Author’s Note: Written in 2011, my purpose for this brief monograph was two-fold. First, I wanted to introduce Shubal Stearns, a pivotal figure in Baptist history, yet someone who is little known outside of academic circles. Second, I wanted to demonstrate the relationship between Stearns and the phenomenal growth of Baptists across the South. Many assume that the Baptist story began with a small group that settled in Charleston, South Carolina in 1696… a traditional story that explains Baptists today in terms of the sound doctrine of their founders fueling a continuous and steady advance across the southern colonies. The truth is that Baptists in the Old South were having very little impact on their world. In contrast, Stearns and his followers represented a new kind of Baptist birthed in the “revival fires” of the First Great Awakening. Apart from the movement that erupted at Sandy Creek, North Carolina in 1755, Baptists in the South would have faded into obscurity and irrelevance. A version of this monograph with footnotes and sources is available on request.
Beginning with the preaching tours of George Whitefield, the Great Awakening in the American colonies resulted in thousands of changed lives and the establishment of a new evangelical culture of religious faith. Among Congregational churches in New England, the renewed, lively emphasis on personal conversion led to division and the founding of new “separate” churches, many of which went on to become “New Light” or Separate Baptist churches throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century. Before Whitefield landed in New England in 1740, there were less than one hundred Baptist churches throughout the colonies; thirty-five years later, there were nearly 500. After personally experiencing the direct effects of the Great Awakening in Connecticut, Shubal Stearns became a leading figure of the Separate Baptist movement that grew exponentially across the southern colonies. Yale historian Sydney Ahlstrom described the remarkable period of church multiplication associated with Stearns as “one of the most consequential religious developments in American history.”
EARLY LIFE, CONVERSION, AND MINISTRY (1706-1754)
As the first child of Shubael Stearns and Rebecca Lariby, Shubal Stearns was born on January 26, 1706, the fourth generation of Stearns descendants born in or around Boston, Massachusetts. When he was nine, Stearns and his parents moved to the small community of Tolland, Connecticut, where his father became a selectman and a clerk among the other “proprietors” or land owners. As a young adult, Stearns became a farmer and married Sarah Johnston on March 26, 1726. Although he lacked formal education, later in life Stearns was described as a small man who had read widely.
Stearns was baptized as an infant into the Congregational church. Heirs to the founding Puritans and their Calvinistic beliefs, Congregational ministers were struggling to maintain control and influence in society. Adopting the Saybrook Platform in 1708, Congregational churches in Connecticut were the first to give up a measure of congregational polity, embracing a new form of regulation by “consociations,” county-level gatherings of ministers and lay leaders. Although the early New England Puritans taught that an experiential conversion was required for full church membership, Stearns was raised in an environment that placed greater emphasis on accepting a creed as evidence of a mystical, inward conversion event.
Forty miles north of Tolland in Northampton, Massachusetts, Jonathan Edwards is often credited with launching the Great Awakening following an extraordinary number of conversions among youth and young adults during the winter of 1734-5. However, the greatest numbers of converts are associated with the preaching of George Whitefield during his first tour of the colonies in 1740. Whitefield spent ten weeks in New England from August 18 through December 14, 1740, preaching 130 times. Speaking at numerous locations in Connecticut, it appears the closest Whitefield came to Tolland was the town of East Windsor, about 12 miles to the west. In sharp contrast to the prevailing views of Christianity at the time, Whitefield emphasized that true conversion was personal and experiential, accompanied by a deep awareness of sin and a corresponding desire to know forgiveness from God. The effect on the audiences was stunning, as individuals cried out with joy, laughter, or tears. In the late nineteenth century Robert Semple observed that “the hearts of the people, being touched by a heavenly flame, could no longer relish the dry parish service.”
Stearns was probably converted after hearing Whitefield preach during his second tour through Connecticut in 1745. Like many converts throughout New England, Stearns began meeting with others who emphasized the direct leadership of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Known as “New Lights,” they had accepted Whitefield’s teaching that salvation can only be known through the heart and had concluded that God’s will was apprehended the same way. When attempted efforts to reform existing churches failed, groups of New Lights formed Separate Congregational churches in nearly 400 parishes across New England. In Windham County adjacent to Tolland, the consociation of “Old Light” ministers wrote a letter in 1744 describing the beliefs of the separating churches. They believed that (1) true churches are made up of regenerate members; (2) true Christians can know whether they are saved and can discern the salvation of others; (3) the only requirement for the ministry is an “inward motion of the Spirit;” (4) lay persons can preach in response to “the presence of God;” and (5) God had rejected the older churches that rejected New Light reforms. Espousing similar views, Stearns and his followers formed a Separate Congregational church when the local congregation split. As a New Light pastor, Stearns and others asked the Connecticut General Assembly for official recognition under the 1689 Toleration Act. The General Assembly rejected both petitions bearing his signature in 1746 and 1748.
Among the Separate Congregationalists, a debate grew concerning the practice of infant baptism. Believing that membership should be limited to persons experiencing regeneration, many Separates wanted to stop the practice of infant baptism—becoming Baptists through a commitment to believer’s baptism. Many of the Separate churches practiced both forms of baptism for years prior to becoming exclusively Baptist in their identification and belief. In March 1751, Stearns and his Tolland congregation visited nearby Windsor to hear the preaching of Wait Palmer. In 1743, Palmer had organized the second Baptist church in Connecticut at Stonington when his group of Separates had withdrawn from the local Congregational church. Most of the Tolland members were baptized and Stearns was ordained as a Separate Baptist minister on May 20, 1751.
FINDING “THE GREAT WORK IN THE WEST” (1754-1758)
The revival gave rise to a missionary impulse to evangelize the frontier regions and American Indian settlements of the colonies. In the decade following the Great Awakening several families in Windsor divested themselves of their holdings and moved to the frontier; among them were Daniel and Martha Marshall, brother-in-law and sister to Shubal Stearns. Marshall was a “New Side” Presbyterian who was expressing his new convictions by 1744, creating significant tensions between his pastor and himself. When his first wife passed away, Marshall’s pastor refused to conduct her funeral, leaving him and his son alone by the graveside. Marrying Martha Stearns in 1747, Marshall and his family moved to the Susquehanna Valley in Pennsylvania sometime in 1751 or 1752 to serve as missionaries among the Mohawk Indians. As tensions grew among the tribes on the eve of the French and Indian War, the Marshalls retreated to Opequon, Virginia in 1754. Soon after meeting Samuel Heaton, pastor of a Baptist church on Mill Creek, the Marshalls were baptized and joined the church. Back in Connecticut, Stearns had become convinced that God had a “great work” for his Baptist people to do in the West.
Stearns and thirteen other adults left Tolland with their families in August 1754, joining the Marshalls in Virginia. Stearns and Marshall began preaching in the region with the blessing of the Mill Creek Church, attracting enthusiastic crowds and converts. Not everyone approved. In response to the emotionalism being generated by the Separate Baptist preaching, some “cold-hearted” members of the Mill Creek Church complained to the Philadelphia Baptist Association. Benjamin Miller, a pastor from Scotch Plains, New Jersey, was sent by the association to discover what was going on. Miller was delighted with his findings, reporting that if he had such “warm-hearted Christians in his church he would not take gold for them.” However, in a June 1755 letter to a friend, Stearns had already begun to turn his attention to fields further south in North Carolina, where worship services were scarce and people would travel forty miles or more to hear a sermon. Stearns, Marshall, and fourteen others travelled with their families to Sandy Creek, North Carolina, arriving November 22, 1755.
Prior to the arrival of the Separate Baptists, the colonial charter and government of North Carolina officially established and supported the Church of England, but by 1754 there was only one Anglican priest in the colony. The “backcountry” region of central and western North Carolina was populated by 20,000-30,000 settlers, but there were no settled Anglican ministers there before 1767. Even George Whitefield complained that his labors in the Carolinas had yielded little success in 1739 and 1745. In 1696 a small group of Particular Baptists from Kittery, Maine had migrated to Charleston, South Carolina, organizing the first Baptist church in the South. Between 1720 and 1740 several General Baptist churches were formed, but were quickly recruited and assimilated into the more Calvinistic Philadelphia Baptist Association by the early 1750s. None of the early Baptists had made much of an impression on the growing population. Representing a new and vibrant expression of Christian faith, the Separate Baptists at Sandy Creek were stepping into an ecclesiastical and religious vacuum. After building a small meeting house for worship, the Sandy Creek Baptist Church was organized, electing Shubal Stearns as their minister and recognizing his assistants, Daniel Marshall and Joseph Breed.
Writing in 1859, George Purefoy commented that “during the life of Shubal Stearns, an extraordinary revival prevailed under his ministry.” Between November 1755 and January 1758, Stearns and his associates baptized over 900 people. Membership at Sandy Creek soared from sixteen to 606. In his notes from first-person interviews made in 1772, Morgan Edwards describes people crying out, collapsing to the ground, and “awaking in ecstasies” in response to the preaching of the Separate Baptist ministers. “Impulses, visions, and revelations” were common among the ministers and the people. Shubal Stearns possessed a voice that was “musical and strong” and that made “soft impressions on the heart,” causing people to weep. His voice had the capacity to “shake the very nerves, and throw the animal systems into tumults and perturbations.” His eyes were “very penetrating” and “seemed to have meaning in every glance.” In 1894, Albert Newman would add that “it is doubtful whether any evangelist but Whitefield surpassed Stearns in magnetic power over audiences.”
Through an extensive series of itinerant preaching tours, gatherings of new believers were established throughout the region as “branches” of the Sandy Creek Church. When a pastor could be identified and ordained, the branch would be constituted as a church. By the conclusion of 1756, churches had been organized at Abbot’s Creek (Daniel Marshall, pastor), Grassy Creek (James Read, pastor), and Deep River (Phillip Mulkey, pastor). Believing he was being chased by the devil, Phillip Mulkey lived under a cloud of fear until he experienced a new birth and was baptized by Stearns on Christmas Day in 1756. Mulkey was instrumental in the conversion of the brothers Joseph and William Murphy in 1757. Preaching in Virginia in 1758, the Murphys witnessed the conversion of Samuel Harris as he slid to his knees and collapsed during the sermon. A decorated military officer from a prominent family, Harris regained consciousness crying out “Glory, glory, glory!” Harris would later be nicknamed “The Apostle of Virginia,” and was a key leader in the struggle for religious freedom in the new United States. Tidence Lane went to hear Stearns out of curiosity and found “an old man under a peach tree.” When Stearns began to preach, Tidence said “my perturbations increased” to the point that he could no longer remain on his feet, falling to the ground. In the summer of 1758, Tidence took his brother Dutton Lane to hear Stearns, but Dutton resisted conversion. Returning home from a hunting trip a few days later, Dutton believed he saw the devil stalking him, rushed home, bolted the door, and collapsed on the floor in mortal terror until He trusted Christ to save him. In 1760, Dutton became pastor of the Dan River congregation, the first Separate Baptist church organized in Virginia. Shubal Stearns had found his “great work in the West.”
BECOMING THE PATRIARCH OF SANDY CREEK (1758-1771)
Very little is known about the years Stearns pastored a Baptist church in Tolland, Connecticut (1751-1754), but because of his connection to Wait Palmer, it is likely that Stearns was heavily influenced by the older General Baptist practices and traditions. In 1705, a General Baptist congregation in Groton became the first Baptist church in Connecticut. Organized by Valentine Wightman, the Groton church ordained Wait Palmer and helped constitute his church in Stonington. By the time Stearns was ordained by Palmer in 1751, there was annual meeting of General Baptists being held in nearby Windham County. With deep concerns over preservation of local church autonomy, the Separate Baptists in New England did not form an association until after Stearns had left for the South (i.e., the Warren Association, 1767). As Stearns contemplated the formation of an association of Separate Baptist churches and branches, he may well have defaulted to General Baptist stances concerning ordinances, creeds, and associational oversight.
With initial meetings in January and June 1758, the creation of the Sandy Creek Association was accompanied by days of preaching, singing, and heartfelt testimonies of God’s power. For the next thirteen years, the annual meeting on the second Sunday in October would draw delegates from Virginia to South Carolina. In addition to recognizing the positions of elders, eldresses, and deaconesses, nine ordinances were observed among the churches: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the laying on of hands, washing feet, anointing the sick, the right hand of fellowship, the kiss of charity, and the devoting or dedication of children. Stearns may have also prepared a church covenant in 1757, which has been handed down through the history of the Grassy Creek Church.
The growth of the association quickly spilled over into South Carolina and Virginia. Phillip Mulkey and Daniel Marshall both relocated to South Carolina by 1762, using the same itinerant preaching strategy to start new churches and branches. Mulkey and Marshall helped organize the Congaree Church in 1766 with the aid of Joseph Murphy. Congaree soon had seven branches, including one in the Highs Hills region of the Santee. It was there that Richard Furman would be saved, becoming pastor of the High Hills church in 1774.
In Virginia, Samuel Harris was conducting extensive preaching tours as far as the Tidewater region by 1765. Lacking ordination, Harris returned to Grassy Creek to ask James Read to help him baptize the new converts. Read had been having “spiritual impressions” for weeks that he should go to Virginia to preach, awaking in the night crying “O Virginia!” Aware of the burden being carried by his pastor, a church member offered to accompany Read into the Virginia Colony. As they were about to leave, Harris arrived requesting Read’s help. From 1766 through 1769, Harris and Read conducted multi-day, evangelistic services that prefigured the camp meetings that would follow in the early nineteenth century. Baptizing hundreds, the evangelists spoke to large crowds for days at a time, often unable to sleep as individuals sought counsel late into the night. In response to the preaching, the ground would often be covered with bodies, as people fell under great conviction of sin.
Criticism of the Separate Baptist movement in the South took several forms. Many of the older Particular Baptist churches in the Carolinas and Virginia were critical of the Sandy Creek Association churches, calling themselves “Regular” Baptists as a way of distinguishing themselves from the Separate Baptists. The tension between the Separates and the Regulars is sometimes represented as a variation of the theological debates between Arminians and Calvinists. However, complaining of “noisy meetings” characterized by “wild disorder,” the critics were primarily concerned with the emotionalism and the subjective experiences attributed to the directional control of the Holy Spirit.
Colonial and Anglican authorities were also critical of the Separate Baptists, interpreting their message as a challenge to the traditional order. Charles Woodmason was an itinerant Anglican minister who kept an extensive diary as he travelled in the backcountry of South Carolina from 1766 to 1772. In sermon notes from 1768, Woodmason believed that the Baptist preaching was having no effect on the morals of the “saved,” describing a typical worship service as a “society of Lunatics.” Woodmason suggested that Anglicans and Presbyterians would do well to support one another against three common enemies: Indians, African Slaves, and “New Light Baptists.” In Virginia and North Carolina, the tensions between the lower classes and the gentry were intensified by the Separate Baptist rejection of educated clergy, the Anglican Church, and the requirement to be licensed under state authority in order to preach. Authorities suspected Baptists of “carrying on a mutiny against the authority of the land.” During the period 1768-76, about fifty Virginia Separate Baptists were imprisoned on charges of disturbing the peace, and in typical fashion, they would continue preaching from the windows of their jail cells. The hostility of the authorities was often accompanied by great curiosity on the part of the onlookers. Why were these Baptists such a threat to the establishment? What was their message? Why do those who get too close often get converted?
The growth of the Separate Baptist movement in Virginia and South Carolina posed a problem for Shubal Stearns. Requests for assistance in leading services, constituting churches, and ordaining pastors had increased dramatically. In the structure he had devised, a “branch” became a “church” under the guidance of ordained Separate Baptist ministers who appear to have been commissioned by the association for the task. The same associational delegation would usually ordain someone as the pastor of the church. However, Stearns was not facilitating ordinations in South Carolina or Virginia. In 1766 the Congaree “branch” in South Carolina was ready to constitute as a church, with two men ready for ordination (i.e. John Newton and Joseph Reese). Stearns sent Daniel Marshall, Phillip Mulkey, and Joseph Murphy to organize the church, but no one was ordained. Tired of waiting, the Congaree church in February 1768 obtained the services of Oliver Hart, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charleston and Evan Pugh, pastor of the Welsh Neck Baptist Church on the Pee Dee River. Both men were Regular Baptists from the Charleston Baptist Association. In October Stearns led the Sandy Creek delegates to censure Newton and Reese for acting independently of the association. Although Reese immediately apologized and was reinstated, Newton refused, believing he had done nothing wrong. The association ordered the Congaree church to bar Newton from preaching.
Stearns seemed unable to recognize pastors in Virginia, too. During the 1760s, Stearns authorized and assisted in the constitution of several churches, but no one had been ordained. By 1769 the Fall Creek branch of the Dan River church in Virginia was ready to constitute. Meeting on property provided by Samuel Harris, it was clear they would want him to be ordained as their pastor. In spite of years of phenomenal growth in Virginia associated with the ministry of Samuel Harris, he had not been ordained by Stearns.
In addition to the challenges of growth, Stearns was being forced to speak to the growing political unrest throughout the region. The Regulators believed they were being taxed unfairly by corrupt officials. Under-represented in the colonial legislature and shut out of local county government, the Regulators took up arms and began to intimidate the authorities in the backcountry through a series of violent encounters and riots.
With the annual meeting just weeks away, Stearns had a vision on September 7, 1769 while returning home from a preaching tour. Going up a hill in the aftermath of a thunderstorm, Stearns saw a “white heap like snow” on the horizon. As he got closer, the strange object hovered about twenty feet in the air, and then fell to the ground, breaking up into three parts. The largest portion moved to the north, another portion went south, and the smallest portion remained where it fell. Stearns concluded that the vision was describing what was about to happen to the association: “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.” Stearns was clearly anticipating significant changes for the Sandy Creek Association.
During the 1769 annual meeting, the association did agree to constitute the Fall River Church in Virginia, ordaining Samuel Harris as pastor. The sheer popularity of Harris would have made it difficult to do anything else. Next, the association voted to excommunicate any members who took up arms against legal authority. In addition to being a church meeting, the annual gathering at Sandy Creek had become a social occasion for the backcountry Baptist, the travelling merchant, and the curious onlooker. News of the association vote, aimed at Baptists who would participate in violent Regulator activities, spread quickly through the crowds. Four armed Regulator leaders stormed into the meeting house and confronted Stearns, asking whether it was true. Thoroughly intimidated, Stearns mumbled an evasive reply and the Regulators left. Separate Baptists were well-represented in the ranks of the Regulators. Consequently, churches were confused and troubled following the 1769 meeting. Joseph Murphy was forced to leave Little River due to strong Regulator support among the members. When Elnathan Davis made it clear he would enforce the associational vote in his church at Haw Creek, Regulators attacked and beat several of his church members. The Sandy Creek Association had become deeply divided along political and sectional lines.
In 1770 the association met at Grassy Creek, moving the annual meeting away from Sandy Creek for the first time. After several days of prayer and fasting, the participants were unable to agree on anything until a motion was made to divide the association into three parts. A contemporary observer Morgan Edwards believed the association had wielded too much authority by “unfellowshipping ordinations, ministers, and churches that acted independent of them.” Although the Separate Baptists believed in congregational autonomy, they also believed that a church could voluntarily “transfer” authority to the association. The motion passed and Stearns’ prophetic vision of September 1769 was realized as two new Separate Baptist associations were created in Virginia and South Carolina. Six months later the Virginia Separates met to organize the General Association of Separate Baptists on May 13, 1771. The first actions they took are significant: (1) the association is an advisory council with “no power to impose anything on the churches;” (2) churches can constitute with the permission of their mother church and the aid of any ordained minister; and (3) ordination can be accomplished from any ordained minister who is willing to assist. Within three years the number of members and churches in Virginia would more than double in size.
Three days after the Virginia organizational meeting, the North Carolina Regulators were defeated at the Battle of Alamance on May 16, 1771. Leaders who were captured were hanged, their property was confiscated, and their farms destroyed. Backcountry residents were forced to take loyalty oaths administered by the colonial government. Stearns lived to see at least 1,500 families move out of the region, while attendance at the Sandy Creek church dropped to fourteen. Stearns died on November 20, 1771, just two days before the seventeenth anniversary of the founding of the church at Sandy Creek.
The effect of the Regulators Rebellion was to create a diaspora of Separate Baptists and backcountry populations who migrated to Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Tidence Lane founded the first Baptist church in Tennessee, organizing the Holston Baptist Association by 1786. Daniel Marshall constituted the Kiokee Baptist Church in 1772, the first Baptist church in Georgia. Forty years later, 140 churches and 11,000 church members could trace their spiritual roots to the Separate Baptist movement that grew from Kiokee. Separate Baptists in Kentucky started two churches in 1781, forming the Elkhorn Association by 1785. In Appalachia today, at least thirty different Baptist denominations can trace their origins to the Separates that poured into Kentucky following the Regulator defeat at Alamance. Considering the Virginia Separate Baptist struggle for religious freedom and the added influence of Shubal Stearns and his followers in the propagation of churches across the South, W.H. Whitsitt wrote that “North Carolina might well be called the Holy Land of Southern Baptists.”
THE LEGACY AND IMPACT OF SHUBAL STEARNS
Walter Shurden identified the Sandy Creek tradition as one of the primary influences on Southern Baptist identity. Arising out of the Great Awakening in middle of the eighteenth century, Shubal Stearns and the Separate Baptists preached with passion, baptized converts who could testify to their salvation, and hungered for powerful revival experiences. Shubal Stearns was the architect of these “peculiarly American” contributions to the development of Baptists over the past 250 years.
Stearns emphasized the immediate and direct leadership of the Holy Spirit. If revival can be defined as what happens in the presence of God, Stearns saw confirmation of God’s activity in the phenomena associated with the ministry of the Separate Baptists. Writing in 1772, Morgan Edwards stated “I believe a preternatural and invisible hand works in the assemblies of the Separate Baptists.” Visiting the 1759 annual meeting at Sandy Creek, Regular Baptist John Gano was convinced that “the power of God was among them.” Separate Baptists became known for regularly reporting “signs, wonders, and divine communications.” Heartfelt cries and falling down were common elements of the services. Visions and dreams were shared, especially as part of the conversion narratives given before baptism. John Waller reported the healing of a minister’s wife who suffered from “violent spasms” after he had anointed her with oil and prayed. Dutton Lane shared that when authorities were on their way to arrest church leaders at his church at Dan River, they were “struck temporarily blind by a flash of light followed by a thick darkness” and went home—the authorities never returned to Dan River.
Stearns introduced a new dynamic in preaching and a freedom of worship. The Separates did not preach from prepared notes, but relied on immediate inspiration from God. Preaching with great emotion “accompanied by strong gestures and a singular tone of voice,” the Separate Baptists were known for their distinctive preaching style. They expected an immediate response to their preaching, which became a characteristic of Southern revivalism for generations to follow. After the sermon, preachers invited hearers who “felt themselves to be poor sinners” to kneel at the front or near their seat, offering to pray with each one.
Stearns afforded women greater involvement in worship and church life than any other religious group in the colonial period. In the Separate Congregational and Baptist churches following the Great Awakening, women were free to share their conversion testimonies and exhorted others to repent. In New England, Daniel Marshall’s sister was jailed during a pregnancy for preaching Baptist doctrines. Martha (Stearns) Marshall was described as her husband’s “Priscilla, a helper in the gospel.” When she spoke to the church, she presented herself as “a lady of good sense, singular piety, and surprising elocution” who routinely “melted a whole concourse into tears by her prayers and exhortations.” In Virginia, Margaret Meuse Clay often spoke and prayed publicly, once being arrested for unlicensed preaching with eleven Baptist men. Sentenced to a public whipping, she was released when someone anonymously paid her fines. In roles unique to Separate Baptists at the time, women were serving as eldresses and deaconesses in a few of the churches, baptizing and teaching women exclusively. As Separates merged with Regular Baptists in the closing years of the eighteenth century, women were increasingly restricted from public speaking and church offices.
Stearns adapted his strategy for church extension and organization to meet the demands of his context. Confronted with a highly mobile population, Stearns started churches by holding large evangelistic meetings, establishing a church with branches from the converts and new followers. Any minister or layman who sensed a call from God could start a branch. In contrast with the struggle Anglicans had to secure professional clergy for the backcountry region, Stearns had no need for educated clergy—there were no barriers to the starting of new churches across the South. Stearns developed the use of ordained ministers in ad hoc presbyteries to ordain candidates to serve as pastors. Separate Baptists rarely paid their pastors a salary, which was a partial reaction to the taxes forced on backcountry citizens to pay Anglican parish salaries. Stearns probably derived his approach to associations from his exchanges with General Baptists prior to 1754. The connectionalism represented in the way Stearns exercised authority through the Sandy Creek association influenced the formation of Southern Baptists in 1845. Richard Furman was a Separate Baptist who had been converted and mentored under men like Joseph Reese, Philip Mulkey and John Newton, all disciples of Shubal Stearns. Furman discipled and mentored W. B. Johnson, who came to be known as the architect behind the creation of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The focus on evangelism and church planting represented by Stearns and the Separate Baptist movement moderated the older, rigid forms of Calvinism found among the Particular or Regular Baptist churches. Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the Separates, Regular Baptist observers either affirmed their zeal or criticized their emotionalism, but rarely questioned their commitment to doctrines of grace. The anticreedalism expressed by the Separates during unification talks with Regulars had little to do with Calvinism: the Separates did not want to impose a confessional statement upon churches, essentially replacing God’s Word. The explosive growth of the Separates across the South did force the Regulars to rethink the practice of their Calvinism to allow for preaching that emphasized a personal response to the Gospel. Between 1740 and 1790, Regular Baptists managed to start ten churches in Virginia—Separate Baptists formed several hundred. Baptists in the South owe their remarkable growth and influence to Shubal Stearns and the Separate Baptists.
C. Goen wrote that “the most phenomenal story of Separate Baptist expansion was written not in New England but in the South.” Shubal Stearns injected the life-changing principles of the Great Awakening into the spiritually neglected, backcountry souls of the deep South. By depending on the Holy Spirit for guidance and power, Stearns and his spiritual sons and daughters pursued lost souls with a relentless zeal and passion. Adapting ecclesiastical structures and forms to his context, Stearns influenced later generations of Baptists to do whatever is necessary to spread the gospel and start new churches. Placing the practice of preaching and evangelism ahead of doctrinal precision, Stearns restored worship as the primary measure and expression of authentic belief. In these ways, Shubal Stearns helped establish the character of “American evangelical Christianity” and continues to impact Baptists today around the world.
At 9 p.m. on a Saturday evening, a pastor and a small group of deacons met to ask God for a revival in their church. Their church was struggling. Church members felt spiritually dry and weak. Few people were coming to faith in Christ. Month after month that small group of deacons sought God together every Saturday night, and He began to work powerfully in their lives. One evening the pastor challenged the men concerning unconfessed sin in their lives. Something changed in the atmosphere of the room. In tears, the deacons began to reconcile with one another and the pastor. God was making His presence real to those men as they persisted in praying together.
Five years later in 1971, revival came to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Saskatoon, Canada, pastored by Bill McLeod and prayed over by that faithful group of deacons. The rapidly growing crowds forced the services to relocate multiple times. Finally settling into the local civic auditorium, the revival meetings continued for seven weeks as over four thousand people gathered together each night. Affecting the entire city, the revival would go on to influence churches throughout western Canada. However, this was not the first time God had used deacons to transform a church and its surrounding community!
Revival and the Forerunners of Deacon Ministry
People were upset. Hurtful words and accusations were exchanged. The church was dividing into two factions, and the community was watching. The very next step would determine whether the church would die or thrive. Sound familiar? Except this story isn’t one of many unfolding weekly across our country, but rather it describes a critical moment in the early church (Acts 6:1-7).
At the direction of the apostles, the church chose seven men to step into the conflict. As the forerunners of deacon ministry, “The Seven” were respected, wise, Spirit‑filled men. Ministering to individual members of the church, they were a catalyst for healing and spiritual growth within the body of Christ. The change was so profound, that the entire community noticed and became extremely receptive to the gospel. New Christ-followers were pouring into the church (Acts 6:7). When the early church experienced their first revival, spiritual awakening soon followed!
Far from being extraordinary, revival and spiritual awakening became normal experiences among the first Christians. Revival usually refers to an experience within the church, while spiritual awakening describes the impact of a revived church on the surrounding community. God never intended that His people would live and accomplish His mission apart from Him. When believers begin to think of the church as a human‑powered institution, rather than a supernatural body with Christ the King as their head, they will miss God’s plan and purpose for them as a church. A church without the presence of God may appear to be doctrinally orthodox and relationally healthy, but in fact, they have abandoned their first love (Rev. 2:2-4).
Revival is a fresh encounter between God and His people. As their hearts begin to align with His heart, individual Christians are renewed in their desire to please Him in everything. Repenting of sinful and selfish pursuits, believers rediscover His beauty and long to enjoy His presence every day. The apostle Peter taught that access to the presence of God was the birthright of every Christian when he said, “. . . repent and turn back. . . that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…” (Acts 3:19-20 CSB). Notice the word “seasons” is plural – referring to more than one experience. God desires that you encounter His presence many times! The church draws her life, her direction, and her power from the presence of Jesus Christ.
Deacons as Instruments of Revival
Does your church need a fresh encounter with the presence of God? What can you do as a deacon to pursue the presence of God in your life and in your church?
Feed on the Scriptures. The church recognized “The Seven” in Acts 6 as men who were full of “wisdom” – their approach to people and their problems stood out from the crowd. Where does wisdom come from? Wisdom comes from God alone. In the wilderness, manna from heaven represented God’s daily provision of nourishment and life for His people. Just as your body needs physical food, Jesus stressed that your spiritual life depends entirely on your intake of God’s Word (Mt. 4:4). Like a hammer, the Bible will shatter and reshape your worldview. As you absorb the truth into your mind, the Holy Spirit will cause you to become wise – a man who is able to “see” God, yourself, and your world from His perspective.
Draw Near to Him in Personal Prayer. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He stressed the importance of being alone with Him (Mt. 6:6). When we draw near to Him, He has promised to draw near to us (Jas. 4:8; Heb. 11:6)! Prayer is your pathway into His presence – a time to love and enjoy the Lord Jesus – and an opportunity to unburden your soul at His feet (1 Pet. 5:7). However, a sustained effort to draw near to Him will expose impurities in your life, forcing you to choose between secret sinful behaviors or a heart-level devotion to Him (Is. 6:1-5). Your continued journey into His presence depends on your readiness to repent of any sin that is blocking your way forward into His presence.
Cultivate a Sensitivity to the Spirit. As one of “The Seven,” Phillip was known for his sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. By depending on the Spirit to guide him every day, Phillip knew when it was time to leave a busy ministry assignment to go out in the middle of nowhere, only to discover a man who was ready to receive Jesus as his Savior (Acts 8:26-38). We grieve and quench the work of the Spirit when we ignore His promptings (Eph. 4 :30; 1 Th. 5:19). As we grow in our sensitivity to Him, the Holy Spirit will reproduce the life and ministry of Jesus in us (Gal. 2:20, 4:19).
Pray Together as Deacons. Because Jesus promised His presence to any group of Christians seeking Him together, the early church made prayer a primary activity in all of their gatherings (Mt.18:19-20). Prior to any revival or spiritual awakening, God stirs the hearts of His people, opening their eyes to the need of the church, and drawing them to call on God for a fresh outpouring of His Spirit. In the process, the praying ones often experience His presence long before the larger body of believers. When deacons pray together over time, their faith will grow, their relationships to one another will deepen, and their church will be changed.
Can you imagine being part of a church where – every Sunday for five years – someone was saved or joined the fellowship? Where marriages were being transformed and prodigal children were coming home? Where God was clearly at work every day? I can. I was part of a church like that many years ago.
The church had a vibrant Sunday School and an anointed preacher, but the “secret” to what the church was experiencing did not lie in their quality programming or personnel. What they had were groups of men and women who prayed every day, and the deacons encouraged prayer by their example. In a typical deacons meeting, the men might discuss their “business” for a few minutes, but they would quickly move into a season of prayer. Recording needs on a dry erase board, they would spend the bulk of their meeting time on their knees. Jesus came and took over from there!
Deacons are more than mere participants in revival. They have been God’s chosen instruments of revival in the past. Is your heart being stirred to pray with your pastor and fellow deacons? What you do next will affect the future of your church for years to come.
For further reading:
Blackaby, Henry T., Richard Blackaby, and Claude V. King. Fresh Encounter: Experiencing God’s Power for Spiritual Awakening. Nashville, TN: LifeWay, 2009.
Catt, Michael. Power of Surrender. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2014.
(Written to encourage deacons, this article was originally published as “Deacons, Revival, and Spiritual Awakening” in the Winter 2018 issue of Deacon Magazine, a publication of LifeWay Christian Resources.)