Baptist History Homepage

The Origin of the Separate Baptists in Virginia
Semple's History of the Baptists in Virginia

THE Baptists of Virginia originated from three sources. The first were emigrants from England, who, about the year 1714, settled in the southeastern parts of the State.

About 1743 another party came from Maryland and formed a settlement in the northwest.

Each of these will be treated of in their proper places.

A third party, from New England, having acted the most distinguished part, first demands our attention.

By the preaching of Mr. Whitefield through New England a great work of God broke out in that country, distinguished by the name of the New Light Stir. All who joined it were called New Lights. Many preachers of the established order became active in the work. Their success was so great that numbers of the parish clergy, who were opposed to the revival, were apprehensive that they should be deserted by all their hearers. They therefore not only refused them the use of their meeting-houses, but actually procured the passage of a law to confine all preachers to their own parishes. This opposition did not effect the intended object. The hearts of the people, being touched by a heavenly flame, could no longer the dry parish service, conducted, for the most part as they thought, by a set of graceless mercenaries.

The New Light Stir being extensive, a great number were converted to the Lord. These, conceiving that the parish congregations, a few excepted, were far from the purity of the Gospel, determined to form a society themselves. Accordingly, they embodied many churches. Into these none were admitted who did not profess vital religion. Having thus separated themselves from the established churches, they were denominated Separates. Their church government was entirely upon the plan of the Independents, the power being in the hands of the church. They permitted unlearned men to preach, provided they manifested such gifts as indicated future usefulness. They were Pedobaptists in principle, but did not reject any of their members who chose to submit to believers' baptism.

The Separates first took their rise, or rather their name about the year 1744. They increased very fast for several years. About a year after they were organized into a distinct society they were joined by Shubal Stearns1 who, becoming a preacher, labored among them until 1751, when, forming acquaintance with some of the Baptists, he was convinced of the duty of believers' baptism. Being a good man, to know his duty was sufficient to induce him to perform it. The same year in which he was baptized he was ordained, and took the pastoral care of a church.

Mr. Stearns and most of the Separates had strong faith in the immediate teachings of the Spirit. They believed that to those who sought Him earnestly God gave evident tokens of His will. That such indications of the divine pleasure, partaking of the nature of inspiration, were above, though not contrary to reason, and that following these, still leaning in every step upon the same wisdom and power by which they were first actuated, they would inevitably be led to the accomplishment of the two great objects of a Christian's life -- the glory of God and the salvation of men. Mr. Stearns, listening to some of these instructions of Heaven, conceived himself called upon by the Almighty to move far to the westward to execute a great and extensive work. Incited by his impressions, in the year 1754, he and a few of his members took their leave of New England. They halted first at Opeckon, in Berkeley county, Virginia, where he found a Baptist church under the care of Rev. John Garrard,2 who met him kindly. Here, also, he met his brother-in-law,3 the Rev. Daniel Marshall, just returned from his mission among the Indians, and who after his arrival at this place had become a Baptist.4 They joined companies and settled for awhile on Cacapon, in Hampshire county, about thirty miles from Winchester. Here, not meeting with his expected success, he felt restless. Some of his friends had moved to North Carolina; he received letters from these, informing him that preaching was greatly desired by the people of that country; that in some instances they had ridden forty miles to hear one sermon. He and his party once more got under way, and, traveling about two hundred miles, came to Sandy Creek, in Guilford county, North Carolina. Here he took up his permanent residence. Soon after his arrival, viz., November 22, 1755, he and his companions, to the number of sixteen, were constituted into a church called Sandy Creek,5 and to which Mr. Stearns was appointed pastor. In this little church in the wilderness there were, besides the pastor, two other preachers, viz., Joseph Breed and Daniel Marshall, neither of whom was ordained.

Thus organized they began their work, kindling a fire which soon began to burn brightly indeed, spreading in a few years over Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

The subsequent events seem completely to have verified Mr. Stearns's impressions concerning a great work of God in the West.


1 Shubal Stearns was born in Boston, Massachusetts, January 28, 1706. He was for six years a minister among the New Lights, as the converted Congregational communities were called. He became a Baptist in 1751 at Tolland, Connecticut.

2 The pastor of Opequan church at this time, as the author elsewhere states, was Elder Samuel Heton.

3 Daniel Marshall married Martha Stearns, in 1748, as his second wife. She is said to have been to him a" Priscilla," indeed.

4 See our history of Ketocton Association. -- Author's note.

5 The constituent members of this church consisted of eight men and their wives. The names of the male members were Shubal Stearns, Peter Stearns, Ebenezer Stearns, Shubal Stearns, Jr., Daniel Marshall, Joseph Breed, Enos Stimpson and Jonathan Polk. The church was located in Guilford (now Randolph) county. The first Association in North Carolina, formed in 1758, bore the name of Sandy Creek.


[Taken from Robert B. Semple, History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia, 1810, revised 1894; rpt. 1976, pp. 11-14. The title is changed slightly and footnote symbols are changed to numbers and placed as endnotes. -- jrd]

Return to Virginia Baptist History
Return to American Baptist Histories
Return to HOME Page