Baptist History Spotlight: Shubal Stearns

January 26, 2015

Dr. Dan Nelson | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA

The influence of Shubal Stearns to the early Baptist work in America is indeed great. Our heritage as an evangelistic people concerned for the establishment of new churches, the conversion and baptism of new converts is clearly seen through Stearns influence. The expansion of Baptist churches in the South can be directly linked to the witness and testimony of the great Sandy Creek Church which sent preachers to start new work, lead evangelistic campaigns and was a force to be reckoned with up until the present day. Stearns may be one of the most underappreciated leaders of Baptist work in America. God accomplished great things through this great Baptist leader. Stearns was noted for being an evangelist and preacher. He led a movement of evangelistic meetings, church planting and restoring churches. The Separatist movement rose because of his influence. He led in the Baptist work to become the predominant group in the south today.

Stearns was born in Boston and was raised as a member of the Congregational in Tolland, Connecticut. He heard George Whitefield preach in 1745 and came to Christ. He began to see doctrinal issues he disagreed with in the Congregational church. He became a “New Light” and identified with the followers of those who support the awakening movement in churches.  He believed the only course of action in his life was to separate from the “Old Lights” in the Congregational church who opposed revival and the awakening movement.

The next course of action for Stearns was to be involved with the issue of the proper subjects for baptism. Stearns rejected infant baptism and sought baptism in 1751 from Walt Palmer, a Baptist pastor in Stonnington, Connecticut. He was afterward ordained into the Baptist ministry by Palmer and Joshua Morse, the pastor of New London, Connecticut Church. Stearns’ church of “Separates” were now identified as Separate Baptists.

Stearns next moved with several followers to Opequon, Virginia. Daniel Marshall, his brother-in-law, joined him in this venture with his family. Stearns and Marshall preached in Virginia with great intensity. However, the civil authorities influenced by local clergy accused them of being “disorderly ministers.” They complained to the Philadelphia Association but the charges were ignored.

Finally on November 22, 1755 Stearns and his party moved to Sandy Creek in Guliford County North Carolina. From here Stearns found the proper environment he needed to expand the gospel and multiply his ministry. The refuge for religious freedom became a launching pad for a great movement of God. The Separate Baptist movement scattered throughout the South. The church in Sandy Creek grew from 16 to 606 members. Church members also spread through the area starting other churches. The strength of the movement was found not only in their evangelistic efforts but also their church planting efforts wherever they went.

After three years, in 1758, the Sandy Creek Association was formed giving further impetus to a movement that had spread far beyond the initial church at Sandy Creek. The impact of the association was recorded by Baptist historian Morgan Edwards when he disclosed, “In 17 years Sandy Creek has spread its branches westward as far as the great river Mississippi; Southward as far as Georgia; Eastward To The Sea And Chesapeake Bay; And Northward To The Waters Of The Pottowmack [Sic]; It, In 17 Years, is become Mother, Grandmother, And Great Grandmother To 42 Churches, From Which Sprang 125 Ministers.” The Expansion of the Sandy Creek Work was phenomenal.

Stearns was by all accounts an inspirational preacher capable of captivating his audience. The response of his congregations wherever he preached was expressive emotion. None of Stearns’ sermons are available and have disappeared. He was much an impromptu preacher which may account for some of the failure to uncover any sermons in printed form. His style of preaching was copied by many even down to the gestures. He did believe in providing personal instruction to his new converts. He preached everywhere throughout North Carolina and launched others into other areas who did as he had done. He had a certain freedom to preach more than others may have had. He and his wife Sarah had no children.

The movement that Stearns launched was noted for its multiplication of a ministry starting small but full of great energy and evangelistic fervor. The key to its success was the reproducing effect it had on churches and converts everywhere it spread. Whatever happens in Baptist life Baptists in the south will always be indebted to Shubal Stearns and his visionary leadership. God facilitated the awakening movement through him and his followers in the south. His leadership and role in Baptist work in the south is immeasurable.