Baptist History Spotlight: William Screven

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

The Baptist Movement was bound in the 1600’s to New England and its area because of the first English settlers coming there. Expansion efforts featured the churches started in the close vicinity to Boston or the Plymouth area. The Pennsylvania area was a little further south but the churches were still restricted to New England area. That was about to change, however, with William Screven and the church he founded in Maine that fled to South Carolina and them becoming the first Baptist church in the south. First Baptist church of Charleston owns the distinction of being the first Baptist church in the south and residing outside of the New England area. Their pastor William Screven was a visionary leader who led the congregation on a long trek down south.

The First Baptist Church of Charleston and the General Baptist Movement led by Shubbal Sterns and Daniel Marshall was used of God to populate the South with Baptist churches everywhere in the succeeding centuries. Screven’s move and the Sandy Creek awakening under Sterns cannot be minimized for the success of Baptist work in the South.

William Screven was born in Somerton, England in 1629 and came to America as an 11 year old boy. Screven was baptized by John Myles at the First Baptist Church of Swansea which holds the distinction as the first Baptist church in Massachusetts. Myles also came to Boston to speak there and influenced Screven there. Screven gave evidence of God calling him to preach the gospel while he was at the First Baptist Church of Boston in 1682. Screven was 53 years old when he entered the pastoral ministry. He was going to Kittery, Maine to start a church there.

Screven’s stay in Kittery, Maine was not a happy one. A congregation was begun in Maine but Screven faced opposition by the civil government there and the Puritan/Congregationalist church there. Family tradition relates how Screven and his small church of about ten people were literally escorted out of town and told not to return. They were even threatened with hanging if they did not leave. Baptists again encountered outright hostility toward their right to exist in the place people came seeking religious freedom. It is a continual ironic twist when you look at Baptists in their early New England days.

Despite the hostility directed toward Screven and the Kittery congregation they never looked back. They relocated their church to Charleston, South Carolina around 1696. Screven served as pastor for nearly 20 years before dying in 1713. Screven was described as orthodox in the faith and of a blameless life. He and his congregation subscribed to the London Baptist Confession of 1689 which was a Calvinistic leaning statement of faith.

In 1700 First Baptist Church of Charleston moved into a building erected by the congregation. The church survived and grew but was the only Baptist church in the area for over half a century. Their influence though became tangible to the Baptist influence in the South.

Not much is known of Screven’s sermons or ministry style. The fact that a strong foundation was laid in the South for Baptist work is undeniable.  Thomas Curtis offered this positive sketch of Screven’s life:

William Screven, an ancestor of the respectable family of that name connected with the Baptist church in Liberty County, Georgia, driven from England by persecution, became the first pastor of the Charleston Church. Before the year 1700, he laid the foundation of the Old Church, on the site which the place of worship of the First Baptist Church now occupies. At this period, there was but one clergyman of the Church of England, and one of the established Church of Scotland, officiating in the city. To secure purity of doctrine, the Church subscribed what was called the Century Confession of the English Baptists—an outline of faith and practice which has expressed the principles of our body to the present day.

The church at Charleston has been a surviving church going through the English monarchy, war of the revolution, the wars of church and state, and several other modern churches since its inception. The greatest prize it has attained has been the freedom to worship. This was something Baptists were sorely lacking during Screven’s time.

We have to admire Screven for his vision in moving a handful of people to a place they had never been before. They didn’t just move to a neighboring county or to a nearby state. They moved out of the region familiar to them to another region of the country totally unfamiliar to them. It was a long distance between Maine and South Carolina. God blessed their endeavor. The churches survival as the oldest Baptist Church in the South established under Screven’s leadership was and is a testimony of its endurance.