Baptist Growth, Separation, and Struggle During the 1700s

Lesson 9: Baptist Growth, Separation, and Struggle During the 1700s

Baptists are throughout America, uniformly and almost unanimously, the firm friends to civil liberty, and the persevering promoters of our glorious Revolution.
George Washington

The state church in America was facing inner turmoil regarding its theology and polity. As early as 1622, a Half-way covenant was established. This covenant would allow baptized infants half entrance into church membership. Children of godly, professing believers could now be considered members of the churches even though those children did not possess salvation themselves. The slippery slope of compromise soon settled in. By the 1700s, this practice developed a mind set whereby some began to believe that infant baptism itself converted the infant.

This practice and downgrading of theology did not set well among many. It sparked a revival among the Congregationalists, Puritans, and Presbyterians. Men wrote and traveled throughout the colonies preaching the doctrine of salvation, recapturing the truth of salvation by faith alone. These preaching revivals, called the Great Awakening, swept across young America resulting in numbers of conversions. It was this Awakening which also led to radical growth among Baptists.

This growth brought with it certain struggles. People reacted differently to the revivals. Differences among Baptists became more apparent. Issues related to religious liberty also germinated.

The Growth of the Baptists

Men who were influential for the growth of Baptists

Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen (1691–c. 1747)

A Dutch Reformed minister who arrived in New York in 1720. He tackled the Reformed hierarchy by demanding that only believers be allowed to take the Lord’s Supper. He was bitterly attacked by the affluent in his congregation. His “evangelical fervor and his itinerancy contributed to the onset of the Great Awakening.”1

William and Gilbert Tennent

gilbert-tennent This father and son worked among the Presbyterians bringing revival back to their denomination, namely the New Side Presbyterians. They established the Log College which trained the “New Sides.” Gilbert was so well known that George Whitefield sought him out.

Jonathan Edwards

Edwards is considered to be among the ranks of the greatest theologians. He was well educated at Yale University. His grandfather was a well-known congregational preacher (Solomon Stoddard.)

Edward’s influenced the Great Awakening by his preaching tours and his writings. His example well illustrates that theology is evangelistic. Though most well-known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” he wrote over 1,200 sermons and many theological treatises. His two major treatises were: Freedom of the Will and Original Sin.

Edwards was called as president to The College of New Jersey (Princeton). He died only weeks after moving into that position.

George Whitefield

george-whitefield Whitefield, a Methodist preacher from England, made five preaching tours throughout America.2 He gained an appreciation of the evangelistic fervor from the Wesley brothers, though he “parted company” from them due to their Arminian theology.

His tours drew millions of people. He had an exhausting itinerary, usually not staying more than a day in a particular city and preaching over 7,500 sermons combined.

Whitefield retained much of the pietism he learned from the Wesley’s. He preached ex tempore believing that using a manuscript inhibited “inspiration” of the Holy Spirit.3 One further describes Whitefield’s preaching style in the following way:

“Besides pathos and tears, Whitefield frequently appealed to his listeners’ imaginations as he enacted the agonies of damnation and the ecstasy of salvation . . . . Tears, passions, and consolation fused in Whitefield’s sermons to produce a new and powerful form of preaching. Although endowed with a voice that was often likened to the “roar of a lion,” Whitefield offered a message not primarily of fear and hell-fire but of compassion, suffering, and comfort.”4

Whitefield’s style was imitated and exaggerated by many revivalists in the 1700s and beyond.

Shubal Stearns

Stearns was converted under the ministry of George Whitefield’s second tour in the States (1745). Convinced by Scripture that the Congregationalists were not thoroughly biblical, he became a Baptist. In 1755 he led a group of fifteen men to the South and began the Sandy Creek Church. This church planted other churches which eventually formed the Sandy Creek Association. This church is considered the grandmother of the Southern Baptists.

Stearns apparently imitated the pietistic preaching of Whitfield. His preaching was described as “musical and strong . . . mak[ing] soft impressions on the heart . . . throw[ing] the animal system into tumults.”

Hezekiah Smith

Smith was educated at Princeton and associated with the Philadelphia Baptist Association. Traveled through the South as an itinerant evangelist. “During this fifteen months he traveled on horseback four thousand two hundred and thirty-five miles, and preached on hundred and seventy-three sermons.”5 He helped found a college in Rhode Island. Became a pastor in Havervill, Massachusetts (1766) and ministered there for 39 years. He founded the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society in 1802.

Associations which were influential for the growth of Baptists

Philadelphia Baptist Association (est. 1707)

philadelphia-baptist-association This Association, established by Elias Keach et al sent ministers and evangelists to destitute churches. Two outstanding men were Morgan Edwards and John Gano. Gano established churches in New York and New Jersey. The number of churches planted were substantial. Within 60 years, nearly 1,200 churches were started.

The PBA “mothered” many other associations: Charles Association (1751); Sandy Creek Association (1758); Ketockton Association (1765); Kehukee Association (1769); Strawberry Association (1776).6

brown-college The PBA also influenced the growth of Baptists by founding Rhode Island College (now Brown University). From this college came many Baptist pastors. This also did much to alleviate the negative attitude toward education among the Separate Baptists.

Warren Association (est. 1767)

Chief leaders of this association were Dr. Manning (president of Rhode Island College), John Gano, and Isaac Backus. It was mainly established for the purpose of securing religious liberty.

By 1800 there were forty-eight associations in the country; thirty in the southern states, and eight beyond the Alleghenies.

Other factors that led to the growth of the Baptists

Besides the obvious influence of the Great Awakening, other factors induced a swelling of Baptists in the 1700s. McBeth identifies the Great Awakening and two others: immigration of the English and Welsh Baptists and the improved social status of the dissenters.7

The statistical data regarding the growth of the Baptists

The increase in the number of Baptist churches in the colonies between 1740 and 1776 was significant, for by the latter year there were 472 churches as over against approximately sixty at the time of the Great Awakening, a tenfold gain. By 1795 Backus estimated that there were a total of 1,152 churches scattered through sixteen states and territories.8

One historian compared the number of Baptists with the number of the general population. In 1776 1 Baptist could be found among 264 people. By 1800 the ratio was 1:53, by 1850, 1:29.9


Separations among the Baptists

There was enough variety of Baptists in the 1700s that a denominational consolidation was not present. However, the different reactions to the revivalism in America did bring to light more noticeable differences among the Baptists that they became quite distinguishable.

The conflict between genuine and false revival

The spirit of revival swept across America, but along with it, aberrations of true revival also developed. It is true that salvation brings with it certain emotions. However, some regarded emotional experience as a “sign” of true spiritual revival. Among the genuine revivals, false revivals were marked by: “weeping, wailing, the “holy laugh” . . . dancing . . . barking like a dog, uncontrollable jerking or muscular spasms of the body, and falling to the ground in a dead faint.”10 God’s character was at stake. True revival among some Baptists was no longer viewed as a “surprising work” of God but could be induced by human means.

This conflict brought to light noticeable differences among the Baptists:

Separate Baptists

The Separate Baptist movement was energized by the preaching of Whitefield and the “New Light” Congregationalists. Many Separate itinerant evangelists mimicked the preaching style of Whitefield.

camp-meeting Mark Noll states “If anything, this depiction of a frontier camp meeting suggests less drama than was typically associated with such events.”

lso, the “New Light” Congregationalists, so named because they were “enlightened by the revivals, were fast becoming Baptists. It has been said that the “New Light Congregational status [was] a halfway house on the road to becoming Baptists.” The New Light movement was further described as a “nursery of baptists.”11

The Separates were the more pietistic among the Baptists. They believed the following:

“Confessions lead to creedalism, therefore, confessions are to be rejected.” The Separates would not use the Philadelphia Confession. The “Bible alone” was their platform.12

“Exhortation rather than exposition is the biblical mode for preaching.”13 As a result, the Separates did not prepare their sermons. They disparaged manuscript sermons.14

“Educational preparation of their pastors was not important.” Whether they were able to secure an education for themselves is not known. Yet, they had an anti-education mindset.

“To preach for money was just a notch above Judas who denied [Jesus] for money.”15 Therefore, they did not pay their ministers a salary.

The Separates also differed from other Baptists in that they allowed women preachers and devised a sensational invitation system. The invitation system is described by on writer:

“At the close of the sermon, the minister would come down from the pulpit and while singing a suitable hymn would go around among the brethren shaking hands. The hymn being sung, he would then extend an invitation to such persons as felt themselves poor guilty sinners, and were anxiously inquiring the way to salvation, to come forward and kneel near the stand.”16

Regular Baptists

The Regular Baptists participated in and also enjoyed the fruits of the Great Awakening. They were quick to shy away from the pietistic emotionalism. The Regulars were the opposite of the Separates on all of the above points.

A common (but false) paradigm used to distinguish between the Regulars and the Separates is that the Regulars were characterized by Order, the Separates by Ardor [fervency].17 Though this is interpreted by some to be the advantage of the Separates, the Regulars were as well marked by fervency.

The Struggle for Religious Freedom

The colonies all struggled with the concept of religious freedom. The colony of Rhode Island had virtual liberty while the state of Virginia seems to have been the most intolerant. The reasons for Virginia’s intolerant attitude toward religious liberty are varied, but chiefly the state church in that region was stronger than the other colonies.

The Baptists (Separate mainly) were growing rapidly. Many Separates were accused of “disturbing the peace” and were either fined or imprisoned. Whippings were meted by the local sheriffs in some cases without due course of law.

The destruction of the Revolutionary War delayed religious freedom.

Churches on the trail of the war were damaged, looted, and often destroyed. For example, John Gano’s church was used as a stable by the British army. When he returned at the end of the war, he found only 37 out of the 200 members remaining.18 With the shrinking influence of the Baptists, religious freedom was further away.

That was not to be the situation for long. The Baptists quickly sprang back. Gano’s church was enlarged to its pre-war size within two years of his return.

Certain factors that led to Religious Liberty
The Revolutionary war did provide some positive results

During the Revolutionary War, Baptists, for the most part, gained an increase status in the eyes of American society. The Philadelphia Baptist Association was behind the American efforts in the war.19 Hence, many Baptist pastors (e.g., Hezekiah Smith and John Gano) served as chaplains. Their patriotism was evident in the eyes of the American people.

Men who brought about Religious liberty

Interestingly, it seemed as if everyone wanted Religious Liberty. The Baptists wanted liberty from a state church. Thomas Jefferson wanted liberty from the Baptists. God raised up two influential people to gain religious freedom.

Isaac Backus

isaac-backus Considered the “greatest Baptist spokesman for religious liberty in America,” Backus chaired the Grievance Committee of the Warren Association. Essentially that committee formed a strategy for securing religious freedom.

Backus was a brilliant man who read much. He could quote Jonathan Edwards and John Locke’s works with ease.20 He traveled as an itinerant evangelist nearly 15,000 miles. In eleven years, he preached 2,412 sermons (about one every 1.66 days).

Through different treatises on the subject of religious freedom, and political maneuvers, he brilliantly fought for religious freedom in the following ways:

  • Backus brought the liberty problem to the attention of the London authorities by publishing it in the Boston Evening Post, July 20, 1770. The American leaders did not want to complicate issues with securing independence from England, so this maneuver forced the American leaders to pay attention and appease the Baptists.

  • Backus also appealed to the Baptists to stop paying taxes to the state church on the basis that they were being taxed without representation. This was a parallel problem faced in America. England was forcing taxes upon the Americans. They did not want to pay England taxes, so why should Baptists pay State Church taxes?

  • The reality that Baptists were so numerous had its advantages. America needed Baptist help in fighting the Revolutionary War, so the Baptists had to be appeased.

Though full religious liberty had not been achieved, these appeals and facts rested on the minds of the framers of the constitution. “With the attainment of civil liberty came a spirit that made men see in religious persecution the tyranny and shame that it was.”21 Though Backus did much to promote religious liberty, John Leland helped secure it.

John Leland

john-leland Positioned in the most intolerant colony of Virginia, John Leland helped win religious liberty for the Baptists. Leland was a powerful spokesman for religious liberty as well.

During a conference of Baptists on March 7,1788, Leland eloquently revived the principles which Roger Williams and John Clarke raised a century earlier. His speech was so well received that knowledge of it spread throughout Virginia.

Leland was a popular preacher who developed a keen mind on politics. Thomas Jefferson himself attended Leland’s church on occasion.

“In numerous letters, Leland pleaded with [James] Madison to incorporate guarantees into the Consititution.”22 Since the Constitution did not spell out and guarantee religious liberty, the Baptists made it clear to the framers that the Constitution would not be ratified. Leland wrote ten Objections to the Constitution and presented it to James Madison. To complicate issues, Leland ran for office opposite Madison.

Not wanting to lose the Constitution to a Baptist protest, nor an election, Madison met with Leland in March of 1788. At that “secret meeting” Madison agreed to spell out the freedoms the Baptists desired as long as Leland withdrew from the race.23

This won the day for religious freedom in America, for James Madison kept his promise and brought the subject of an amendment to the constitution to the House of Representatives.

The Amendment finally adopted reads as follows:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

One historian wrote:

“Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was from the first the trophy of the Baptists.”24


The Baptists rode the wave of the Great Awakening securing for themselves a greater number, denominational structure, and religious freedom. While we enjoy the freedom and theological foundation laid by our Baptist forefathers, let us not rest in evangelizing others, discipling them as Baptists, and securing for our future the blessings we now enjoy.

Lessons we can learn

1. God works in a “surprising” way to revive His people. Revival comes, not because man works up revival through emotionalism, rather God sends it as He pleases. Often, God is pleased to send revival as people are instructed through His Word and they obey it. Though this is not a guarantee of national revival, it is a guarantee of personal revival.

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. . . . Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. . . . 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. . . . Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. . . . From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. (Nehemiah 8.1–3, 5–6, 8, 12, 17)

2. Religious freedom is not necessary for our growth, expansion, and spiritual well-being. It is a grace given by God which should not be taken for granted (abused). During times of persecution the Baptists grew and expanded their ministries. During times of ease, the Baptists have also grown (next lesson). Let’s not comfort ourselves and forsake the mission of evangelizing and teaching others.

We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. (Hebrews 6.11–12)

1 Dictionary of Christianity in America, “Frelinghuysen,” 454.

2 Actually he made seven trips to America, only five of them were preaching tours.

3 Dictionary of Christianity in America, “Whitefield,” 1252.

4 Harry Stout, The Divine Dramatist (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), 42f.

5 Vedder, History, 310.

6 Vedder, History, 318; Torbet, History, 232.

7 McBeth, History, 200.

8 Torbet, History, 243.

9 Vedder, History, 319. f. 2.

10 Torbet, History, 222.

11 William McLouglin, New England Dissent 1630–1833, 1:424 and David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America, 549. Cited by McBeth, History, 205.

12 Torbet, History, 223.

13 Torbet, History, 223

14 This was an overreaction. While the Church of England ministers were notorious from reading their manuscripts with little enthusiasm, the Separates fled to the opposite “pole” and disdained any preparation for a sermon.

15 McBeth, History, 231.

16 George Paschal, A History of North Carolina Baptists, 1:308. Cited by McBeth, History, 231.

17 Walter Shurden, “The Southern Baptist Synthesis” Baptist History. Cited by McBeth, 234.

18 Torbet, History, 238.

19 Certain pacifist groups (Quakers, Mennonites) despised America’s revolution.

20 McBeth, History, 259.

21 Vedder, History, 319.

22 Gerald Priest, “John Leland and the Bill of Rights,” in The Baptist Bulletin, February 1988, 14.

23 McBeth, History, 282.

24 George Bancroft cited by Priest in “John Leland,” 14.

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