Thursday, June 15, 2017

Founded on Equality: The REAL Origin of Baptist Churches in the South

Much has been said this week about how Southern Baptists split from Northern Baptists over the issue of slavery, or more specifically, over whether or not to allow slaveholders to serve as missionaries. What everyone misses is that Baptist Churches in the South did not start off this way, they were corrupted over time by wealthy southern landowners, slaveholders and others with political and financial motivations who were seeking personal gain.

Shubal Stearnes, one of my personal heroes of the faith, moved with his family to North Carolina in 1755 to plant a Baptist church. The term Baptist, at that time meant that they practiced believer's baptism and rejected the infant baptism of the Protestants. They founded the Sandy Creek Baptist Church which was the first Baptist church in the south.

Sandy Creek was a remarkable church and what they did in the 1750's in North Carolina was astonishing. They extended the right hand of fellowship to everyone regardless of race or gender. Not only was Baptism and the taking of the Lord's supper offered to all, but this meant that they washed each other's feet, gave each other holy kisses on the cheek and shared love feasts, aka fellowship meals, together as children of God. This physical contact across racial and gender lines, for which they were known, also included the laying on of hands (to pray) and anointing the sick (for healing). They were Congregationalists which meant that Everyone, whether black or white, male or female, slave or free, had a say in how the church was run. All were given the opportunity to teach. They were all equals at church, all created in the image of God, all equal heirs in grace.

They emphasized the new birth in Christ and offered an invitation to respond and be saved in their services. They worshipped fervently and emotionally, believed in being led and directed by God's voice, preached the word with passion and planted churches. They sent out both black and white men to preach and established a network of churches, The Sandy Creek Baptist Association, that supported and encouraged one other. Within 17 years, 42 churches with over 1500 members had sprung from this movement which discipled and produced 125 ministers. In the 1800's, they started a mission society and a foreign bible society, held associational meetings and founded a Seminary.

Not surprisingly, it was Shubal Stearnes who envisioned such a movement. He is said to have prophesied the 2nd Great Awakening. While the rapid, explosive growth of these churches endured a setback when many of the members fled North Carolina due to the Regulator Wars, they had already planted churches in neighboring states, and I personally believe that it was this very scattering of believers that planted seeds all around the South and eventually grew into the 2nd Great Awakening with revival fires springing up all over.

Over time, leading up to the civil war, the work of these movements was corrupted as many (but not all) southern churches became contaminated with the cancers of racism, politics and greed. It is true that the Southern Baptists split from the Northern Baptists in 1845 over the issue of allowing slaveholders to serve as missionaries, a fact which is disgraceful, shameful and completely disgusting. But Baptist churches in the south did not start off that way.

It has been a long road back over these last 172 years. This fact is an ugly stain upon our history, but it is simply NOT where our history began, nor is it representative of the beliefs of most Baptists throughout history. While it is right and proper that we express regret and repentance for this sorrowful part of our denomination's past, and it is important that we grow, mature and seek unity and reconciliation, it is also important to realize that this was an effort by the devil to undermine the awesome work that God was doing, it was not the beginning of our denomination. Now, we are 4 generations past this event looking back at one generation of Baptists that was partially led astray by wealthy Southern slaveholders who knew that their way of life could not survive Baptist preaching.

From the beginning, it was Baptists leading the charge against the practices of enslavement. Sandy Creek was founded by Baptists who were subsistence farmers who did not keep slaves. Not only did their teachings and actions begin to break every chain of racism and ignorance among church members, but they actively sought to change society. By the early 1800's they began imploring slaveholders to end the inhumane practice separating families by selling them to other plantations. By 1835, the Sandy Creek Baptist Association formally condemned slavery and began expelling members who wouldn't give up the practice of enslavement. Even during the Civil War, the teaching of faithful, backwoods Baptist preachers was still firmly against slavery. If you've seen or read The Free State of Jones, the teaching of Shubal Stearnes and Sandy Creek strongly influenced those who rejected the sin of racism and fought against it from the pulpit to the battlefield.

The ugly fact of the split from northern Baptists is only a small part of our history and even then, many Baptists did not agree with that position. Since the time of the Reformation, we have a rich, shared inheritance from groups like the Radical Reformers or AnaBaptists, to the New Lights of the 1st Great Awakening to the Sandy Creek Baptists to the Conservative Resurgence. Throughout our history, Baptists have boldly fought against false teachers and fake religious leaders and secular individuals with selfish ambitions and hidden agendas who sought to take over our churches. If there is one thing we should be known for, it is our willingness to stand up for what is right, admit when we are wrong, and boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. In this country, we proudly trace our heritage specifically and directly to a group of Believers who sought to live their lives for Jesus and started a revival movement that grew out of the Sandy Creek Baptist Church, teaching the world to love Jesus and to love each other as equals.

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