IN VIRGINIA, NORTH- CAROLINA, SOUTH- CAROLINA, AND GEORGIA, FROM THE TIMEOF THEIR SETTLEMENT AT SANDY-CREEK, NORTH-CAROLINA, 1755, TO THE DIVISION OF THEIR EXTENSIVE CONNEXION, IN 1770.
THE appellation of Separates first began to be given to a set of Pedobaptist reformers, whose evangelical zeal was produced by the instrumentality of the famous George Whitefield, and other eminent itinerant preachers of that day, and who began their extraordinary career about the year 1740. Soon after these reformers, who were at first called New-Lights, and afterwards 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, when he embraced the sentiments of the Baptists, as many others of the Pedobaptist Separates did about this time, and soon after was baptized by Rev. Wait Palmer. Mr. Stearns was ordained the same year in Tolland, (Conn.) the town in which he was baptized, by the said Wait Palmer and Joshua Morse, the former being pastor of the church in Stonington, and the latter of New-London, in Connecticut.
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’s life, the glory of God and the salvation of men. Mr. Stearns, listening to some of these instructions of Heaven, as he esteemed them, conceived himself called upon by the Almighty to move far to the westward, to execute a great and extensive work. Incited by his impressions, in the year 1776 he and a few of his members; took their leave of New England. He halted first at Opeckon, in Berkley county, Virginia, where he found a Baptist church under the care of the Rev. John Garrard, who received him kindly. Here also he met his brother-in-law, the Rev. Daniel Marshall, who was also a Separate, and of whom much will be said in the history of the southern Baptists, just returned from his mission among the Indians, and who, after his arrival at this place, had become a Baptist. They joined companies, and settled for a while on Cacapou, in Hampshire county, about 30 miles from Winchester. Here, Stearns not meeting with his expected success, felt restless. Some of his friends had moved to North-Carolina; he received letters from these, informing him, that preaching was greatly desired by the people of that country; that in some instances they had rode 40 miles to hear one sermon. He and his party once more got under way, and,traveling about 200 miles,came to Sandy-creek, in Guilford county, North-Carolina. Here he took up his permanent residence. The number of families in Stearns’s company were 8, and the number of communicants 16, viz. Shubael Stearns and wife, Peter Stearns and wife, Ebenezer Stearns and wife, Shubael Stearns, jun. and wife, Daniel Marshall and wife, Joseph Breed and wife, Enos Stimson and wife, Jonathan Polk and wife.
As soon as they arrived, they built them a little meeting-house, 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.
The inhabitants about this little colony of Baptists, although brought up in the Christian religion, were grossly ignorant of its essential principles.
Having the form of godliness, they knew nothing of its power. Stearns and his party, of course, brought strange things to their ears. To be born again, appeared to them as absurd as it did to the Jewish doctor, when he asked, if he must enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born.
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; and to be able to ascertain the time and place of one’s conversion, was, in their estimation, wonderful indeed. These points were all strenuously contended for by the new preachers. 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 when preaching, correspondent affections were felt by their pious hearers, which were frequently express ed by tears, trembling, screams, and acclamations of grief and joy. All these they brought with them into their new habitation, at which the people were greatly astonished, having never seen things on this wise before. Many mocked, but the power of God attending them, many also trembled. In process of time, some of the inhabitants became converts, and bowed obedience to the Redeemer’s scepter. These uniting their labors with the others, a powerful and extensive work commenced, and Sandy-creek church soon swelled from 16 to members.
Daniel Marshall, though not possessed of great talents, was indefatigable in his labors. He sallied out into the adjacent neighbourhoods, and planted the Redeemer’ standard in many of the strong holds of Satan. At Abbot’screek, about thirty miles from Sandy-creek, the gospel prospered so largely, that they petitioned the mother church for a constitution, and for the ordination of Mr. Marshall as their pastor. The church was constituted; Mr. Marshall accepted the call, and went to live among them.
His ordination, however, was a matter of some difficulty. It required, upon their principles, a plurality of elders to constitute a presbytery. Mr. Stearns was the only ordained minister among them. In this dilemma, they were informed, that there were some Regular Baptist preachers living on Pedee river, (S.C.) To one 1 of these, Mr. Stearns applied, and requested him to assist him in the ordination of Mr. Marshall. This request he sternly refused, declaring that he held no fellowship with Stearns’s party; that he believed them to be a disorderly set; suffering women to pray in public, and permitting every ignorant man to preach that chose; and that they encouraged noise and confusion in their meetings. Application was then made to Mr. Leadbetter, who was then pastor of the church on Lynch’s.creek, Craven county, South-Carolina, and who was a brother-inlaw of Mr. Marshall. He and Mr. Stearns ordained Mr. Marshall to the care of this new church. The work of grace continued to spread, and several preachers were raised in North-Carolina. Among others was James Read, who was afterwards very successful in Virginia. When he first began to preach he was very illiterate, not knowing how to read or write. His wife became his instructor, and he soon acquired learning sufficient to enable him to read the Scriptures.
The gospel was carried by Mr. Marshall into the parts of Virginia, adjacent to the residence of this religious colony, soon after their settlement. He baptized several persons in some of his first visits. Among them was Dutton Lane, who, shortly after his baptism, began to preach. A revival succeeded, and Mr. Marshall at one time baptized 42 persons. In August, 1760, a church was constituted, and Mr. Lane became their pastor. This was the first Separate Baptist church in Virginia, and in some sense the mother of all the rest. The church prospered much under the ministry of Mr. Lane, aided by the occasional visits of Mr. Marshall and Mr. Stearns. They endured much persecution, but God prospered them, and delivered them out of the hands of all their enemies.
Soon after Mr. Lane’s conversion, the power of God was effectual in the conversion of Samuel Harris, a man of great distinction in those parts. But upon being honored of God, he laid aside all worldly honors, and became a laborer in the Lord’s vineyard. In 1759, he was ordained a ruling elder.
From the commencement of his ministry, for about seven years, his labors were devoted. chiefly to his own and the adjacent counties. Being often with Mr. Marshall in his ministerial journies, he caught the zeal, diligence, and indeed the manners of this zealous evangelist. His labors were crowned with the blessing of Heaven wherever he went. Stearns, though not as laborious as Marshall, was not idle. He seems to have possessed the talent of arranging the materials when collected, and well understood discipline and church government.
Marshall’s impressions led him to travel farther south. Accordingly, after prosecuting his successful ministry a few years in North-Carolina, and the neighboring parts of Virginia, he took an affectionate leave of the church over which he presided, and of his friends in that region, and settled on Beaver-Creek, in South-Carolina, not far from 200 miles to the north-west of Charleston. Marshall, after tarrying a few years at different places in South-Carolina, and having been the instrument of raising up a number of churches, and laying the foundation for many others, in 1771 removed to Georgia, and settled on the Hioka.creek, about 18 miles to the west of Augusta, where a church was soon gathered by his means, as some of his brethren had removed into that place before him. Mr. Marshall was accompanied by a few of the North-Carolina Separates, on his removal from them, and was soon followed by others, among whom were some ministers, particularly Joseph Breed and Philip Mulky, the last of whom was, for many years, a very famous and successful preacher in South- Carolina; and by the labors of those preachers and some others, who were soon raised up in the parts, seven churches were gathered by the year 1770, some of which were very large, and consisted of a number of branches, which were shortly after formed into distinct churches.
While Marshall was sojournlng southward, and planting churches in the various places where he pitched his frequent habitations, Harris bent his course to the northward, amongst his rude and insolent countrymen the Virginians; and while his brethren were thus engaged to the north and south of him, Stearns maintained his station at Sandy-creek, where his labors were greatly blessed; he however often traveled a considerable distance in the country around, to assist in organizing and regulating the churches which he and his associates were instrumental in raising up. Thus the Separate Baptists were headed by three most distinguished men; distinguished not for human acquirements, but for purity of life, and godly simplicity, which they, amidst the shipwrecks of many, maintained to the end; and for a pious ardor and invincible boldness and perseverance in their Master’s service. Other preachers were soon raised up under their ministry, whose zealous and abundant labors were crowned with great success; so that the Separates, in a few years became truly a great people, and their churches were scattered over a country whose whole extent from north to south, was about 500 miles; and Sandy-creek church, the mother of them all, was not far from the center of the two extremes. “Very remarkable things (said Morgan Edwards, in 1775) may be said of this church, worthy a place in Gillis’s book, and inferior to no instance he gives of the modern success of the gospel in different parts of the world. It began with 16 souls, and in a short time increased to 606, spreading its branches to Deep-river and Abbot’s-creek, which branches are gone to other provinces, and most of the members of this church have followed them; insomuch, that in 17 years it is reduced from 606 to l4 souls. The cause of this dispersion was the abuse of power which too much prevailed in the province, and caused the inhabitants at last to rise up in arms, and fight for their privileges; but being routed, May 16, 1771, they despaired of seeing better times, and therefore quitted the province. It is said 1,500 families departed since the battle of Almance, and, to my knowledge, a great many more are only waiting to dispose of their plantations, in order to follow them.
This is to me an argument, that their grievances were real, and their oppression great, notwithstanding all that has been said to the contrary. “The church at Little-river was no less remarkablo than the one already mentioned; for this was constituted in 1760, five years after the Sandy-creek, and in three years it increased from 5 to 500, and built five meeting-houses; but this church was also reduced by the provincial troubles and consequent dispersion of the inhabitants, mentioned above. “But to return. Sandy-creek church is the mother of all the Separate Baptists. From this Zion went forth the word, and great was the company of them who published it. This church,in seventeen years,has spread her branches westward as far as the great river Missisippi; southward as far as Georgia, eastward to the sea and Chesapeak Bay; and northward to the waters of Potomack; it, in seventeen years, is become mother, grandmother, and greatgrandmother, to 42 churches, from which sprang 126 ministers, many of which are ordained, and support the sacred character as well as any set of clergy in America; and if some have turned out bad, where is there a set of clergy that can throw the first stone, and say, “We all are good? ” As for the outcries, epilepsies, and ecstasies attending their ministry, they are not peculiar to them; the New-England Presbyterians had these long before; and in Virginia, it is well known that the same effects attend the ministry of some clergymen of the church of England, particularly Rev. Messrs. Derreaux Garret, and Archibald M’Roberts. The enchantment of sounds, attended with corresponding actions, have produced greater effects than these; though I believe a preternatural and invisible hand works in the assemblies of the Separate Baptists, bearing down the human mind, as was the case in primitive churches. 1 Corinthians 14:25.”
But Virginia, in about ten years after their settlement, became, to the Separates, their principal scene of action, of suffering, and success. Their movements here, we shall now proceed to state; being prepared, from Semple’s History, to give a more extensive and circumstantial account of them, in this, than in the other States.
Harris seemed destined of God to labor more extensively in Virginia than in any other State. And having done much good in his own nelghborhood, in the year 1765, the time arrived for him to extend his labors. In January of this year, Allen Wyley, an inhabitant of Culpepper, and who had been baptized by David Thomas, hearing of the Separate Baptist preachers, traveled as far as Pittsylvania, in order to get one or more of them to come and preach in his own county. He traveled on, scarcely knowing whither he went but an unseen hand directed his course. He providentially fell in with one of Mr. Harris’s meetings. When he came into the meeting-house, Mr. H. fixed his eyes upon him, being impressed previously that he had some extraordinary message. He asked him whence he came, etc. Mr. W. told him his errand. Upon which, after some deliberation, believing him to be sent of God, Mr. H. agreed to go. Taking three days to prepare, he set out with Wyley, having no meetings on the way, yet exhorting and praying at every house where he went.
Arriving in Culpepper, his first meeting was at Wyley’s own house. He preached the first day without interruption, and made appointments for the next. But when he began his meeting, such violent opposition was made by a company, who appeared with whips, sticks, clubs, and other rustick weapons, as to hinder his labors; in consequence of which, he went, that night, over to Orange county, and preached with much effect.
He continued many days preaching from place to place, attended by great crowds,and followed throughout his meetings by several persons who had been either lately converted, or seriously awakened, under the ministry of the Regular Baptists, and also by many who had been alarmed by his own labors. When Mr. Harris left them, he exhorted them to be steadfast and advised some in whom he discovered talents, to commence the exercise of their gifts, and to hold meetings among themselves. In this ministerial journey, Mr. Harris sowed much good seed, which yielded afterwards great increase. The young converts took his advice, and began to hold meetings every Sabbath, and almost every night in the week, taking a tobacco-house for their meeting-house. After proceeding in this way for some time, they applied to Mr. David thomas, who lived somewhere north of the Rappahannock, to come and preach for them, and teach them the ways of God more perfectly; he came, but in his preaching expressed some disapprobation of the preaching of such weak and illiterate persons.
This was like throwing cold water upon their flaming zeal; they took umbrage, and resolved to send once more for Mr. Harris. Some time in the year 1766, and a short time after Mr. Thomas’s preaching, three of the party, viz. Elijah Craig and two others, traveled to Mr. Harris’s house in order to procure his services in Orange and the adjacent parts, to preach and baptize the new converts. They found, to their surprise, that he had not been ordained to the administrat ion of the ordinances. To remedy this inconvenience, he carried them about 60 miles into North-Carolina to get James Read, who was ordained.
There is something singular in the exercise of Mr. Read about this time. He was impressed with an opinion that he had frequent teachings from God; and indeed, from the account given by himself, we must either doubt his veracity, or admit that his impressions were supernatural. He declares that respecting his preaching in Virginia, for many weeks, he had no rest in his spirit. Asleep or awake, he felt his soul earnestly impressed with strong desires to go to Virginia, to preach the gospel. In his dreams he thought that God would often shew him large congregations of Virginians assembled to hear preaching. He was sometimes heard by his family to cry out in his sleep, “O Virginia! Virginia! Virginia! ” Mr. Graves, a member of his church, a good man, discovering his anxiety, and believing his impressions to be from God, offered to accompany him. Just as they were preparing to set out, Mr. Harris and the three messengers mentioned above, came for him to go with them. The circumstances so much resemble Peter’s call from Joppa to Caesarea, that we can hardly for a moment hesitate in placing implicit confidence in its being a contrivance of Divine Wisdom.
Mr. Read agreed to go, without much hesitation. One of the messengers from Spottsylvania went on to appoint meetings on the way. The two preachers, after filling up some appointments in their own parts, pursued their contemplated journey, accompanied by Mr. Graves and the other two. In about two weeks they arrived in Orange, within the bounds of Blue-Run Church, as it now stands. When they came in sight, and saw a very large congregation, they were greatly affected. After a few minutes of prayer and reflection, they recovered their courage, and entered upon their great work. They preached with much effect on that day. The next day they preached at Elijah Craig’s, where a vast crowd attended. David Thomas and John Garrard, both preachers of the Regular Order, were at this meeting. The ministers on both sides seemed desirous to unite, but the people were against it; the larger part siding with the Separates. As they could not unite, the next day being Sabbath, both parties held meetings but a small distance from each other. Baptism was administered by both.
These things widened the breach. Messrs. Read and Harris, however, continued their ministrations. Mr. Read baptized 19 the first day, and more on the days following. They went through Spottsylvania into the upper parts of Caroline, Hanover, and Goochland, sowing the seeds of grace and peace in many places. So much were they inspirited by these meetings, that they made appointments to come again the next year. In their second visit, they were accompanied by the Rev. Dutton Lane, who assisted them in constituting and organizing the first Separate Baptist church between the Rappahannock and James-river. This took place on the 20th of November, 1767. The church was called Upper Spottsylvania, and consisted of 25 members, including all the Separate Baptists north of James-river. This was a mother to many other churches.
Read and Harris continued to visit these parts for about three years, with wonderful effect. In one of their visits, they baptized 75 at one time, and in the course of one of their journies, which generally lasted several weeks, they baptized upwards of 200. It was not uncommon, at their great meetings, for many hundreds of men to encamp on the ground, in order to be present the next day. The night meetings, through the great work of God, continued very late; the ministers would scarcely have an opportunity to sleep. Sometimes the floor would be covered with persons struck down under the conviction of sin. It frequently happened, that when they would retire to rest at a late hour, they would be under the necessity of arising again, through the earnest cries of the penitent. There were instances of persons traveling more than one hundred miles to one of these meetings; to go forty or fifty was not uncommon.
On account of the great increase of members, through the labors of Messrs. Read and Harris, aided by a number of young preachers, it was found necessary to constitute several other churches.
Read and Harris, particularly the latter, were men of great zeal and indefatigable diligence and perseverance in their Master’s cause. Their spirit was caught by many of the young prophets in Orange and Spottsylvania. Lewis and Elijah Craig, John Waller, James Childs, John Burrus, and others, animated by an ardent desire for the advancement of their Master’s kingdom, sallied forth in every direction, spreading the tidings of peace and salvation wherever they went. Most of them illiterate, yet illumined by the wisdom from above, they would defend and maintain the cause of truth, against the arguments of the most profound. Without visible sword or buckler, they moved on steady to their purpose, undismayed by the terrifick hosts of Satan, which were backed by the strong arm of civil authority. Magistrates and mobs, priests and sheriffs, courts and prisons, all vainly combined to divert them from their object.
Their labors were not limited to their own counties. In Goochland, Messrs. Harris and Read had baptized several; among whom was Reuben Ford, who had professed vital faith about seven years before, under the ministry of the renowned Whitefield and Davis. Mr. Ford was baptized in the year 1769, by James Read.
These plants were watered by the labors of the Spottsylvania preachers, particularly J. Waller, who, early in his visits to Goochland, baptized William Webber and Joseph Anthony, who, with Reuben Ford, had been exhorting, etc. previous to their being baptized. By the united labors of these several servants of God, the work of godliness progressed in Goochland and round about. These young preachers were no sooner captivated by the King of Zion, than they immediately began to fight under his banner. Their success was equal to their diligence; many believed, and were baptized in Goochland; insomuch that they thought themselves ripe for an independent government, and were accordingly constituted as a church, towards the last of the year 1771, which received the name of the county in which it was situated, and contained about 76 members. This was the mother church of those parts, for from it have been since constituted several others, particularly Dover and Licking-hole.
William Webber became pastor of Dover church,which office he held until his death in 1808. Reuben Ford administered the word and ordinances to Goochland and Licking-hole.
One William Mullin, afterwards an useful preacher, had moved from Middlesex and settled in the county of Amelia. When the gospel reached his neighborhood, Mr. Mullin cordially embraced it. Going afterwards, in 1769, on a visit to his relations in Middlesex and Essex, by arguments drawn from the scripture, he convinced his brother John, and his brotherin- law James Greenwood, with several others, of the necessity of being born again. Of these, some found peace in believing, before they ever heard the gospel publickly preached. November, 1770, John Waller and John Burrus came down and preached in Middlesex They continued preaching at and near the same place for three days; great crowds came out. Waller baptized five; but persecution began to rage. Some said they were deceivers; others that they were good men. On the second day, a magistrate attempted to pull Waller off the stage, but the clergyman of the parish prevented it. The next day a man threw a stone at Waller while he was preaching; but the stone missed him, and struck a friend of the man who threw it. James Greenwood and others now began to hold publick meetings by day and by night; much good was done by them. Many believed, and only waited an opportunity to be baptized, there being no ordained preacher nearer than Spottsylvania.
In the mean time, the laborers had not been idle in that part of the vineyard south of James-river. The two Murphies, viz. William and Joseph, aided by the indefatigable Samuel Harris, had carried the gospel into some of the counties above Pittsylvania, where Robert Stockton and some other preachers were raised up. Mr. Harris, James Read, Jeremiah Walker, and others, had proclaimed the tidings of peace in Halifax, Charlotte, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Amelia, and almost all the counties to the west of Richmond, on the south side of James-river. In these gatherings, there were many useful and several eminent ministers of the gospel brought in, particularly John Williams, John King, James Shelburne, Henry Lester, with some others. The gospel was first carried to these places much in the same way as it was into Culpepper and Spottsylvania, viz. in consequence of a special message to the preachers from some of the inhabitants. They constituted the first church in 1769, with about forty members, which was called Nottoway. Jeremiah Walker soon moved and took the pastoral care of it: he had been preaching some time before this, in North-Carolina, his native State; but now moving to Virginia, he for several years acted a conspicuous part in the concerns of the Virginia Baptists.
In the year 1758, three years after Stearns and his company settled at Sandy-creek, a few churches having been constituted, and these having a number of branches which were fast maturing for churches, Stearns conceived that an Association composed of delegates from them all, would have a tendency to forward the great object of their exertions. For this purpose he visited each church and congregation, and explaining to them his contemplated plan, induced them all to send delegates to his meetinghouse in January, 1758, when an Association was formed, which was called Sandy-creek, and which continues to the present time; but it has experienced many vicissitudes of prosperity and adversity; and at one time, on account of exercising too much power over the churches, it became much embarrassed in its movements, and very near to extinction.
For twelve years, all the Separate Baptists in Virginia and the two Carolinas, continued in connection with this Association, which was generally held at no great distance from the place where it originated. All who could, traveled from its remote extremities, to attend its yearly sessions, which were conducted with great harmony, and afforded sufficient edification to induce them to undertake with cheerfulness these long and laborious journies. By the means of these meetings, the gospel was carried into many new places, where the fame of the Baptists had previously spread; for great crowds attending from distant parts, mostly through curiosity, many became enarnoured with these extraordinary people, and petitioned the Association to send preachers into their neighborhoods. These petitions were readily granted, and the preachers as readily complied with the appointments. 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 the mode of conducting their meetings. When assembled, their chief employment was preaching, exhortation, singing, and conversing about their various exertions in the Redeemer’s service, the success which had attended them, and the new and prosperous scenes which were opening before them.
These things so inflamed the hearts of the ministers, that they would leave the Association with a zeal and courage, which no common obstacles could impede. “At our first Association, (says the MS. of James Read, who was present) 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 leave of one another, with many solemn charges from our reverend old father Shubael Stearns, to stand fast unto the end” At their next Association they were visited by Rev. John Gano, who at that time resided in North-Carolina, at a place called the Jersey settlements. Mr. Gano was received by Stearns with great affection; but as there was at that time an unhappy shyness and jealousy between the Regulars and Separates, by the others he was treated with coldness and suspicion; and they even refused to invite him into their Association. But Mr. Gano had too much knowledge of mankind, humility and good nature, to be offended at this treatment. He continued a while as a spectator of their proceedings, and then retired with a view of returning home. Stearns was much hurt and mortified with the shyness and incivility of his brethren, and, in the absence of Mr. Gano, expostulated with them on the matter, and made a proposition to invite him to preach with them. All were forward to invite him to preach, although they could not invite him to a seat in their Assembly. With their invitation he cheerfully complied, and his preaching, though not with the New-Light tones and gestures, was in demonstration of the Spirit and with power. He continued with them to the close of their session, and preached frequently, much to their astonishment, as well as edification. Their hearts were soon opened towards him, and their cold indifference and languid charity were, before he left them, enlarged into a warm attachment and cordial affection. And so superior did his preaching talents appear to them, that the young and illiterate preachers said they felt as if they could never attempt to preach again.
This Association continued to progress with great harmony and prosperity, without any special occurrence, until 1769, when the Ketockton association of Regular Baptists, desirous of effecting an union with them, (which had before been unsuccessfully attempted)by compromising those little matters of difference, which had unhappily prevented their communion with each other, sent, as messengers for the purpose, the Rev. Messrs. Garret, Major, and Saunders, with a letter of which the following is an extract: — “Beloved in our 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 soon a disorder; and to quarrel about nothing, is irregularity with a witness. O, our dear brethren, endeavor to prevent this calamity for the future.”
This excellent letter was presented to the Association, and after a lengthy debate, the proposal for an union was rejected by a small majority.
Their answer to the Regulars was, “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 ignorantly jump into that which will make us rue it, etc.”
At the meeting of this body, in 1770, their harmony was interrupted and their assembly assumed a new and unpleasant appearance, and the division of the Association, which convenience would have dictated, was now effected from painful necessity. It had been usual with them to do nothing in Associations, but by unanimity. If in any measure proposed, there was a single dissentient, they labored first by arguments to come to unanimous agreement; when arguments failed, they resorted to frequent prayer, in which all joined. When both these failed, they someumes appointed the next day for fasting and prayer, and to strive to bring all to be of one mind.
At this session they split in their first business; nothing could be done on the first day. They appointed the next for fasting and prayer. They met and labored the whole day, and could do nothing, not even appoint a Moderator. The third day was appointed for the same purpose, and to be observed in the same way. They met early, and continued together until three o’clock in the afternoon, without having accomplished any thing. A proposal was then made, that the Association should be divided into three districts, that is, one in each State. To this there was an unanimous consent at once. “The cause of this division, (says Mr. Edwards) was partly convenience, but it was chiefly owing to a mistake which this Association fell into, relative to their power and jurisdiction. They had carried matters so high as to leave hardly any power in particular churches, unfellow-shipping ordinations, ministers, and churches that acted independent of them; and pleading, “that though “complete power be in every church, yet every church “can transfer it to an Association;” which is as much as to say, that a man may take out his eyes, ears, etc. and give them to another, to see, hear, etc. for him; for if power be fixed by Christ in a particular church, they cannot transfer it; nay, should they formally give it away, yet is it not gone away.”
The good old Mr. Stearns, who was not wholly divested of those maxims which he had imbibed from the traditions of his fathers, is said to have been the principal promoter of this improper stretch of associational power, which, however, was soon abandoned by those, who, for a time, tampered with it, to their embarrassment and injury.
How many communicants were comprehended in this Association, at the time of its division, I have not been able to ascertain; but they must have been considerably numerous. The division was made in the following manner. The churches in South-Carolina formed an Association by the name of Congaree; those in North-Carolina were still known by the name of Sandy-creek; while those in Virginia formed an Association which was at first called Rapid-ann, but was more commonly distinguished by the name of the General Association of Separate Baptists.
We are now prepared to treat wholly of the Separates in Virginia, as the history of those in the other States will be related under their respective heads.
The Association which originated in the manner above described, embraced all the Separate Baptists in Virginia, except a very few churches, which were dismissed from it in 1776, to form the Strawberry Association, for the space of twelve years, viz. until the year 1783, when it was by mutual consent divided. From this Association, as from a fruitful mother, have originated most of the present Associations in Virginia. And although there was one temporary division by mutual consent, and another occasioned by the discussion of an important subject,. which will soon be mentioned; yet, generally speaking, it continued a united, prosperous, and even powerful body, through all the calamitous scenes of the revolutionary, war; and to them, the more afflictive scenes of persecution, which for a number of years were carried to a high degree in Virginia, to which the Separates, more than the Regulars, were exposed.
A brief account of the proceedings of the General Association during the twelve years of its existing as such, will now be given.
It has already been observed, that the division of the Sandy-creek Association took place in the year 1770, and the next year, the one under consideration was organized; at which time it contained 14 churches, and 1335 members. These 14 churches were scattered in almost as many counties, and many of them were pretty high up in the State, both as it respected the sea-coast, and its southern boundary; the most of them, however, were situated on the south of James-river.
At the organization of this Association, they adopted a set of rules for the regulation of their body, which consisted of nine articles, and the first and most important of them, which restricted the Association within proper bounds, was as follows: “It is unanimoudy agreed that this Association has no power or authority to impose any thing upon the churches, but that we act as an advisory council.”
In 1773, the Association had increased to 34 churches, which contained 3195 members.
We are now about to relate an affair which took place in this body, which will probably produce mixed emotions in the mind of the reader. The following query, viz. “Are all the offices of Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers, mentioned in Ephe-sians, 4th chapter, and 11th verse, now in use? ” had been introduced at a previous session of the Association, when, after spending two days in debating upon it, they agreed to defer their decision on the subject, until their next session.
During the recess of the Association, as well as when it was assembled, this novel subject was discussed by many, with no little warmth and interest. It appears to have been first agitated by Jeremiah Walker, who labored hard, both in publick and private, to defend and propagate his sentiments. He even wrote a piece upon the subject, entitled, Free Thoughts, etc. in which he ingeniously maintained that Apostles, together with all the other offices enumerated in Ephesians, etc. were still to be maintained in the church. Reuben Ford took an active part against Walker, and wrote a pamphlet in opposition to his scheme. Both of these men were followed by large and respectable parties, and both of their pamphlets were read before the Association in 1774, when the query was again introduced, and the debates upon it resumed. But the majority favoring Walker’s speculations, an almost unanimous vote was obtained to carry them into practical operation. Having thus resolved, they, in the first place, proceeded to choose one from among them, to officiate in the dignified character of an Apostle. Walker had been suspected of vain and ambitious views in pleading so hard for the establishment of this office; but whatever were his desires and expectations, the venerable Samuel Harris, who was now about 50 years of age, was, by the unanimous voice of the Association, elected an Apostle. He acccepted the appointment, and was immediately ordained to the Apostolic function. His ordination, as appears by their Minutes, was conducted in the following manner: “The day being set apart as a fast day, we immediately proceeded to ordain him, and the hands of every ordained minister were laid upon him. 2 Publick prayer was made by John Waller, Elijah Craig, and John Williams. John Waller gave a publick charge, and the whole Association gave him the right hand of fellowship.” The work assigned to this Apostle, was to pervade the churches, for the purpose of performing, or at least of superintending the work of ordination, and to set in order the things that were wanting; and he was ordered to report the success of his mission, at the next Association. And for the discipline of this high officer, the following law was enacted, viz. “If our Messenger, or Apostle, shall trangress in any manner, he shall be liable to dealing in any church where the transgression was committed; and the said church is instructed to call helps from two or three neighboring churches; and if by them found a transgressor, a general conference of the churches shall be called, to restore, or excommunicate him.” At this time there was a temporary division of this extensive Association, and James-river was the dividing line. The scene which we have been describing, was acted on that part which lay south of this river; but the northern section, in imitation of their southern brethren, not long after, in the same year, appointed for their Apostles, John Wal ler and Elijah Craig. Thus Virginia, whose ecclesiastical affairs were formerly governed by Bishops, now beheld within her bounds, three Baptist Apostles! But these Apostles made their first reports in rather discouraging terms, and no others were ever appointed. They finally concluded, that the office of Apostles, like that of Prophets, was peculiar to the Apostolick age, and ceased with the cessation of that inspiration and those miraculous gifts, by which these characters were peculiarly distinguished.
The reflecting reader will doubtless feel emotions of disgust and disapprobation, at these irregular sallies of zeal; he will also, probably, be provoked at the same time to smile at the weakness of those who promoted them; and the risibility of the affair may, in some measure, abate the severity of his censures.
In 1775, the two divisions of the Association, which had, for a short time, acted in separate capacities, now reunited, when it was found, that the whole number of churches amounted to 60; 31 on the north, and 29 on the south side of James-river. At this session the Association was most painfully agitated by the discussion of the following very serious and important question, viz. “Is salvation by Christ made possible for every individual of the human race? ” This query was debated with much interest, and also with much ability; for notwithstanding the proceedings of the last meeting, by which their wisdom was so much impeached, there were, at this time, a number of preachers amongst the Virginia Baptists, who were men of considerable reading and theological knowledge, and they, in this interesting debate, exerted all their polemical powers. Those, who supported the affirmative of this question, were called Arminians, while those who maintained the opposite opinion were denominated Calvinists. But taking the spirit of the question, these appellations were not descriptive of the characters to whom they were applied; for many decided Calvinists hold, that the atonement of Christ is general in its nature, though particular in its application; and had these people been acquainted with the distinction made by Dr. Fuller and other modern divines, it might have relieved their embarrassments, and prevented their discord. But to avoid circumlocution, I shall, in relating the progress of this debate, make use of the term Arminian and Calvinist, as they were then applied, and as they are used in Semple’s History.
This important query occupied the first attention of the Association. One whole day was spent in debating it, and most of the preachers spake more or less upon it. The weight of talents and influence seems to have been on the Arminian side. Samuel Harris, Jeremiah Walker, John Waller, and many other distinguished preachers, stood forward, and zealously as well as ably supported the argument in favor of universal provision. Talents and ingenuity were not wanting on the other side. William Murphy, John Williams, and Elijah Craig stood foremost in favor of a Calvinistick solution.
The preponderating weight was at last cast into the Calvinistick scale, and they, after a long and animated debate, finally obtained a small majority.
This decision was on Monday afternoon, immediately before an adjournment. That evening the Arminian party holding a consultation, determined to bring on the subject again the next day, and to have a determination, whether their opinions upon this point should be a matter of bar to fellowship and communion. On Tuesday, when they met, the business became very distressing. The Arminian party having the Moderator with them, withdrew out of doors. The other side also withdrew, and chose John Williams as Moderator. Every thing was then done by message, sometimes in writing, and sometimes verbally. After some time was spent in this way, the following proposal was made by the Arminian party: “ Dear Brethren, “A steady union with you makes us willing to be more explicit, in answer to your terms of reconciliation proposed. We do not deny the former part of your proposal, respecting particular election of grace, still retaining our liberty with regard to construction. And as to the latter part, respecting merit in the creature, we are free to profess there is none. “Signed by order, SAMUEL HARRIS, Moderator.” To which the other replied as follows. “ Dear Brethren, “Inasmuch as a continuation of your Christian fellow-ship 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 a 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 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.” These terms being acceded to on both sides, they again met in the meetinghouse, and resumed their business. Their union was as happy, as their discord had been distressing.
This great Association, which the next year had increased to 74, churches, continued to meet together for the space of eight years from this period.
But the revolutionary war coming on, the embarrassments and anxieties which it occasioned, in a great measure checked their progress and prosperity; their meetings generally were but thinly attended, and their principal transactions appear to have consisted in making exertions to free themselves from the civil grievances and oppressions, under which they, as a denomination, labored.