Did you ever wonder how and why Baptists came to be the predominant religion in the Appalachians (in general) and the Cumberland Plateau (in particular)?
It’s a history that we (the Independent Herald) have been examining for our monthly religious focus series. In this part of the world, Baptist churches out-number all other denominations by overwhelming margins. In my home county on the northern Cumberland Plateau, for example, there is one Catholic congregation, one Presbyterian church, two Methodist churches, one Church of God, a couple of Churches of Christ — and nearly 200 Baptist churches.
As historian H. Clay Smith wrote in Dusty Bits of the Forgotten Past, the Baptist faith was carried to the Cumberlands by a minister named William Murphy, who preached at a newly-established Baptist church in what was then the town of Fincastle (just north of present-day LaFollette) in Campbell County. That was near the end of the 18th century. From there, Murphy’s teachings took root and off-shoots of the Fincastle Church included new Baptist churches on the western slopes of the Cumberland Mountains — in places like Sugar Grove, Buffalo and Jellico Creek. From there, Baptist churches began to spread throughout the area between the Cumberland Mountains and the Big South Fork River, frontier territory that was just beginning to be settled. And this region has been predominantly Baptist ever since.
But to understand how William Murphy came to the Cumberlands in the first place, one must start at the beginning — and the beginning was the 17th century Puritan-Separist movement within the Church of England.
In those days, well after Columbus sailed the ocean blue but while the New World colonies were still controlled by the crown, most English people were Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church had flourished in England for hundreds of years.
But by the 16th century, many Christians in England were demanding reform from the church. Key voices in this push for reform were Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564).
Beginnings of protestantism
It was in 1507, when Calvin was yet a kid, that the German monk Martin Luther pinned his 95 Theses to the door of his Catholic Church, denouncing the church’s practice of pardoning sins and questioning papal authority. He was summarily excommunicated, and so began the start of the Protestant Revolution.
The cry of reformists was for the church to return to its roots, through simpler adherence to the teachings of the New Testament. This was summed up by Luther’s views on the doctrine of justification. Through his studies of the writings of the Apostle Paul and others, Luther became convinced that God declared a sinner righteous by faith alone through His grace.
Even as Luther was being excommunicated by the church, 12-year-old Calvin was employed by the bishop as a clerk in France. By 1530, Calvin had been converted and had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church — even though his first reform writing would not be published for another six years.
Calvin and Luther were similar in their approach to a Christ-centered theology that focused redemption on faith and grace alone rather than works, and thus became the centerpiece of the Protestant Reformation. Both men played similar roles in restoring the Gospel to the church, and Calvin was undeniably influenced by Luther. But they were also different, with Calvin’s theology focusing on the depravity of man as a stark contrast with the glory of God. And thus gave rise to the doctrines that would come to be known as Calvinism.
Puritans vs. Separatists
Slowly, Protestants began to divide themselves into two groups: Puritans and Separatists. Puritans believed in the purity of doctrine and its practice within the church. Though they admitted that reform was needed, Puritans believed the Church of England could be saved. Separatists had given up on reform and separated from the official church to form their own independent congregations.
By the 1620s, more than a half-century after the death of both Luther and Calvin, there were several protestant movements: the Quakers, the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists were chief among them.
One of these independent protestant congregations adopted a practice of believer’s baptism. The idea was that only believers could be accepted into the church, and that they must be accepted through baptism. Their beliefs earned them the nickname “Baptists.” It was a derogatory reference made by their opponents, but it stuck.
General Baptists vs. Particular Baptists
From the beginning, there were two branches of Baptists: General Baptists and Particular Baptists. The General Baptists followed the teachings of Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), who came after both Luther and Calvin. Arminius believed that Christ died for all, and that anyone who believed in Him would be saved. This was a forerunner to Arminianism.
The first General Baptist church was established in Amsterdam, Holland, in 1608. It was led by John Smyth, and was made up of refugees who fled England to escape religious persecution after rebelling against the church.
Smyth himself was a minister of the Church of England, but he developed Puritan views and, after failing to bring reform to the church, formed his own Separatist congregation near London. When it became too dangerous for his group to meet in worship, they divided into two groups. One of those groups moved to Scrooby Manor, and became the group of pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower in search of religious freedom. Smyth led the other group, which migrated to Amsterdam to escape the wrath of King James I, who had pledged to punish anyone who refused to attend the Church of England.
In Amsterdam, Smyth’s group met a group of Dutch Mennonites who believed in the baptism of believers only. It was at this time that Smyth realized that since most of his group had been baptized as infants, they were not valid. The church, he decided, was based on a covenant and not an actual confession of faith. So he disbanded it, and founded a new church that followed believers’ baptism. Smyth baptized himself, then he baptized the others in the group. It wasn’t complete immersion; it was by sprinkling — a practice that would hardly be accepted by modern Baptists. But it was an act that was reserved for believers.
Eventually, Smith’s group returned to London and established the first Baptist church in England. By 1650, there were nearly four dozen Baptist churches in and around London.
The Particular Baptists came somewhat later. They were influenced heavily by the teachings of Calvin, and believed that Christ died for a particular, or predestined, group of people: the elect. Even though Baptists weren’t the only denomination to be influenced by Calvin’s teachings of limited atonement, the doctrine played heavily in the church.
By 1650, there were several Particular Baptist churches in and around London.
General Baptists were the Arminian arm of the Baptist faith; Particular Baptists were the Calvinist arm of the faith. But there were other differences as well. Perhaps chief among them: Particular Baptists believed that its preachers should be educated with formal theological training, and that they should deliver prepared sermons. General Baptists rejected the idea of formal training for its ministers, and preferred extemporaneous sermons, believing that prepared outlines would hinder the influence of the Holy Spirit. Their practice was justified by Luke 4:20, which recorded Jesus closing the sacred scroll before beginning to preach.
This is an important distinction because it begins to paint a picture of practices that survive even to this day in much of rural Appalachia. Many Baptist ministers in rural churches have held on to the approach of the early General Baptists that sermons should be delivered spontaneously instead of prepared. But the lines have also been blurred. More on that in a moment.
Baptists adopted one of the chief beliefs of the Mennonites, which was the idea that Christians were “a community of believers over who the king nor government held any power,” as John Sparks wrote in his book, The Roots of Appalachian Christianity.
This point of view didn’t go over well in England. Edward Wightman (1580-1612) was the last person to be burned at the stake after being condemned by King James I for heresy. He was a Baptist, or at least had Baptist leanings. As persecution increased in England, Baptists began seeking refuge in the American colonies.
Ironically, since America was founded on the idea of religious freedom, the new Baptist faith didn’t go over well in the New England colonies, either. While the first Baptist church had been established in Rhode Island by 1638, Baptists were considered a left-wing party of the Puritan movement. Their liberal faith was unpopular; Baptists and Quakers alike were viewed by Puritans in the colonies as heretical outcasts.
At the same time that the Baptist faith was being established in the new world, Particular Baptists were undergoing a great debate: Just how strongly should the doctrines of Calvinism be preached? Should ministers focus solely on foreordained election by grace? Or should they also incorporate man’s free will and accountability for his sins? It was a debate that would foreshadow the spreading of the Baptist faith into Appalachia by a minister named Shubal Stearns a century later.
A touch of Methodism
In 1705, Valentine Wightman — the great-grandson of the early Baptist martyr Edward Wightman, who was burned at the stake in England in 1612 — established Connecticut’s first Baptist church. His teachings would become prolific in the early 18th century, helping to grow the Baptist denomination in New England, even as the Puritans remain steadfastly opposed.
Reformation continued within the Church of England, meanwhile. The Methodist faith emerged as an evangelical minority party within the official church, right about the time of the Great Awakening.
One of the founders of Methodism, and of the evangelical movement as a whole, was Rev. George Whitefield, a British minister who worked closely with John Wesley.
Whitefield was a flamboyant and influential preacher who criss-crossed the Atlantic to spread the gospel in both Great Britain and the American colonies. Among the people Whitfield won over — though apparently never converted — was the American founding father Benjamin Franklin.
While Wesley, generally viewed as the father of Methodism, was strictly an Arminian, Whitefield tended towards the Calvinist doctrines. He became a key figure in the First Great Awakening, and his preaching helped to transform religion in the American colonies. From his influence came a feeling of separatism, and a rise of a new denomination: Separatist Congregationalists — a faith that gave rise to farmer-preachers with little formal training.
One of the people who sat under Whitefield’s sermons and was eventually converted was Shubal Stearns, a young minister who founded a Separatist church in Tolland, Connecticut.
Stearns was deeply influenced by Whitefield. In his book, Sparks described the dramatic flair with which Whitefield delivered his sermons as “a distinctive preaching cadence (with) emotive style and embellished in a singsong, almost hypnotic chant of ‘nasal quality.'”
Historian Robert Baylor Semple wrote of Whitefield’s style that those listening were often moved to “tears, trembling, screams and exclamations of grief and joy.”
Both the preaching style of Whitefield and the reactions of those listening who were said to have been moved by the Holy Spirit were relatively new phenomenons within the protestant movement.
The Methodism of George Whitefield was trending towards the Baptist teachings that his contemporaries would later promote, and the lines between General Baptists (preferring preachers with no formal training, but tending away from the teachings of Calvin) and Particular Baptists (preferring preachers with formal training, but embracing Calvinism) were becoming blurred. All of this, the blurring of theological lines and the preaching style of Whitefield and the reactions of his listeners, would heavily influence religion in the Appalachians. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves …
The reformation of Shubal Stearns
Shubal Stearns was heavily influenced by Whitefield and adopted his preaching style. Later, Stearns and his family were influenced by Wait Palmer, a disciple of Valentine Wightman, who had established Connecticut’s first Baptist church. Stearns traveled to hear Wightman preach and was converted, and he formed a Separate Baptist church in Tolland in 1751.
The evangelical churches that rose up from the Whitefield Revival that Stearns was a product of generally embraced only two “Gospel ordinances”: Baptism and communion. But Stearns and his congregation advocated for more: the laying of hands, foot-washing and anointing the sick with oil, to name but a few.
Later, Stearns would carry these practices to central Appalachia, and they remain traditional in many rural Baptist churches today. But, again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Stearns was also an early father of fellowship within the church. He had his congregation begin a practice of embracing and shaking hands whenever they felt moved by the Holy Spirit. Today, fellowship handshakes are a staple of worship services in rural Appalachian Baptist churches.
Another tradition that took root among Stearns and his followers was closely-trimmed hair. The popular style of the mid 18th century was for shoulder-length hair, even among preachers. Stearns, though, kept his hair closely cropped.
Go (south)west, young man
In August 1754, Stearns, his family and many of his followers pulled up roots in Connecticut and began a migration southward. They believed that God had plans for them in the southwestern frontier. By this time, Stearns was a Whitefield-style evangelistic Calvinist who was also beginning to take on the more moderate beliefs of the General Baptists. Remember that debate among the Particular Baptists about just how strictly Calvinism should be preached? As Shubal Stearns prepared to spread the Baptist faith in Appalachia, he was blurring the lines between Calvinism and Arminianism.
Stearns and his convoy first settled in what is now West Virginia before traveling further south to central North Carolina. There, he teamed up with Herman Husbands, a Maryland Quaker who held large land holdings in the Sandy Creek area of upland North Carolina. Husbands envisioned a sort of backwoods New Jerusalem that would feature religious independence.
On November 22, 1755, Stearns founded the Sandy Creek Separate Baptist Church. And the settlers of the Carolina frontier, on the eastern slopes of the Appalachians, took to his preaching like moths to a flame.
Sparks wrote that the settlers “heard Stearns’ loud, melodious preaching chant and the corresponding singing, laughing, shouting and weeping of his small flock, the sights and sounds held them spellbound, convincing them that through the New Birth in Christ they, too, could experience a happiness and a joy beyond anything their precarious frontier experience could fling at them.”
The success of Stearns’ ministry was almost unbelievable. Within months, he had baptized 900 people. Of those, 590 joined the Sandy Creek Church. Stearns helped organize other churches, too. It was not long before his ministry had spread throughout North Carolina and South Carolina, as well as northward into Virginia.
Morgan Edwards, a Welsh minister who would become one of Stearns’ contemporaries, wrote in 1772 that Stearns’ voice was “musical and strong, which he managed in such a manner, as one while to make soft impressions on the heart, and fetch tears from the eyes in a mechanical way; and anon to shake the nerves, and to throw the animal system into tumults and perturbations. All the Separate ministers copy him in tones of voice and actions body; and some few exceed him.”
Through the descriptions of Stearns’ style, which was adapted from Whitefield’s style, it’s easy to see that his influence still exists among many Baptist ministers in rural Appalachia today. The same sing-song preaching style — and the resulting emotional responses that it invokes among the congregation — can be found in rural Baptist churches even in the 21st century.
Eventually, Stearns had a large group of ministers under his wing, helping to spread his ministry — men like James Younger, Daniel Marshall, Philip Mulkey and John Newton (not the British minister who wrote “Amazing Grace”).
The Baptist teachings spread
If there was a single event that helped Stearns’ influence spread from the Carolinas and Virginia into other parts of Appalachia, it was the Regulators War in the late 1760s. A catalyst to the Revolutionary War, the Regulators War changed the Carolinas forever. One of the unofficial leaders of the Regulators was Herman Husbands — the founder of the Sandy Creek settlement where Stearns’ Baptist ministry was based.
By the time of the Regulators War, Stearns’ influence was beginning to fade. Scandal and controversy within the church had diminished his ministry, and he was advancing in age. But with the exodus from the Carolinas that followed the British government’s squelching of the Regulators rebellion, many of Stearns’ followers wound up deeper in Appalachia as the frontier was expanded.
The Separate Baptists of the Sandy Creek area basically went two directions: north and south. Those who went north spread into the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, while others entered the Clinch and Holston River valleys of southwest Virginia and eventually traveled through the Cumberland Gap into Tennessee and Kentucky.
Many of the North Carolinians who moved to East Tennessee were the white settlers who were the first to set up homesteads on the Cumberland Plateau. And, with them, they brought the Baptist teachings, the preaching style and the religious traditions of Shubal Stearns.
Stearns died on November 20, 1771 — two days before the 16th anniversary of the constitution of the Sandy Creek Church. When he died, his once-powerful ministry had been greatly diminished. But his influence was well-established, and Shubal Stearns is a name that should be synonymous with the Christian faith in the central Appalachians. If not for Stearns, it is likely that Baptist churches wouldn’t be the predominant denomination in the Cumberlands and the Appalachians today. Further, Stearns’ theology was one that was later summed up well by Rev. John Leland, who wrote that the most successful and spiritual preaching was “the Sovereign Grace of God, mixed with a little of what is called Arminianism.”
If you go into many Baptist churches in rural Appalachia today, you’ll still find the blurred lines between Calvinism and Arminianism. You’ll still find the sing-song preaching cadence that Stearns adopted from Whitefield, the early Methodist minister who criss-crossed the Atlantic. You’ll still find fellowship handshakes that began with Stearns, as well as foot-washings and laying of hands and anointing with oil, although those practices are not universal in Baptist churches.
The Holston Association, Tennessee’s first association of Baptist churches, was directly born of the Sandy Creek Association that was founded by Stearns. Its first moderator was Tidence Lane, who succeeded Stearns as the pastor at Sandy Creek. William Murphy, the Baptist minister who would carry the denomination to the Cumberlands, played an early leadership role, as well.
The Holston conference nearly split over the question of Calvinism. In 1775, the question was formally posed: “Is salvation by Christ made possible for every individual of the human race?” Most of the association sided with the Arminian viewpoint. Murphy was one of those who stubbornly insisted that the answer was “no.” Later, his Calvinist leanings were carried to the Cumberlands when he became the first Baptist minister to preach here.
By the first decade of the 19th century, all of the Separate Baptist churches that had roots in the preachings at Sandy Creek had faded into various Baptist unions. Many of those unions, including the Holston, later became a part of the Southern Baptist Convention.
But the influence of Stearns and the Sandy Creek Association remains undeniable. And from the former Separate Baptist churches that had roots in the teachings from Sandy Creek came several denominations that remain familiar today. Among them:
• The Separate Baptists in Christ, which began in Russell Springs, Ky., west of Somerset.
• Churches of Christ, a conservative and autonomous group of congregations that sprang up largely as a rebellion against the Calvinist teachings of the 17th century and 18th century Baptists.
• United Baptists, well over 100 of which remain throughout Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee and were born of the Campbell Reform in Kentucky.
• Primitive Baptists, the strictest adherents of the Calvinist doctrines, and still prominent in parts of the lower Mississippi Valley, Texas and other parts of the Deep South, as well as along the Atlantic Coast.
• Old Regular Baptists.
• Free Will Baptists, which can’t be traced to Stearns but became prolific in central Appalachia as former churches influenced by Stearns looked for reform.
• The Church of God, born of a United Missionary Baptist Church in Turtletown, Tenn. in the late 19th century.