The Sandy Creek Revival: The South’s Great Awakening
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Most accounts of the Great Awakening focus predominantly on the revivals in the middle colonies and particularly in New England. The South was the scene of revival too, however. Whitefield preached in southern cities, and Presbyterian Samuel Davies led a notable awakening in Virginia. Even farther south, in the Carolinas, was another phase of the Great Awakening, the Sandy Creek Revival.
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“A surprising work of God” Jonathan Edwards called the Great Awakening. In the early 1700s the moving of God’s Spirit touched, convicted, and converted thousands of Americans. The Reformed denominations (Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Dutch Reformed) found themselves swept along in a mighty outpouring of God’s saving grace. Probably most Christians are at least generally familiar with this “surprising work,” but many are unaware of another phase of that same revival. This other phase occurred not in the North, but in the South; not among the Reformed groups of New England, but among the Sandy Creek Baptists of North Carolina.
The man responsible for carrying the fervor of the Great Awakening to the South, Shubal Stearns, was among those influenced by George Whitefield, the powerful English evangelist of the Great Awakening. Stearns was born in Boston in 1706. After his conversion to Christ around 1740, he eventually became a minister with the Baptists. In 1754 God called Stearns from his home in Connecticut to fields farther South. He labored for a short time in Virginia, then moved to Sandy Creek, North Carolina.
North Carolina’s piedmont area in the middle of the eighteenth century was part of America’s wild frontier. The people were usually irreligious and coarse, and marriages often little more than informal agreements. Backwoods North Carolina was a spiritual as well as a physical wilderness, and into this religiously barren land came Stearns and his family.
The small church at Sandy Creek began with sixteen members, half of whom were Stearns’s own family. Then the New England minister began to preach, and God’s Spirit began to move in North Carolina as He had in Massachusetts. Eighteenth-century Baptist historian Morgan Edwards described Stearns as a man and a preacher:
Mr. Stearns was but a little man, but 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 anon to shake the nerves, and to throw the animal system into tumults and perturbations. His character was indisputably good, both as a man, a Christian, and a preacher.
A noted characteristic of Shubal Stearns was his penetrating gaze. One man, Tidance Lane, described Stearns’s influence: “He fixed his eyes upon me immediately,” he said, “which made me feel in such a manner as I never felt before.” Burdened with conviction, Lane sought relief in walking around, trying to leave, and even shaking hands with the preacher, but all was in vain. When Stearns finally began to preach, Lane’s resistance collapsed, and he was converted.
Another story, that of Elnathan Davis, illustrates the convicting power of Stearns’s preaching. Davis and some of his rough friends attended a baptism conducted by Stearns. Their interest was hardly spiritual; the subject of baptism was a very large man, while the preacher was rather small, so the idlers half-expected and hoped to see one or the other drown. As Davis drew near, he heard the little minister preaching, and he fell under conviction. He fled back to his companions and said, “There is a trembling and crying spirit among them, but whether it be the spirit of God or the devil I don’t know; if it be the devil, the devil go with them, for I will never more venture myself among them!” His resolve melted, however, as God worked in his heart. Davis returned to the preaching, eventually was converted, and later replaced Stearns, after the latter’s death, as the most influential minister in the Sandy Creek region.
The work in North Carolina prospered. In a short time, the Sandy Creek church swelled from sixteen members to over six hundred. The “super-churches” of our day diminish for us the impact of this growth, but consider that in the 1700s there were no modern means of transportation or good roads. The people were not concentrated in large cities, but were scattered over the countryside, having to travel difficult miles to attend services. Nor was the Sandy Creek church’s impact limited to its own members. Regarding its influence, Morgan Edwards wrote:
From this Zion went forth the word, and great was the company of them that published it; it . . . had spread branches westward as far as the great river Mississippi; southward as far as Georgia; eastward to the sea and Chesapeake Bay; and northward to the waters of the Potomac; it . . . is become the mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother to 42 churches from which sprang 125 ministers.
The churches that grew out of Stearns’s ministry banded together in 1758 as the Sandy Creek Baptist Association. This group, under Stearns’s benevolent but firm leadership, sought to advance God’s work throughout the southern colonies. Association meetings were marked by prayer, fasting, and exhortation. Aflame with revival, the churches in the association continued to increase in number and influence.
By 1770, however, the association had grown too large and had spread over too great an area to maintain a united, concerted effort. In that year the group divided into three separated associations, one each for North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. The following year Shubal Stearns, the great patriarch of the movement, died and was buried near the meetinghouse in which he had preached. Within a few years Stearns’s church had dropped in attendance to a level below that with which it had started. The Awakening ended, but the story did not.
Subsequent history has justified Morgan Edwards’s appraisal of the importance of the Sandy Creek Baptist Church. The Sandy Creek Awakening was one of the first revivals in America’s South. During the revival souls were saved, lives changed, and perhaps even history shaped. A rich and godly heritage belongs to a small church in the Carolina backwoods.
Suggestions for Further Reading
William L. Lumpkin. Baptist Foundations in the South. Nashville: Broadman, 1961.
H. Leon McBeth. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville: Broadman, 1987. [Pages 200–51 trace the history of Baptists in the Great Awakening; pages 227–32 concern Sandy Creek in particular]
George W. Purefoy. A History of the Sandy Creek Baptist Association. 1859. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1980.
This article is taken from Faith of Our Fathers: Scenes from American Church History, which is published by BJU Press. Buy the book to read other articles about Christian men and women.
© 1991 BJU Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission.