In this issue, Dr. Tom Nettles has reproduced his excellent article on Shubal Stearns, which has previously been published in Volume 2 of his series on Baptist history, The Baptists. In the second article, I examine the Sandy Creek tradition from a different perspective than others have in the past, namely their sociological context.
Here is the introduction to my article; my desire is not so much to commit to a particular, unrevisable thesis; rather my goal in this article is to encourage students and teachers/professors of Baptist history to widen the scope of their considerations of the Separate Baptist tradition in some as yet uncharted directions. Hopefully, somebody will "run with it."
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Paige Patterson himself, who would never recognize Humphreys and Shurden as friends of the conservative wing of the Convention, has perpetuated this thesis. He preached at the church during its anniversary celebration, and stated “Of all the honors and kindnesses extended to me over the years, none is so great as being asked by your pastor to come here on this anniversary of
Baptist historians of the past differed with this thesis, but to some extent this should not come as a surprise given that some even then were sometimes unsure how to treat the North Carolina Separates. On the one hand, R.B.C. Howell blunderingly called them “Arminians, “ for, in his work, The Early Baptists of Virginia, Howell notes that the early Baptist immigrants from Virginia came from both General and Particular Baptist stock, but labels the Regulars as Particulars and Separates as General Baptists.[iii] Among those differing with Howell, we find William Whitsitt.
These Separate Baptists were all of them Calvinists by persuasion. They were not Calvinists of the stern old type that formerly had prevailed but rather Calvinists of the
M.A. Huggins went so far as to say that Stearns was an Arminian,[v] and George Paschal went so far as to deny that the soteriological section of the Sandy Creek Confession itself was from Stearns hand.[vi] Lumpkin classifies most Separates as “modified Calvinists” who had little to say about predestination, particular atonement, and unconditional election.[vii]
The Founders Journal itself has revisited this thesis a number of times.[viii] Tom Nettles has devoted an entire chapter of his most recently published work to the legacy of Shubal Stearns himself.[ix] Indeed, this all leaves the clear impression that folks have never been entirely sure how to treat the North Carolina Separates, and there is a need to revisit the historical data to rehabilitate their history in light of what many believe to have been the hand of historians generally hostile to Calvinism. Clearly, however, the Separates and the Regulars differed, and they differed enough that historians have been unsure what to do with them, leading to some varied, if not contradictory evaluations of them. Some historians may have been biased against Calvinism; others, however, may have been biased toward it, so simply chalking the assortment of competing theses up to bias appears to be little more than an exercise in the genetic fallacy. No doubt, however, this element does enter into any evaluation of the Separates that endeavors to categorize them theologically. How then can this tension be resolved?
There are no easy answers, particularly when looking for interpretive historical connections. In this article, we shall first review the confessional data, as Baptist historians have tended to concentrate their evaluations here. In the second section, we shall introduce some data not often considered that may help shed light onto the North Carolina Separate (Sandy Creek) tradition and suggest that perhaps the answer lies not in perpetually rehashing their confessional tradition, but in evaluating the actual nature of the differences between the Separates and Regulars in North Carolina in light of the cultural character of North Carolina and its people during the time in question. In short, what is the actual nature of the differences between the Regulars and Separates; and what was
[i] See Fisher Humphreys, The Way We Were: How Southern Baptist Theology Has Changed and What it Means to Us All (New York: McCracken Press, 1994), 85. Humphreys follows the view of Walter Shurden as set forth in "The 1980-81 Carver-Barnes Lectures" (Wake Forest: Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1980).
[iii] R.B.C. Howell, The Early Baptists of
[iv] William Heth Whitsitt, “Baptists in
[v] M.A. Huggins, A History of
[vi] Nettles, The Baptists Vol.2, 167.
[vii] Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations In the South, 62 in Nettles, The Baptists: Vol.2, 170.
[viii] See Josh Powell, “Shubal Stearns and the
[ix] Nettles, The Baptists: Volume 2, 153-173.