A look at the general religious conditions at the opening of the Nineteenth Century will help to a adequate understanding of the place which the First Baptist Church in New Bern has had through the years.
The Church of England had been the dominant religious body in the state for many years. The Episcopalians were not a vigorous factor in the religious life of the country around New Bern when the Baptists constituted the church in New Bern in 1809.
The Methodists were in the territory. For year there had been Methodist societies whose member were all members of the Church of England. When the Revolutionary War destroyed the Church of England in America the great number of Methodists were without church affiliation. Christmas week 1784 in Baltimore they organized the Methodist Episcopal Church. Immediately they began a renewed organized effort to evangelize all of America. How successful their efforts were is attested by the history of this country.
The Baptists had spread all over eastern North Carolina. The country to the south and west, had large numbers of Baptists.
The Sandy Creek Baptist Association in the Piedmont section of North Carolina and the Kehukee Baptist Association in eastern North Carolina represented fairly well the two types of Baptists in America at the opening of the 19th century. They were known as Separate and Regular Baptists.
In 1804 the Kehukee Association sent a ringing call to the churches to rally to the newly inaugurated Foreign Mission enterprise.
About the opening of the 19th century trouble which was destined to divide the Baptist family into four groups in North Carolina began to brew. For thirty years it raged within the ranks of the churches until the formal separation came with the organization of the Baptist State Convention in March, 1830.
Following the missionary awakening and the resolution by the Kehukee Association in 1804 a number of Baptists met in Windsor in Bertle County in 1805 and organized the Baptist Philanthropic Society. Rev. John Gano of Philadelphia came to North Carolina. So thoroughly did he preach Calvinism that he greatly strengthened the churches in that direction.
These two factors - Missions and Calvinistic emphasis - set to going forces which disrupted the Baptist structure.
Out of this religious ferment arose the present First Baptist Church, of New Bern. The group choosing the Calvinistic idea in theology and the missionary idea constituted the church in New Bern which has come down to the present time.
While the Baptist people were thus waging war among themselves another factor on the inside appeared which was destined to be the most powerful of all the divisive forces which came within the Baptist ranks. Barton W. Stone, formerly a Presbyterian, Thomas Campbell, and his brilliant son Alexander Campbell, started a movement within the Baptist ranks which split Baptist churches for twenty years before any formal division took place. Dr. B. F. Hall, a Baptist minister, held a meeting in Edenton. When it had been going a few days Thomas Meredith saw that it was leading our Baptist people out of the long cherished beliefs held by them. He entered his vigorous protest and thus put an end to the work.
Hall returned to Virginia and bided his time. The Baptist State Convention was to be held in Cartledge Creek in Richmond County in November, 1833. Thither it was practically certain Thomas Meredith would go. Hall sent a call to Thomas Campbell to come to his aid. They paused in the Dover Association, Virginia, on the way to North Carolina only to meet a decisive Waterloo with Dr. J. B. Jeter leading the Baptist forces. The split then took place in Virginia and the Disciples of Christ in that state became a separate body.
Timing it just as Thomas Meredith had left for the far distant convention, the two Baptist preachers, Hall and Campbell, entered Edenton, and called a meeting of the Baptist church. They expounded the way of the Lord as they saw it and won the church. By a large majority the church voted to follow the two men. It was a signal triumph. Edenton was the strategic center for the country north of Roanoke River and Albemarle Sound. From here it would be easy to work into the surrounding country and thus capture the entire territory for the new movement.
But a considerable jolt and a rather rude awakening was just ahead. Thomas Meredith returned, arriving November 16, 1833. He did some calling together and the people came to hear. Not to into the story in detail, Hall left for Virginia and Kentucky after a brief stay in Edenton to see if he could gather together the fragments of his work. Thomas Campbell departed for more promising fields. He went first to Tarboro, and from there he came into Pitt, Greene, and Lenoir counties. There was no Thomas Meredith in that section. Thus there came into being a new religious force in eastern North Carolina which was destined to play an important part in the religious development of the section.
Within twenty-five years of the organization of the First Baptist Church in New Bern five religious groups were making an appeal to the people of the section. The Methodists, with their doctrine of salvation by Christ through good works, linked to episcopal form of church government; the Disciples of Christ, who held to the idea of salvation by Christ through immersion, with congregational government; the Primitive Baptists, who held to salvation by Christ through the direct act of God without human help of any kind - they had no message for the unregenerate sinner; the Freewill Baptists, salvation by Christ through good works, congregational government and open communion; the Regular Baptists (locally called Missionary Baptists), who held to salvation by Christ through the grace of God; evangelism and other good works were the result of salvation, not a means to it.
Out of the shake-up religiously in the section emerged the Baptist Church of New Bern. It stood alone for years. Eighty years from the organization of the First Church in New Bern the United States through its census bureau made a religious survey of the United States by counties. A look at the six counties nearest to New Bern, namely: Craven, Pamlico, Carteret, Onslow, Jones, and Lenoir, shows a state of affairs which is a striking revelation of the results of the revolt of the early days of the century. In the Baptist paradise of the late days of the 18th century and the early days of the 19th century we find in 1890, twenty-three Baptist churches for white people, with a total membership of 1,670. The Primitive group had dwindled to fourteen organizations with only 447 members. But the Freewill Baptists, the Disciples, and the Methodists each far outnumbered Baptists both in organizations and in members. The ecclesiastical row over foreign missions and Calvinistic theology had been the occasion to turn this section into the most destitute mission territory for Baptists in all North Carolina.
But through it all the old First Baptist Church in New Bern had stood like the rock of Gibralta [sic]. Its pastors had gone into the regions beyond. Many churches to the regions around New Bern felt the touch of this strong center. Just at the period when the United States was making its survey the New Bern church had a home pastor and a missionary at work in the rural regions around the city. Rev. J. W. Rose, the New Bern church missionary, constituted a number of churches and greatly strengthened others. Rev. C. J. D. Parker, succeeded J. W. Rose and did a notably outstanding work.
When the missionary agitation came, New Bern was on the side of the missionary effort. When the Baptist Zion was shaken by the Arminian theological teaching, New Bern stood firm. While the western Baptists debated about alien immersion the old First Church paid not the slightest attention to it.
The Gospel Missioners got in action but they did not shake New Bern. The Whitsitt controversy shook the Baptist Zion from Maryland to Texas, but not New Bern. Landmarkers arose and made a great stir in Tennessee and Kentucky and some other places. New Bern Baptists were neither Landmarkers nor anti-Landmarkers; they were just plain Baptists holding to the Word of God as their guide.
[From the Biblical Recorder, January 23, 1935, p. 10, On-line edition. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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