In preserving the memory of those who have distinguished themselves among men, we are not to be confined to the learned and the brave. These may deserve a place in the grateful recollections of posterity, for discoveries in science, or achievements in war. But merit, exhibited in patient and laborious exertions for the spiritual improvement of man, deserves a much higher regard. When the records of eternity shall be unrolled, he will be esteemed truly great who has been wise to win souls to Christ, and who, counting not his life dear unto himself, has labored faithfully, "to testify the gospel of the grace of God." Such was Shubael Stearns. He was one of the pioneers who led the way in promulging the glad tidings of salvation in Virginia. He was born in the City of Boston, in the year 1706. Concerning his early history, little or nothing is known. In giving a sketch of his life, the biographer must pass over many incidents, which, if known, might be interesting. About the year 1740, a most extensive revival of religion was experienced in the New England States, through the instrumentality of the celebrated George Whitefield and others. In consequence of some peculiarities in the views and manner of the laborers in that work, they, with their followers, were called New Lights, and afterwards Separates. With this body of Christians Mr. Stearns connected himself, in the year 1745. Immediately after, his mind became impressed with the obligation to preach the gospel, and, accordingly, he entered upon this responsible work. He continued with the Pedobaptists until 1751, when, examining the word of God, he was convinced that, in reference to the ordinance of immersion, he had neglected a most important command of the Redeemer. The futility of infant baptism was also discovered, and he determined to take up his cross, be baptized, and unite himself with the Baptists. He was immersed by Elder Wait Palmer, at Tolland, Connecticut, and on the twentieth of May in the same year, was ordained to the work of the ministry.
Mr. Stearns continued to labor in the New England States two or three years, but he soon became restless in contemplating other portions of our country, which were more destitute of the preached word. He panted to carry the news of redeeming mercy where they had been as yet but partially proclaimed, and cherished a solemn impression that it was his duty to travel more extensively. Accordingly, he left his native State, and pursued his course in a southwesterly direction, accompanied by some Christian brethren. He concluded to remain awhile in Virginia, preaching in the Counties of Berkeley and Hampshire. There seems to have been a number of the friends of the Redeemer in this region, who gave him a hearty welcome, and encouraged him in his labors. Before his arrival, a Baptist church had been constituted on Opeckon Creek, Berkeley County, and among them Mr. Stearns was eminently useful.
The next field occupied by this man of God was in Guilford County, North Carolina. There he permanently settled. The great spiritual destitution which prevailed seems to have induced his removal to that region. Such was the anxiety to hear the gospel preached, that the people would frequently travel a day's journey to attend a religious meeting. This afforded an extensive range for the benevolent spirit of Stearns. He commenced his labors with building a house of worship, and constituting a church of sixteen persons. The following notice from Semple's History, will furnish an encouraging statement of the success of his ministry among this people: "The inhabitants about this little colony of Baptists, although brought up in the Christian religion, were grossly ignorant of its
[p. 15]essential principles. Having the form of godliness, they knew nothing of its power. Stearns and his party, of course, brought strange things to their ears. To be born again appeared to them as absurd as it did to the Jewish doctor, when he asked if he must enter the second time into his mother's womb and be born. Having always supposed that religion consisted in nothing more than the practice of its outward duties, they could not comprehend how it should be necessary to feel conviction and conversion; and to be able to ascertain the time and place of one's conversion was, in their estimation, wonderful indeed. These points were all strenuously contended for by the new preachers. But their manner of preaching was, if possible, much more novel than their doctrines. The Separates in New England had acquired a very warm and pathetic address, accompanied by strong gestures and a singular tone of voice. Being often deeply affected themselves when preaching, correspondent affections were felt by their pious hearers, which were frequently expressed by tears, trembling, screams, and acclamations of grief and joy. All these they brought with them into their new habitation, at which the people were greatly astonished, having never seen things on this wise before. Many mocked; but the power of God attending them, many also trembled. In process of time, some of the inhabitants became converts, and bowed in obedience to the Redeemer's sceptre. These, uniting their labors with the others, a powerful and extensive work commenced, and Sandy Creek Church soon swelled from sixteen to six hundred and six members."
In the midst of this church Mr. Stearns closed his valuable life. He had traveled extensively in North Carolina and Virginia, and been instrumental in doing much good, when his Master called him to his reward in heaven. When first confined to his bed, his mind was depressed, but the darkness was of short duration. He was made to suffer much, and protractedly, in body, but his soul was joyful in the God of his salvation. Having preached to others the Saviour of sinners, he found him in the trying hour precious to his soul. On the 20th of November, 1771, his happy spirit was dismissed, to take its place among the holy and good in a better world. His body was interred near the meeting-house in which he had so often spoken the word of God.
At this distant period, it is not possible to present a distinct portraiture of his character as a minister of the gospel. Mr. Morgan Edwards* has, in his own peculiar style, furnished a few interesting facts, which are annexed, and with which we close the biography of one of the most useful ministers of the eighteenth century: "Mr. Stearns was a man of small stature, but of good natural parts and sound judgment. Of learning he had but a little share, yet was pretty well acquainted with books. His voice was musical and strong, which he managed in such a manner, as one while to make soft impressions on the heart and fetch tears from the eyes in a mechanical way; and anon, to shake the very nerves, and throw the animal system into tumults and perturbations. All the Separate Baptists copied after him in tones of voice and actions of body; and some few exceeded him. His character was indisputably good, both as a man, a Christian, and a preacher. In his eyes was something very penetrating — there seemed to be a meaning in every glance. Many stories have been told respecting the enchantments of his eyes and voice, but the two following examples we give with the more confidence, because the subjects of them, viz., Tidence Lane and Elnathan Davis, were men of sense and reputation, and afterwards became distinguished ministers of the Baptist Society. "'When the fame of Mr. Stearns's preaching,' said Mr. Lane,'had reached the Yadkin, where I lived, I felt a curiosity to go and hear him. Upon my arrival, I saw a venerable old man sitting under a peach-tree, with a book in his hand, and the people gathering about him. He fixed his eyes upon me immediately, which made me feel in such a manner as I never had felt before. I turned to quit the place, but could not proceed far. I walked about, sometimes catching his eyes as I walked. My uneasiness increased, and became intolerable. I went up to him, thinking that a salutation and shaking hands would relieve me; but it
[p. 17]happened otherwise. I began to think that he had an evil eye, and ought to be shunned; but shunning him I could no more effect than a bird can shun the rattlesnake when it fixes its eyes upon it. When he began to preach, my perturbations increased, so that nature could no longer support them, and I sunk to the ground.'
"Mr. Lane afterwards became a very useful Baptist minister, and was one of the first of the denomination who removed to Tennessee, where he administered, until his death, with reputation and success. "Elnathan Davis had heard that one John Steward was to be baptized such a day by Mr. Stearns. Now this Steward being a very large man, and Stearns of small stature, he concluded there would be some diversion, if not drowning; therefore, he gathered about eight or ten of his companions in wickedness, and went to the spot. Mr. Stearns came, and began to preach. Elnathan went to hear him, while his companions stood at a distance. He was no sooner among the crowd than he perceived some of the people tremble, as if in a fit of the ague; he felt and examined them, in order to find if it were not a dissimulation; meanwhile one man leaned on his shoulder, weeping bitterly; Elnathan, perceiving he had wet his new white coat, pushed him off and ran to his companions, who were sitting on a log at a distance. When he came, one said, 'Well, Elnathan, what do you think now of these people?' affixing to them a profane and reproachful epithet. He replied, 'There is a trembling and crying spirit among them, but whether it be the Spirit of God or the devil, I don't know; if it be the devil, the devil go with them, for I will never more venture myself among them.' He stood awhile in that resolution; but the enchantment of Stearns's voice drew him to the crowd once more. He had not been long there before the trembling, seized him also; he attempted to withdraw, but his strength failing, and his understanding being confounded, he, with many others, sunk to the ground. When he came to himself, he found nothing in him but dread and anxiety, bordering on horror. He continued in this situation some days, and then found relief by faith in Christ. Immediately he began to preach conversion work, raw as he was, and scanty as his knowledge must have been.
Mr. Davis was born in Baltimore County, Maryland, 1735; was bred a Seventh-day Baptist; went to Slow River, North Carolina, in 1757; was baptized by Shubael Stearns at Sandy Creek, and ordained by Samuel Harriss, in 1764; continued in North Carolina until 1798, when he removed to South Carolina, and settled in the bounds of the Saluda Association." ________________
* Morgan Edwards was an eminent Welsh minister, and pastor of the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia for ten years subsequent to 1761. From his unpublished writings Mr. Benedict has drawn largely in his History of the Baptists.
[From James B. Taylor, Virginia Baptist Ministers, 1859, pp. 13-18. -- jrd]
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