal counsel concerning the Separate Baptist preacher John Waller: “Waller is not ordained to wrath,/ But to employ his vital breath/ In the Redeemer’s praise;/ His sins, thro’ Christ, shall be forgiv’n, / and he shall ever reign in heav’n/ Thro’ free and sov’reign grace.” He pictures Waller himself, who suffered much at the hands of hostile authorities pleading for mercy for his hearers: “Father, forgive the stubborn race/ Subdue their hearts to sov’reign grace,/ That they may be forgiv’n.”
Putting prejudice aside, therefore, the paper trail still confronts us. If Stearns wrote the covenant of the Grassy Creek Church, as Devin claimed, he was indisputably a Calvinist. David Morgan admits, “The covenant could hardly express a more rigid Calvinist position than when it affirms a belief in ‘particular election of grace by the predestination of God in Christ,’ and ‘the final perseverance of the saints in grace.'” Apart from the pejorative overtones of “rigid,” Morgan does not permit his non-Calvinist preference to obscure his historical conclusion. His severe misgivings at the “lack of consistency between what he believed and what he practiced,”and the difficulty in understanding “how Stearns, or for that matter Whitefield and Edwards before him, could have reconciled an advocacy of unrestricted evangelism with a belief in particular election,”succumbed to the evidence of the documents.
The “Principles of Faith” adopted by the Sandy Creek Association in 1816, coincide with the doctrinal statements in the covenant. Articles III and IV read:
III. That Adam fell from his original state of purity, and that his sin is imputed to his posterity; that human nature is corrupt, and that man, of his own free will and ability, is impotent to regain the state in which he was primarily placed.
IV. We believe in election from eternity, effectual calling by the Holy Spirit of God, and justification in his sight only by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. And we believe that they who are thus elected, effectually called, and justified, will persevere through grace to the end, that none of them be lost.
Members in 1816 would hardly have agreed to such strongly worded doctrines had they not been in agreement with them from the beginning. Further confirmation of this judgment is available in the “Abstract of the Article of Faith and Practice of the Kiokee Church of the Baptist Denomination.” This church, established around 1771-2, embodied the mature convictions of Daniel Marshall, its founder as well as the founder of the Grassy Creek church from whose minutes the original covenant of Sandy Creek is taken. The unity of doctrine and language in all these documents is striking and bears witness to the authenticity of their convictions and gives a synopsis of their preaching.
According to God’s appointment in his word, we do hereby in his name and strength covenant and promise to keep up and defend all the articles of Faith, according to God’s word, such as the great doctrine of Election, effectual calling, particular redemption, Justification by the Imputed righteousness of Christ alone, sanctification by the spirit of God, Believers Baptism by immersion, the saints absolute final perseverance in Grace, the resurrection of the dead, future rewards and punishments denying the Arian, Socinian, & Arminian errors, & every other principle contrary to the word of God.
As already noted, it seems that these historians have made an assumption built upon a particular bias and the evidence of exceptional cases. If someone is Calvinistic, then he cannot be evangelistic. The reasoning, however, places them in a peculiar position against the sources themselves. Edwin Gaustad has claimed that “the theology of the Great Awakening was Calvinism.” Morgan places Stearns directly in this tradition.
The Baptist historian William Whitsitt summarized this influence in his unpublished book Baptists in America. His remark about the “New Divinity” is slightly anachronistic and perhaps his use of “all” in the first sentence does not take into account some rare but notable exceptions; his understanding, however, of the dominant theological framework is demonstrably true.
These Separate Baptists were all of them Calvinists by persuasion. They were not Calvinists of the stern old type that formerly had prevailed but rather Calvinists of the school of Jonathan Edwards and adherents of the New Divinity. On that account they were often described as New Lights. For the main part their sympathies and cooperation were given to the Calvinistic brethren in New England and against the Arminian Baptists. Thus by the agency of Mr. Whitefield a change was produced almost in the twinkling of an eye by means of which the Calvinistic Baptists gained ascendancy in the New England colonies. Nothing could have been more extraordinary or unexpected than such a transformation. Arminianism had been steadily growing in New England for several decades; making progress not only in the Baptist community as has been shown but likewise in the established order. Jonathan Edwards rose up to stem the tide and to stay the progress of defection, and by the aid of Whitefield accomplished a revolution. This revolution, however, was more apparent among the Baptists than in the ranks of the Established Church. It altered the whole aspect of affairs.
Whitsitt goes on to say that Whitefield’s influence was not confined to New England. Calling them “Whitefieldian Baptists,” he traces the influence into the South.
It was but a short season before one of these Separate Baptists from Connecticut, Shubael Stearns by name was set loose in the forests of North Carolina, where he started a fire that swept back into Virginia and forward into South Carolina and Georgia and took the whole South for the Baptists. Nine tenths of our denominational strength in the southern states is derived from Whitefield through the agency of Stearns and his co-laborer Daniel Marshall.
Whitsitt only states the obvious in pointing to the influence of Whitefield, a theme continued by David Morgan when he summarizes the Whitefieldian trajectory–“actually the Separates took up where Whitefield had left off, and when on his seventh trip to America he died at Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30, 1770, the Separate Baptists, more so than any other religious group were at that very moment, far to the south, carrying on in the Whitefield spirit of the 1740’s.”
Distinctions urged between Stearns and the Separate Baptists on the one hand and the Philadelphia/Charleston Regular Baptists on the other are artificial. Their doctrine was the same as was their concern for gospel preaching and Holy Spirit-induced conversion. After their union at the end of the eighteenth through the first of the nineteenth century, the influence of one can hardly be distinguished from that of another. The growth of Baptists in the South comes from the strengths shared by both groups. Any dichotomy between Calvinism and evangelism in this union betrays a basic misunderstanding. The followers of Stearns helped bring into practice the evangelistic convictions of the Regulars; the confessional detail of the Regulars helped give expression to the theological convictions of the Separates. The union was not an incongruous mixture of incompatibles. That which Paschal rightly ascribes to Stearnes must be seen as the impact of one who shared the doctrinal convictions of his Regular brethren.
One who will try to come to a full understanding of the character, work and influence of Shubal Stearns, will, I think, become convinced that he is one of the great religious leaders of all time. Certainly the influence of no other American Baptist has been so great or far reaching as his It has been given to few others to have followers and successors who have carried on their work with like zeal and spirit and success, as the followers and successors of Shubal Stearns have done, with the result that the Baptists of the South today far outnumber all the other Baptists of the world.
It is a deep regret that the Separate Baptists were not methodical enough to keep more records. Though they probably would have considered such recording a sacrilege, would not contemporary Baptists benefit from a bold amanuensis daring to smuggle a verbatim of sermons by Stearnes? Solemn aspects of the story, in light of this absence, “have been only vaguely apprehended by Baptist historians.” This fact is quite unfortunate. Despite the lack of sources, a fair assessment of what is already known would enhance our understanding of the Baptist foundation.
Gano’s statement was a perfect description of the Separate Baptists. As noted before, he said that, “doubtless the power of God was among them; that although they were rather immethodical, they certainly had the root of the matter at heart.” As their methods have been briefly examined, one can understand why Gano said what he did. Despite this, Gano assured his fellow Baptists that the Separates had their doctrine correct. Overarching all of this, he proclaimed that, “doubtless the power of God was among them.“
As for Stearns, “he was zealous but also sane, and his followers have been such; he knew how to gather, and knew how to conserve; he built upon a solid foundation, Jesus Christ, and his work abides.” Charles Taylor concludes:
He was undoubtedly one of the greatest ministers that ever presented Jesus to perishing multitudes. Had he been a Romish priest, he would long since have been canonized and declared the patron saint of Carolina. Fervent supplications would have ascended and stately churches would have been dedicated to the holy and blessed saint Shubael Stearns, the apostle of North Carolina and the adjacent states.
1 “The correct spelling of Mr. Stearns’ name seems to be that given by Edwards, ‘Shubal.’ Mr. Stearns himself so spelled it in signing four petitions in favor of men accused as Regulators, Colonial Records, IX, 27ff. The same spelling was used by Semple in his History of Virginia Baptists. The spelling ‘Shubael,’ a Scripture name, was used by Backus in his Abridgment, 250, in the year 1804, and later by Benedict and other writers.” quoted in George Walsh Paschal, History of North Carolina Baptists (Raleigh, NC: The General Board, North Carolina Baptist Convention, 1930) , 228.
2 David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America and Other Parts of the World ( Boston: Lincoln & Edmands, 1813; reprint, Gallatin, TN: Church History Research & Archives, 1985) , II, 49 (page citations are to the reprint edition).
3 Robert Baylor Semple, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia revised and extended by G. W. Beale(originally published 1810, rev edition in 1894; reprint, Lafayette, Tenn.: Church History Research and Archives, 1976), 65. (page citations are to the reprint edition).
4 Ibid., 65-66.
5 William Latane Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations in the South (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1962), 21.
6 William G. McLoughlin, Soul Liberty (Hanover: Brown University Press, 1991) 105-6.
8 Benedict, The Baptist Denomination, II, 37.
9 Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations, 21.
10 Morgan Edwards, “Materials Towards the History of the Baptists in the Provinces of Maryland Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia,” 19, Special Collections, James P. Boyce Centennial Library, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. Also available as Materials Towards a History of the Baptists, prepared for publication by Eve B. Weeks and Mary B. Warren, 2 vols (Danielsville, GA: Heritage Papers) 1984. This was copyrighted by Mary B. Warren and thus will be referred to as “Warren.” 2:93.
11 Benedict, The Baptist Denomination, II, 37.
12 Charles Curtis Goen, Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740-1800 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962), 206-207.
13 Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972), 319.
14 Benedict, The Baptist Denomination, II, 38.
15 Robert Baylor Semple, Baptists in Virginia, 13n.
16 Semple, 376.
17 Ibid., 14.
18 The men of the group were Shubal Stearns, Peter Stearns, Ebenezer Stearns, Shubal Stearns, Jr., Daniel Marshall, Joseph Breed, Enos Stimpson, and Jonathan Polk. Semple, Baptists in Virginia, 14n. Morgan Edwards claims that while Stearns was married to Sarah Johnston he “left no issue.” Edwards, Materials, 19. If this is the case, it can only be assumed that Shubal Stearns, Jr. would be his brother and not his son. The author can find no other reference to the family of Stearns.
19 Benedict, The Baptist Denomination, II, 38.
20 Edwards, “Materials,” 18. Warren, 2:92.
21 Ibid., 19. Warren, 2:93
22 Semple, Baptists in Virginia, 15.
24 Edwards, “Materials,” 19. Warren, 2:93.
25 Semple, Baptists in Virginia, 15.
26 Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations, 31.
27 Edwards, “Materials,” 20. Warren, 2:94
28 Benedict, The Baptist Denomination, II, 37.
29 Semple, Baptists in Virginia, 13.
30 Rufus W. Weaver, “The Invasion of the South by the Sainted Baptist Yankees,” The Chronicle vol. XII no.4 (Oct. 1944) : 164-166.
31 Semple, Baptists in Virginia, 14.
32 Ibid., 13.
33 Edwards, “Materials”, 16. Warren, 2:91.
34 George W. Purefoy, A History of the Sandy Creek Association (New York: Sheldon and Company Publishers, 1859) 75 as cited in Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 230.
35 Edwards, “Materials,” 16; Warren, 2:91.
36 Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association from A. D. 1707 to A. D. 1807, ed. A. D. Gillette (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1851) 53. Hereinafter referred to as “Gillette.”
37 Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America 1740-1845 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 62.
39 J. M. Cramp. Baptist History (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, nd) 535, 536, 545.
40 Terry Wolever, The Life and Ministry of John Gano (Springfield, MO: Particular Baptist Press, 1998), I, 304.
42 William Fristoe, A Concise History of the Ketocton Baptist Association (Staunton: Printed by William Gilman Lyford, 1808), 21-23. Fristoe, deeply aware of the doctrinal stewardship of a minister [p. 35], said that “upon a more intimate acquaintance [and] upon close conversation and frequently hearing each other preach, it was found that they agreed in sentiment, held forth the gospel ordinances in the same manner, and of course children of the same family, the difference being only in name.” (21, 22).
43 Gillette, 55.
44 Gillette, 52.
45 Gillette, 51.
46 Abraham Marshall, “Daniel Marshall” in Lives of Virginia Baptist Ministers Ed. J. B. Taylor, 2 vols (Richmond: Yale & Wyatt, 1837), 1:19.
47 Gillette, 69.
48 Semple, 376
49 Semple, 376
50 “Biographical Memoirs of John Gano” in Wolever, 1:46, 47.
51 Edwards [Warren], 2:43.
52 Robert I. Devin, A History of Grassy Creek Baptist Church, From its Foundation to 1880, with Biographical Sketches of its Pastors and Ministers (Raleigh, NC: Edwards, Broughton & Co., 1880), 43. See also James Donovan Mosteller, A History of the Kiokee Baptist Church in Georgia (Ann Arbor, MI: Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1952), 267-269. This covenant should be compared to the covenant of the Kiokee church which was founded by Daniel Marshall. The statements are strikingly similar in wording, both decidedly Calvinistic, bringing more validity to the authorship of the Grassy Creek church covenant.
53 George Walsh Paschal, History of North Carolina Baptists (Raleigh, NC: The General Board, North Carolina Baptist Convention, 1930), 401.
54 Paschal, North Carolina Baptists, 403.
55 George W. Paschal, “Shubal Stearns,” Review and Expositor XXXVI (1939): 44.
56 Paschal 270-71 as cited in Mosteller, 32, 34.
57 Semple, 100.
58 M. A. Huggins, A History of North Carolina Baptists 1727-1932 (Raleigh, NC: The General Board, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, 1967), 66.
59 Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations, 62.
61 Mosteller, Kiokee Baptist, 22.
62 John Leland, The Writings of John Leland, ed. L. E. Greene (n.p., 1833; reprint ed., New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969), 413, 414.
63 David T. Morgan, Jr., “The Great Awakening in North Carolina, 1740-1775: the Baptist Phase,” North Carolina Historical Review vol. XLV, no.3 (July 1968): 272.
65 Morgan, “The Great Awakening in North Carolina,” 272.
66 William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1969 [rev. ed]), 358.
67 Included in Mosteller as “Appendix B,” 267.
68 Edwin S. Gaustad, “Baptists and the Great Awakening in New England,” The Chronicle vol. XV no. 1 (Jan. 1952): 41.
69 William Heth Whitsitt, “Baptists in America,” handwritten ms, Special Collections, James P. Boyce Centennial Library, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.
71 Morgan, “The Great Awakening in North Carolina,” 283.
72 Paschal, “Shubal Stearns,” 57.
73 Paschal, “Shubal Stearns,” 43.
74 Paschal, “Shubal Stearns,” 57.
75 Charles E. Taylor, “Elder Shubael Stearns,” North Carolina Baptist Historical Papers vol. II no. 2 (Jan. 1898): 105. The author quotes from someone that he only identifies as “a more recent historian.”