Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Baptists in America

Part of an ongoing series on Southern Baptist history . . . 

Baptists in America seem to be a separate independent development.  That is, Baptists were not begun by English Baptists who brought Baptist thinking to America, but by individuals, who became Baptists after they arrived. J. H. Shakespeare, an English Baptist historian, points out the importance of the Bible in Baptist beginnings.  He says one could wipe out all the religious groups of the 17th century, leave the Bible open, and tomorrow there would be Baptists.  And it was quite often the teaching of Scripture that led people to become Baptists.

Baptists in New England

Roger Williams (c. 1603-1684) was born in England and though trained as an Anglican clergyman, he became a separatist and out of necessity accepted a call to a church in Puritan New England in 1631, But his dissenting, radical, Biblical ideas of religious liberty and separation of church and state got him in trouble with the Puritan Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where they also demanded that everyone conform or face government persecution. Williams had four things which troubled him.

1.      Liberty of Conscience – Are we not created in the image of God? If so, then what people think is between themselves and God. What good is coercion? It denies the sovereignty of God. 
2.      Separation from the World – Many who come to America return to Britain after a time. If you left England because things were wrong there, why would you go back to that government and its state Church? 
3.      Separation of Church and State – Most important for Baptists was his claim that the civil magistrate has no power over the souls of their subjects, just their bodies.  In other words, the state has no authority to compel in matters of religion. The Bible teaches that government has one set of responsibilities and another set for the church.  
4.      Puritans’ mistreatment of Indians – Williams believed the Indians owned the land in the first place and not the King of England. The Puritans of New England preach righteousness on one hand and cheat the Indians out of their land on the other. God is not pleased with that.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony banished him to his Indians in the fall of 1635, just before the New England winter, in an attempt to kill him. Williams bought land from the Indians for a fair value in 1636 and established Providence Plantations, but he was not a Baptist until 1639 when he accepted believers’ baptism by a man named Ezekiel Holyman, rejected infant baptism, and himself baptized 10 others. He then planted the first Baptist church in America at Providence, Rhode Island. 

But this Baptist phase lasted less than a year.  Williams came to believe that his rebaptism was invalid because the authority to baptize should be historically derived from the apostles.  He withdrew yet remained an active friend of the church the last 40 years of his life as a seeker or Come-Outer, believing that no church had the marks of a true church until God raised up some apostle who could validate this new baptism. Roger Williams’ legacy became his passion for personal liberty and his insistence on the separation of church and state.

While a more stable Baptist named John Clarke worked to secure the Rhode Island charter (in 1663), Puritans persecuted Baptists. Henry Dunster lost his job as president of Harvard College when he became a Baptist in 1653, and his family were thrown out of their home in mid-winter. In 1651, Obadiah Holmes went with John Clarke, and John Crandall to Lynn, Mass., to witness to a sick man. The Puritans arrested them for an illegal religious assembly. At court, they were assessed a fine, but Holmes refused to pay it. If he paid it, he said, he would be admitting wrong, and he stood instead on principle. The court then ordered him whipped. An example of the problem of the Church-state bond.

Baptists in the South

William Screven (c. 1629-1713), a native of Sommerton, England, emigrated to New England as a Baptist in the 1640s, accepting indentured servitude to pay his passage and working four years as a carpenter. He was ordained in 1682 by the First Baptist Church of Boston to plant a church at the ship-building town of Kittery, Maine, which he did the same year, and attracted Puritan government hostility and fines for preaching. He moved the church sometime 1693-96 to Charles Town, South Carolina, where the Carolina Proprietary Colony provided for freedom of religion for dissenters and Jews. Screven, a Particular Baptist, fit in among the many Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) who were there.

Screven planted the first Baptist church in the South at Charles Town with a mixture of Particular and General Baptists, serving it until age 77. When Screven retired as pastor, he warned the congregation to obtain a man to lead them as soon as possible and be careful that he is "orthodox in faith, and of blameless life, and does own the confession of faith put forth by our brethren in London in 1689 (Second London Confession)." First Baptist Church of Charleston would become one of the most influential Baptist churches in America. It fostered the Charleston stream of Baptists, with some of the most important Baptist leaders of the South. It was of more formal worship, more Calvinist, and more academic. Later Furman University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary would be birthed out of this influential church. Unfortunately in recent decades the church has moved to a more moderate theology and would be nearly unrecognizable to its early leaders.

Philadelphia Association

Elias Keach was an early leader of Baptists in Pennsylvania, where pacifist Quakers under William Penn had established freedom of religion. Elias was the son of Benjamim Keach, a prominent English Baptist pastor, who had been one of the signers of the Second London Baptist Confession and the man most responsible for the adoption of hymn-singing among Baptists.  After being converted under his own preaching in 1687, Elias formed Pennepek church in Pennsylvania in 1688, and led in the formation of numerous churches in the Pennsylvania-New Jersey area, which later formed the nucleus of the Philadelphia Association.  He and his father were influential in the decision of Philadelphia Baptists to adopt the Second London Confession as their own confession, and the most widely adopted confession of faith among Baptists in America until the 20th century. At the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, all the messengers affirmed the Philadelphia/Second London Confession of Faith as a statement of faith.

In 1707, five Baptist churches formed what would become the famous Philadelphia Association which at one time had a large geographical reach into the Midwest and south into the Carolinas. The Association formed for fellowship among the churches, to offer advice to the churches based on their ministry queries, to discipline ministers and withdraw fellowship from disorderly ones, and to encourage ministers’ education through mentoring or formal training. Most of the queries brought by churches to the Association meetings involved matters of church doctrine such as polity and practice (how are we to do?) and power and authority (what can we do?) By 1757, twenty-five churches were in the Association, and they were corresponding with the Charleston Association.

Sandy Creek and Separate Baptists

By 1700 there were 24 weak Baptist churches with 839 members in America, and they were fighting over the atonement, whether to lay hands on new converts or now (Hebrews 6:1-2), the validity of singing in church and whether hymns or the Psalms should be sung.  These churches were weak and mired in controversies.  But by 1790, Baptists could count 979 churches with 67,490 members, the largest denomination in the newly formed United States.  These Baptists were energetic, evangelistic, and working toward the development of a national convention of Baptists. What happened? The Great Awakening

The 1740s Great Awakening in New England under Jonathan Edwards brought a renewed understanding of personal conversion to Christ. So many of the people George Whitefield converted decided to become Baptists that he lamented, “My little chicks have become ducks.” Prior to the Great Awakening, people saw conversion as a slow process that happened over time. They confused conversion with sanctification.
Shubal Stearns (1706-1771) was a Congregationalist turned Baptist from New England who had preached Christ to the Mohawks (1754) and then moved south to settle on Sandy Creek in present-day Liberty, Randolph County, NC, accompanied by Daniel Marshall and fourteen others. 

Shubal Stearns and Sandy Creek created a new family of Baptists, the Separate Baptists. Though they were from a Particular, Calvinistic background, the Sandy Creek Revival deemphasized the precise, hardened theology of their Particular forebears with a one-page statement of faith. They encouraged an emotional response in a person under conviction of the Holy Spirit for sin, and they encouraged an experience of conversion to Christ, to make a definite decision to follow Christ. 

These Sandy Creek Baptists experienced incredible growth. In seventeen years, they had established 42 churches, sent out 125 men as church-planting missionaries, and gained over 900 members. Later Daniel Marshall would go to north Georgia and plant most of the early Baptist churches there. By 1829, over a thousand churches would be planted from of this one.

Separate Baptists were important because (1) they brought the Great Awakening to the South. (2) They provided much needed religious leadership to the frontier. (3) Their spiritual descendants were the core of what became the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.
Three main branches of Baptists emerged. (1) The General or Free-Will Baptists. (2) The Particular or Regular Baptists whose theology was Calvinist. In the South they are called the Charleston Stream. (3) Sandy Creek or Separate Baptists whose theology was not as precise but who focused on evangelism, missionary zeal, and personal conversion to Christ. In the South they are also called the Sandy Creek Stream.