Definitions and Early History
The Baptist faith is difficult to define. Historians and adherents debate its historical origins, and Baptists have divided and reintegrated into a range of subgroups over time in a variety of places. Not surprisingly, English-speaking Baptists distinguished themselves from other Christians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries primarily by their beliefs about and practices related to baptism. Most eschewed infant baptism, restricted the ordinance to those beyond the age of reason who professed belief or a conversion experience, and administered the rite by full immersion in water. Their baptism practices were linked to a broader effort to conform to the literal text of the Bible, which resulted in a streamlined and rigorous system of belief and practice. In keeping with biblical simplicity, Baptists in North America typically rejected formal church hierarchy and instead sent congregational representatives to regional associations to which churches could appeal for nonbinding guidance. Moreover, Baptists were largely critical of state-supported religion.
Virginia Baptists trace their historical roots to several groups of adult baptizers in early seventeenth-century England, some of whom had previously spent time in Holland. Three distinct types of Baptists initially planted the faith in the colony, at a multiplicity of points. The earliest congregations in Virginia were supported by missionaries from England known as the General Baptists. This branch of the faith was Arminian in orientation, believing that God issued a general offer of salvation to mankind. In their view individuals were invested with free will to accept or reject God’s gift of eternal life. There had been some adult baptizers in Virginia at least since 1699, and in 1714 missionary Robert Norden (Nordin) was sent by England’s General Assembly of the General Baptists to minister to them. He founded a congregation in Prince George County and likely others in both Virginia and North Carolina. Somewhat later, another group of General Baptists, having previously settled in Maryland, migrated to Virginia’s Northern Neck to found at least two congregations. While General Baptists expanded for a time, they ultimately did not flourish in Virginia. Historians are certain only that in the 1760s there was still an active congregation in Princess Anne County, and that other General Baptists were dispersing or in the process of becoming affiliated with Baptists of other stripes.
A second, larger group, the Regular Baptists, emerged in two bands across the northern and southernmost reaches of Virginia in the 1750s and 1760s. Both groups owed an important debt to missionaries sent by the Philadelphia Baptist Association, which had strong ties to the Particular Baptist movement in England and its colonies. Particular Baptists were Calvinist predestinarians who believed that God selected particular individuals for the gift of salvation, and described humans as unable to make free choices or assert their will with respect to their eternal condition. Baptist immigrants of this stripe had founded enough congregations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to form an association in 1707. When a period of revival caused the more evangelical of Baptists to split from this organization in the 1740s, the term “regular” came to apply to those who remained. This body sent missionaries to northern and western Virginia in 1752, in response to requests for ministerial supply from Baptists at the Ketocton Church in Fairfax County and at Mill Creek in western Frederick County. These ministers offered assistance only on the condition that congregants renounce any Arminian tendencies and conform to their organization’s confession of faith. By 1766, these congregations were joined by two others to form Ketocton Baptist Association, the sole governing body of Regular Baptists in Virginia for a time. By 1771, some 1,100 converts in fifteen Baptist churches in northern and western Virginia were affiliated with this Association. Somewhat later, General Baptists on Virginia’s Southside also received ministerial support from the Philadelphia Baptist Association, likely starting in 1765. Several congregations along the Virginia–North Carolina border were organized or reorganized and adopted the Regulars’ confession of faith in following years to root the Regular Baptists there.
A third type of Baptists, known as “Separates,” began to arise in Virginia late in the 1750s. This group had English Particular Baptist roots but worshipped in a more evangelical style; engaged in some biblical practices, such as foot-washing, that were not as common among Regulars; and may have developed somewhat more rigorous membership restrictions and congregational discipline standards. While there were Separates in the middle colonies and New England that broke from Particular Baptist churches and associations, Virginia’s Separates loosely trace their origins to New England Congregationalist minister Shubal Stearns, who was inspired by the preaching of George Whitefield in the 1740s to break from his old church, and then subsequently became an advocate of believer baptism. In 1754 Stearns traveled south with some of his Separate Baptist congregation to join his sister and brother-in-law, Martha and Daniel Marshall, in far-western Virginia, and then all of them migrated on to Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1755. Stearns, Marshall, and others began an intensive ministry that produced multiple church foundings and finally the formation of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association in 1758. The Association soon dispatched preachers to spread their message in Southside Virginia. They were very successful at gaining converts, and Separate Baptist congregations formed at a rapid pace on the border with North Carolina in the 1760s. Some Virginia converts then took up the pulpit, traveled the Virginia hinterlands, and rooted this version of the faith in all Virginia regions west of the fall line by 1770, when most Virginia Separates broke off from the Sandy Creek Association to form the General Association of the Separate Baptists of Virginia, with thirteen member churches. In the early 1770s, Separate Baptist churches started to appear in the Tidewater as well.
In 1775 there were about seventy-five officially formed Baptist congregations in Virginia, almost all of which were Regular or Separate. The distinctions between these churches gradually faded, and the two groups unified into a single associational structure in 1787. Church foundings had slowed during the American Revolution (1775–1783), but accelerated again during a series of revivals in the late 1780s and the 1790s, affixing the Baptists in Virginia for good.
Congregationalism and Emotionality
Baptists shared many important features in common by late in the colonial period despite their divided origins, and the primacy of the congregation was paramount among them. It was through congregations that ministerial supply was raised, for example. Baptists eschewed seminary training and complex ordination processes in favor of a system that allowed congregations to promote preachers from among themselves. Those who felt the “call” to preach requested to take up the pulpit “on trial,” with oversight from a small group of neighboring, previously ordained ministers. Early Baptist preachers often took charge of several congregations or itinerated to serve neighborhoods where a congregation had yet to be formally constituted, allowing ministers to maintain several groups of converts at a time. Preachers could be spread so thinly without necessarily putting the church’s integrity in danger, in part because Baptist congregations were somewhat self-governing. Baptists conceived of congregations as covenanted bodies, whose members promised to assist one another in their walk in Christ by watching and reporting on each other’s behavior. Identified sinners among them faced disciplinary action in which they were required to answer for themselves before the group and express contrition, under threat of expulsion from fellowship.
At the same time, Baptists of all stripes were fairly emotive in worship, relative to the established church, though Separates were reputed to be more inclined in this direction than Regulars. It was expected that individuals would undergo a profound period of painful emotional turmoil and soul-searching in the process of becoming a believer. Ministers typically spoke extemporaneously and with feeling, seeking divine inspiration in their sermonizing rather than crafting a learned written text. It was not unusual for congregants to respond to this “faith preaching” with tears, exclamations, and occasionally even with fainting or flailing. Preachers sometimes held more sustained meetings outside of traditional church settings—in homes, fields, and arbors—that were particularly designed to tap into the emotions of the crowds they gathered. Such revivals, documented as early as the 1760s, often went on for days, attracted thousands of listeners, and could involve protracted sermons by a small army of preachers. Sermons were intended to both inspire and emotionally exhaust those in the throes of conversion and to deepen the intensity of religious feeling among prior converts.
Early Baptists did face opposition. Dozens of their ministers were jailed before the American Revolution. Some, particularly among the Separates, had refused to obtain legally required preaching licenses. Others violated the terms of their licenses, which usually specified places of worship, making itinerancy and revival meetings illegal. Some were incarcerated for the more general charge of disturbing the peace. Both preachers and congregants also sometimes ran afoul of the local churchwardens, as all Virginians were legally required to tithe to the Anglican Church and attend Anglican worship at least once a month.
Early Baptists were routinely subject to verbal and physical abuse as well. While the learned offered pointed written critiques of Baptist belief and practice, anyone could heckle at open-air meetings. Sometimes criticism turned to violence. Dozens of ministers were attacked by local mobs in the formative period of Baptist expansion. Early congregations also gathered at their own risk, as when the well-bred men of Culpeper County galloped their horses through a crowd that had formed to hear the Reverend James Ireland preach from his cell while incarcerated for disturbing the peace over the winter of 1769–1770. The reasons for such opposition ranged widely, from a critique of adult baptism and other practices related to biblical literalness to concern that the fast promotion of uneducated preachers inappropriately elevated men who could be socially dangerous in leadership roles.
Historians have long debated the nature of Baptist dissent. Some treat it as a cultural challenge to the hierarchal secular order constructed by Virginia’s planter class, highlighting the “republicanism” of Baptist church government; the relative empowerment of women, slaves, and “plainfolk” in congregations; antislavery attitudes; and the like. Others have read nearly the same evidence as indicative of the social conservatism and proslavery of early Baptists.
That so much can be said about a faith that attracted far more followers from among Virginia’s illiterate masses than among its great families is owing both to the church discipline system that required careful record-keeping and also to a strong sense among early Baptists that it was important to preserve their story for future generations. Volumes of Virginia Baptist history by Robert B. Semple, William Fristoe, Lemuel Burkitt and Jesse Read, Morgan Edwards, James B. Taylor, James Ireland, and others, mostly published in the immediate post-Revolution period, are rich and easily accessible sources for further study.