“Bible Belt or Separate Baptist
Bible Belt” Guest Editorial by
Dr. David L. Cummins
[Ed. note: Dr. Cummins has graciously allowed us to reprint this article. It is an introduction to his latest work on the Separate Baptist movement. We Baptists would do well to listen to Dr. Cummins. He is a venerable historian, has been preaching for over 40 years, pastoring in various places around the country. He has preached and taught on our Baptist heritage for the last 30 years. He currently serves as Deputation Director at Baptist World Mission.
In his inimitable manner, before the House of Commons in 1940, Sir Winston Churchill said, “History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.” Such was my personal experience as I was overwhelmed in meditation of the “Great Awakening.” While ministering in Enfield, Connecticut, I could not help but remember the impact of Jonathan Edward’s sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I made my way to the very site and attempted to envisionwhat had transpired there on July 8, 1741, as the message was delivered. The only eyewitness account of that occasion was provided by Eleazar Wheelock, founder of Dartmouth College. He was interviewed by Benjamin Trumbull, who summarized the momentous meeting by saying:
A lecture had been appointed at Enfield, and the neighbouring people, the night before, were so affected at the thoughtlessness of the inhabitants, and in such fear that God would, in his righteous judgment, pass them by, while the divine showers were falling all around them, as to be prostrate before him a considerable part of it, supplicating mercy for their souls. When the time appointed for the lecture came, a number of the neighbouring ministers attended, and some from a distance. When they went into the meeting-house, the appearance of the assembly was thoughtless and vain. The people hardly conducted themselves with common decency. The Rev. Mr. Edwards, of Northhampton, preached, and before the sermon was ended, the assembly appeared deeply impressed and bowed down, with an awful conviction of their sin and danger. There was such a breathing of distress, and weeping, that the preacher was obliged to speak to the people and desire silence, that he might be heard.
Of that spiritual renaissance in Colonial America, Edwin Scott Gaustad wrote: “There is . . .abundant evidence that this religious turmoil in New England was in fact great and general, that it knew no boundaries, social or geographical, that it was both urban and rural, and that it reached both lower and middle classes….” Surely the “time of extraordinary dullness in religion,” which Jonathan Edwards so detested during his early ministry at Northampton, came to an end with the “great and general awakening.”
C. C. Goen attests that “The Great Awakening marks a recovery of the doctrine of conscious conversion, even setting experience over profession in a way that the early Puritans had never known.”
It should not surprise us to find modern-day revisionist historians speaking disparagingly of the Great Awakening. For instance, in a recent book entitled Inventing the “Great Awakening” Frank Lambert postulates that “…the Great Awakening was inventednot by historians but by eighteenth-century evangelicals who were skillful and enthusiastic religious promoters. However, Mr. Lambert and his adherents have failed to examine the most notable and enduring impact of The Great Awakening, which was to be found among a group known as the Separate Baptists in the southern colonies.
The often used term Bible Belt was coined by H. L. Mencken in the 1920s to describe areas of the nation dominated by belief in the literal authenticity of the Bible and accompanying puritanical mores. He did not give the term a specific location, but he did associate it with rural areas of the Midwest and, especially, the Baptist back-waters of the South. He used the term in derision…. When one reads of the exploits of the Separate or New Light Baptists and realizes that their field of service was indeed in what might be described as the Baptist back-waters of the South, even Mr. Mencken would have to concur that the Bible Belt was actually the Separate Baptist Belt. Any honest historian would then have to admit that the Great Awakening was not a figment of imagination or the invention of a fanciful annalist.
Mr. Goen expressed a desire to research and write concerning this almost untapped resource of rich material concerning these Separate Baptists, but he wrote: “Since other interests continue to clamor for attention, I doubt that it will revive…. …If it (his book) inspires a younger scholar to pursue the southern phase (of the Great Awakening), that will be adequate consolation.” Little has been written about the subject, but this writer is convinced that the term “the Bible Belt,” as it relates to the southern states, is in actuality a misnomer. The famed Bible Belt was actually the Separate Baptist Belt”! Much more research is needed concerning this phenomenon, but a good beginning of the unfolding of the matter was undertaken by William L. Lumpkin. His excellent volume Baptist Foundations in the South relates in outline form the story that awaits a full treatment. The chronicle of events in Virginia have been reported by Rhys Isaac in The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790. Other than snippets tucked away in various other annals, this writer knows of no complete definitive history featuring the conquests of the Separate Baptists.
The story of Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall deserves much fuller treatment than it has received. In 1755 these two men, along with their wives and a dozen others, settled in Sandy Creek in central North Carolina. All of these had been impacted by the Great Awakening, and they were known as Separate or New-Light Baptists. With vision for impacting the southern colonies for Christ, at the organization of the Sandy Creek Baptist Church, the sixteen members chose Shubal Stearns as their pastor, along with Daniel Marshall and Joseph Breed as assistants. The congregation had a visualization of reaping an abundant spiritual harvest. And surely the Lord undertook! The membership of the Sandy Creek congregation soon numbered 606. More importantly, that congregation became the mother to forty-two churches, and 125 ministers had sprung from the Sandy Creek church by 1772.
The Separate Baptist movement in the South was undoubtedly one of the most formative influences ever brought to bear upon American religious life. Its part in the shaping of religious ideals and patterns among the American people has been realized by few scholars and has been almost entirely ignored by laymen. Because the name Separate Baptist fell into disuse, its distinctive contributions also were forgotten. As revivers of the Great Awakening in the South, the Separate Baptists merit special attention.
As a result of the evangelism and enthusiasm of the Separate Baptists, the Gospel saturated North and South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. George Washington Paschal opined: I make bold to say that these Separate Baptists have proved to be the most remarkable body of Christians America has known. As we witness our nation in such spiritual disarray, we can but thrill and cry out to our sovereign God, “Lord, do it again.” Surely the Lord of Glory blessed the efforts of these indefatigable evangelists with His presence and power. Morgan Edwards, early Baptist researcher and historian, wrote of the Separate Baptists in these words: “I believe a preternatural and invisible hand works in the assemblies of the Separate-Baptists bearing down the human mind, as was the case in the primitive churches. 1 Corinthians 14:25 “
Indeed, inexplicable experiences were the order of the day among these brethren. Only the manifested power of God can account for the conviction, conversions, and consecration experienced among the Separate Baptists. Let me share a few examples of Gods power in their midst.
Separatist Baptist Daniel Marshall, who was sixty-five years old, introduced Baptist principles into Georgia on January 1, 1771.
The scene is in a sylvan grove, and Daniel Marshall is on his knees making the opening prayer. While he beseeches the Throne of Grace, a hand is laid on his shoulder, and he hears a voice say: You are my prisoner! Rising, the sedate, earnest-minded man of God, whose sober mien and silvery locks indicate the sixty-five years which have passed since his birth, finds himself confronted by an officer of the law. He is astonished at being arrested, under such circumstances, for preaching in the Parish of St. Paul! for, in so doing he has violated the legislative enactment of 1758, which established religious worship in the colony according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England. Rev. Abraham, in his sketch of his father, published in the Analytical Repository, 1802, says that the arrested preacher was made to give security for his appearance in Augusta on the following Monday, to answer for this violation of the law, adding: Accordingly, he stood a trial, and after his meekness and patience were sufficiently exercised, he was ordered to come, as a preacher, no more into Georgia. The reply of Daniel Marshall was similar to that of the Apostles under similar circumstances, Whether it be right to obey God or man, judge ye; and, consistently with this just and spirited replication, he pursued his luminous course.
In a matter of time, Samuel Cartledge was baptized, became a deacon in the Kiokee Baptist Church which Daniel Marshall formed, and was ordained to the Gospel ministry. His ministry was blessed of God, and he was greatly used of the Lord in Georgia and South Carolina until his death at age 92. It is interesting to note that this magistrate, Colonel Barnard, was also afterwards converted, and he became a zealous Christian.
John Leland, outstanding Baptist preacher from Virginia who had much to do with the First Amendment to our National Constitution, testified: I have seen ice cut more than a foot thick, and people baptized in the water, and yet I have never heard of any person taking cold, or any kind of sickness in so doing.
In volume two of Materials Towards a History of the Baptists, Morgan Edwards reports a host of interesting events among the Separatist Baptists. For instance, in 1778 Elijah Baker was arrested for preaching the Gospel and imprisoned in the Accomack County Jail in Virginia. As he preached through the grates of his cell, he was heard by Squire Thomas Batston, who invited him to preach in Delaware. Of course the invitation could not be accepted. In the desire to silence Baker, he was taken from jail and put on board a privateer with orders to the captain to deposit him on any coast outside of America. Baker had a captive congregation, and he began to preach to the crew. The captain soon wearied of this procedure and transferred him to a second ship. When the winds blew contrarily, Baker was considered the culprit, and he was placed on a third ship. When the third captain wearied of Bakers preaching, he was deposited ashore. Discovering that he was now in Delaware, he sought out the residence of Squire Batston, and soon his preaching ministry began anew. He was joined by Philip Hughes of Virginia, and the two men were used of God in planting twenty-two churches in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.
Edwards further relates that Dutton Lane, youthful evangelistic preacher among the Separatist Baptists, was threatened with death by his own father. In fact, his father severely beat his mother for going to hear their son preach. But God broke the old mans heart with conviction, and in time, he was baptized by his son, Dutton, and a second son, Tidance Lane, actually introduced the Gospel into the State of Tennessee.
On another occasion, a mob led by one James Roberts was intent upon breaking up the work of the Dan River Baptist Church in Virginia. Roberts had obtained a warrant from Colonel Gardner to arrest Pastor Dutton Lane and some of the principal men of the church. As they were going to their task, night came on and a strong glare of light shone upon them, temporarily blinding them. Their horses fell to the ground as well. As the light disappeared, they were surrounded with such thick darkness as rendered them sightless. The animals and ruffians remained absolutely quiet until the men began to recover sight. Not a word was spoken, but Roberts and his men concurred that this was a warning to them, and the Baptists enjoyed a period of peace.
It is thrilling to read of the conversion of Swearing Jack Waller and to realize the grace of God upon him. Swearing Jack was on the jury when Lewis Craig, Separatist Baptist preacher, was tried for preaching without a license. At the conclusion of the trial, Reverend Craig addressed the jury by saying, I take joyfully the despoiling of my goods for Christs sake. I thank you, gentlemen, for the honor you did me. While I was wicked and injurious you took no notice of me; but now having altered my course of life, and endeavoring to reform my neighbors you concern yourselves much about me.
These words struck Waller so that he began to consider the absurdity of his conduct. The verbal arrow which Craig shot stuck in Wallers mind till a fixed conviction settled in and a glorious conversion resulted. Soon Jack Waller became an outstanding preacher and suffered many indignities, as well as imprisonment for the cause of Christ. In all, forty-four Baptist preachers, most of whom were Separatist Baptists, were incarcerated during that period in the Commonwealth of Virginia. These men persisted in preaching the Gospel, though they knew full well that prison cells awaited them.
Let the revisionist historians try to explain how the fire and fervor of the Whitefield revival lived in the Separatist Baptists who preached for a verdict! No one hearing their message could be neutral. When the Great Awakening moved into the South under the leadership of Shubal Stearns, great results accrued. In Virginia alone Separate Baptist churches existed in twenty-eight of the sixty counties by the end of 1774. There was at least one Baptist church in every county in which Baptist preachers were imprisoned in the Commonwealth.
Lumpkin summarized the movement when he wrote:
The Separate Baptist movement in the South was undoubtedly one of the most formative influences ever brought to bear upon American religious life. Its part in the shaping of religious ideals and patterns among the American people has been realized by few scholars and has been almost entirely ignored by laymen. Because the name Separate Baptist fell into disuse, its distinctive contributions also were forgotten.
Again he wrote:
Although the general religious influence of the Separate Baptists is worthy of considerable notice, of far greater significance is their specific influence upon the Baptists of the South. It is not too much to say that the Separate Baptists are historically and hereditarily the chief component of Baptist life in the South, both White and Negro.
As we behold the spiritual life of our once great Republic plummet into ruination, let us pray that the God of Heaven shall again visit America with reviving power. Let us repent of personal sins and ask that we might be such as He can use to do it again in our land.
Was the Great Awakening a mere fraud? President Calvin Coolidge did not believe so. Listen to what he said in one of his speeches:
Our government rests upon religion. It is from that source that we derive our reverence for truth and justice, for equality and liberty, and for the rights of mankind…. The ability for self-government is arrived at only through an extensive training and education…. It is of a great deal of significance that the generation which fought the American Revolution had seen a very extensive religious revival. They had heard the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. They had seen the great revival meetings that were inspired also by the preaching of Whitefield…. By calling the people to righteousness they were a direct preparation for self-government…. The government of a country never gets ahead of the religion of a country. There is no way by which we can substitute the authority of law for the virtue of man. Of course we can help to restrain the vicious and furnish a fair degree of security and protection by legislation and police control, but the real reforms which society in these days is seeking will not come at all. Peace, justice, humanity, charity these cannot be legislated into being. They are the result of a Divine Grace.
Benjamin Trumbull, A Complete History of Connecticut (New London: Published by H. D. Utley, 1898), 11:112.
Edwin Scott Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 43.
C. C. Goen, Revivalism and Separatism in New England, 1740-1800 (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan Universithy Press, 1987), p. 13.
Frank Lambert, Inventing the Great Awakening (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999), Cover.
Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, 1989 ed., s.v. Bible Belt.
Ibid., Goen, Introduction, p. XX1V.
William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Foundations in the South (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1961), p. 147.
George Washington Paschal, History of North Carolina Baptists (Raleigh, N. C.: Edwards & Broughton Co., 1955), p. 240.
Morgan Edwards, Materials Towards a History of the Baptists (Danielsville, GA: Heritage Papers), p. 93.
Various Authors, History of the Baptist Denomination in Georgia (Atlanta, GA: Jas. P. Harrison & Co., 1881), p. 13.
Ibid., p. 14.
John Leland, The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland (New York: G. W. Wood, 1845), p. 116.
Ibid., Lumkin, pp. 147, 154.
Calvin Coolidge, Foundations of the Republic (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1926), pp. 149-155.