The Roots of Appalachian Christianity

The Roots of Appalachian Christianity: The Life and Legacy of Elder Shubal Stearns

Elder John Sparks
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 352
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    The Roots of Appalachian Christianity
    Book Description:

    Appalachia's distinctive brand of Christianity has always been something of a puzzle to mainline American congregations. Often treated as pagan and unchurched, native Appalachian sects are labeled as ultraconservative, primitive, and fatalistic, and the actions of minority sub-groups such as "snake handlers" are associated with all worshippers in the region. Yet these churches that many regard as being outside the mainstream are living examples of America's own religious heritage.

    The emotional and experience-based religion that still thrives in Appalachia is very much at the heart of American worship. The lack of a recognizable "father figure" like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox compounds the mystery of Appalachia's religious origins. Ordained minister John Sparks determined that such a person must have existed, and his search turned up a man less literate, urbane, and well-known than Luther, Calvin, and Knox -- but no less charismatic and influential.

    Shubal Stearns, a New England Baptist minister, led a group of sixteen Baptists -- now dubbed "The Old Brethren" by Old School Baptists churches in Appalachia -- from New England to North Carolina in the mid-eighteenth century. His musical "barking" preaching is still popular, and the association of churches that he established gave birth to many of the disparate denominations prospering in the region today. A man lacking in the scholarship of his peers but endowed with the eccentricities that would make their mark on Appalachian faith, Stearns has long been an object of shame among most Baptist historians.

    InThe Roots of Appalachian Christianity, Sparks depicts an important religious figure in a new light. Poring over pages of out-of-print and little-used histories, Sparks discovered the complexity of Stearns's character and his impact on Appalachian Christianity. The result is a history not just of this leader but of the roots of a religious movement.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5839-6
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-ix)
  3. List of Figures and Maps
    (pp. x-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Loyal Jones

    I first encountered Elder John Sparks in the Forum section of theLouisville Courier Journalat Christmastime, 1993. He was responding to an article about Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong’s controversial book,Born of a Woman,in which the bishop questions the divinity of Jesus. Elder Sparks, in his letter, pointed out the anomaly of Spong’s position of power, influence, and income while doubting the validity of the central belief that lifted him to prominence. I was impressed with Sparks’s clarity of thought, gracefully presented. I looked up his post office, Offutt, and found it to be in Johnson County,...

  5. Introduction In Search of the Goodly Fere
    (pp. xv-xx)

    As North Carolina native and Appalachian scholar Loyal Jones once noted, no group in the United States has aroused more suspicion and alarm among mainstream Christians than have Appalachian Christians, and never have so many Christian missionaries been sent to save so many Christians as in central and southern Appalachia.¹ The character of Appalachian religious beliefs has been the subject of a multitude of studies by both academics and theologians, and the issue is made more confusing by the different perceptions of the writers and the varying viewpoints taken. In most “mainstream” American Protestant as well as some academic literature,...

  6. 1 The Covenant Owners: 1706–1740
    (pp. 1-14)

    In Boston, Massachusetts in the month of January 1706 were born two men whose lives would touch multitudes of others and who would, each in his own way, leave his distinctive mark upon the course of American history. Both came from humble backgrounds and neither would ever receive much formal schooling; yet one would rise above his start as a “printer’s devil” to become the first great American man of letters while the other, though never outgrowing the status of a lowly yeoman farmer, would in his own time be recognized as perhaps the second most effective Christian evangelist ever...

  7. 2 Rude Awakening: 1740–1751
    (pp. 15-33)

    Once, when speaking to his daughter advising her to keep up regular church attendance despite the imperfections she might encounter in ministers, Benjamin Franklin observed that pure water had often been known to issue from very dirty earth. One wonders whether Franklin, who was personally acquainted with George Whitefield and once let him take lodgings above his print shop in Philadelphia, might have been thinking of the famous Methodist revivalist when he penned the maxim, but this may be an unfair guess; there is every evidence that Franklin genuinely liked Whitefield, though he consistently resisted Whitefield’s unceasing efforts to convert...

  8. 3 The “Garding in Closed”: 1751–1754
    (pp. 34-47)

    In September 1743, in the aftermath of George Whitefield’s heyday and during the most frenzied period of activity for his imitators, thirty-two-year-old Waitstill (or “Wait,” as he was most commonly called) Palmer applied to the New London Ministerial Association for a license to preach in accordance with the guidelines of the Saybrook Platform. No evidence exists that Palmer, who was already deeply involved in the New Light movement, ever had any of the formal training expected of a clergyman of the mainline Connecticut State Presbyterian Church, and the application itself seems to have been gratuitously filed and a rebuff fully...

  9. 4 Chance and Providence: 1754–1755
    (pp. 48-71)

    Morgan Edwards, Isaac Backus, Robert B. Semple, and David Benedict all relate essentially the same tale: Shubal Stearns and his congregation set great store by what they perceived as direct impressions of the Holy Spirit upon their consciences, and Stearns, listening to some of these instructions from Heaven, began to believe that God had laid a “great work in the west” upon his shoulders. He, his wife Sarah, and a number of his church members likewise dedicated to the pursuit of this great work accordingly left Tolland in August 1754, not knowing their ultimate destination but convinced that God was...

  10. 5 Chamomile: 1755–1765
    (pp. 72-108)

    Though we left the last chapter with an unanswered and unanswerable question, if indeed Herman Husbands’s promotion of the Separate Baptists was a political gambit of his own design, it paid off well. As the uplands continued to fill up with settlers, Husbands himself may have realized that the Quakers could never have competed with the Separate Baptists in the backcountry, even under the best of circumstances. The two Quaker monthly meetings already established in the uplands at Husbands’s arrival enjoyed a modest prosperity, and three more meetings appear to have been started at various locations by 1757. Their increase,...

  11. 6 Meshech: 1765–1771
    (pp. 109-180)

    Considering the thousands of sermons that Shubal Stearns must have preached in North Carolina, it is odd that we know little or nothing of the actual texts he took for his discourses. It has already been shown, though, from the writings of Stearns detractors as well as supporters, that he emphasized personal revelations from God such as the one he believed he had received in 1754 as a call to his great work in the west, and he must have remarked on these quite a bit while in the pulpit. If this is so, certainly the most poignant text the...

  12. 7 Requiem: 1772–1801
    (pp. 181-198)

    History often seems to exhibit the keenest sense of irony to be found anywhere.

    As any serious student of the American Revolution knows, that great conflict was no more a common man’s crusade than any other war has been. The high ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness expressed so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence became the holy creed of America only when enough influential planters, merchants, and businessmen in the colonies found the Declaratory Act bad for their finances and were persuaded that they could do better economically by rebelling and establishing home rule. Their positions...

  13. 8 The Legacy of the Goodly Fere: 1801–2001
    (pp. 199-290)

    If the author were to examine the history of each of the various divisions of Shubal Stearns’s children in the faith in detail, he’d need to add a second, and possibly third, volume to this work, but the accounts would be so drearily repetitive that the effort would be of little value. Nonetheless, for the sake of clarity and continuity this final chapter will attempt to give a brief overview at least of the major groups of Shubal Stearns’s Appalachian descendants in the Gospel, and something of who they are historically and what they represent ideologically.

    The relationships of the...

  14. Afterword: I, The Preacher
    (pp. 291-294)

    Whether good or bad, this work is the product of a ten-year hobby begun originally by a young Kentucky backcountry Baptist preacher with decided Old Landmarker leanings (of the peculiar twist to the belief so often found in Appalachia), and it was intended originally to trace the native Baptists in his locality back as far as possible historically in just one more reiteration of the Landmarker position. Needless to say, over the years he—I—was compelled to change my outlook, but the change did me no harm, I think, other than causing me to sigh repeatedly over Solomon’s pronouncements...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 295-306)
  16. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 307-312)
  17. Index
    (pp. 313-328)