Born on January 28, 1706, Shubal Stearns was destined to be a great preacher. Morgan Edwards, a Baptist historian, described him as
…but a little man, but a man of good natural parts and sound judgment. Of learning he had but a small 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…. His character was indisputably good, both as a man, a Christian and a preacher. (quoted in Powell).
He grew up in Connecticut in the Congregational church, and was saved in 1745 under the preaching of George Whitefield. He married Sarah Johnson, but they had no children. After his salvation, he became associated with the “New Light” or Separatist movement, which was a split off of the old and dying Congregational movement. He became a preacher in the “New Light” movement, staying there until 1751. He then became embroiled in the believer’s baptism verses infant baptism controversy. Having realized that infant baptism is unbiblical, he was baptized by Wait Palmer. He was ordained a Baptist preacher on March 20, 1751. His ministry emphasized
…adult baptism by immersion (as opposed to sprinkling), communion, laying on of hands for healing and repentance, foot washing, love feasts (revival-style services), anointing the sick (for healing), embracing and shaking the hands of members, the kiss of charity, and the offering of the right hand of fellowship to new converts. (Allen)
Stearns was known for his “mesmerizing stare” and his “holy whine,” loud, nasal preaching (Allen). He stayed in New England until 1754, when God called him to ministry to the southern colonies.
He joined Daniel Marshal, and Stearns and Marshall preached with warmth and zeal. In November 1755, Stearns and Marshal took a small group to Sandy Creek, North Carolina, and founded the Sandy Creek Baptist Church, also known as the Sandy Creek Separate Baptist Church. In three years, the church membership swelled by over 600 (possibly even 900 (Allen)).
This church served as the base camp for a revival. Between 1755 and 1765, Stearns and his group of ministers traveled the area preaching the gospel and founding churches. In 1758, the Sandy Creek Association of Separate Baptists was formed. Reportedly, 1000 churches were founded during this revival in Stearns’ lifetime. After 1771, many of Stearns’ Separate Baptists left and spread the gospel throughout Tennessee and Kentucky (Allen). Stearns supposedly even had a vision telling him that his followers would spread out greatly, with the bulk of them heading north, and a smaller group heading south, and an even smaller group staying at their present location (Powell).
Stearns’ Sandy Creek Baptist Church and Sandy Creek Association were said to be led in such a way as to be led of the Holy Spirit, and not of men. During assemblies of the Association, they would not have an appointed leader, but would wait until God moved someone in the meeting to lead. Thus strong emphasis was placed on God’s leadership, and little placed on creating and maintaining an established order. Stearns’ church even made some decisions that would upset other Baptist groups/ including tolerating “dancing in the Spirit.” (Making Stearns seem like a Charismatic Baptist!) They also allowed women to speak and lead in churches. Martha Marshal (Stearns’ sister and Marshal’s wife) became known for her exhortations (Powell). Despite these differences in practice, Stearns preached strongly on the evils of sin, and the need to be personally born again through faith in Christ.
Shubal Stearns died on November 20, 1771. He is said to have influenced James McGready, who led the Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky in 1801. He died having influencing many for Christ.
- Allen, J Timothy. Shubal Stearns. North Carolina History Project. http://www.northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/143/entry
- Powell, Josh. Shubal Stearns and the Separate Baptist Tradition. Founder’s Ministries. http://www.founders.org/journal/fj44/article3_fr.html