Shubal Stearns (1706-1771)

Written By J. Timothy Allen

Of Puritan ancestry, Shubal Stearns (correctly spelled Shubael) was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 28, 1706. At nine, he moved with his family to Tolland, Massachusetts.  Stearns married Sarah Johnston in 1726, but the couple had no children. After hearing George Whitefield in 1740, or possibly in 1746 when Stearns was ordained as a Separate Congregational minister, he and his family experienced what many then called the New Birth, and he formed a Separate Congregational Church in Tolland.  (New Birth Protestants believed that the Holy Spirit works through individuals so that they can exhibit their spiritual gifts; that they should denounce lust and greed and other sinful desires while revering scripture and performing good works; and that the way one exhibits the Holy Spirit that dwells within them is more important than an intellectual adherence to a religious creed or a statement of faith.)

Influenced further by Separate Baptist pastor Waitstill Palmer (who was also inspired by Whitefield’s preaching), Stearns was baptized by immersion and then ordained a Separate Baptist minister in 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. Inspired by what he considered a divine vision, Stearns in 1754 led his congregation, consisting of family, to Hampshire County, Virginia (now West Virginia). There he met his sister and brother-in-law, Daniel and Martha Marshall, who also joined Stearns’s flock. Seeing the growing numbers of dissenters, discerning the dire need for ministers, and looking for a strategic center from which to minister, Stearns in 1755 settled in the Piedmont of North Carolina between present-day Liberty and Asheboro in Randolph County.  

Stearns organized the Sandy Creek Separate Baptist Church on November 22, 1755. During the next three years, Stearns’s mesmerizing stare and loud, “holy whine” preaching (a nasal tone with a sing-song style, most likely mimicking Whitefield’s homiletics) attracted many curious visitors who later converted.  Approximately 600 to 900 Piedmont individuals joined Stearns’s church.  In 1758, as membership swelled, the Sandy Creek Association of Separate Baptists was organized. Daniel Marshall, Joseph Breed, and other ministers accompanied Stearns as he traveled across the Piedmont. From 1755 to 1765 Stearns and his small troop of exhorters and preachers spread their revival message throughout the state, including southeastern North Carolina, as well as into southwestern Virginia and upstate South Carolina.

From 1765 to 1771, Stearns’s paternalistic and somewhat authoritarian leadership and the rapid increase in church membership in the North Carolina lowcountry and the Virginia Tidewater regions negatively influenced the Association. The relationship of many Sandy Creek Baptists with the Regulator Movement was more problematic, however. Stearns threatened participants with excommunication, but then changed his position when Regulators threatened him. Frustrated with Stearns’s ambivalence and lack of administrative skills, the Association split in 1769.  With the defeat of the Regulators in 1771, many Separate Baptists left for the less politicized lands of Tennessee and Kentucky, where they established churches and spread Separate Baptist tenets in the Appalachian Mountains.

On November 20, 1771, Stearns died in Randolph County, North Carolina, the home of his Sandy Creek Separate Baptist Church.  But his legacy survived.  As mentioned, many Separate Baptists moved to the mountains, and evidence indicates that Stearns may have influenced North Carolina Presbyterian evangelist James McGready, who later led the Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky in 1801.