The Separate Baptist Revivals in the South,


Garry D. Nation

William Warren Sweet, the dean of chroniclers of religion in America, calls the Separate Baptist growth in the period from 1758 to 1771 “almost unparalleled in Baptist history.”1 At the same time it was also the period of the greatest opposition that Baptists of any variety have experienced in this country. This is not surprising. The Separate Baptists were set against the established forms of religion, not by choice or intent but by nature. And they were not merely dissenters who were content to settle quietly unto themselves in an atmosphere of mere toleration. They were missionaries. It was not their purpose to disrupt the status quo, but their presence and activity inevitably had that effect. Those who controlled the status quo were therefore inevitably threatened and sought to meet the threat with counter measures of varying intensity. As in the days of the apostles, the harsh winds of persecution did not obliterate the blossoming movement, but only scattered the seed.

Expansion into South Carolina

In a survey of the records of the early Separate Baptist Churches in South Carolina, the name of Philip Mulkey is unavoidable. A, gifted, fiery, man of boldness, Mulkey “did more to advance the cause of Christ in the name of Baptists than any one individual in the eighteenth century in South Carolina” according to Roy Fish.2  In the overall history of the movement he ranks in significance alongside Stearns, Marshall, and Harris.

Paradoxically, we know very little of his biography, less even than of Stearns and Marshall. It is known that before his conversion he had been a nominal Anglican, that his conversion experience was singularly dramatic, and that Stearns baptized him around Christmas, 1757. In 1758 he felt called to preach as Baptists understood the term, which is to say, impressed by the Holy Spirit with a divine imperative, and was ordained in October of that year to serve as pastor of the Deep River Church in North Carolina. The short lapse of time between conversion and ordination must be noted, because Stearns was very strict to “lay hands suddenly on no man” and always required a time of probation for an aspiring preacher to prove his gift and call. Also at this time, a license (i.e., sponsorship and authorization by a local church)  sufficed among the Separate Baptists to allow a man to preach among them, but ordination was for pastors only. It was not until after the revivals of the Second Great Awakening early in the next century that this restriction began to loosen.3  Moreover, Stearns and his company considered it necessary for there to be an ordained minister for a church to be constituted, and that ordination required a presbytery of two or more ministers. Lumpkin believes that the Abbott's Creek Church would have been constituted much earlier if Stearns had been able to get someone to help him ordain Daniel Marshall sooner.4  So, the fact that Stearns installed Mulkey in this position so quickly is itself a testimony that Mulkey was an extraordinary man.

Mulkey pastored that church until 1759 or 1760 when he removed to Broad River, South Carolina, with a dozen others and established a church that rapidly grew to over a hundred. Mulkey then managed through grants and purchases to get a tract of land lying in the fork of Fairforest Creek and Tyger River where the church relocated in December 1762. The Fairforest Creek Church became the base of operations for a wide-ranging evangelistic endeavors Mulkey directed with the aid of several licensed assistants. The church had 167 baptized members and some three hundred families connected with it. By 1772 they had a new church building, 40 by 26 feet, complete with galleries. The church quickly united with the Sandy Creek Association and retained such Separate Baptist practices as the love feast and anointing the sick.5

From the Fairforest congregation there sprouted several branches: at Lawson's Fork; at Catawba in North Carolina; at Thickety, where one of its early pastors was an assistant to Mulkey, Richard Kelly, who testified having recovered from a fever in the same hour he was anointed and prayed for; and at Enoree, known to be founded in 1768. It is also possible and even probable that the Tyger River Church, founded 1765, was connected with the Fairforest Church. In addition, there are a number of other churches that arose at that time that were probably connected to Mulkey and the Fairforest Church but the connections are obscure.6

In 1764, Mulkey made a mission tour to the Congaree region in the central portion of the colony and recorded several conversions. A little later Daniel Marshall, who was now also preaching throughout South Carolina with good success, journeyed through the region, and more were added to the number. Joseph Murphy came and on November 30, 1766, helped to constitute a church with 33 charter members. Among them were four that Mulkey had won to Christ, who became ministers: Joseph Reese, John Newton, Thomas Norris, and Timothy Dargan. When the Sandy Creek Association divided in 1771 an association gathered for awhile around this church, and Joseph Reese was its pastor. It is said of him that he “seems to have caught the spirit of Mr. Mulkey: 'his natural eloquence, and command of the passions of his hearers were extraordinary.'”7

Reese, like Mulkey, gave himself to prodigious missionary and evangelistic work and led his church in that spirit. Several branches were established. One of the more outstanding revivals that attended his ministry was in the Stateburg district in 1769, where previously that year the people had been strongly resistant to gospel preaching. Out of that revival was born the High Hills of Santee Church, and some came to faith there who would later to become significant Baptist leaders. One of them was 16-year-old Richard Furman, namesake for Furman University, who was baptized in 1771 and ordained the pastor of High Hills Church two years later.

Expansion and Opposition in Virginia

Separate Baptist progress in Virginia went through two phases.8  In the first phase, from 1758 to 1769, they underwent a slow, persistent progress upstream against a current of popular hostility and prejudice. Their emotional worship intimidated and alarmed the people who were already suspicious of a group that, in their minds, rebaptized adult Christians while cruelly neglecting the spiritual needs of their own infants. The Baptists were regarded as an inferior, strange, radical people. Wild rumors about them were rife, and it took several years for them to overcome a general public disdain of them. Sweet relates a David Benedict's story from  the early 1800s of “a very honest and candid old lady [who] said to me in a very sober tone”:

Your society [Baptists] are much more like other folk than they were when I was young. Then there was a company of them in the back part of our town, and an outlandish set of people they certainly were. For yourself would say so if you had seen them. As it was told to me, you could hardly find one among them but what was deformed in some way or other. Some of them were hard-lipped; others were blear-eyed, or humped-backed, or bow-legged, or clump-footed, hardly any of them looked like other people. But they were all strong for plunging, and let their poor ignorant children run wild and never had the seal of the covenant put on them.9

In spite of this prejudice the Separate Baptists were advancing their cause with no little effort and with no small demonstration of spiritual power. As previously noted, the chief instrument for this advancement was Col. Samuel Harris. Immediately after his baptism he began to give open witness of his faith to his community. He resigned from his civic offices and his militia post, stripped his business interests to next to nothing, turned his newly built home over for a meeting place for his church, and in many other ways proved himself to be magnanimous to the brethren and zealous for the cause of Christ. Lumpkin, 88f. He was a fearless and forceful preacher who was nicknamed Boanerges, an allusion to a nickname Jesus gave to two of his disciples, the brothers James and John, and means “son of thunder” (Mark 3:17). He was so diligent about heeding the Holy Spirit's direction that he was known to refrain from preaching if he did not sense freedom of the Spirit to do so.10

One of the most powerful spiritual awakenings surrounding the Baptists in Virginia began when Harris joined up with James Reed. Harris had been urged in 1766 by a small group of believers in a northern district of the province to come help them get established, but he had not been ordained and could not administer the ordinances, so he suggest they get Reed to come also. They travelled sixty miles to meet him and were surprised to find him already preparing to come to Virginia. He had already been so much burdened about preaching there that he was heard to cry out about it in his sleep.11

It was in Spotsylvania County that the two evangelists had their most fruitful ministry. On the first day that they preached in Orange, Reed baptized 19 people. They determined to preach in the same area the next year and set engagements in advance, and for the next few years they enjoyed a good measure of success. During this time a number of men were brought to faith who themselves would become outstanding evangelists and pastors. Robert Semple describes this work:

In one of their visits, they baptised seventy-five at one time, and in the course of one of their journies, which generally lasted several weeks, they baptised upwards of two hundred. It was not uncommon, at their great meetings, for many hundreds to camp on the found, in order to be present the next day. The night meetings, thro' the great work of God, continued very late; they minister would scarcely have an opportunity to sleep; sometimes the floor would be covered with persons, struck down under conviction for sin. It frequently happened that, when they would retire to rest at a late hour, they would be under the necessity of arising again, thro' the earnest cries of the penitent; there were instances of persons travelling more than one hundred miles to one of these meetings; to go forty or fifty was not uncommon. [Sic]12

The number of new believers had grown enough by 1769 that two new churches had to be constituted to handle them. “In the years 1769-71, revival fires were breaking out in all quarters.”13  Harris received ordination at the 1769 meeting of the Sandy Creek Association, possibly the first and certainly one of the very rare instances of an itinerant evangelist being ordained by the Separate Baptists. Also during this period some persons of note were converted, including William Marshall—uncle of the man who would become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

1769 was also the beginning of a period of severe persecution that lasted for five years. In the earlier phase of the Separates' work in Virginia the opposition was on a low, popular level. But the more the Baptists preached and multiplied and the more visible they became, the more accepted they were, and they were even beginning to acquire a measure of popular favor. At the same time, they began to attract the attention of the civic authorities who looked with disfavor on their movement.

The first one to suffer the direct reproach of the law was Lewis Craig, indicted for unlawful preaching. One of the men on the grand jury, John Waller, was so impressed by Craig that he ended up accepting the gospel to be born again and went on to become a Baptist preacher. In 1768 he, Craig, and three others were arraigned for disturbing the peace because they could not “meet a man upon the road, but that they must ram a text of scripture down his throat.” As they walked to jail they sang the Isaac Watts hymn “Broad Is the Road That Leads to Death.” Their esteem rose in the eyes of many that day. 14

On another occasion in 1771, Waller was preaching when he was approached by the parish vicar and his clerk, accompanied by the sheriff.

As Waller prayed, the sheriff thrust the handle of a horsewhip into Waller's mouth and down his throat. The Waller was pulled down from his preaching place and flogged, without any semblance of a trial. But no sooner was the whipping over than Waller, bloody and disheveled, climbed painfully back onto the speaker's platform and preached. The effect upon the audience was electric; Waller could claim nearly the entire company as disciples.15

The Anglican church had been established in Virginia since the colony's beginning and was reluctant to cede any of their turf to anybody. The New Light Presbyterians had, by painstaking and patient persistence, acquired a measure of license to extend their communion in Virginia and had by now gotten a strong following. The established church, meanwhile, was connected in the minds of the people with an increasingly intrusive and oppressive British crown and was losing prestige as fast as dissenters were gaining it. When the Baptists came in audaciously preaching their own way as if they had the divine right to do so—and stealing their diminishing flocks as well—the Anglican divines  were terribly provoked. At first they tried public debate to turn the people's minds away from this “heretical” sect, associating it with the worst thing they could think of: radical Anabaptist anarchism of the type that brought violence to Europe in the early days of the Reformation.

As their appeal to “reason” failed, the clergy began calling on the ruling authorities to repress the Baptist movement. The starting point official, governmental persecution of Separate Baptists in Virginia began in 1772 in Chesterfield, King and Queen, and Caroline. “This was but the beginning of a large-scale and desperate effort by the official order to quell Baptist enthusiasm.”16

John Leland (1754-1841) claimed that some thirty or more preachers were jailed during this period, some of them as many as four times. Invariably the arrests and harassment were conducted on civil grounds rather than religious charges as the officials sought to avoid the charge of religious persecution. Warrants and indictments would be brought for disturbing the peace, perverting the order, calling unlawful assemblies, distracting people from gainful employment, bringing distress upon the populace, etc. 17

It was not difficult to find non-religious, legal grounds for prosecuting these free-roaming preachers. It was illegal to preach in Virginia without a civic license (the government did not recognize the licenses issued by the Baptist churches), and the Baptists would not apply, nor would they have received them if they had applied. Virginia was the crucial colony where the battle for religious freedom in America would be fought and, ultimately, decisively won, and the Separate Baptists played a large role especially in the early days of that struggle. The point here is that the official persecution tended to turn the tide of public opinion in that pre-Revolutionary time decidedly in favor of the Baptists. Semple writes,

Their persecution so far from impeding, really promoted their cause: their preachers had now become numerous, and some of them were men of considerable talents…; their congregations were large, and when any of their men of talents preached, they were crowded. The patient manner in which they suffered persecution, raised their reputation for piety and goodness, in the estimation of a large majority of the people. Their numbers annually increased in a surprising degree. Every month new places were found by the preachers, whereon to plant the Redeemer's standard. In these places, although but few might become Baptists, yet the majority would be favourable. 18

Their experience is reminiscent of Acts 5:13-14: “None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” (ESV)

Oppression and Scattering in North Carolina

The persecution the Separates faced in their original home base was different from that in Virginia, and the results were different as well. In Virginia the persecution was a religious matter with civil overtones. In North Carolina it was the reverse. With the growth of the colony, the colonial government of North Carolina had grown quite corrupt, and there was great inequity in the way it discriminated between the privileged, more affluent coastal towns and the poor, more hard-pressed inland districts. Tensions escalated rapidly when William Tryon rose to the governorship in 1765. Lumpkin gives us a sense of how the Baptists were impacted specifically by the religious policy of his administration:

He entered his new duties with the main objective of strengthening the position of the Church of England in the province. He assumed that the great need was to increase the numbers and competency of the clergy…. Tryon knew that North Carolina was full of sectaries, but he believed that approved Anglican ministers could soon win them. 19

It was not only the non-Anglican church folk who had issues with the governor. What followed Tryon's accession was a series of blundering ecclesiastical and political maneuvers by the governor, new tax levies, complaints and counter-complaints, and a general rise in bad will.

As the inequities grew more intolerable the frontier people began to band together to try to get a hearing for their grievances, and a large proportion of the settlers by this time were Separate Baptists. Some were departing the area to move deeper into the wilderness, despairing of ever seeing reform. Others sought to organize. Seeing that the governor had little interest in enforcing law and order other than to collect their taxes, they began to band together and by 1768 were calling themselves The Regulators. The governor saw them as anti-government resistors and tensions between them grew. The situation deteriorated into threats and assaults.

Separate Baptist leaders saw themselves caught in the middle.

When Shubal Stearns, who fully agreed with Regulator aims, saw that the course of the Regulators tended more and more to bloodshed and revolution, he tried to persuade his churches to declare against all use of arms and violence. The Sandy Creek Church actually passed a resolution excluding any member who should take up arms against the government…. A group of Regulators…invaded the meetinghouse and demanded repeal of the resolution. The church rescinded the action.20

Stearns continued to try to persuade the disaffected to forswear violence and adhere to peaceful protest and appeal, but to little avail.

On May 16, 1771, Governor Tryon's militia met an outclassed, poorly armed force of Regulators in a two-hour battle at Great Alamance Creek. About nine men were killed on each side, about 60 militiamen were wounded, but the Regulators were completely routed. Some of the leaders were rounded up and executed, some took an oath of loyalty and were pardoned, and some fled. Personal note: This writer's own ancestor, my 6th great-grandfather Christopher Nation, was one of the leaders among the Regulators who was eventually pardoned. But Tryon was not satisfied. He had acquired a personal hatred for the Baptists and what they stood for and determined to crush them. He continued to press his campaign through Baptist areas, ostensibly to round up Regulator leaders, until head arrested and either imprisoned or executed as many as he could find that he could charge with rebellion. The result was predictable: large numbers of the Baptists departed, and where once the Separates had been strong, now they were but a remnant.

But again, there is a twist to the story.

Dispersion of the Separates south of Sandy Creek spread them abundantly along the South Carolina frontier, while the dispersion of these north of Sandy Creek sent the earliest pioneers to Tennessee. Everywhere the Separates made ideal frontiersmen. They stood ready to preach to the newcomers as the people of the infant nation began to pour in a torrent through the mountain passes on their way west after the Revolution. Tryon succeeded only in spreading the virile seed all along the southern frontier. 21

Previous: Sandy Creek Association

Next: Division and Decline


1     Sweet, op. cit., 151; also Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier: The Baptists, 1783-1830 (NY: Cooper Square Publishers, 1964), 11.

2     Fish, 102f.

3     See Purefoy, Chapter VII.

4     Lumpkin, 41.

5     Leah Townsend, South Carolina Baptist: 1670-1805 (Florence, SC: Florence Printing Co., 1935; reprint ed., Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Society, 1978), 126-27.

6     Ibid., 128-141.

7     Ibid., 143.

8     So Lumpkin, 87-88.

9     Sweet, The Baptists (NY: Cooper Square Publishers, 1964), 10-11n.

10     Ibid., 90.

11     Ibid., 93.

12     Quoted in Sweet, The Baptists, 11.

13     Lumpkin, 93.

14     Ibid., 94.

15     Ibid., 98.

16     Ibid., 100.

17     Sweet, The Baptists, 12f.

18     Robert B. Semple, quoted by Sweet, The Baptists, 13.

19     Lumpkin, 75-76.

20     Ibid., 80.

21     Ibid., 85f.

- IV-

“If They Persecuted Me, They Will Also Persecute You

Period of Growth and Opposition, 1758-1771