The Separate Baptist Revivals in the South,
Garry D. Nation
The Sandy Creek Association
In June, 1758, after some six months of painstaking preparation by Shubal Stearns, the Sandy Creek Association was organized with nine churches participating. It was more like an evangelism conference than a business meeting. Lumpkin cites the only contemporary account of it, a statement by James Reed of Grassy Creek:
At our first Association we continued together three or four days; great crowds of people attended, mostly through curiosity. The great power of God was among us; the preaching every day seemed to be attended with God's blessing. We carried on our Association with sweet decorum and fellowship to the end. Then we took our leave of one another with many solemn charges from our reverend old father, Shubal Stearns, to stand fast unto the end.1
Thus began an association that continued for twelve years to be the denominational center, as it were of the Separate Baptist movement, which in a short time stretched into Virginia and South Carolina as well as throughout North Carolina. Purefoy records David Benedict's summary of the history of the Sandy Creek Association.
Its meetings were generally held at no great distance from the place where it originated. All who could travelled from its remote extremities to attend its annual sessions, which were conducted with great harmony and afforded sufficient edification to induce them to undertake with cheerfulness these long and laborious journeys. By means of these meetings the gospel was carried into many new places where the fame of the Baptists had previously spread. As great crowds attended from distant parts, mostly through curiosity, many became enamored with these extraordinary people, and petitioned the association to send preachers into their neighborhoods…. 2
He goes on to describe their agenda, which consisted of singing, preaching, exhortation, relating information how the work was going in the different places, and planning where they would go next. “These things so inflamed the hearts of the ministers, that they would leave the association with a zeal and courage which no common obstacle could impede.”3 Purefoy also inserts his own sadly wistful observation of how unfavorably the zeal and sacrifice of ministers in his own day, more highly trained and educated as they were, compared with that of their non-professional but profoundly spiritual forebears a century earlier.
The following year after their first meeting the Association was visited by an evangelist from the Philadelphia Association, John Gano. Some of the Separate Baptists were suspicious of having a Particular Baptist come to their assembly and were cool toward Gano, but Stearns received him “with great affection.” The association invited him to preach, and his sermon opened the eyes of the untrained (and some even illiterate) young preachers gathered there. They were amazed that “though his preaching was not with the 'new light tones and gestures,' it was in demonstration of the spirit and with power…. Their hearts were opened to him,” and some of their exhorters expressed doubt that they could ever venture to preach again.4
As for the planning of new work and the deliberate spread of the gospel, although it can only be surmised by secondary evidence, O'Kelly believes that a definite mission strategy can be detected in the association's activity. He finds a basic three-step pattern that recurs in the spread of Separate Baptist churches. First they would hold evangelistic services in a new area; then they would send itinerant ministers or lay “exhorters” to work among the converts until the new “branch” grew enough to become a self-supporting church that would then reproduce itself in a similar way.5
Expansion into Virginia
Unlike Shubal Stearns, Daniel Marshall was not known for his charisma. As a preacher he appeared to Morgan Edwards as “a weak man, a stammerer, no schollar [sic].” But if Stearns could be compared to George Whitefield in his preaching gifts, Marshall could be compared to John Wesley in his energy and organizational skills. He was zealous, tireless, and diligent, and is a testimony that the power of God does not have to come packaged in human talent. Lacking the flashy appeal of Stearns, he nevertheless could gather a crowd by using unusual approaches. “He would preach at a must, a sale, a wedding, or a barn-raising. Conversions, and entire communities stirred by his preaching almost always followed,” and people began coming to grassy Creek Church where he was the pastor from fifty or more miles away, some from Virginia.6
One of the first persons converted there through Marshall's ministry was James Reed, a man in his early thirties who became well known as an evangelist and eventually became the pastor of Grassy Creek Church from 1762 until retirement in 1789. “Under Reed's ministry the church claimed man of the outstanding families of the region. In this respect it was unique, for the early Separate churches generally were made up of poor and obscure people.”7 This is all the more remarkable when it is understood that Reed himself was illiterate at the time of his conversion and was not considered to be ministerial material even for the lowly Separate Baptists.
Meanwhile John and Joseph Murphy, who had been baptized in 1756, were preaching in Halifax County, Virginia. A prominent, distinguished, well-to-do young man in his mid-thirties, Samuel Harris (sometimes spelled Harriss), heard about them and decided to go hear them. Edwards relates the event:
His conversion…began with a deep seriousness without his knowing why or wherefore; conversation, and reading directed his attention to the cause; and he became convinced that he was a helpless sinner; pressed with this conviction he ventured to attend the ministry of the baptists [sic]; his distress increased; and his heart (as he used to express it) was ready to burst. Once, as the people rose from prayers, the colonel was observed to continue on his knees, with his head and hands hanging own the other side of the bench; some of the people went to his relief, and found he was senseless as if in a fit; when he came to himself he smiled, and broke out in an extacy [sic] of joy, crying “Glory! glory! & glory! etc. [sic]”8
Harris was baptized in 1758 by Daniel Marshall. He soon became one of the most important persons in the Separate Baptist cause, partly because he was the first man of civic prestige to join it, and partly because he was a dynamic man in his own right, having the ability, the means, and the inclination to influence many people toward faith. He accompanied Marshall on several mission trips and learned his ways. He pastored churches, but his principle ministry was itinerant evangelism, becoming known as “the Apostle of Virginia.”9
He was a powerful preacher. It was said of him that as he preached “great streams of celestial lightening would flash from his eyes, which whenever he turned his face, would strike down hundreds at once.” Many hundreds were converted by his ministry…. He founded or assisted in the founding of 26 churches in 19 different counties in Virginia.10
1 Lumpkin, 46.
2 Purefoy, 63. David Benedict (1779-1874) was an early historian of Baptists in America, the first American historian to write about Baptists on a national scale. His most significant work on the subject is A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America and Other Parts of the World, published in 1813 and revised in 1848.
3 Ibid., 63-64.
4 Ibid., 64-65.
5 See O'Kelly, Chapter Three for a full development of this theme.
6 Lumpkin, 39.
7 Ibid., 48.
8 O'Kelly, 126. O'Kelly uses Harris's conversion as an illustration of how the Separates reflected Jonathan Edwards's understanding of the stages of religious experience: first fear, anxiety, and admission of personal sinfulness; then complete dependence upon the sovereign mercy of God in Jesus Christ; and finally conversion with a sense of release from condemnation.
9 Lumpkin, 48.
10 Fish, 103.
“In This Is My Father Glorified”
The Sandy Creek Association Period, 1758-1771