Chapter VII. -- Baptists
THE BAPTISTS. -- Reference was made in the preceding section to the first Baptists in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Outside of these colonies the Baptist era dates from the closing part of the seventeenth century or the early part of the eighteenth. Before the close of the former century Baptist churches were organized in Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. It should be noted, however, that the congregation in Maine was soon dispersed, and that nearly a century elapsed before the work of organizing Baptist churches in that region was again undertaken. "In 1688 the Baptist denomination in North America comprised thirteen churches only. Seven were in Rhode Island, two in Massachusetts, one in South Carolina, two in Pennsylvania, and one in Mew Jersey." 1 J. M. Cramp, Baptist History, p. 471. In Connecticut, Virginia, and New York the Baptists acquired an organized existence in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. They had a church in North Carolina in 1727, in Maryland in 1742, in New Hampshire in 1750, or shortly thereafter; in Georgia in 1772. The middle and latter part of the century was a time of rapid growth in the country as a whole. "In 1740 the number of churches was thirty-seven, with less than three thousand members, but in 1790 there were eight hundred and seventy-two churches, containing 64,975 members." 1 Cramp, p. 527.
The great revival which began in the fourth decade of the eighteenth century gave to the Baptists an impulse of far-reaching consequence. One of the immediate fruits of that revival in New England was a number of congregations which were led to take an independent position in relation to the "standing order," either because they considered the local pastor too intolerant of religious excitement, or wished for more stringent terms of fellowship than were maintained where the half-way covenant prevailed. Not a few of these congregations mentioned as Separatists, and sometimes as New Lights -- became associated with the Baptists.
From this source an effective evangelistic agency was provided for North Carolina and Virginia. In 1754 Shubal Stearns, who had become identified with the Separatists, proceeded with some members of his congregation to Virginia. The next year he passed across the border into North Carolina, where his labors resulted in gathering a very flourishing congregation. Soon Stearns and others who had imbibed a kindred zeal began to preach in Virginia after the manner of itinerant evangelists. As indicated above, they were not the first representatives of Baptist principles in Virginia. A company of Baptists from England had been organized as a church in the southern part of the province in 1714, and in 1743 immigrants from Maryland had established a congregation in the northern part, the nucleus of the Regular Baptists in that section of the country. However, before the arrival of the new-comers, who were called Separate Baptists, no great progress had been made. The revival methods whish they employed with marked earnestness proved to be very efficacious in attracting attention and winning converts. At the same time they were equally efficacious in provoking the animosity of the clergy and the magistrates belonging to the Establishment. In the course of the persecution about thirty ministers, besides many subordinate laborers, were imprisoned, some of them more than once. Opposition in this form, however, rather helped than hindered success. Before the end of the century Virginia had become a stronghold of the Baptists. In 1793 the denomination in the State was able to boast of 227 churches, 272 ministers, and 22,793 communicants, or nearly one third of the whole number of Baptists to be found at that time within the limits of the United States. 1 Thomas Armitage, History of the Baptists, p. 735. Six years previously the different branches--Separates, Regulars, and Independents --had agreed to be known under the common title of United Baptist Churches of Christ in Virginia.
In theology the tendency among American Baptists was to enthrone Calvin. Nevertheless Arminianism had its representatives. It is understood that this was the creed of the first Baptists who settled in the southern part of Virginia, though communication with others eventually corrupted, or perfected, their faith into Calvinism. 2 R. B. Semple, History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia, p. 348. Arminian Baptists were found in Rhode Island and Connecticut, and in 1729 an Association of their churches was formed at Newport. Speaking of the time when the Warren Association was organized (1767), a Baptist writer says of the New England churches, "Some of them were frankly Arminian in doctrine." 1 Armitage, History of the Baptists, p. 717. Several of the leading preachers in Virginia espoused the Arminian position. In 1780 Benjamin Randall founded a denomination, the Free Will Baptists, which made the Arminian doctrines of grace a distinctive feature, as well as open communion.
Various eccentricities in usage and polity made their appearance. A number of these are summarized in the following appeal for charitable judgment: "If the churches composing the Sandy Creek association in North Carolina were tenacious of the kiss of charity, the laying on of hands upon members, the appointment of elderesses, and such things; if a large Baptist body in Virginia was so mistaken as to choose in 1774 three of their number, and designate them 'apostles,' investing them with power of general superintendence; and if in some respects the fervency of New Light feelings got the better of discretion and decorum, we must bear in mind the peculiarities of the times." 2 Cramp, Baptist History, p. 545. To this enumeration should be added the eccentricity which is represented in the Seventh Day Baptists. In Rhode Island those who advocated the keeping of the seventh day were formed into a separate church in 1671. This was the beginning of the denomination in America.
3 Backus mentions William Hiscox and six others as primarily composing the church. Soon afterwards a family, or several families, by the name of Rogers, joined them; but these new members seem ere long to have fallen into an independent position, thus giving rise to a party known as Rogerenes. With the keeping of the seventh day they combined Quaker phraseology and the renunciation of medicines. (History of New England, i. 324, 325 381; ii. 11, 501.)An offshoot of the German Baptists, or Dunkers, who settled in Pennsylvania between 1719 and 1729, also maintained the obligation to sanctify the seventh day.
A considerable proportion of Baptist preachers in colonial times were men of but moderate education. The leaders of the denomination, however, were far from being indifferent to learning. In 1764 a memorial of their enlightened zeal was provided through the founding of Rhode Island College, known later as Brown University. A principal part in this enterprise was taken by James Manning and Morgan Edwards, who may be ranked, along with Isaac Backus and Hezekiah Smith, among the eminent representatives of the denomination in that period.