Roger Williams Institute

Baptists in America to the 1840s

Roger Williams Begins American Baptist Movement in New England, Baptists Spread throughout the Colonies, Church Life in the Colonies, the First Great Awakening, the Revolutionary Era, Baptists Work for Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State, Mission Movement, Denominational Development, the Campbellite Movement

American Baptist history began just after the first Baptists appeared in
England. The scene of the first Baptist work in the colonies was New England.
Most New England settlers in the seventeenth century were semi-Separatist
Puritans, meaning those Puritans who retained a tenuous relationship with the
Church of England while acting fairly independently of it. In America they
became known as Congregationalists because they centered church government in
the local church rather than in synods and assemblies like the Presbyterian
Puritans. The important fact for our story is that the Congregationalists
eventually established state churches in all of the New England colonies except
one. In them all persons were expected to be Congregationalists. Those who
refused were punished by their colonial government in various ways, including
whipping, imprisonment, and exile.

This brings us to Roger Williams. Born in London in 1603, Williams was raised an
Anglican. It appears that by the time he attended Cambridge University he had
become a Puritan, although he still belonged to the Church of England. He even
became an ordained Anglican priest in about the year 1627. By 1629, however,
Williams had become a rigid Separatist, having come to regard the Church of
England as a false church. The following year he answered the call of the church
at Salem, Massachusetts, to be its pastor. Soon he was in trouble for advocating
that Puritans should completely separate from the Church of England. Williams
was forced to resign his church. He moved to Plymouth, where he served as
assistant minister to the church. After two years he returned to the pastorate
of the Salem church. Soon he was brought before the Boston court, charged with
teaching religious ideas that the Massachusetts authorities found objectionable.
One was that governments had no right to regulate religion. For this and other
ideas Williams was banished from the colony of Massachusetts Bay.

In June 1636 Williams and some friends from Salem established the colony of
Providence Plantations, just south of Massachusetts. They immediately drew up a
compact of government providing for democracy, religious liberty, and the
separation of church and state. All were very radical ideas for their time.
For the first three years of the little colony (later enlarged and renamed Rhode
Island), Williams and his friends remained Separatists. But by the early months
of 1639 they had formed a Baptist church at Providence, the earliest such in
America. What had brought this about? Williams had been familiar with Baptists
in England and may have come to New England already tinged with Baptist beliefs.
Also, he knew the Dutch language, and some evidence suggests that he may have
been familiar with some of the writings of the Dutch Anabaptists. There are
hints in the correspondence of others that he may have preached at least some
Baptist-like ideas at both Plymouth and Salem. Also, it is known that a number
of English Baptists migrated to Providence between 1636 and 1639. At the
establishment of the church, Williams and his friends re-baptized one another by

Williams only remained a Baptist for about four months, after which he came to
doubt the validity of his and his friends' baptisms, for they had not been done
on the authority of a minister of what he considered a true church. The rest of
his life, Williams called himself a Seeker, meaning that he was not affiliated
with any church, although he hoped that God would soon establish a true church
among his people. Roger Williams' importance to Baptists is that he took the
leadership role in establishing the first Baptist church in America, which
continued after him, and that he stood for, wrote about, and established for
Rhode Island two related principles which continue to be important among
Baptists, religious liberty and the separation of church and state.

By at least 1644 a second Baptist church had been established at nearby Newport
by a Calvinistic Particular Baptist minister named John Clarke. In 1651 he and
two other members of his church journeyed to Lynn, Massachusetts. There, Clarke
preached in a private residence to several assembled neighbors. For this all
three Baptist visitors were arrested, tried, and convicted of breaking the
religious laws of Massachusetts. They had the choice of paying a fine or
submitting to a public whipping. Two of them, including Clarke, paid the fine,
but the third, a man named Holmes, refused. On September 5, 1651, his hands were
tied to a stake on Boston Common, he was stripped to the waist, and given thirty
lashes. Throughout the whipping, Holmes preached to the crowd. He later
testified that he had long believed that in the time of trial Christ stood by
his own. Now he had confirmed it in his own life. Holmes was so brutally injured
that he was unable to leave Boston for several weeks. His back remained a mass
of scars for the remainder of his life.

In spite of this inhospitable religious climate, the First Baptist Church of
Boston was founded in 1665. Members worshiped in the home of the pastor. For
several years they had to endure a constant barrage of persecution. The pastor
was sentenced to exile but would not leave, resulting in his imprisonment for a
time. The courage of these people so impressed some of the members of the
established Congregationalist Church that they petitioned the government to stop
the persecution.

Baptists in the middle colonies had an easier time than in New England because
there were no established official churches there. In Pennsylvania, founder
William Penn, a Quaker, insisted that all Christians had the right to worship
according to their own beliefs and practices. The first Baptist church in
Pennsylvania was established about 1684 in a village near Philadelphia. Other
churches followed in that colony and nearby New Jersey, New York, and Delaware.
Baptist work grew rapidly in this region throughout the colonial period.
Philadelphia, the largest city in the colonies, became in time the unofficial
Baptist headquarters in America.

The first Baptist church in the southern colonies was established in 1696 when
the entire congregation of the Baptist church in Kittery, Maine, moved to
Charleston, South Carolina. The Kittery Baptists were of the Particular Baptist
variety, but their church in Charleston had General Baptists in it as well.
There were Baptists in Virginia before 1700, but their first organized church
was established in Prince George County in 1714. Baptists in that colony
suffered much persecution because the Church of England was the official state
church. No other religious groups could exist legally. Some Baptists were fined,
others beaten by mobs or jailed. Baptist churches were formed in other southern
colonies during the 1700s.

A typical Baptist church in the colonial era was small, often with no more than
a dozen members. Few churches had their own buildings. Some went for years
without a pastor. Worship was usually informal, with great emphasis on reading
and preaching from the Bible. Most pastors were not very educated. They
typically earned their livelihood by outside employment, receiving little or no
salary for their preaching.

Most Baptists in the colonies were of the Particular variety, although they
tended to moderate their Calvinism to allow for some degree of human
responsibility and response to God's call to salvation. Even those who remained
hyper-Calvinists encouraged preaching, missions, and evangelism as activities
through which the Holy Spirit called the Elect to be converted.

The eighteenth century proved to be a turning point for Baptists in America. In
1700 they could count only 24 churches with 839 members. By 1790 Baptists had
67,490 members in 979 churches, in spite of the fact that there was no organized
denomination as we know the term today.

One reason for this surge of growth was the sweeping revival of the 1730s and
1740s known as the First Great Awakening. Some Congregationalist and
Presbyterian ministers began the movement. Great Awakening preaching was often,
but not always, characterized by shouting and wild gestures. The Baptist
churches did not participate very actively in the revival in its early stages,
but they reaped a great harvest from it. Why was this so? The movement split the
New England Congregationalists. Some considered the preaching too emotional and
the worship services too undignified. Many, however, embraced the movement and
became known as "New Light" Congregationalists. When many of the staid, more
dignified "Old Light" Congregationalist leaders resisted the revivalists, over a
hundred "New Light" congregations adopted believer's baptism and became Baptist

Baptists were themselves divided about the First Great Awakening. Those who
opposed the revival's emotionalism, mainly in urban churches along the seaboard,
took the name Regular Baptists. Those who believed that the evangelistic
movement was a genuine work of God called themselves Separate Baptists. These
two groups did not divide in any structural sense in New England, but in the
South they became, for a time, two distinct Baptist groups.

Separate Baptists in the South exercised an enormous influence on Baptist
beliefs and behavior in that region. The first southern Separates were
transplanted New Englanders. In 1754 some Connecticut Separate Baptists moved to
Virginia. Not liking the persecution and restriction of the established Anglican
church there, they moved on to North Carolina, settling on Sandy Creek in
present Randolph County, in 1755. Within a few years, the Sandy Creek
congregation had grown from 16 to 606 members. Soon mission churches were
established from this church. They in turn founded other congregations. By 1772
forty-two churches traceable to the Sandy Creek Baptists had come into being
throughout the southern colonies.

The most distinctive feature of Separate Baptists was an emotional style of
preaching and worship. Shouting, weeping, and swooning were not uncommon.
Worship in Regular Baptist congregations in the South, such as the First Baptist
Church of Charleston, was more solemn and formal. At first Separates in the
South observed what were called the nine rites: baptism, the love feast (a meal
before the Lord's Supper), the Lord's Supper itself, laying on of hands of new
converts, foot washing, anointing the sick, the right hand of fellowship, the
kiss of charity, and the dedication of children. Gradually, some of these
practices were discontinued. Women played a larger role in Separate Baptist
churches than in Regular churches. At the Sandy Creek church, there were both
eldresses and deaconesses.

During the Revolutionary Era and the years following, Baptists grew from a
relatively obscure Protestant sect to become the largest denomination in the new
nation, with twice as many adherents as the next largest. An important reason
was the evangelistic impetus from the First Great Awakening. Related to this was
the Separate Baptist disdain for an educated clergy, in contrast to the
situation with most other Protestant denominations. The result was that there
were many enthusiastic preachers in search of new churches to pastor and new
sinners to convert.

Another explanation for Baptist growth was the wholehearted support that most
Baptists gave to the American Revolution. At first, such support could not be
taken for granted, for New England Baptists (except for those in Rhode Island)
were very angry with the established Congregational Church for restricting their
freedom to worship and evangelize. They accused Congregationalists of
complaining about how the British denied civil liberty to colonists, while they
denied freedom of conscience to Baptists and others. Baptists soon resolved the
problem by campaigning on two fronts. They would oppose both the British threat
to political liberty and that of the Congregationalists to religious freedom.
They took essentially the same position in Virginia with respect to their
Anglican neighbors.

Another circumstance favorable to growth was that Baptists were very closely in
tune with the popular mood. Baptists had a built-in appeal to the typical
Americans of the time, who were fiercely devoted to liberty and highly
individualistic in temper. The Baptists' appeal to religious freedom (almost
alone among religious groups) was popular with the masses. Their emphasis on
local control and autonomy of churches was echoed in the general American desire
for local political control, rather than that imposed by strong central
governments. According to one Baptist historian, Baptist success during this era
was due to the denomination's being the most thoroughly American of all
religious groups.

Baptists in Virginia are a case in point. They not only strongly supported the
Revolution but also followed up with a strong push for religious freedom in that
state after the war's end. It was a difficult fight, for the Anglican Church,
renamed the Episcopal Church, remained the established Church of Virginia for
some time. In 1784 the legislature almost passed a bill to assess a tax upon all
persons to help pay for the education of Episcopal ministers. Patrick Henry and
George Washington supported the measure. Baptists fought it and found a valuable
ally in James Madison, who publicly campaigned for complete religious liberty in
Virginia. The bill in question failed to become law. The next year Thomas
Jefferson introduced in the Virginia assembly a "bill for establishing religious
freedom" in the state. It passed with the help of Madison and the Virginia

When the new Federal Constitution was written in 1787, Virginia Baptists
objected that it lacked a guarantee of religious liberty and began to mount a
campaign to prevent its ratification by their state. Madison, one of the fathers
of the Constitution, met with Virginia Baptist leaders and came to an agreement
whereby Baptists stopped opposing the Constitution and Madison, for his part,
worked for the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution which would
include a guarantee of freedom of religion. He was successful. The First
Amendment to the Constitution includes the phrase, "Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise
thereof. . . . ," thus guaranteeing not only freedom of religion as such but
indirectly giving support to the concept of the separation of church and state.
Let's turn our attention now to the history of Baptists in the United States
from 1800 to 1845. During this era, Baptists grew in mission-mindedness, in
denominational organization, and numerically. American Baptist concern for
foreign missions dates from 1806, when some mission-minded Congregationalist
college students in New England took refuge from a thunderstorm under the eaves
of a haystack near their campus. While there, they decided to pray for missions.
One of students was a young man named Luther Rice. Soon after the meeting, he
met Adoniram Judson, another Congregationalist with missionary zeal. In 1812
both journeyed to India to share their Christian faith with the people there.
While en route, the pair became acquainted with the English Baptist missionary,
William Carey, with the result that both became Baptists. Rice soon returned to
America to promote missions among Baptists in his homeland.

By that time, Baptists in the United States were already seeking a way to do
just that. In 1814 thirty-three delegates met at the First Baptist Church of
Philadelphia to form the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist
Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions. The Triennial
Convention, as it came to be known, was the first significant Baptist
denominational organization in American history.

The form that the new convention took illustrates a controversy among Baptists
in this country about denominational life. Most northerners preferred that
cooperative work be done by independent societies, composed of individual
Baptists who contributed money to finance them. Such societies had no connection
with Baptist churches as such. Southerners favored what was known as the
association or convention approach, in which the churches were the members of
the denominational organizations, not individual Baptists. Northerners seemed to
hold their position based on a concern for the autonomy of the local church,
something they had seen their Congregationalist neighbors lose. Baptists in the
South, being spread thinly throughout a large area, valued a stronger
denominational structure.

The Triennial Convention was a compromise, with some features of both approaches
to denominational structure. Gradually, it became more a convention and
sponsored not only foreign mission work but home missions, publications, and
education, as well. Because of the opposition of northern Baptists, the
organization in 1826 changed to a society basis. It also moved its headquarters
from Philadelphia to Boston. The difficulty of travel in that era diminished the
participation of Baptists in the South and illustrates that Baptists in both
sections of the nation were having problems working together long before slavery
became the paramount issue of discontent.

Numerically, Baptists grew at a fast pace during the period. One reason was a
new revival movement, known as the Second Great Awakening. Another was the rapid
expansion of the United States westward. Also, the Calvinist majority continued
to moderate its theology with respect to predestination, in some cases to the
point that the Genevan reformer would not have recognized it. For example, a
confession of faith of the Sandy Creek Association, adopted in the 1840s,
affirmed that "election is the gracious purpose of God," but added that "the
blessings of salvation are made free to all by the gospel; that it is the
immediate duty of all to accept them by a cordial and obedient faith; and that
nothing prevents the salvation of the greatest sinner on earth, except his own
voluntary refusal to submit to the Lord Jesus Christ."

Not all Baptists felt comfortable with this theological stance nor with the
denominational emphasis on mission work. Some did not object to mission
activities per se but disapproved of the way they were conducted. They held that
only local churches should send out missionaries and support such, not
denominational societies or conventions. Others, however, continued to hold to a
hyper-Calvinist position on election and so opposed the basic premise for
missions. They wereand still arecalled "Primitive Baptists," as they claim
that their view conforms to that of the New Testament Church.
Another doctrinal dispute among Baptists in the early national period was the
so-called Campbellite controversy. Alexander Campbell, a Scots-Irish
Presbyterian, immigrated to America in the early 1800s. In the process, he left
Presbyterianism and adopted several new religious views, including a
rationalistic approach to faith, insistence on taking communion every Sunday,
and a belief in baptismal regeneration. Sometime later he adopted the view that
only believers should be baptized. For this reason he was for a time a Baptist,
although the only Baptist tenet he held was believer's baptism. Soon Campbell
began to preach that his doctrinal positions were correct and that all Baptist
views to the contrary were not. He asserted that he was reclaiming the true New
Testament church of the first century. All other religious organizations were

By 1830 Campbell and his followers had formed a new denomination, the Disciples
of Christ, also known as the Church of Christ. Later followers split into two
distinct denominations, each taking one of the names associated with the
Campbellite cause. The significance of this controversy for our story is that
many Baptists followed Campbell into the new movement. Some entire churches
(e.g., the First Baptist Church of Nashville, Tennessee) and entire associations
did so.

On this note we must close. At our next session we will conclude the course by
bringing the Baptist story up to the present.


Promoting the Principles of Religious Liberty