History of the Baptist Church in Virginia

Virginia Baptists trace their historical roots to several groups of adult baptizers in early seventeenth-century England, some of whom had previously spent time in Holland. Three distinct types of Baptists initially planted the faith in the colony, at a multiplicity of points.

The earliest congregations in Virginia were supported by missionaries from England known as the General Baptists. This branch of the faith was Arminian in orientation, believing that God issued a general offer of salvation to mankind. In their view individuals were invested with free will to accept or reject God’s gift of eternal life. There had been some adult baptizers in Virginia at least since 1699, and in 1714 missionary Robert Norden (Nordin) was sent by England’s General Assembly of the General Baptists to minister to them. He founded a congregation in Prince George County and likely others in both Virginia and North Carolina. Somewhat later, another group of General Baptists, having previously settled in Maryland, migrated to Virginia’s Northern Neck to found at least two congregations. While General Baptists expanded for a time, they ultimately did not flourish in Virginia. Historians are certain only that in the 1760s there was still an active congregation in Princess Anne County, and that other General Baptists were dispersing or in the process of becoming affiliated with Baptists of other stripes.

A second, larger group, the Regular Baptists, emerged in two bands across the northern and southernmost reaches of Virginia in the 1750s and 1760s. Both groups owed an important debt to missionaries sent by the Philadelphia Baptist Association, which had strong ties to the Particular Baptist movement in England and its colonies. Particular Baptists were Calvinist predestinarians who believed that God selected particular individuals for the gift of salvation, and described humans as unable to make free choices or assert their will with respect to their eternal condition. Baptist immigrants of this stripe had founded enough congregations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to form an association in 1707. When a period of revival caused the more evangelical of Baptists to split from this organization in the 1740s, the term “regular” came to apply to those who remained. This body sent missionaries to northern and western Virginia in 1752, in response to requests for ministerial supply from Baptists at the Ketocton Church in Fairfax County and at Mill Creek in western Frederick County. These ministers offered assistance only on the condition that congregants renounce any Arminian tendencies and conform to their organization’s confession of faith. By 1766, these congregations were joined by two others to form Ketocton Baptist Association, the sole governing body of Regular Baptists in Virginia for a time. By 1771, some 1,100 converts in fifteen Baptist churches in northern and western Virginia were affiliated with this Association. Somewhat later, General Baptists on Virginia’s Southside also received ministerial support from the Philadelphia Baptist Association, likely starting in 1765. Several congregations along the Virginia–North Carolina border were organized or reorganized and adopted the Regulars’ confession of faith in following years to root the Regular Baptists there.

A third type of Baptists, known as “Separates,” began to arise in Virginia late in the 1750s. This group had English Particular Baptist roots but worshipped in a more evangelical style; engaged in some biblical practices, such as foot-washing, that were not as common among Regulars; and may have developed somewhat more rigorous membership restrictions and congregational discipline standards. While there were Separates in the middle colonies and New England that broke from Particular Baptist churches and associations, Virginia’s Separates loosely trace their origins to New England Congregationalist minister Shubal Stearns, who was inspired by the preaching of George Whitefield in the 1740s to break from his old church, and then subsequently became an advocate of believer baptism. In 1754 Stearns traveled south with some of his Separate Baptist congregation to join his sister and brother-in-law, Martha and Daniel Marshall, in far-western Virginia, and then all of them migrated on to Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1755. Stearns, Marshall, and others began an intensive ministry that produced multiple church foundings and finally the formation of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association in 1758. The Association soon dispatched preachers to spread their message in Southside Virginia. They were very successful at gaining converts, and Separate Baptist congregations formed at a rapid pace on the border with North Carolina in the 1760s. Some Virginia converts then took up the pulpit, traveled the Virginia hinterlands, and rooted this version of the faith in all Virginia regions west of the fall line by 1770, when most Virginia Separates broke off from the Sandy Creek Association to form the General Association of the Separate Baptists of Virginia, with thirteen member churches. In the early 1770s, Separate Baptist churches started to appear in the Tidewater as well.

In 1775 there were about seventy-five officially formed Baptist congregations in Virginia, almost all of which were Regular or Separate. The distinctions between these churches gradually faded, and the two groups unified into a single associational structure in 1787. Church foundings had slowed during the American Revolution (1775–1783), but accelerated again during a series of revivals in the late 1780s and the 1790s, affixing the Baptists in Virginia for good.

Source: Spangler, Jewel. Baptist in Colonial Virginia, Encyclopedia Virginia, 2011.

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