Baptist History Homepage

Introduction to American Circular Letters
      This Introdocution was written fifteen years ago, near the time the website was iniated. As you can see, there have been many additions since then; it began as a local northern Kentucky project.

      Baptists have been writers for many years. Many of them were not noted for their writing abilities as they were mostly pastors and were busy at the task of preaching the gospel and pastoring their churches. However, for many years the various Baptist associations met and commissioned someone to write a Circular Letter that was addressed to the churches within their particular association. A basic doctrinal statement was often at the beginning of each Circular (this was the case more often with the British Circulars than with the American). Generally a subject was assigned when the writer was chosen. The author's name was usually mentioned in the Minutes of the year he was selected. Often the first name of the writer is not recorded. I have supplied the names of the writers in most cases, since they were not listed with the Circular. The associations usually published a very limited number of their Minutes (in the early years, 100-200) and distributed them to their associated churches.

      These Circular Letters show what some of the American Baptist churches and associations were concerned about in the nineteenth century. Most in this collection are written by men from northern Kentucky. The Kirtleys, Robert E. and James A., are from the third generation of a family in the Northbend Association. James A Kirtley pastored for about five decades in the area. He wrote more than any other person from the Northbend Association on doctrinal issues. However, a deacon, Moses Scott, wrote more Circulars than any other writer.

      Two Northbend Circulars were written by Jesse L. Holman, who lived in southern Indiana, but the church there associated with Northbend until enough churches were constituted north of the Ohio River to establish their own association. Holman was a pastor, lawyer and judge.

      There are also three histories of the Northbend Association written as Circulars at different times: 1825, 1840 and 1850.

      The Campbell County Association came from the Northbend and seems to have been formed partly because of distance factors and also some doctrinal issues that were developing in the Northbend Association. There are four Circular Letters posted from this association; the one written in 1855 gives us a vague history of the Campbell County Association; the biography of John Stephens, near the end of the Letter, gives a vivid picture of some of the difficulties of a pioneer Baptist preacher. The Circular giving the doctrinal statement is very clear. The one on Communion was borrowed from a Circular of an association bordering Campbell County to the east and southeast (Bracken). Campbell County had very little slavery, but Northbend Association to its west and Mason County to its east were two areas with significant slavery. The Circular of 1861 addresses their war concerns. In 1840, the Salem Predestinarian Baptist Association was established in northern Kentucky, mostly from churches in the Northbend Association.

      The Circular by Jesse Mercer in 1811 has been reprinted by various Baptists. He was a leading pastor in early Georgia and the university at Macon is named for him. There are also other of his Circulars. The Circular from the Serepta Association gives us a view of early frontier Baptist concerns in Georgia.

      The New Jersey Circulars deal with some of the Baptist issues in that state in the mid-nineteenth century. The New York Circular was re-written by a committee using the Charleston Association's Circular of 1809 and deals with Pastor/Church member relations. The Virginia Letter was written by Jacob Grigg on the subject of church discipline.

      I located many Indiana Circular Letters at Franklin (IN) College and have added some of them. Some of these Associational Minutes had local church histories instead of Circulars, so you may want to check out the History section for these.

      Most of the Circulars from the Philadelphia Baptist Association are now added. This was the first Baptist Association in America; their Circular Letters had wide-reaching influence on many later associations.

      George B. Peck wrote of the earliest Circulars in our nation: "When Associations were first organized in this country the isolated condition of the churches, the difficulty and expense of communication whether by messengers or by mail and the entire absence of religious periodicals invested the Circular Letter with an importance and an authority of which but the shadow remains. Its chief office was instruction on important questions of the day; encouragement was but an incidental function (Rhode Island, 1874)

      I trust you will find some benefit in reading these old Circular Letters.
      James R. Duvall, 2005

      Many other Circulars have been added since the "Intro" was written. There are CLs from 21 states.


More American Circular Letters
Baptist History Homepage