Shubal Stearns and The Separate Baptist Tradition

Founders Journal 66 · Fall 2006 · pp. 26-31

Shubal Stearns and The Separate Baptist Tradition

Tom J. Nettles

Excerpt from Chapter 7 in The Baptists, Volume 2: Beginnings in America by Tom Nettles (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 153–158.

“Special thanks to Josh Powell, Ph D student at SBTS, for helpful work in research, organization, and interpretation of this article.”

Anointed with Zeal

When the fame of Mr. Stearns’ preaching had reached the Atkin [Yadkin], where I lived, I felt a curiosity to go and hear him. Upon my arrival I saw a venerable old man sitting under a peach-tree with a book in his hand and the people gathering about him. He fixed his eyes upon me immediately, which made me feel in such a manner as I never had felt before. I turned to quit the place but could not proceed far. I walked about, sometimes catching his eyes as I walked. My uneasiness increased and became intolerable. I went up to him, thinking that a salutation and shaking hands would relieve me: but it happened otherwise. I began to think that he had an evil eye and ought to be shunned; but shunning I could no more effect than a bird can shun the rattle snake when it fixes his eyes upon it. When he began to preach my perturbations increased so that nature could not longer support them and I sunk to the ground.[1]

According to Morgan Edwards, other witnesses give like details about the effects of Shubal[2] Stearns. By any estimation, this was a remarkable man. His impact on individuals silhouettes the influence that Separate Baptists had on the religion of the southern States in general and Baptists in particular. After establishing their first church in 1755, passion for souls and the spread of the gospel flowed from this little group until, three years later, their proliferation and activities gained notice from brethren healthily curious about their evangelistic success. 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,”[3] Under Stearns’ leadership, the churches formed the Sandy Creek Association in 1758.

The Separates’ remarkable personalities, novel practices, and fiery style of worship and preaching prompted some special attention from the Particular Baptists. An understandable uneasiness about their doctrinal soundness gave occasion for a visit from John Gano. Perhaps sent by the Philadelphia or Charleston Association, Gano 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.”[5]

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.

Biographical Information

Stearns was born on January 28, 1706, in Boston. His parents’ names were Shubal and Rebecca Larriford Stearns.[6] 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. 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” he continues, “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.”[7] Stearns followed suit and subsequently separated from the main stream, or Old Light, Congregational church.[8] 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.[9]

In 1751 Stearns’ church became troubled with the pedobaptist-antipedobaptist controversy.[10] In rapid succession, Stearns rejected infant baptism, received baptism from Reverend Wait Palmer, minister of Stoneington,[11] and by March 20, 1751, was ordained into the Baptist ministry. Palmer and Joshua Morse, the pastor of New London conducted the ordination.[12] 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. Though Curtis Goens claims that they were immensely different from established Baptist churches in New England,[13] these differences should not be exaggerated. Isaac Backus went through the same conversion and denominational change as Stearns and emerged as a spokesman for the entire Baptist movement in New England. Stearns ministered as a missionary preacher to New England until the year 1754.[14]

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.[15] Here Stearns joined Daniel Marshall who in 1748 had married Stearns’s sister, Martha, and already had become active in the Baptist church there.[16] 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.”[17]

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.”[18] The group consisted of eight men, along with their wives, the majority of which were Stearns’ relatives.[19] 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.[20]

Stearns remained pastor there until his death and it was from this “meetinghouse” that the revival in the South spread. The church grew from sixteen 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.”[21]

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.[22]

Sandy Creek Association

This Association developed from the work of Shubal Sterns, along with his brother-in-law Daniel Marshall, in North Carolina. Its formation in 1758 included three churches: soon it expanded to include churches in three states: North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Benedict records, “These people were so much engaged in their evangelical pursuits, that they had no time to spend in theological debates, nor were they very scrupulous about their mode of conducting their meetings.” Its rapid growth, the span of its territory, the increasing centrality of power and the possessiveness of Shubal Stearns led to a division in 1770 into three Associations. Its confessional statement begins, “Holding believers’ baptism; laying on of hands; particular election of grace by predestination of God in Christ; effectual calling by the Holy Ghost; free justification through the imputed righteousness of Christ; progressive sanctification through God’s grace and truth; the final perseverance, or continuance of the saints in grace; the resurrection of these bodies after death,” etc. Some historians have sought to discredit the more Calvinistic elements of this confession claiming that it did not originate with Stearns. Since no documentation demonstrates otherwise, this judgment appears to be more prejudice, concluding that such evangelistic Baptists could not possibly be doctrinal Calvinists.

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, because of their Anglican background, they had been raised in the Christian religion, the people “were grossly ignorant of its essential principles.”[23] 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.”[24] 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.”[25] The group had “acquired a very warm and pathetic address, accompanied by strong gestures and a singular tone of voice”[26] described by some as a “holy whine.” Stearns’ message was always the simple gospel, which was “easily understood even by rude frontiersmen”[27] 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, and though many jeered and mocked, others trembled and the powerful influences of the Spirit subdued many to saving faith in the redeeming blood of Christ.

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.”[28]

Through the organizational skills of Stearns and the untiring preaching endeavors of Daniel Marshall, the Great Awakening spread deep into the South. Marshall went into Virginia where Dutton Lane was converted. A flurry of activity followed and soon a number of churches from Virginia began to participate in the activities of the Sandy Creek Association. Daniel Marshall also preached in Georgia, established a Baptist church in Kiokee. His son, Abraham, eventually became the leading pastor for the pioneer Baptist movement in Georgia laboring there for thirty-five years. Looking back Stearns’ explanation of the vision was proven true.


1 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 the same prepared for publication by Eve B. Weeks and Mary B. Warren in 2 volumes, (Danielsville, GA: Heritage Papers, 1984), 2:93. This version will be referred to as “Warren” because it is copyrighted by Mary B. Warren.

2 “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.

3 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).

4 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).

5 Ibid., 65–66.

6 William Latane Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations in the South (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1962), 21.

7 William G. McLoughlin, Soul Liberty (Hanover: Brown University Press, 1991), 103–4.

8 Ibid.

9 Benedict, The Baptist Denomination, II, 37.

10 Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations, 21.

11 Edwards, 19, Warren, 2:93.

12 Benedict, The Baptist Denomination, II, 37.

13 Charles Curtis Goen, Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740–1800 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962), 206–207.

14 Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972), 319.

15 Benedict, The Baptist Denomination, II, 38.

16 Semple, Baptists in Virginia, 13n.

17 Semple, 376.

18 Ibid., 14.

19 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.

20 Benedict, The Baptist Denomination, II, 38.

21 Edwards, “Materials”, 18.

22 Ibid., 19. Warren, 2:93

23 Semple, Baptists in Virginia, 15.

24 Ibid.

25 Edwards, “Materials”, 19. Warren, 2:93.

26 Semple, Baptists in Virginia, 15.

27 Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations, 31.

28 Edwards, “Materials”, 20. Warren, 2:94