Early American Baptist History | Part One

September 23, 2014

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

Early American History reveals the Baptist as a fledgling group who got off to a staggered start in the new world. The basic reason was the struggle they had for religious freedom primarily in New England with the Puritans but also in other colonies like Virginia where religious liberty was suppressed in a dramatic way.

One wonders with the preponderance of Baptist churches everywhere today how they grew to such a number with such small beginnings. Truly we can say the hand of the Lord was upon Baptists despite efforts to suppress them. This may seem strange to some who have not studied the lay of the provincial land held by certain religious groups in the early days of this nations colonial American History.

For this reason we do not have a sustained thread that leads to a continuity of a movement. Rather you have certain brave leaders here and there throughout the colonies who were pioneers in planting Baptist Churches and standing up for their convictions that are similar to what we believe today.

Everything started in New England and Baptists owe a great debt to Roger Williams and his founding of Rhode Island as the freest colony in the granting of religious liberty. Although Williams established Rhode Island when he was going through the phase of being a Baptist, it was a welcome respite from all they had struggled with in the Plymouth Bay Colony. It opened the door for the first permanent Baptist congregation established by John Clarke in Newport, Rhode Island.

Baptists coming together as an association of churches in 1707 was a historical beachhead as the first churches began in the area under the leadership of Thomas Dungan and Elias Keach as founding pastors. Now Baptist churches, though small in number, had enough freedom to peak their heads out in a slightly changing religious environment. The Association later adopted the Philadelphia Baptist Confession in 1742 which became the First Baptist Confession of faith in the new world. At the peak of the Great Awakening in 1740 Baptist churches were beginning to take off in all colonies.

Baptists work in the South started due to the efforts of men like William Screven in establishing the First Baptist Church of Charleston. This church is the oldest church in the South. The Calvinist stream of the Baptist movement was put in motion with this solid work with pastors Oliver Hart and Richard Furman leading the congregation as pastors who followed him.

The work at Sandy Creek, North Carolina under Shubal Sterns and Daniel Marshall became a movement of church starting and new missionary efforts in the General Baptist group of churches. Evangelistic outreach and meetings were a keynote of this group of churches. It was a tremendous move of God with the various congregations begun in relative short time. Many of these works formed the foundation for numerous Baptist churches in the South today.

Baptists still struggled in Virginia where three Baptist pastors were jailed for preaching without a license which they could not attain since they were not minsters in the Church of England being the only official denomination recognized there. The preachers release from jail through the efforts of Patrick Henry is a thrilling story.

Isaac Backus continued to lead efforts for religious liberty in New England. State-sponsored religion had left Baptists supporting other ministers with taxation to support their ministries which he spoke against. The establishment of the Baptist College in Rhode Island later known as Brown University gave some measure of respectability to Baptists with the stalwart writing of Morgan Edwards recording the history of Baptist Churches in America at that time. With the Revolutionary War, Baptists were in the military as chaplains and soldiers. The influence of John Gano and his serving with George Washington’s army stands out here.

Baptists were still needing assurance our new nation would grant religious freedom to everyone equally. John Leland did yeoman’s work in this area as a primary leader in the freedom of religion clause in the first amendment of our new Constitution as a nation. Baptists, like no other group, had learned the value of religious freedom being guaranteed. It should never be an assumption and Leland worked tirelessly to make sure it was not. Leland had been a pastor in Virginia who struggled to establish churches. He served as pastor and overcame barriers to their freedom to practice their faith in a very oppressive colony.

This roving story of early Baptist work in America doesn’t tell the entire story but hits some of the high-points. I have discovered this is a relatively unknown history in Baptist circles because it was made before the Southern Baptist Convention began in 1845. The lack of a common thread of thought and work was not known, only initiated under the Sandy Creek and Charleston movements. Nonetheless, early Baptists work in America is a story that needs to be amplified and studied more in depth. My recent study of our history in this area yielded a wealth of inspiration and courage as I looked at the ministry and lives of these early Baptist leaders.

What do they have to teach us? They teach us we are to go forth with vision even when we are the first to do so in an area. Their story also tells us contentment with the status quo would have inhibited the movement even more than it did with persecution and oppression. Their lives show us that unchained from prejudice and restriction the work God has called us to can thrive. The early Baptists did more with much less than we have. This is a partial picture of what these brave leaders and movements accomplished so that we can enjoy the relative freedom we know to practice our faith. There is much to learn from their early efforts. Hopefully it will help you to see them in a way you have never seen it before.