Happy Birthday Sandy Creek


Several have pointed out the Baptist Press story on the celebration of the famous Sandy Creek Baptist Church. The so-called “Sandy Creek tradition” has been less than accurately represented by some who would like to suggest that the Separate Baptists who came from that church and association were opposed to Calvinism. Often this is done by speaking of the Sandy Creek tradition as being committed to evangelism and the Charleston tradition as being committed to Calvinism, and these two (or more) traditions combining to form the Southern Baptist Convention. Such historiography misrepresents the Sandy Creek tradition and is suspect at best. It actually follows a thesis developed and popularized by Walter Shurden and Fisher Humphreys–men that no SBC “inerrancy leader” would ever confuse with being conservative. I find it strange, then, that someone like Paige Patterson would uncritically espouse this theory in explaining Southern Baptist origins.

I have written on this in different places–once in a brief overview of the reformation heritage of the SBC and once as a response to comments and challenges that Dr. Patterson made to students and faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the latter, I wrote this:

“The evangelistic fervor of the Charleston tradition is only one side of the evidence which refutes the skewed historical interpretation that Charleston and Sandy Creek were separated by Calvinism and missionary zeal. The implication that the Separate Baptists of Sandy Creek were somehow anti-Calvinistic is, at best, a thesis which is difficult to defend. Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that Separate Baptists were just as convinced of the Reformed understanding of salvation as were their Regular Baptist brethren.” (read the article)

In addition to these two sources, Josh Powell has written an excellent article entitled, “Shubal Stearns and the Separate Baptist Tradition.” It was published in the Founders Journal (Spring 2001). An excerpt and link follow below.

“The year was 1758 and God had richly blessed the gospel strategy of the Separate Baptists in North Carolina. Just three years before, a group led by Shubal[1] Stearns had settled at Sandy Creek and constituted a church. Within those short three years with “a few churches having been constituted, and these having a number of branches which were fast maturing for churches,…” (read the article).

Each of these articles is well-documented. Read them and check the footnotes for yourself. Then decide if the old Shurden-Humphreys-Patterson thesis about Sandy Creek is historically sustainable.

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5 Responses to “Happy Birthday Sandy Creek”

  1. Thank you, Tom. This particular error from the other side of the aisle is near and dear to my heart, because I am a native North Carolinian and have always been a NC Baptist. I also have a history degree from one of our Baptist colleges (Wingate), and, since Sandy Creek Church is all of two counties from the one in which I live, I know what these folks say about Sandy Creek Association and the reality is very far apart. This is one of my “pet peeve” issues, because it neglects the larger conceptual framework of NC’s history, which is seemingly ignored in their oversimplfied version of history. Let me explain.

    NC is a state divided between East and West. In the East, all the rivers run North to South. In the West (Sandy Creek being in the Eastern Piedmont in present day Randolph County), our rivers run in an East/West fashion. Consequently, the Eastern part of NC is culturally very like Charleston and Eastern SC. Here, in the Piedmont and parts west of here, we tend to have a different culture. We are more conservative politically and, usually, theologically. The East was, until the middle of the last century, the center of politics, commerce, and education in NC. Sandy Creek in present day Liberty was NC’s frontier in those days.

    The “missionary zeal” of Sandy Creek Association is not a function of its theology. This can be seen in its confessional documents. The “bookishness” of Charleston was not a function of its theology either. Others have written at length in the linked articles. What then accounts for the differences between the two strands, if their differences are not theological? I have a theory based on the cultural history of our state.

    The Eastern counties were, during the Antebellum period, very much the cradle of civilization in both Carolinas. In NC, nearly our entire political history is the history of struggle between the East and the West. The Charlestonians were more prone to “writing books,” because they were in a very stable geographical area, in a port city, and a city, by those standards, metropolitan by comparison to the middle of NC. Life was simply easier for them than it was for their brothers to the northwest. Consequently, they simply had more resources and more time in comparison to those living on the frontier.

    Group migrations to the Piedmont of NC were made by German Lutherans and Moravians and Reformed settlers from Pennsylvania beginning in the late 1740s; Scots-Irish Presbyterians from the Pennsylvania-Maryland border area in the 1750s; Quakers from many locations in the 1750s; scattered Virginia Baptists organized meetings in the 1750s; and Methodists from the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the 1770s and 1780s.

    Sandy Creek was on the NC frontier in those days. In many ways, it’s still the same. Today “thar ain’t nuttin’ but the NC Zoo” in Randolph County, NC. Salem, the Moravian settlement, had been established to the West in present day Forsyth County. Guilford County was much larger, and Greensboro itself was not established until 1808. In 1829, Greensboro itself had a population of 470 people. Sandy Creek Church alone had a membership of 600!

    Churches were often established by circuit riders. Most any denomination would do in those days. When a pastor from-insert denomination -came to lead a new church, the circuit rider left, and the churches took on the character of the theology of the pastors that came, unless there was a large variance between what the people believed and what the new pastor taught. That’s why, down East, you see lots of Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, and, the further East you move, the more Baptists and Methodists appear in NC. Presbyterian churches, with the exception of Mecklenburg, which was largely settled by Presbyterians, are few and far between in the Piedmont by comparison to Baptists and, later, Methodists, because the Presbyterians would either establish their own churches and only occasionally would a Presbyterian pick up a church planted by a circuit rider, because the Presbyterians spent (as they continue to do today) lots of time educating their teaching elders before sending them out. More Baptists were self-taught men coming from the established Baptist churches in those days and many were men prone to hear a call for a pastor from a circuit rider and come to them directly from other frontier churches that had been established. Stearns came when he heard of the need for a preacher in that part of NC. Essentially, Stearns was a circuit riding preacher that established the church and never left it.

    This is all to say that the differences in the two strands are, in point of fact, cultural, not theological. Take for example, the practices of love feasts, dedication of children, and the selection of moderators mentioned in Josh Powell’s article. As a North Carolinian, I have to smile, because I can see how these practices would seem odd to a PA Baptist in that day.

    It’s rather well understood here that many of our practices in this part of NC were borrowed from each other. Love feasts are a tradition in this part of NC, primarily in the Moravian churches, and, in the present day, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians practice them at Christmas time, precisely because of the Moravian influence. The Moravians were well established during this period, and, compared to Charleston, were more readily accessible for trade to Sandy Creek Church’s members than the Charelstonians. In fact, Moravians composed the majority of the next large community, Salem, (now Winston-Salem, NC, where I grew up). No doubt, the Sandy Creek folks saw this practice, for the Moravians were a people known for their hospitality, and, like we do today, thought it was good for their fellowship.

    The practice of devoting children would seem odd to a Philadelphia Baptist, but not to a NC Baptist in Sandy Creek. Why? Answer: No doubt, they likely were influenced by Mecklenburg Presbyterians and Salem Moravians who were just west of the area, the Cumberland Presbyterians who were to the immediate east, and the Raleigh Episcopalians who were to the northeast. All of these were within trading distance of the association at that time and accessible. Cumberland / Hanover County Presbyterians and Mecklenburg Presbyterians in particular frequently migrated through the corridor that includes Randolph County (then Guilford County) to the north, often stopping to form new settlements or being absorbed into existing ones.

    Some of the leadership practices and the freedom of speech for women(for instance, the choosing of moderators) should come as no great surprise for an association of Baptists in Guilford County. No doubt, they were influenced in some measure by interaction with Quakers, who settled just north of Sandy Creek in present day Greensboro, NC in the New Garden area and Cane Creek in present day Orange County. Quakers also settled in Alamance. All of these border present day Randolph County. To this very day, Guilford County, NC, Randolph County’s immediate neighbor, is known for the number of churches established by the Society of Friends and boasts of it in its historical markers. By orderly Baptist standards in Philadelphia (or Charleston) it would be odd, but not to Baptists in Guilford, particularly with their Friends to to their immediate north acting very like them.

    No doubt, Charleston was “bookish” and more orderly, but then so was everybody else in the Coastal Carolinas in those days. They were anchored in a city. Sandy Creek was missionary oriented because they were on the frontier, and, on the frontier Shubal Stearns New Light heart for establishing new churches was greatly needed and could come to full bloom. The church and the association adopted the frontier spirit of Western North Carolinians in those days. It was the spirit of the times. They were never as dour and orderly as their metropolitan cousins. Not many people on the frontier in the Piedmont were like the people Down East. In fact, the folks Down East thought of them as ruffians.

    Even the Mecklenburg Presbyterians shared in this spirit. Remember, in 1775, those same Presbyterians issued the Mecklenberg Declaration, which said, by unanimous resolution, the people free and independent and all laws and commissions from the king were henceforth null and void, but their Scots-Irish brothers in Cumberland and Hanover Down East in NC remained largely loyal to the crown! This was the culture and spirit of the NC frontier!. This is why God was pleased, “through the establishment of the nature of second causes” (in this case a prevailing “frontier spirit” in the dominant culture of the people), to make Sandy Creek morely noticably revivalistic and evangelistic, and not as static and bookish as their Philadelphia and Charleston brethren.

    If a historian speaks of the more studied character of Charlestonian Baptists, I will agree. It seems to be true that they tended to look before they leaped when planting churches and doing missions, but that is a cultural idiom, not the product of a theological paradigm. Virtually all of the denominations Down East did the same thing. Why? It is merely the temperament of the culture and geography at work, not the result of theology. They were settled in more cosmopolitan areas. They produced more orderly congregations. They tended to be well-educated people who approached life more thoughtfully, perhaps even thinking the frontiersmen comported themselves in a more cavalier manner. In NC, the Westerners believed the Easterners constantly “looked down their noses” at them, and more than one dispute arose between the West and East in the General Assembly itself because of this divide. If the Westerners in the Carolinas were the soul of their colonies, the Easterners were the thinkers, the minds of those colonies. The two geographical areas were disjointed due to the course of the rivers. No wonder they developed different characters; no wonder the two streams differed in many respects!

    The two associations (Charleston and Sandy Creek) were largely isolated from each other by the flow of the rivers. That is why there are two separate streams (no pun intended), and that is why when I hear this old canard, I roll my eyes a little and cringe. It doesn’t comport with the primary source documents regarding their theology and virtually all of the differences in practice about which we know have to do with the culture and geography in which the parent church and subsequently the association grew, not their theology. This is true for most of the religious differences and overlaps in NC. Those who make this assertion are, quite simply, ignorant of NC history, and it shows greviously. Thank you for posting this, Tom!

  2. Gene, I was thinking exactly the same thing. :)

    Seriously, I love history and enjoyed your explanation of these distinctions.

    Tom, thanks for the links- a large part of the SBC issues are that many do not know this great heritage.

    In Him,

  3. Gene, thanks for the clarifications. It really is much more helpful than mere rhetoric.

    I too have a history degree and specialized in early American/ Frontier history E. of the Mississippi. Last year, as a student in Dr. Nettles’ Baptist History Class at SBTS, I did a lengthy paper about the earliest Baptists in Kentucky, and many of the same trends are true.

    Many of these early Baptists held to doctrinal statements that embraced Reformed theology (though they would have considered it BAPTIST theology) but it fermented in the culture of the frontier, where travelling ministers often had little information, almost no books, and little formal training like their brethren to the east. However, I have found that when you examine their primary source material, they were clearly committed to God’s sovereignty in salvation.

    Here, and in SO many other places, the arguments from the other side of the aisle HOLD NO WATER. I remember just how frustrated I was a few years ago when the CBFers were crying “nowhere in Baptist history do you find Baptists holding creeds!!!” Had they never read Lumpkin? Christian? Orchard? Torbet? Come on, the primary information is out there, and maybe it is time for some of us “reformed thinkers” to become more aware of our own history.

  4. Thanks Tom! I was there when Dr. Patterson presented his theories on SBC origins, and your response to him was very helpful to many of us at Southeastern.

    And Gene, it isn’t often that a response is as good as the original post–thanks for the further info.

    Up here in Indianapolis it seems like Alexander Campbell’s restoration/deformation, Pentecostalism, and mainline liberalism are the predominate influences–very different than the general ethos of NC in the triangle area.


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