Born in Boston in 1706, Shubal Stearns lies buried 642 miles to the south and west, in the little town of Staley, North Carolina. Between those two places--at Tolland, Connecticut--Stearns underwent a spiritual transformation. The changes he embraced in Tolland led him to lay part of the foundation of a well-known feature of our modern American religious landscape: the Bible-Belt South.
The Stearns family moved from Boston to Tolland in 1715, when Shubal was still just a boy. An active member of the Congregational church, in 1727 he married a local girl, Sarah Johnson. Years later, his life forever changed with the coming of what we now call the First Great Awakening.
By the 1730s, Puritan churches had become stale and formalistic. Preachers of the Great Awakening challenged the status quo with emotional sermons that called hearers to a vibrant, all-consuming faith. Stearns heard the most famous evangelist of them all, George Whitefield, when he preached in Connecticut in 1745. Immediately, Stearns identified himself as a New Light, someone who welcomed the message of the revivalists. Even more, he sided with the Separates, radical New Lights who felt they could no longer be members of their spiritually cold and lifeless congregations.
With no church facilities, Separates had to decide where they would gather for worship. In Tolland, they met in the Stearns home on Charter Road. Stearns himself served as minister of the congregation, which grew through the years. But in 1751, the group divided. Some, like Stearns and his family, embraced the Baptist teaching that church membership is only for those who have experienced believers' baptism, adult immersion upon a profession of Christian faith. Soon after he was immersed, Stearns organized a "Separate Baptist" church in Tolland.
|Charter Road in Tolland, Connecticut|
Three years after his conversion to the Baptist persuasion, Stearns concluded that he should take his message to the colonies that lay south and west of Connecticut. His brother-in-law, Daniel Marshall of Windsor, was also a Separate Baptist preacher. In 1754, the two men moved their families to Cacapon, Virginia, near present-day Winchester. After working for months with only moderate response, they received word that people living in the Piedmont section of North Carolina would ride long distances just to hear a sermon. So it was that in late 1755, a company of fifteen people, mostly Stearns and Marshall and their families, migrated to Sandy Creek in what is now Randolph County, North Carolina, where they immediately began a church.
|Pulpit Rock in Tolland, Connecticut, one-time gathering place for Separates. Shubal Stearns sometimes preached here.|
According to the late Sydney Ahlstrom, a Harvard professor and the unofficial dean of American religious historians, those few Separate Baptists who came from north central Connecticut were critical to "Baptist expansion throughout the South and the Old Southwest." That's no small difference considering that the dozens of Baptist groups in America today constitute the nation's largest Protestant family.
Next time, I'll say a bit more about the connections between Separate Baptists in the South, like Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall, and the American Restoration Movement, associated with names like Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell.
P. S. Historians publish their writings under their own names. But they never carry out nor complete their work all by themselves. When it comes to communicating history, we should not think of Lone Rangers. Collaborative networks of people make it happen. Thank you to George Caruthers for taking me to Tolland, and also to Carl Sallstrom who listened to my story about Pulpit Rock and who eventually located it. Today, the land on which Pulpit Rock stands is owned by Lloyd Bahler and family. Lloyd was nice enough, on the spur of the moment, to show the three of us around and to give us access to the Bahler family property. Thank you!