The Separate Baptist Revivals in the South,


Garry D. Nation

The Storm and the Vision

A great storm occurred on September 7, 1769. On that day, Shubal Stearns had a vision. Morgan Edwards relates it:

As he was ascending a hill on 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 divided, fell to the ground and divided itself into three parts; the greatest part moved northward; a less toward 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, the division, and the 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. 1

Stearns must have felt that the Lord was preparing him for a scattering work lest he despair that his work had been in vain. In 1770 the scattering began. All was not well in the fellowship, and there were serious disagreements on polity and practice.

Edwards allows that the cause of the rupture was “partly convenience,” for the Association had become large, somewhat far flung, and difficult to manage. The primary cause, though was a centralizing tendency in the Association that constituent churches felt depreciated local church autonomy. Benedict went further and put a share of blame on “the good old Mr. Stearns, who was not wholly divested of those maxims which he had imbibed from the traditions of his fathers….” 2

One problem, for example, had to do with recognizing ordination. Many of the younger churches did not have the scruples that Stearns had impressed on the disciples he had trained. If a minister was needed and a willing and likely soul was available they felt free to ordain him without the approval of the Association. When some of these ordinands were denied “fellowship,” i.e., went unrecognized or were disapproved by the Association, offense was taken by the individuals and the churches that had laid hands on them. 3

When the Association met that year, the usual high spirits were not prevalent. Always in the past they had acted in unanimity, but this time they could not even agree on a moderator. In times past they encountered disagreements with seasons of prayer and fasting and the tried to do so this time. On the third day they were still unable to do business. Someone proposed to divide the Association into three, one in each province. It was the only matter they could agree on, and it was immediately passed unanimously.

Shubal Stearns was still active in ministry when he died on November 20, 1771, at age 65—sixteen years after he invaded the South with the New Light. Lumpkin's obituary for him summarizes well:

The Baptist movement had been securely planted from the Potomac River southward into Georgia, from the Atlantic westward to the mountains. Rarely has a religious leader seen such rapid and magnificent results from a few years of labor. Surely the Lord was in it. 4

So it was that in one brief stretch of time there were three momentous events—the defeat of the Regulators, the division of the Sandy Creek Association, and the death of Shubal Stearns—that signaled the end of the formative and most dynamic period of the Separate Baptist movement.

This is not to say it was the end of the revivals, but it might be proper to say that it was the true conclusion of the First Great Awakening. Certainly, Separate Baptists were now entering a new phase in their movement. Things were reaching a point where it would be difficult to point to a single group and say that they represent the Separate Baptists. There would be no more anchor churches, no more dominant associations, and not another figurehead leader like Shubal Stearns. But there would be leaders, and there would be revivals, and there would also be a growing sense of unity with other groups of Baptists in America.

Before going on to these developments it would be helpful to briefly consider how some of the unique and “Whitefieldian” features of the Separate Baptist movement had developed.


The Separate Baptists had a genius for what might be called a stewardship of the power of God. It was in evidence wherever Shubal Stearns went and wherever the Separates made their proclamation. They did not fear the manifestations of God's power among them, but reveled in them, and were perhaps too eager for them. Nevertheless, as Jesus said, “by their fruit you shall know them,” and their fruit lends credence to Morgan Edwards's belief that “a preternatural and invisible hand works in the assemblies of the Separate Baptists bearing down the human mind, as was the case in the primitive churches, I Cor. xiv:25.”5  They too were conscious of that invisible hand, and exulted in it. In 1765 Stearns wrote to Isaac Backus, the prominent Baptist leader in New England, describing an extended meeting he had led.

The Lord carries on his work gloriously in sundry places in the province, and in Virginia and South Carolina…. Not long since, I attended a meeting on Hoy [Haw] River, about thirty miles from hence. About seven hundred souls attended the meeting, which held six days. We received twenty-four persons by a satisfactory declaration of grace, and eighteen of them were baptized. The power of God was wonderful.6

Along with a consciousness, enjoyment, and dependence on the Holy Spirit's power and leading, they also developed an evangelist sophistication. They were not timid about communicating their message and calling for an immediate, personal response to it (lest, as some who shared their Calvinistic theology feared, they might tread on the Spirit's own prerogatives). In these first two characteristics they were readily distinguished from the Regular Baptists, and the distinctives have led many to ascribe the difference to theology. However, it is evident that there was far more doctrinal agreement between the Regulars and the Separates than there was disagreement. The real distinction was one of spirit, of inclination, of zeal, and of faith. The Separates were confident, sometimes it seems almost presumptuously so, that God would honor their preaching. They believed in divine election but did not worry about it, since it was up to God. Instead they concentrated upon the decision to seek the Lord and repent, which is man's own responsibility. Nevertheless, their doctrine of conversion was evidently as Calvinistic as Jonathan Edwards's, which regarded conversion and revival as a work of God. There is no evidence to suggest that the Separates anticipated Charles Grandison Finney in his belief that conversion and revival are a human work.

On the other hand, their methods did foreshadow the evangelistic developments of the 19th century. Their preaching not only called for conversion, they called for people to seek conversion immediately. By 1770 they were extending what appeared to be the forerunner of the invitations to believe that were introduced as an innovation by Finney. In The History of Grassy Creek Baptist Church, R. I. Devin describes the preacher coming down from his pulpit after his sermon, and while the people sang a “suitable hymn” he would walk among them shaking hands and “then extend an invitation to such persons as felt themselves to bee poor, guilty sinners and were anxiously inquiring the way of salvation, to come forward and kneel…or, if they preferred to do so, they could kneel at their seats,” and he would pray with them for their conversion.7  One is struck in this account and others of the personal nature of the invitation, and the importance of the shaking of hands in the extending of it. When, one wonders, did the pastor's invitation become separated from his greeting the people after the sermon?

Another method the Separate Baptists were using with success before the Revolution was the baptismal service and baptismal testimonies.

There was a certain popular appeal that brought crowds to come hear the experiences of their neighbors or families. Great conviction came upon the hearers many times as they heard a friend share his or her conversion. 8

Some came out to jeer and were surprised by their own conversion. Edwards relates the story of Elnathan Davis, who heard that the undersized Mr. Stearns was going to baptize (immerse) a certain oversized man and thought it would be worth watching for a laugh. While he was there he heard Stearns preach.

He was no sooner among the crowd than he perceived some of the people tremble, as if in a fit of the ague; he felt and examined them, in order to find out if it were not a dissimulation. [That is, he physically touched them in order to see if they were faking it.]

Meanwhile one man leaned on his shoulder, weeping bitterly. Elnathan, perceiving he had wet his new white coat, pushed him off, and ran to his companions…. One said, “Well, Elnathan, what do you think now of this people?” affixing to them a profane and reproachful epithet. He replied, there is a trembling and crying spirit among them, but whether it be the spirit of God or of the devil I don't know; if it be the devil, the devil go with them, for I will never more venture myself among them!”

But the enchantment of Stearns's voice drew him to the crowd once more…. The trembling seized him also; he attempted to withdraw, but his strength failing, and his understanding being confounded, he, with many others, sunk to the ground; when he came to himself he found nothing in him but dread and anxiety, bordering on horror. He continued in this situation some days, and then found relief by faith in Christ. 9

Another Separate Baptist foreshadowing of the revivals of the 1800s was the outdoor meeting, which resembled the later camp meetings. These meetings were necessary because sometimes people would gather from long distances to worship and to hear preaching, and they would have to camp at the preaching grounds. And often there were too many people to cram into the small meeting houses. It is more than inference that leads to this conclusion. There are contemporary witnesses who speak of such “great outdoor meetings.”10

Such were some of the developments that marked the maturation of the Separate Baptist movement.

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Next: The Revolutionary Period


1     Quoted in O'Kelly, 123.

2     Source 21 (2).

3     See Benedict in Source 21 (1).

4     Lumpkin, 59

5     Source 20.

6     Quoted in Lumpkin, 56.

7     Quoted in O'Kelly, 129-30.

8     Ibid., 131.

9     Quoted in Purefoy, 293-94.

10     Ibid., 155-56.

- V-

"He Purgeth It, That It May Bring Forth More Fruit"

Division and Decline of the Sandy Creek Association