The Separate Baptists
The American succession of faith and practice of the Primitive Baptists can be traced through Shubal Stearns and the Separate Baptists. The Separate Baptists received their name as an indirect result of the Great Awakening, which had its beginnings in New England around 1734. Its evangelical appeal was the result of years of religious decline, which was the outcome of the Established Congregationalist Church. Because all citizens were compelled to join at birth, and many could not claim an experience of grace, by 1720 the Congregationalists claimed a large class of what they termed "inferior" members. These members possessed limited rights and privileges of church membership. However, various schemes were launched in attempts to revive the ailing denomination, by vitalizing the membership of inferior members. First they were allowed into communion. Next, they were allowed to hold certain church offices. Finally, it was agreed that "inferior" members, those who made no claim as to an experience of grace, could be ordained to the clergy. None of the Congregationalists schemes were successful. They continued to suffer from lax discipline and defections. In 1734 Jonathan Edwards was blest to participate in a short revival in religion. His relentless preaching stirred some enthusiasm which resulted in short lived religious renewal among the Congregationalists in Massachusetts and Connecticut. However, one positive outcome of Edward's zeal and the slight renewal of interest in religion was the arrival of George Whitfield in America in 1740.
From the moment the world famous Whitfield landed on American soil, at Newport, in September 1740, huge crowds gathered to hear him preach. The effect was electrifying. Whitfield recorded in his journal, "many wept exceedingly, and cried out under the Word, like persons that were hungering and thirsting for righteousness." Wherever Whitfield preached, thousands rejoiced. The heartfelt religion which spontaneously burst forth was in great contrast to the stern and stoic form of religion practiced by the Calvinist Puritan Congregationalists of the Established Church. New converts in Congregational churches soon became uneasy by the coldness and hostility of unawakened members.
Whitfield revival converts came to be known as "New lights." Traditionalists in the Puritan congregations were called "Old lights." In such a climate of contrast, it was only natural the New lights began leaving the old state church to form their own congregations. By 1744 these informal congregations began assuming identities as churches. Those who left the old church and formed into new churches became known as Separates.
In 1745 Whitfield returned to America. His return was not welcomed by many of the Established Churches. However, the Separates greeted him enthusiastically. Because of their fervent support and attendance, the Separate Churches received most of the benefit from Whitfield's second revival tour. Three men of note who joined the Separates during the 1745 revival were Isaac Backus, Daniel Marshall and Shubal Sterns. All three would later join the Baptists, bringing with them their enthusiastic belief in evangelical revival.
The Established Congregational Church may have accepted the existence of the awakened New Light churches but for the fact that the New Lights kept a "closed communion" and would not accept letters of dismissal from the Congregationalists. Even at this early date, the New Lights recognized the need for church order. The Separates brought these practices with them when they joined the Baptists.
Elder Sylvester Hassell provides a brief introduction of the Separates as Baptists. He notes, "These Separates first arose in New England, and made their way eventually, into the States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Elders Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall were among those evangelical ministers whose labors were greatly blessed in the States above named."
Elder Lemuel Burkitt, in his history, written in 1806, notes; "The Separates first arose in New England, where some pious members left the Presbyterian, or the Standing Order, on account of their formality and superfluity, viz. 1. Because they were too extravagant in their apparel. 2. Because they did not believe their form of Church government to be right. But chiefly because they would admit none to the ministry only men of classical education,and many of their ministers, apparently, seemed to be unconverted. They were then called Separates Newlights. Some of these were baptized and moved into the southern provinces, particularly Elders Shubal Sterns and Daniel Marshall, whose labors were wonderfully blest in Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia. Many souls were converted, and, as the work progressed, many churches were established in Virginia and some in North Carolina."
Elder Burkitt continues his somewhat detailed and flattering description of the Separates by describing their preachers as extremely pious and zealous men. He characterized the effect of their evangelical zeal with this quote; "and such a work appeared to be amongst the people that some were amazed, and stood in doubt, saying what means this?" He notes, "The distinction between them and us, was they were called Separates and the Philadelphia, the Charleston, and the Kehukee Associations were called Regular Baptists."
As Elder Burkitt's narrative suggests, the Separates discovered many Baptist practices with which they concurred. They approved of the Baptists practice of democracy in church government, simplicity of their order of worship, believers baptism and ordaining men to the ministry based upon a divine call as demonstrated by qualification of their gifts through preaching.
Baptist Elders crossed into Connecticut to preach for Separate Congregations. Slowly the Separates began to leave the doctrines of pedobaptism and join Baptist churches. At one point Elder Backus, who himself left the Separates and was baptized and ordained by the Baptists, was heard to say that all the Separate churches would soon become Baptists.
During this migration of gospel conversion, Shubal Stearns, a prominent Separate preacher, joined the Baptists and was baptized and ordained in 1751 by Elder Waitt Palmer at Tolland, Connecticut. Elder Palmer had been baptized and ordained by Valentine Wightman.
It was through the evangelical activities of Elder Stearns and his brother-in-law, and brother in the ministry, Daniel Marshall, that primitive Baptist faith and practice was carried to the Kehukee brethren of North Carolina. In 1755 Stearns joined Daniel Marshall in Virginia. Marshall had been baptized earlier at the Particular Baptist Church at Mill Creek in Opekon, Virginia. Stearns was on his way to North Carolina at the request of friends, who petitioned him to come and help with the pathetic spiritual destitution of the area. Marshall and Stearns left Opekon in the summer of 1755, traveling two hundred miles to Sandy Creek, North Carolina.
Upon arriving at Sandy Creek, Stearns and his small congregation built a meeting house. Elder Stearns immediately began his evangelical activities. People from neighboring farms began attending the frequent services held in the new meeting house. Elder Stearns' heartfelt and powerful delivery was a display of religious fervor many had never heard nor seen. They could not decide which was more remarkable, his delivery or the content of his sermons of God's sovreign grace. Both had a very positive effect. There was an outpouring of the Spirit of God and revival began. Word of the lively meetings at Sandy Creek soon reached other settlements. Stearns received invitations to visit in those areas. He gave preference to invitations from the most neglected areas, having a desire to preach to the poorest folk. He accepted no salary for his services, relying on the providence of God through the generosity of His Saints. In 1757 an arm of Sandy Creek Church was extended to Abbott's Creek.
The Spirit of revival heightened dramatically the next year. An arm was extended to Deep River. After his own ordination, Daniel Marshall pushed the revival northward into Virginia, taking with him James Reed, William and Joseph Murphy, and Dutton Lane all newly ordained young preachers. He also traveled south, to Georgia, establishing churches there.
Within three years after their arrival, Stearns and Marshall witnessed a tremendous increase among the Baptists. Beginning with only sixteen members at Sandy Creek, there were now three churches with a combined membership of nine-hundred. More preachers were ordained. John Newton, Joseph Breed, Ezekiel Hunter, Charles Markland, Nathaniel Powell and James Turner were all preaching the gospel. The revival which began at Sandy Creek spread in every direction. In 1758 the Sandy Creek Association was organized.
The first session of Sandy Creek Association met in June 1758. According to Lumpkin "the meeting did not bother with organizational procedures and transaction of business. It did not even go so far as to elect a moderator, although everyone looked to Elder Stearns as the man in charge. The order of the day was preaching and exhorting, singing and recounting successes."
The meeting further energized the Baptists. Preachers were stirred to greater zeal. Many visitors, who attended the association out of curiosity, went away convicted by the message of man's depraved nature and God's free grace. New invitations came from every direction for preachers to be sent. Ingathering occurred in great numbers.
Elders Dutton Lane, baptized and ordained by Elder Stearns, found Virginia to be his field of labor. The first Separate Baptist church in Virginia was constituted in August 1760. Elder Lane served as pastor. According to Elder Robert Semple, in his history, Rise and Progress of the Baptist of Virginia, "The church prospered under the ministry of Mr. Lane, aided by the occasional visits of Mr. Marshall and Mr. Stearns."
Initially the Virginia churches were members of the Sandy Creek Association. However, because of the difficulty of travel and since the Sandy Creek Association had grown quite large, with churches in South Carolina and Virginia, at the 1770 session it was unanimously agreed to divide into three associations.
In 1771 the first session of the Virginia Separate Baptist Association was held. The new association contained fourteen churches. Very quickly, the association grew to more than fifty churches. It eventually divided into districts which later became independent associations. Associations which originated from the Virginia include Dover, Goshen, Culpepper, Albemarie, Middle District, Appomattox, Roanoak, Meherrin, Strawberry, New River, Halston, Mountain and Accomac.
The Separates organized churches in Tennessee. In 1771 a small group from Sandy Creek Church moved west, settling on Boone's Creek in Washington County. However, the churches were soon broken up by the Indian War of 1774. Though no church records are still in existence, correspondence from sister churches in North Carolina identifies the name of one of these pioneer churches as Buffalo Ridge. About 1780 many of the scattered memberships of these early churches reorganized in East Tennessee. In 1776 Elder Tidence Lane arrived in Watauga at Boone's Creek. He settled at nearby St Clair Bottom in 1777, where he established a group from Sandy Creek as a constituted church.
Elder Daniel Marshall traveled to Georgia where he established the first Baptist church in that Colony. In 1772 he constituted a church at Kiokee.
Kentucky also experienced Baptist expansion and ingathering from the Separate Baptists. In 1779 Squire Boone, brother of Daniel Boone, moved with his family from North Carolina down the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers to Louisville. Ordained as a Separate Baptist minister in 1776, Boone started a church there.
The first Baptist church in Mississippi, at Cole's Creek, was constituted by members from Little River Church. In turn, Little River had been organized by members from Sandy Creek and Deep River Church. Her first pastor, Elder Joseph Murphy, was baptized and ordained by Elder Stearns. The first pastor of Cole's Creek was Elder Richard Curtis Jr.. He returned to Little River in 1791 to be ordained. He immediately returned to Mississippi and constituted Cole's Creek Church.
On November 20, 1771 Elder Shubal Stearns died at the age of sixty-five. During his sixteen year ministry in North Carolina and there about, he ordained one hundred twenty-five Elders and helped constitute forty-two churches, plus many branches. Using this able servant, and the small group of Baptists he gathered at Sandy Creek, the Lord effected the most dramatic revival and ingathering ever experienced on American soil.
Fellowship and Union With the Regular Baptists
The first of several account of attempts to unite the Separates and Regulars is contained in the 1762 minutes of the Charleston Association. Mr. Hart of Charleston and Evan Pugh of Pee Dee were instructed to attend the 1763 meeting of the Sandy Creek Association to try to effect a union. There is no further record of this effort contained in the Charleston minutes. The early minutes of the Sandy Creek are lost, burned in a house fire in 1810. However, from the complete silence of the Charleston Association regarding their proposed union it may be assumed Sandy Creek either ignored or declined their invitation.
In 1769 another attempt at interchurch fellowship was made by the Kekocton Association. They sent Messrs. Garratt, Major and Saunders to the Sandy Creek Association to propose a union. The proposal was rejected. The most serious objection to a union was the Kekocton's identification with the Philadelphia Confession of Faith. Quoting from Robert Semple's history G. W. Pascal notes, "A more serious and real objection was that, the Philadelphia Confession, some parts of which they considered objectionable, might come to bind them too much." A sense of the reluctance of the Separates to participate in the proposed union is suggested by the tone of the Kekocton's letter of invitation. It provides some indication the Separates were very serious in their refusal to be formally identified with the Regular Baptists.
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ:
The bearers of this letter can acquaint you with the design of writing it. Their errand is peace, and their business is a reconciliation between us, if there is any difference subsisting. If we are all Christians, all Baptists, all New Lights, why are we divided? Must the little appellative names, Regular and Separate, break the golden band of charity, and set the sons and daughters of Zion at variance? "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity," but how bad and how bitter it is for them to live asunder in discord. To indulge ourselves in prejudice, is surely a disorder; and to quarrel about nothing is irregularity with a witness. O, our dear brethren, endeavor to prevent this calamity in the future.
The Separate Baptists' response to this overture of fellowship demonstrates what Benedict terms their "shyness." It attests to their high regard for order in both faith and practice. Their response reads;
Excuse us in love; for we are acquainted with our own order, but not so well with yours; and if there is a difference, we might jump into that which will make us rue it.
The Separate Baptists' consistent aversion to written creeds and specifically, the Philadelphia Confession, gave rise to a distinction between those sovereign grace baptists who embraced its doctrinal tenets and those who rejected the document. The name Regular Baptist was applied to those who embraced the Philadelphia Confession.
The first formal union of Separates and Regulars occurred in the reformation of the Kehukee Association. In 1777 six Regular Baptist and four Separate Baptist churches joined together, with a new covenant and new Articles of Faith.
In 1784 the Georgia Association was constituted. It included both Separate and Regular Baptist churches. Like the Kehukee Association this group also adopted their own Confession, which closely resembles primitive articles of faith in both content and style. In 1809 an attempt was made to replace this document with the Charleston Confession of Faith. After review by a committee appointed by the association, the move to adopt Keach's version of the London Confession was defeated.
A union of Separates and Regulars occurred in 1787 in Virginia. In this integration the Philadelphia Confession was adopted, although the Separates required a statement be included in the constitution of the Association which stipulated that no church was required to strictly hold to the Particular Baptist confession. The disclaimer stated that acceptance of the confession did not "mean that every person is to be bound to the strict observance of everything therein contained, nor do we mean to make it, in any respect, superior or equal to the scriptures in matters of faith and practice." This union of Separate and Particular Baptists resulted in the formation of the Virginia Association.
Semple presents a more detailed explanation of the Separates' caution in adopting the Philadelphia Confession of Faith. Quoting the committee's explanation of the resolution, he wrote, "After considerable debate as to the propriety of having any confession of faith at all, the report of the committee was received with the following explanation: To prevent the confession of faith from usurping a tyrannical power &vover the conscience of any, we do not mean that every person is bound to the strict observance of everything therein contained; yet that it holds forth the essential truths of the Gospel, and that the doctrine of salvation by Christ and free, and unmerited grace alone ought to be believed by every minister of the Gospel. Upon these terms we are united; and desire hereafter that the names Regular and Separate be buried in oblivion, and that from henceforth, we shall be known by the name of the United Baptists Churches of Christ in Virginia."
The first hints of fellowship between the Regular Baptists and the Separates of the Virginia Association occurred through circumstances which truly, were providential. It came as a result of American independence. In the 1780 session of the Association a letter was received from a committee of the Regular Baptists suggesting the Virginia Separate Baptist Association appoint a committee to join with the Regulars "to consider national grievances in conjunction." The Separates agreed to the proposal, sending Reubin Ford, John Williams and Elijah Craig to serve with Regular Baptists in addressing religious matters of national concern to the newly formed American government. The Baptist's common desire for religious freedom opened a window which allowed the Separates and Regulars to view one another. Eventually this small window led to full fellowship.
In 1789 a general union occurred between the Separate and Regular Baptists in North Carolina, forming the United Baptist Association. This association was composed of several churches of the original Kehukee, which had divided in 1774, together with six Regular Baptist and four Separate Baptist churches which reformed the Kehukee in 1777. The churches which had refused to reform in 1777 finally agreed to unite with the reformed Kehukee. The spirit of brotherhood in Christ which effected the earlier merger of Separate and Regular Baptists into the reformed Kehukee Association had continued, allowing the churches of the reformed Kehukee to resolve their differences with those which had rejected the 1777 reformation.
All these evidences of friendly relations between the Separates and Regulars can be attributed to the providence of God rather than man's disposition. When Regular Baptist preacher John Gano first attended the Sandy Creek association he was not recognized. His presence was greeted with suspicion by the general membership. Elder Stearns, however, showed him great Christian affection and brotherly kindness. By the same token, in Georgia, when Daniel Marshall first met Mr. Botsford, recently ordained from the Regular Baptist Charleston Association, he was reluctant to extend fellowship. However, after resolving certain "slight differences" the two established a close friendship and fellowship which lasted the remainder of Elder Marshall's life.
The Separates were jealous of their doctrine and practice. They were unwilling to surrender their beliefs or practices to the formality of the Regular Baptists. At the same time there were many among the Regulars, whose religious heritage was primitive Baptist, who retained their love for a simple and heartfelt religion. When they came into contact with the Separates their reaction was a longing to worship the Lord as their ancestors had.
Elder Edward Morgan, a Welshman and Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, expressed the sentiments of many Regulars in his enthusiastic admiration of the Separate Baptists. Beginning in 1770 Elder Edwards composed a notebook of material to be used for a history he later planned to write. Although he did not live to write his history, his notes were used extensively by Backus, in his History of New England with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians Called Baptists and by Benedict in his History of the Baptists.
A short excerpt from Elder Morgan's notebook provides a flavor of the admiration he felt for the Separate Baptists. Writing of the motherhood of Sandy Creek church he notes "It is a mother church, nay a grand mother and a great grand mother. All the Separate baptists sprang hence not only eastward towards the sea, but westward towards the great Mississippi, but northward to Virginia and southward to South Carolina and Georgia. The word went forth from this sion, and great was the company of them who published it, in so much that her converts were as the drops of dew. This first church that sprang hence was Abbott's Creek, the Deep River, Little river, New River, (Ezek. Hunter), Southwest (Charles Marklin), Trent (James McDaniel), Staunton-river, Virg. (William Murphy), Fall-creek, VA (Samuel Harris), Danriver, Va. (Dutton Lane), Grassy-creek (James Reed), John Walker's church, Va Amelia Va. (Jeremia Walker), Fairforest, S. C. (Phil Mulkey) Congaree, S. C. (James Rees), Stephens-Creek, S. C.; (Dan. Marshal), Shallow-fords, N. C. (Joseph Murphy), &c."
The phenomenon of the merger of Separates and Regulars warrants some consideration. It has been previously noted that in England, when integration of the primitives and Particulars occurred, the primitives' identity was obscured. However, it appears their doctrinal sentiments were retained by some, though they were formally identified as Particulars. Upon arriving in America, when they became acquainted with the Separates, those holding to the primitive faith reemerged and sought union with the Separates. After the two bodies of Baptists integrated they eventually referred to themselves as Primitive Baptists. In America, it was not the Separates or primitives whose identity became obscured by integration, for their faith and doctrine remained the same. However, the Particulars lost their distinct identity. Over a period of seventy years the primitive faith and practice of the Separates came to dominate the integration. This seems reasonable since it is known that some portion of the Particulars possessed a religious heritage of primitive faith and practice. In some instances they were perhaps only a generation removed from their own primitive Baptist roots.
Those who resisted this migration toward primitive faith usually separated themselves from the main body. By the end of the mission/anti-mission divisions, formal use of the London Confession as the principle statement of beliefs of Primitive Baptist Churches and Associations in America was rare. The numerous documents which replaced the Particular Baptist Confession are similar to the Midland, Kehukee and Sandy Creek Articles of Faith. Widespread abandonment of the London Confession diminished its prestige as a creed to such an extent that most contemporary Primitive Baptists possess only a passing knowledge ofthe document's content.
It may be surmised that God, in his infinite wisdom, used the "good offices" of the Particular Baptists to deliver a large number of his saints to America as sovereign grace baptists, many of them yet holding to primitive faith. As such, they were prepared for the faith and practice of the primitives they found here. God then used a few pious Separate Baptist brethren, filling them with the fire of the Gospel and a zeal of God according to knowledge, to labor in this new field, which was white and ready for the harvest. The fervent Spirit of God which was manifest by these primitive faith preachers melted the hearts of many of God's saints, who had come to America loving the doctrines of grace. Once here, they learned to love the spirit of grace as well. Thus, the primitive faith reemerged in America in greater proportions than it had been exercised in England for many centuries.
The contribution of early Welsh immigrants, to the union of the Separates and Regulars, must be noted. When they came to America, many brought a pure form doctrine, which had been held by Welsh Baptists since antiquity. Their preachers, whether Regular or Separate, in large part, were primitive. In his book, Primitive Baptist History, Elder W. S. Craig provides modest biographies of several of these able ministers of the gospel. While we will not repeat his work, the significance of the labors of such pious evangelicals demands they be identified in this writing. Welsh Baptist notables include; Elders Thomas Griffin, John Miles, Morgan Edwards, Samuel Jones, Abel Morgan, William Davis, Hugh Davis, Davis Evans, Nathaniel Jenkins, Griffith Jones, Caleb Evans, Elias Thomas, Enoch Morgan and many more brethren who preached the pure doctrines of grace in power and demonstration of Spirit of God.
Likewise, much is owed to Particular Baptist worthies for their faithfulness and piety. We must also thank God for the evangelical zeal of Elder Stearns and his small army of preachers. By God's grace they all worked together for good for those who love the Lord. Finally, the greatest debt of gratitude is owed the heavenly Father for his providence and mercy in sustaining and delivering the primitive faith to America.
Separate Baptist Faith and Practice
The Separate Baptists were unique among the Baptists of America, including both General and Regular, concerning the immediate working of the Spirit upon an individual. Elder Robert Semple wrote of the initial reaction of many to the doctrine preached by Elders Stearns and Marshall. "Having always supposed that religion consisted in nothing more than the practice of its outward duties, they could not comprehend how it should be necessary to feel conviction and conversion. But to be able to ascertain the time and place of one's conviction and conversion was, in their estimation, wonderful indeed. These points were all strenuously contended for by the new preachers."
David Benedict, quoting Semple, in his history of the Baptists of America offers additional insight into the doctrine of the Separate Baptists. He wrote, "Mr. Stearns and most of the Separates had strong faith in the immediate teachings of the Spirit. They believed that to those who sought him earnestly, God often gave evident tokens of his will. That such indications of the divine pleasure, partaking of the nature of inspiration, were above, though not contrary to reason, and that following these, still leaning in every step upon the same wisdom and power by which they were first actuated, they would inevitably be led to the accomplishment of the two great objects of a Christian life, the glory of God and the salvation of men."
As has been noted, some have imagined Elders Stearns and Marshall were Arminian in their theology. In their efforts to claim a historical argument for their own position they assert Elders Stearns, Marshall and Burkitt were supporters of the missionary system. With this latter claim, they strain to make evangelical zeal a missionary system. Further, they incorrectly assume only Arminians embraced Fuller's missionary scheme. This is not so. The Regular Baptists of the Philadelphia and Charleston Associations were enthusiastic in their support of the missionary movement.
Elders Stearns, Marshall and Burkitt all traveled extensively, and constituted numerous churches. But they did so under the Apostolic plan, "Go your ways; behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves. Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes; and salute no man by the way. And unto whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be unto this house." (Luke 10:4-5) They did not pursue Fuller and Carey's missionary schemes.
It is true these Elders traveled into new areas spreading the gospel; but, they did not rely upon missionary societies to define their fields of labor. They did not carry indoctrination tracts with them. And, they did not require a salary in order to travel. They responded to the leading influence of the Holy Spirit in determining their labors. They traveled by faith, relying upon God's providence for food and shelter. This is the true pattern of evangelical liberty.
History will not support a notion that Stearns and Marshall were Arminians. Such assertions are universally void of documented evidence of their belief in Arminius' theories. No church which they formed include Arminian statements of beliefs in their constitution. None of these churches were identified with Arminius until after 1776. However, original documents of churches constituted by Stearns and Marshall do exist, which attest to their belief in the doctrines of particular redemption and free grace.
Further, the testimony of eyewitness accounts confirm their love of the doctrines of election and predestination. Elder Burkitt, describes Stearns and Marshall together with the numerous elders they ordained as believers in the sovereign and free grace of God through election and predestination. His hardy endorsement and devoted affection to the labors of these two brethren is testimony as to their doctrinal orientation. He wanted fellowship with the churches they constituted. Would Elder Burkitt have desired fellowship with the Separates if they were free-will Baptists, after having just helped write primitive Articles of Faith for the Kehukee Association which denounce free-willism? Plentiful records of the warm and frequent fellowships between the churches of the Kehukee and the churches of the Separate Baptists are too great a witness of their common doctrinal sentiments. This witness is sealed with their amalgamation in 1789 as the United Baptist Association.
According to Elder Burkitt, Stearns and Marshall left the Congregational or Standing Order. Their removal from their former doctrinal sentiment, to primitive faith is well documented. It seems unlikely they would have abandoned the doctrines of election and predestination without somewhere leaving a record as to their reasons for departing from the doctrines of Grace and embracing Free-willism.
Robert Semple, Separate Baptist minister and historian was an eyewitness to many of the activities of the Separate Baptists (including divisions). As a Separate Baptist Elder who understood their doctrine, a man whose integrity remains to this day unchallenged, he must be considered the premiere and authoritative resource of Separate Baptist history. In his history of the Virginia Baptists, Elder Semple makes no statement, nor does he intimate, that the Separate Baptists were originally Arminians. He does observe that some were overcome with vanity and succumbed to Arminian sentiment. But he cites this occurring first in the 1770s, during the early days of the great revival. He informs us, "Some of the preachers, likewise, falling unhappily into the Arminian scheme, stirred up no small disputation, and thereby imperceptibly drove their opponents to the borders, if not within the lines of Antinomianism." This statement clearly indicates the brethren of whom Elder Semple wrote abandon their original position, "falling unhappily in the Arminian scheme."
Semple identifies 1775 as the first year Arminian sentiment came to public attention among the Separate Baptists of the Virginia Association. In response to a query concerning general atonement, a debate ensued. After two days of continuous discussion a vote was taken by the delegates and the Arminian position was defeated. However, in a spirit of toleration, a resolution was accomplished. Those holding to the original position of particular redemption offered to tolerate the presence of the minority promoting Arminianism, hoping the Lord would correct the error. They expressed their desire for continued fellowship in a short letter written to those holding the Arminian position.
Dear Brethren,- Inasmuch as a continuation of your Christian fellowship seems nearly as dear to us as our lives, and seeing our difficulties concerning your principles with respect to merit in the creature, particular election, and final perseverance of the saints, are in hopeful measure removing, we do willingly retain you in fellowship, not raising the least bar. But do heartily wish and pray that God, in His kind providence, in His own time will bring it about when Israel shall all be of one mind, speaking the same things.
Signed by Order.
"John Williams, Moderator."
While the brotherly kindness and charity of those who so desired continued fellowship is greatly admired, one wonders if the tolerance of Arminius' doctrine in their midst did not contribute to a greater loss of fellowship in the divisions of the 1800s.
In 1776 a split did occur over the Arminian question. At this session the introductory sermon was preached by John Walker, who took I Corinthians 13:11 as a text. According to Semple, Walker "had fully embraced the whole Arminian system, and was determined to preach it at every risk." He was called before the Association for preaching unsound doctrine. Walker's response was to withdraw from the Association together with all those who supported Arminianism. In Semple's words they "immediately set up for independence."
The Separate Baptists suffered from other doctrinal lapses. During the October 1774 session of the southern district of the Association a query was considered concerning the offices of the church. Using Ephesians 4:11-13 as proof text, the association agreed, almost unanimously, that the office of Apostle still existed. Without further discussion the delegates nominated and ordained, by laying on of hands, Elder Samuel Harris, as Christ's apostle. It was thought this office served to oversee the faith and practice of the churches. Elder Harris' authority was described as follows. "His work was to pervade the churches; to do, or at least to see to, the work of ordination, and to set in order things that were wanting, and to make report to the next Association."
According to Elder Semple, subsequent discussion of the rash implementation of this office "caused no little warmth on both sides." Fortunately, the Association's error came to nought. Elder Harris never exercised his new authority. Upon reflection, at the next session of the Association, the act of creating a new apostolic office was rescinded. Elder Harris eventually succumbed to the temptations of Arminianism and left the Association.
The theology of Elders Stearns and Marshall is well documented. There is no doubt as to their doctrinal affections. They believed in election and predestination. This is apparent, from the constitutional statement of beliefs of Sandy Creek church, written by Elders Stearns.
While Sandy Creek Church, where Elder Shubal Sterns was pastor, did not have formal Articles of faith, the statement of beliefs contained in the church Covenant, written in 1756, testifies of the Old Baptist origin of their doctrine.
"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 Jesus Christ; progressive sanctification through God's grace and truth; and final perseverance, or continuance of the saints in grace; the resurrection of these bodies after death, at the day which God has appointed to judge the quick and dead by Jesus Christ, by the power of God and by the resurrection of Christ; and life everlasting. Amen."
Though it was some years later before Sandy Creek formally adopted Articles of Faith, their simple statement of beliefs, contained in the original church covenant, is easily understood and a good statement of the doctrines of grace. Any orthodox Primitive Baptist Church can accept the doctrine of their covenant.
Prior to Sandy Creek adopting more formal Articles of Faith, the Georgia Association was constituted. It was composed, in part, by several churches which Daniel Marshall helped constitute, including Kiokee where he served as pastor until his death in 1784. Also, Elder Silas Mercer, formerly a member of Kehukee Church, in the Kehukee Association, was involved with the constitution of the Georgia Association. The Articles of Faith of this association are free grace and primitive in their doctrinal expressions. For instance, Article four of the Georgia Association Articles of Faith reads; "We believe in the everlasting love of God to his people, and the eternal election of a definite number of the human race, to grace and glory: And that there was a covenant of Grace or redemption made between the Father and the Son, before the world began, in which salvation is secure, and that they in particular are redeemed." Article six further demonstrates Daniel Marshall believed in sovereign grace. "We believe that all those who were chosen in Christ, will be effectually called, regenerated, converted, sanctified, and supported by the spirit and power of God, so that they shall persevere in grace and not one of them be finally lost."
In 1816 The Sandy Creek Association, in which Sandy Creek Church held membership, adopted formal Articles of Faith. The articles represent more detailed explanations of the statement of beliefs contained in the Church's Covenant. Like the Georgia Association Articles, the Sandy Creek confession expresses the doctrinal tenets of free grace. Article four demonstrates this point. "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."
Lumpkin writes, "the Separate Baptists were unique among the Christian groups of the south. For a quarter of a century their distinctive outlook was to keep them aloof from other groups, including their Baptist neighbors who belonged to different traditions." He describes their unique belief concerning regeneration. "Their teaching centered in individual conversion and regeneration. Conversion was seen as coming not usually through fellowship of a church or family but through a separate act of God upon the individual."
It is not known why the Separates were initially opposed to written Articles of Faith, but their opposition is frequently noted by historians. If their stated reasons are the full explanation for the aversion, they show themselves to be committed to precisely the same principle of scriptural authority ascribed to the Old Baptists of Wales by Welsh Baptist preacher Howell Vaughn in the early 17th century. Their often stated reason for non-reliance on Articles of faith was the same as historian Jonathan Davis said of Elder Vaughn and the ancient Baptists of Olchon. "They would have order, and no confusion; the Word of God their only rule."
Semple infers the Separate's antipathy for the London Confession was because of the influence the document wielded. He notes the Separates opposed subordination of inspired scripture to uninspired works of men. In their first response to the Regulars' application for uniting the two bodies, the Virginia Separate Baptists seemed to presume the Regulars were too attached to their confession. Semple's assessment of their reluctance to promote written principles of faith is summarized with this excerpt. "They did not entirely approve of the practice of religious societies binding themselves too strictly by confessions of faith, seeing there was danger of their finally usurping too high a place."
A discussion of the doctrine of the Separate Baptists must include some notice of their mode of delivering sermons. Semple provides a description of their preaching which is especially appreciated by those who yet rejoice to hear the doctrines of grace preached in power and demonstration of the Spirit of God. In portraying their preaching liberty, Semple paints a picture which is familiar to those who yet hold to the primitive faith.
But their manner of preaching was, if possible, much more novel than their doctrines. The Separates in New England had acquired a very warm and pathetic address, accompanied by strong gestures and a singular tone of voice. Being often deeply affected themselves while preaching, correspondent affections were felt by their pious hearers, which were frequently expressed by tears, trembling, shouts and acclamations. All these they brought with them into their new habitation. The people were greatly astonished, having never seen such things on this wise before. Many mocked, but, the power of God attending them, many also trembled.
The Separate Baptists practiced a heartfelt religion. Their preaching was warm and tender. During the preaching service, shouts of praise and weeping was often heard from the congregation.
The doctrine of the Separate Baptists was primitive. They believed in the immediate workings of the Holy Spirit. The immediate work of the Spirit precludes gospel preparation or instrumentality in regeneration or else the working of the Spirit is delayed until the preacher arrives. Immediacy of the Spirit eliminates works systems of all types, including evangelical efforts, for the purpose of the eternal salvation of sinners.
Though they were not antinomian, the Separate Baptists rejected the works system of the Arminians, who taught one must accept Christ to be saved. They also rejected the back door works system of the Calvinists, who taught that acceptance of Christ and obedience in baptism are the first and essential evidences that one is saved; and, that lacking these external evidences, it must be concluded that one is not saved. They believed in obedience to God, but not from a motive of producing evidences of grace in order to receive an intellectual assurance of eternal salvation. They understood that such convictions must originate in one's soul, by faith. There is no righteousness in the works of a law service, whether through the front door or back. Their motive for obedience was love of God. As those embraced in his Covenant of Grace, their obedience and good works were evidences of grace, motivated by love alone, to the full assurance of a strong consolation by a hope in Christ Jesus.
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