Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"Holy Whine" at Pulpit Rock: Connecticut Connections to the Bible-Belt South

Born in Boston in 1706, Shubal Stearns lies buried more than 600 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 seemed 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
Weather permitting, people would sometimes gather at Pulpit Rock in Tolland, where they listened to the evangelist preach. Stearns was small in stature. But when preaching, what he lacked in height he more than made up for with over-sized gestures, a piercing gaze, unrestrained emotion, and a sing-song delivery some called "the holy whine." Many listeners who at first didn't care for his style eventually warmed up to his obvious sincerity and devotion.

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. This was part of a historic trend. As scholar Christine Heyrman explains, "evangelical revivals in the northern colonies . . . inspired some converts to become missionaries to the American South." Stearns's 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.
With Sandy Creek as his home base, Stearns traveled through parts of North Carolina and Virginia preaching sermons, training evangelists, and planting Separate Baptist congregations. By the time Stearns died in 1771, there were 42 Separate Baptist congregations served by 125 ministers in North Carolina and Virginia. In effect, the migration of the Stearns and Marshall families transplanted the First Great Awakening from New England, and specifically central Connecticut, to the southern back country.

According to the late Sydney Ahlstrom, a Harvard professor and the unofficial dean of American religious historians, those few Separate Baptists who came from 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.

In a later post, 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.

Some Sources

Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. See Chapter 20, "Evangelical Expansion in the South," especially pp. 317-24.

Bowden, Henry Warner. Dictionary of American Religious Biography. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993. A brief entry on Shubal Stearns appears on p. 514.

Garrett, Paul E. Where Saints Have Trod in the Expansion: Volume One. Barberton, OH: Garrett Publishing, 2009. See especially pp. 21-23.

Heyrman, Christine Leigh. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. See esp. pp. 10-11.

Hughes, Arthur H. and Morse S. Allen. Connecticut Place Names. Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1976. This unique, outstanding resource does not include a listing for a Pulpit Rock in Tolland. Yet, it does list Pulpit Rocks in other towns, indicating that some of them were gathering places for religious activities.

Humphrey, Carol Sue. "Stearns, Shubal." In American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, 20:597-98. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Taylor, C. E. "Elder Shubal Stearns." North Carolina Baptist Historical Papers 2 (1897): 99-105.

Waldo, Loren P. The Early History of Tolland. An Address Delivered before the Tolland County Historical Society, at Tolland, Conn., on the 22nd day of August an 27th day of September, 1861. Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Company, 1861.

A Note of Thanks

Historians publish their writings under their names. But as we see in the "Acknowledgements" sections of their books, they never carry out nor complete the work all by themselves. When it comes to communicating history, we should not imagine that the job gets done by Lone Rangers. Instead, we should recognize that 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 the Bahler family property. Thank you!

1 comment:

Freeborng said...

Thank you, Frank, for the post. For more on Whitefield and other dissenting New Lights in England, please visit the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on Francis Asbury opens with the book, Black Country, detailing the dissenting movement started by John Wesley and George Whitefield. Francis Asbury came to Philadelphia in October of 1771. Although a Wesleyan Methodist, Francis Asbury experienced his conversion by the efforts of a Baptist minister in England. The website for the book series is www.francisasburytriptych.com. Again, thank you for the post.