Baptists in Colonial America

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Roger Williams played a key role in the establishment of the colony of Rhode Island as a haven of religious toleration. He and his followers established the first native Baptist church in America at Providence in 1639. However, it is important to mention that over time Williams’s views changed; eventually, he came to deny the legitimacy of all organized churches and to believe that only God’s interposition could restore the church on earth to fullness. After Williams’s withdrawal from the Providence Baptist fellowship, Thomas Olney, a strong Calvinist, took charge of the congregation. Eventually, the group’s views evolved to include a strong belief in the necessity of the laying on of hands as a requisite for the visitation of the Holy Spirit. Because this belief was one of the six tenets listed in Hebrews 6:1–2, the local church became known as “Six Principle Baptists.” By 1652, the Providence church was divided over these six principles; overall, this and other Six Principle churches had little influence on American Christianity. And despite these changes within the Baptist community, Rhode Island remained a safe haven for a variety of religious groups. The Baptist message was attractive in other colonies as well. Henry Dunster, president of Harvard College, was forced to resign his position in 1654, a year after he refused infant baptism for his fourth child. Thomas Gould led the Boston Baptist membership after the church was formed there in 1665. From that year through 1680, Baptist churches experienced steady growth but increasing persecution, particularly along the border region where Massachusetts met Rhode Island. Connecticut Baptists also were influenced by their colleagues in Rhode Island. In 1705 the church at Groton was founded and led by Valentine Wightman. Following his death in 1741, his son and grandson took up Wightman’s mantle and led the congregation for the following 100 years. Nearly all New England Baptist churches were associated via the Rhode Island Yearly Meeting of General Baptists, which had been established at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Interestingly, the early years of colonial settlement were not a prosperous time for Baptists in the Southern Colonies. Banned from organizing in Virginia by a 1661 law, there were Baptists in North and South Carolina in the seventeenth century, but none were especially effective. The following century, however, was a far different story. Perhaps the most far-reaching event for Southern churches, especially for Baptists and Methodists, was the advent of the Great Awakening in the early 1700s. Baptists particularly benefited from the basic premises of this evangelistic movement: the revivalists’ emphasis on the necessity of “being saved,” the view that infant baptism was an anomaly at best and sinful at worst, and the belief that the sacraments of baptism and communion while important rituals were insufficient as the means of grace. All resounded with the core beliefs of the Baptist faithful. Statistics and anecdotal evidence certainly suggest that the Awakening’s zeal lingered longer in Southern Baptist communities of worship than in many other groups and regions. The personally charismatic, energetic, emotional, and sometimes eccentric preaching of early Methodist revivalists, including George Whitefield, was quickly adopted by many Baptist preachers, particularly those in rural and frontier areas of the South. Combined with his methodology, Baptists’ simplicity of doctrine and egalitarian ethic strongly appealed to these uneducated and unsophisticated flocks. As a result, Baptist missionary preachers in the South (and, soon, also in the western territories of Kentucky and Tennessee) were joined by the newly converted farmer-preacher, a phenomenon that helped lead to the church’s astounding rural growth in the mid- and late-eighteenth century. In the agrarian South, there were only two plausible hindrances to the adoption of the Baptist faith: First, in isolated instances, a local group might be repelled by a given preacher’s personal enthusiasm; or, more often, a Methodist preacher might have evangelized and converted a given area before a Baptist could arrive to do the job. Perhaps the same traits that made Great Awakening evangelism so popular in the South made it equally distasteful to New England Baptists, who largely fancied themselves too sophisticated to be swayed by such emotional displays. Mostly, though, Baptists’ general opposition to a paid, settled, collegeeducated clergy made the denomination a good fit with the mood of colonists as they migrated westward. In addition to their spiritual legacy to contemporary church members, colonial Baptists established the College of Rhode Island in 1764. Although the American War for Independence disrupted its operations for a time, the school survived and was renamed Brown University in 1804. It remains one of the nation’s finest institutions of higher education. Barbara Schwarz Wachal See also: Christ and Christianity; Religion (Chronology); Religion (Essay). Bibliography Davis, Lawrence B. Immigrants, Baptists, and the Protestant Mind in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. McLoughlin, William G. New England Dissent, 1630–1833: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971. McLoughlin, William G. Soul Liberty: The Baptists’ Struggle in New England, 1630–1833. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1991. Torbet, Robert G. A History of the Baptists. Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1965.
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