Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Sandy Creek Baptist Association In History

The new Founders Journal is hot off the presses. You can get a copy here: Founders Journal.

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."

On November 7, 2005, Sandy Creek Baptist Church celebrated its 250th Anniversary. The church was founded in 1755 by Shubal Stearns and his brother-in-law Daniel Marshall. In 1758, the established an association. Within seventeen years, the church grew to a membership of over six hundred. It spawned forty-two other churches. Many Southern Baptist historians look to Sandy Creek Church as one of two tributaries that eventually formed the Southern Baptist Convention in the 19th century, and they often perpetuate a popularized theory from Walter Shurden and Fisher Humphreys[i] to allege that the “high church” Charlestonians were confessional Calvinists, while those in the Sandy Creek Association were either opposed to Calvinism or believed in a “softer” or “moderate,” or “kinder, gentler” Calvinism. Moreover, they imply that the Charlestonians were less evangelistic than the Sandy Creek Association.

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 Sandy Creek Baptist Church.” He said Baptists usually describe the “Southern Baptist river as flowing from two tributaries, one having its beginning in Charleston, South Carolina., the more Reformed tradition of Baptist life, and the other at Sandy Creek...I am a Sandy Creeker. If I could manage to have honorary church membership in any church in the Southern Baptist Convention, it would be Sandy Creek,” adding that he fully appreciated what the church has carried on throughout the years. “We Sandy Creekers still believe we are in the era of evangelism, missions and great revival.”[ii] With all due respect, Dr. Patterson is many things, but, given his rejection of the doctrines of grace, he is no true “Sandy Creeker.”

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 school of Jonathan Edwards and adherents of the New Divinity. On that account they were often described as New Lights. For the main part their sympathies and cooperation were given to the Calvinistic brethren in New England and against the Arminian Baptists.. Thus by the agency of Mr. Whitefield a change was produced almost in the twinkling of an eye by means of which the Calvinistic Baptists gained ascendancy in the New England colonies. Nothing could have been more extraordinary or unexpected than such a transformation. Arminianism had been steadily growing in New England for several decades; making progress not only in the Baptist community as has been shown but likewise in the established order. Jonathan Edwards rose up to stem the tide and to stay the progress of defection, and by the aid of Whitefield accomplished a revolution. This revolution, however, was more apparent among the Baptists than in the ranks of the Established Church. It altered the whole aspect of affairs[iv].

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 North Carolina like, and how might this have affected the Separate tradition as a whole?

[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).

[ii] Gregory Tomlin, “Sandy Creek: Tributary of Baptist life celebrates 250 Years,” Baptist Press, November 7, 2005. See Baptist Press Online at

[iii] R.B.C. Howell, The Early Baptists of Virginia (Philadelphia: The Bible and Publication Society), 89.

[iv] William Heth Whitsitt, “Baptists in America”, handwritten ms, in Tom Nettles, The Baptists: Volume 2 (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus/Mentor, 2006), 171.

[v] M.A. Huggins, A History of North Carolina Baptists 1727-1932 (Raleigh, NC: General Board of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, 1967), 66.

[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 Sandy Creek Tradition,” Founders Journal, Spring 2001, 16-31.

[ix] Nettles, The Baptists: Volume 2, 153-173.

1 comment:

  1. Look what I found. Gene Bridges able to sit and write comprehensively.

    Good stuff, Gene-o.

    Still praying for you.