Sandy Creek Baptists

Written By Lloyd Johnson

Following the Regulator Movement in North Carolina (1766–1771), Sandy Creek Baptists played a key role in the tremendous growth of the Baptist denomination in the South, and their political beliefs influenced the changing views regarding the common man in America throughout the late eighteenth century.

Sandy Creek Baptist Church is over 250 years old and is located in Liberty, North Carolina, in Randolph County south of Greensboro. Although records are sparse concerning the church’s beginnings in 1755, one certainty is that Shubal Stearns left his pastorate in Okehon, Virginia, because he carried a spiritual burden for the unchurched yet religiously enthusiastic backcountry farmers in Piedmont North Carolina.  

Born in Massachusetts in 1706, Stearns matured in a Congregational Church. After attending a revival conducted by George Whitefield, however, he became a Baptist minister of the New Light persuasion in 1751. The New Lights, or Separate Baptists, were dynamic and evangelical, and their beliefs differed from regular Baptists’ and their strict adherence to Calvinism and predestination. The Separates called “for a radical reorientation of life, and new birth” that appealed to the common man.

Shubal Stearns’s church, established with his brother-in-law Daniel Marshall and his family, consisted of sixteen family members, who met at a small meetinghouse at Sandy Creek in 1755. Within two years, the Sandy Creek congregation grew significantly. People throughout the backcountry, some as far way as forty miles, traveled to Sandy Creek to hear Stearns’s emotional and soul-stirring sermons.  In only two years, Sandy Creek membership swelled to 600.  

Sandy Creek Church practiced nine rituals, including baptism by full immersion, feet washing, the Lord’s Supper, laying on hands, and anointing the sick, love feasts, also known as communal meals, “right hand of fellowship, kiss of charity,” and devotion to children.  Separate Baptists sincerely believed in the priesthood of all believers, so if anyone felt called by the Holy Spirit to preach, regardless whether they were illiterate, the local church encouraged them to enter the ministry and establish churches wherever they went.  Men served as deacons and ruling elders and assisted the minister in delivering sermons.  Separate Baptists were egalitarian, and their practices “involved physical contact across race and gender.”  Women also played a prominent role in church governance; some served as deaconesses and ruling elders.  Sandy Creek Baptists promoted a strict moral code that condemned public dancing, gambling, and Sabbath breaking.  

Following the amazing growth of the church, Shubal Stearns formed in 1758 one of the earliest Baptist associations in North Carolina and the third oldest in America: the Sandy Creek Association. Original members included Baptist churches in the North Carolina Piedmont and Coastal Plain that later welcomed churches from South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. This growth is a testament to Stearns’ mission to travel great distances and organize many Baptist churches while serving at Sandy Creek.
Many of the members of Sandy Creek Church were small subsistence farmers, and next to none owned slaves. Their religious and political views fostered a defiance of established authority—especially when one believed that the provincial government abused the poor and the just. Thus, many Sandy Creek Baptists participated in the Regulator Movement (a democratic protest in North Carolina, where the Quaker Herman Husband played a leading role in protesting the abuse of power within Governor William Tryon’s administration).  

Separate Baptists at Sandy Creek therefore joined with Quakers to oppose the high tax increases that Governor William Tryon’s government attempted to enforce. Although Shubal Stearns opposed the violence of many Regulators, he sympathized with their beliefs.  But many times Regulation protests fell within the boundary of the law. For instance, the Sandy Creek Regulators of Orange and Regulators of Anson, Rowan, Granville, and Mecklenburg counties petitioned Governor William Tryon and the North Carolina Assembly in March 1768. They condemned the Eastern gentry for dominating the legislature and condoning courthouse rings in which local sheriffs and other officials dominated. At other times, they criticized Governor Tryon’s attempt to establish the Church of England in North Carolina, as well as building an elaborate palace in New Bern from funds appropriated for the building of “public schools and for purchasing glebes” (glebes were lands used to provide funds to support parish clergy).

The Regulator Movement in North Carolina culminated at the Battle of Alamance in May 1771.  Before the battle, many believed Tryon would not wage war on the farmers, but the governor was determined to stop rebellion by using military force. Prior to the battle in May 1771, the Regulators at Sandy Creek responded to Governor Tryon’s call to raise troops from the counties to form a militia to put down the Regulators. In their petition, they resolved to put down their plows and help the governor if he truly pledged to punish the true offenders of the government, whom the farmers described as being  “premeditated by the officers of the province.”   Marjolene Kars, an historian and specialist in North Carolina Regulation, notes that this petition took on biblical proportions and that their civil liberties “are certainly more dear to us than the good opinion of a ruler tho’ both are desirable.”

Despite the Regulators failed attempts to negotiate with Governor Tryon not to use force,  the battle commenced on May 16, 1771.  The Regulators used guerilla tactics against Governor Tryon’s men, but they lacked leadership and ammunition. After the battle, over 150 men had been seriously wounded, and twenty Regulators and nine militiamen had died.  Following the battle, Tryon ordered six of the twelve Regulators to be hanged publicly in Hillsborough.   James Few, a Baptist from Sandy Creek, refused to renounce his involvement, because as he said moments before his death, he “had been sent from heaven to relieve the world from oppression.”  Following the executions, Governor Tryon and his troops spent a week in the Sandy Creek settlement searching for Regulators who had fled the Battle of Alamance. They burned crops, confiscated flour and cattle for food, and torched more than a few Sandy Creek Baptists’ farmsteads and homes.

Following the destruction, Governor Tryon issued a Regulator Pardon for those who surrendered their arms; but for the unrepentant, he ordered their farms and homes to be burned.  At Sandy Creek, 1,300 took the oath.  Regarding the oaths, one Regulator confided to a Moravian that it was not safe to stay “because some asked the governor for pardon, and others had not done so, so their lives were not safe from each other.”  The following year membership in the Sandy Creek Church plummeted from 606 to 14.  The exodus from the Piedmont contributed to Baptist growth in western North Carolina, Tennessee, and South Carolina.  Not only did Regulators and Sandy Creek Baptists establish churches in other parts, their beliefs also planted the seeds for common people to revolt against Great Britain during the American Revolution.