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Early Baptists in Eastern North Carolina
By G. W. Paschal
(Address before the Baptist State Convention)
Biblical Recorder, 1934
      When the Baptists established they first church in North Carolina in 1727 the Province had for two years been morally and religiously bankrupt. The Quakers indeed had been holding their meetings since 1672, and were still exercising a wholesome influence, but they were few in number except in Perquimans. The efforts to support an Establishment, begun with the vestry act of 1701, and the sending of missionaries by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had ended In failure. While there were some good and noble men among these missionaries, so many of them were unworthy men that they retarded rather than quickened the religious interests of the people; and while there had been some activity in the parish of St. Paul's, Chowan County, Rev. John Urmstone on coming to the parish in 1711 found the church near Edenton unfinished, with only a dirt floor and a few rough benches for seats, the door open, and the church a refuge for hogs who had dug up the floor and made their beds there, causing it to be foul with filth and nastiness. The vestrymen meeting in such a church passed around the bottle while deliberating on the means of giving the Gospel to the people. In 1729, according to Governor Everard, there was not a single minister of the Church of England in the Province. The last two, Bailey and Blacknall, had with their partisans engaged in drunken brawls in Edenton, for the possession of the parish church. Referring to these brawls and the utter collapse for the time of the work of the Establishment, Dr. Francis Hawkes, the Episcopalian historian, says:
"It is a sad story at the best. The Church had enough to contend with in the hostility of the Quakers, the disaffection of the merely nominal members, and the open assaults of the enemies of all godliness; it is sad to think that the last glimpse we get of her in public during the proprietary times shows her as a helpless victim, dragged into unnatural association with the dirty strifes of still dirtier parties; mixed up with the lawless deeds of clamorous and drunken partisans, and amid the curses and the shouts of a godless and triumphant rabble, escorted through doors broken down, to be represented by the ministrations of a man whom one-half of the community pretended, for the time, to consider an oracle, while the other half believed he was a drunkard. Religion and the Church of Christ could not but suffer from such forced and unhallowed associations."
      Such was the religious and moral condition of North Carolina as the Baptists were beginning their work. And it is well attested by other indisputable evidence that the ministrations of the ministers of the Church of England were no more effective for the next quarter of a century. Take the case of Bath, where the present noble edifice known as St. Thomas's Church was built in 1734. In 1742 this church had as its minister the Rev. John Garzia, whom Bishop Cheshire calls "a faithful and devoted minister." Mr. Garzia gives the following account of his parish in a letter dated April 15, 1743:
"I do beg the favor of you to inform their honors with my endeavors to promote goodness, Christianity, and true religion among the inhabitants within my mission, but immorality is arrived to that head among so many, that it requires not only some time but great patience to conquer it; because upon my preaching upon prevalent and predominant sin, I must be prepared to stand the persecution of those who are guilty of it, especially in my resident parish, in which adultery, incest, blasphemy, and all kinds of profaneness have got such deep root.

". . . I stand the oppression of an inveterate and obstinate parish, governed by twelve vestrymen, whose only endeavor is to hinder and obstruct the service of God being performed, they themselves never coming to hear the Word of God, and dissuading as much as possible others from it, and in a particular manner exercise their malice against me, having had nothing these four years for the support of my family, but what is allowed me by the Honorable Society."

      When two years later this faithful man of God had died, his widow, said by Rev. Clement Ball, the Edenton pastor, to be in low circumstances on account of her husband's salary not being paid, had to appeal to the Society for maintenance for herself and her three little children.

      Similar expressions showing the low moral state of the people of North Carolina in this early period come from other missionaries of the Society who labored in North Carolina. "It is all one with them whether they have a minister and church to go to or not," said the Rev. John Urmstone; "they had need to be hired to go to church or send their children to school." Rev. Richard Marsden, who made his home in the Wilmington district, from 1732 to 1742, testified that he got nothing for his services, though he preached in his own house and gave the greater part of his congregation dinner every Sunday. Rev. James Moir, laboring also on the Cape Fear, was paid in rice, which he did not need and could not sell, and suffered other outrageous treatment. He declared: "No Province in America as far as I can learn has more need of missionaries and none can deserve them less."

      That this account of religious conditions given by missionaries of the Society is not overdrawn is at tested by another minister of the Church of England, the Rev. George Whitefield. He was in North Carolina first in the closing mouths of 1739. At Bath he preached to about 100 people and was so inhospitably treated that some used to believe that the failure of that town to grow was owing to a curse which came upon it in consequence. He preached at New Bern on Christmas Day. "Here," according to his biographer, "he was grieved to see the minister encouraging dancing and to find a dancing master in every little town," thinking that "sinful entertainments enervate the minds of the people, and insensibly lead them into effeminacy and ruin." In general he thought North Carolina at that time to be "the greatest waste and the most uncultivated of spots, both in a temporal and a spiritual sense."

      Now we are in a position to consider and estimate the value of the work of the Baptists in eastern North Carolina. Whitefield preached again in New Bern in the closing months of 1764, twenty-five years later. Though, according to a member of James Reed's church, Christ Church, Whitefield spoiled his sermon by ranting towards the end, he had a large and appreciative congregation. On his journey southward from New Bern he found much religious enthusiasm, and, as he was departing from the Province wrote:

"At New Bern, last Sunday, good impressions were made. From that place to this I have met with what they call New Lights (Baptists) in almost every stage. I have the names of several of their preachers. This with every other place being open and exceedingly desirous to hear the gospel, makes me almost determined to come back early in the Spring."
      I could give other evidence to show there had been a great transformation, religiously and morally, in North Carolina, since the days of Urstone and Everard and the first visit of Whitefield to the Province in 1739. What, we may ask, had effected this great transformation? What had changed North Carolina from a land where preachers and their families were left to starve, and even vestry-men sought to obstruct public worship, where there was almost unbelievable moral degradation, where people had to be hired to go to church, to a land where the eagerness of the people to hear the gospel excited the admiration of the great Whitefield? To that question there is one answer: it was Baptist preachers. Yes, it was the Baptist preachers who had come into that wilderness, saying: "Repeat, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand," who had cried to the erring and sinful men of this region: "Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?" And the people had heard them.

      For a fuller account of the work of these emissaries of the Cross I must refer my hearers to my "History of North Carolina Baptists," but on this occasion I will spend the remainder at my time telling of some aspects of it.

      The first known Baptist preacher to come to North Carolina was Paul Palmer. In 1727, he constituted the first Baptist Church of which we have record in North Carolina. This was in Chowan County, some twelve miles north of Edenton, and possibly being removed exists today at the Meherrln Church, near Murfreesboro. Soon after Palmer joined with others in constituting the church now called Shiloh, in the present county of Camden, which we reckon is our oldest North Carolina Baptist church.

      With the planting of these churches Palmer began those missionary labors which exited the wonder and consternation of Governor Everard, who in 1729 declared that Palmer was preaching and making proselytes in every part of the government and that nothing could stop him. According to Morgan Edwards, Palmer went as far south as Onslow and about 1741 established a congregation there.

      In the quarter of a century Palmer and his fellow-laborers had established in North Carolina sixteen Baptist churches, many of which still exist - Shiloh east of the Pasquotank; Sandy Run in Bertle; Heukee and Lower Fishing Creek in Halifax; Reedy Creek in Warren; Tar River, Grassy Creek, and Flat River in Granville; the Falls of the Tar in Edgecombe; Tolsnot in Wilson; Red Banks and Flat Swamp in Pitt; Bear Creek in Lenoir; Swift Creek in Craven; Great Cohara in Sampson. About 1750, says President Whitsitt, this group of churches constituted the most progressive body of Baptists in the world.

      While it is manifestly impossible at this time to trace the development of this great Baptist movement in Eastern North Carolina, even in outline, I have thought it proper to say something of the struggle the early Baptists had in their efforts to give the gospel to the people of the section of which New Bern is the center, especially since that city is now the third time the host to our North Carolina Baptist State Convention, having entertained it once before in l853 and again in l869.

      The first Baptist church in this section, according to Morgan Edwards, was that of Swift Creek, about twelve miles north by west of New Bern, its founder was the Rev. William Burges, who first preached there and, says Mr. Edwards, baptized many. This William Burges had joined with Palmer in constituting the Shiloh Church in Camden; it was in his house that the Shiloh Church first met. He was a man of considerable influence in the province, being a member of the Provincial Assembly and a justice of the peace. Mr. Edwards did not know the date when Burges gathered the church at swift Creek, but in all probability it was about 1740, the year of another incident that concerns the Baptists of New Bern, and Swift Creek was probably the church figures in that incident.

      Owing to the evangelizing labors of Paul Palmer, Dr. Josiah Hart, and William Burges, there were in 1740 already a number of Baptists in and around New Bern. At this time they thought to build a church for themselves. And to comply with the law and to secure impunity from prosecution, they brought a petition for permission to build the church before the Craven County Court of Common Pleas at its term for June, 1740. For three days the petitioners were kept before the court, since though the laws of both England and the Province required that the petition be granted, the court was seeking some grounds for refusing it. Finally three men were found to testify that the petitioners had been guilty of misdemeanors, the offense doubtless being preaching the gospel without a license; and instead of granting the petition, the court bound the petitioners over to court, first, to keep the peace, to the next term of its own court which met the following September, and then to the Court of Assize and Gaol Delivery, which corresponds roughly to our Superior Court which at that time met very irregularly.

      With the giving of bonds the records of these cases ends. There is no evidence of what action was taken by the Court of Assize. But at the next term of the Craven County Court, in the following September, another group of petitioners, of whom three had been in the first group and two were new, made a different petition, to wit, that "they be allowed the benefits of the Tolerance Act." This was granted.

      In connection with these prosecutions there is a well established tradition that some of the defendants, especially Nicholas Purefoy and William Fulsher, were publicly whipped and imprisoned or both, and that the court records once contained statements of this, which were destroyed by purposeful mutilations.

      There is no doubt that such mutilations exist. The records themselves show that. In my "History of North Carolina Baptists" I have assembled the evidence gathered by Rev. John T. Albritton and Mr. Nunn, editor of a New Bern paper, and from the writings of Colonel John D. Whitford, a typed copy of whose manuscript "History of the Biblical Recorder and the New Bern Baptist Church," may be found in the Library of Wake Forest College; the evidence is all but absolute that such punishment was inflicted on some of the petitioners.

      As shameful as was this punishment, whether by fine, imprisonment, or whipping of men, whose only crime was preaching the gospel, hardly less shameful is the undeniable fact that several of the prominent citizens of Craven County brought prosecutions contemplating these very penalties for these men, with the evident purpose of silencing them in their effort to proclaim a saving gospel to a destitute people. Equally shameful is the fact that the prosecutors had the co-operation of the Craven County court, thus exhibiting an intolerant spirit against the Baptists which existed until the coming of the new day of freedom in 1776.

      Nor is the prosecution in New Bern the only instance of such public hostility. Two years later the scene of the hostility had shifted to the banks of the Bay and Neuse rivers, and there too, according to the indisputable evidence of a petition now in the files of the Historical Commission in Raleigh, the Baptists had their worship interrupted and finally broken up by officers of the law, while the court refused to grant them the right to a place of worship to which they were entitled under the law.

      These pioneer Baptists in eastern North Carolina were what are known as General, or Arminian Baptists. But in the years 1750 to 1755 nearly all the ministers were won to Calvinism, or Particular Baptist view by Miller and Van Horne, missionaries sent for the purpose by the Philadelphia Association, and these missionaries with the assistance of these ministers reorganized almost all the General Baptist churches, on the Particular Baptist plan. Among these was Swift Creek. But they were not able to do this without much disturbance and without arousing much animosity among the members, most of whom refused to come into the organization; consequently the new churches were weak in membership. The preachers with the zeal of new proselytes begun to preach sermons of strong Calvinistic character much the same as one may hear from our Primitive Baptist brethren of today. The result was that the wonderful progress of the evangelizing General Baptists seemed at an end.

      In justice, however, let us say that the Particular Baptists brought a new standard of righteousness and of church membership to North Carolina. They were careful to see that only the redeemed entered their churches, and only those remained in them who continued in holy living and in communication with their brethren in love and the breaking of bread.

      At this time, God had better things in store for the people of North Carolina. At the same time that the Particular Baptists began their work of proselyting the General Baptists of eastern North Carolina, another kind of Baptists, came to Sandy Creek, in the present count y of Randolph. These were the Whitefield or Newlight, or Separate Baptists. Their leader, Shubal Stearns, believed that he had been sent forth by the Holy Ghost from his Massachusetts home to do a great work. Beginning at Sandy Creek in November, 1755, with a church of sixteen members, in three years he had organized the Sandy Creek Association, the third oldest in the United States, and before his death in 1771, Stearns and his fellow-laborers had established churches of their faith from the Potomac to the Savannah and beyond, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the frontier settlements in southwestern Virginia and Tennessee.

      Stearns and his company had been in North Carolina hardly a year when he and his ablest assistant, Daniel Marshall, came on a missionary journey from Sandy Creek to eastern North Carolina. The people of this section had never heard a gospel such as Stearns and Marshall brought them. These New-light Baptist preachers with their strange tones, earnest manner, violent gestures and fervid words, attracted large congregations, men coming sometimes fifty and sometimes even a hundred miles to hear them. As no other preachers had done these New-light preachers emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit in their preaching. Even the best educated and the ablest Baptists of other names were struck with wonder. Morgan Edwards, a Particular Baptist, said that he believed that "a supernatural and invisible hand works in the assemblies of the Separate Baptists, bearing down the human mind, as was the case in the primitive churches."

      A spirit of Pentecostal enthusiasm pervaded the communities in which the Separate Baptists preached. The preachers themselves and their sermons were designated by the term "enthusiastical"; their followers were the "enthusiastical" sect; and the powerful interest in spiritual religion manifested in the communities were the Separates labored was given the name "Enthusiasm."

      Since they preached believer's baptism, and a religion of personal experience, their preaching challenged the very foundations of the established religion, and soon gained a following and influence that filled the missionaries of the Church of England with alarm and dismay. "Last winter" (1760-61) said the Rev. Alexander Stewart, of Bath, "I went as far southerly as New River (about 80 Miles from home) into Onslow County, the present seat of Enthusiasm in this Province; where having preached twice [to] the few remaining Episcopalians there [sic] were very thankful to me." He urged the sending of more missionaries to Onslow to counteract the work of the "Enthusiasts." For, to paraphrase Macaulay, they were so busy checking the Baptists they had no time to check sin. A year earlier Rev. Michael Smith was in New Hanover striving, said he, to "curb, if possible, an Enthusiastical sect which call themselves Anabaptists, which was numerous and daily increasing in this parish." Likewise the Rev. James Reed of New Bern for years labored ineffectually to check the Baptists. He thought it was their chief purpose to render both the ministers and the liturgy of the Church of England as odious as possible, and he spoke contemptuously of the Separate preachers as "obstinately illiterate and grossly ignorant," while Governor Tryon, acting Bishop of the Province, derided them as "superior Newlights," ranking them as "enemies of society and a scandal to common sense." It was doubtless because of this known hostility of Governor Tryon to the Baptists that at this time again some of their ministers were brought into court, charged with blasphemy, riots, and heresy. But though seventy-two witnesses appeared ready to testify against them, the court dismissed the case. The day of persecution for religious conviction was over, in North Carolina. In the very region where Baptist preachers had been indicted for preaching without a license, and where constables had dispersed their congregations, the ministers were using other methods in their efforts to counteract the influence of the Separate Baptist preachers. Mr. Stewart of Bath, now began to instruct the people by pamphlets on infant baptism. Both he and other Episcopal ministers now discovered that immersion was after all the Apostolic mode and in accord with the rubric of the Episcopal Church, and began to administer baptism to adults by that mode when they could thereby save a member to their church from a people who, said Mr. Stewart, were "almost bewitched" by the preaching of the Baptists.

      Though Rev. James Reed succeeded in keeping the Baptists out of New Bern, they were close enough on the borders of his parish to give much trouble. They established churches on the Trent in what is now Jones County, and at Southwest, and in Onslow. They had as their ministers such able men of this region as John Dillahunty, Kittrell Mundine, James McDaniel, and Charles Markland. In Onslow County they had Ezekiel Hunter, a member of the Provincial Assembly, and after his death Robert Nixon. Dillahunty, Mundine and Markland did valiant service in the Revolutionary War, as did several other able Baptists of this section. At the beginning of that struggle, Mr. Reed, in many respects a most worthy man, had left his parish, saying: "I must temporarily confess that I am heartily weary of living in this land of perpetual strife and contention." After the war his own vestry presented one of the chapels, that at Chinquepin, to the Baptist congregation of Mr. Dillahunty. Such had been the transformation from the hostility of 1740.

      Even some of the Episcopal ministers before the Revolution were just to praise the Baptists. Rev. Michael Smith, though he speaks of the "enthusiastical incoherent harangues" of the Baptist ministers, confesses that they had roused the people from their treacherous slumbers and made for their religious and moral improvement. Rev. Alexander Stewart speaks of the courtesy which the Baptists of Onslow County showed him in 1760-61; Rev. Mr. Barnett, the Episcopal minister at St. Phillip's tells of a different but much appreciated courtesy shown him by the Baptists of Lockwood's Folly: they had offered him the use of their meeting house, in which he proposed to preach once in two months, a courtesy which under the canons of his church no Episcopal minister can reciprocate to this day.

      Such in general outline was the work of the Baptists in this section before the Revolutionary War! Towards the end of that period Rev. Hugh McAden had gathered some congregations of Presbyterians in parts of Duplin and Sampson, but in general it was the Baptists who had made the fight for righteousness, among what Governor Samuel Johnston, as late 1750, called "a wild and barbarous people," and it was the Baptists who had won that fight. From that day to this, North Carolina has been a better State, morally and religiously, because of the labors of these early Baptists, and to them not only the denomination, but the entire State owes an eternal debt of gratitude.


[From the Biblical Recorder, November 21, 1934, On-line edition. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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