The Origin of Grassy Creek Baptist Church, with some Interesting
Incidents connected with its Early History
Some of the first permanent settlements effected in Granville county, North Carolina, were along the Northern border on Grassy Creek, near the Virginia line. It appears that a considerable number of the early colonists in this region were Baptists, or Baptists in sentiment. They soon began to hold meetings and at length built a house [a large frame building] for divine worship, and named it Grassy Creek, after the water course -- a tributary of the Roanoke River -- on which it was located. The Meeting House is situated in the northern part of Granville, sixteen miles from Oxford, the county seat, and some two miles from the line of Mecklenburg county in Virginia.
As to the exact date when this church began to be founded, I have not been able to learn, but it must have been at least as early as 1754. After diligent enquiry by the best information which I have been able to obtain, there was doubtless a Baptist meeting-house on Grassy Creek in 1755. It is stated as one of the undisputed facts in history that Rev. Hugh McAden, a Presbyterian minister, did, on his way south, "preach at the Baptist church, at Grassy Creek on the 14th of August, in 1755." Although the Baptists at that time possessed a house for religious worship, yet it does not appear that the church had been regularly constituted. The records of the church, previous to October, 1769, cannot be found. Who were its constituent members, or who was its first clerk, I have not been able to learn. The date of its organization, as given by Benedict and other Baptist historians, is in 1762-'65. They are doubtless mistaken about it, having been led into error by their correspondents, who fixed the date by mere conjecture, without investigation. While it is true that in the absence of the records of the church in its first movements, the precise period of its regular constitution must remain a matter of conjecture, still, from the facts gathered up, and by construction, it can be approximated.
About 1754 a small company of Baptists, with Elder Shubael Stearns at their head, set out from New England on a Southern excursion to proclaim the glad tidings of salvation in portions of our country, which were more destitute of the preached gospel. These Baptist pioneers in their benevolent enterprise, with hearts burning with zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of sinners, at one time halt to preach the gospel of the kingdom and plant the standard of the cross, and at another time push forward to regions beyond, both increasing and diminishing their number at every stage of their sojourn, until the long line of travel terminated in 1771, in the settlement of Elder Daniel Marshall, with other Baptist emigrants, on the Kiokee, a frontier region of Georgia. All along their course they preached the blessed gospel of Jesus, and promulgated Baptist faith and practice. They planted churches of Christ, and then left a part of their company as preachers or exhorters to carry forward the Master's work. Elder Stearns permanently settled on Sandy Creek in Guilford (now Randolph) county, North Carolina, 1755. I think it more than probable that this company of Baptist pioneers, or a part of them, passed through this very section on their way south, sometime in 1754, and paused for a while to raise the Redeemer's standard and propagate the glorious gospel of the blessed God.
It is evident that Rev. Daniel Marshall, the coadjutor of Elder Stearns, who came into North Carolina with him, visited this section of the country very soon after his arrival, and labored efficiently and zealously for the up building of Zion and the conversion of souls. His preaching at this place (Grassy Creek) was crowned with a large measure of success. Large and attentive congregations waited upon his ministrations, and many were converted to God through his instrumentality, and among the number was James Reed, a man of considerable gifts, but very illiterate, who at once began to exhort the people to flee from the wrath to come, and shortly afterwards entered the ministry, and became the first pastor of this church.
At what precise period Mr. Marshall made his first visit to the Grassy Creek section cannot now be determined, but he was, without question, here on a preaching tour in 1756. Elder Stearns traveled extensively in Virginia and North Carolina after he settled at Sandy Creek, and he, doubtless visited this community which was then an inviting field for evangelical labors, in his preaching excursions after he came into this colony.
I cannot ascertain with any degree of certainty that he was at Grassy Creek earlier than 1757, when he visited the church and explained to the brethren his plan of forming an Association. He showed them its necessity for extending the interests of the Redeemer's kingdom, and urged the importance of sending messengers to Sandy Creek meeting house in January, 1758, for the purpose of organizing a Baptist Association. The delegates were appointed according to his request, and the Association was organized at the time designated.
Elder James Reed, who was baptized about the year 1756, by Elder Stearns, and ordained to the ministry probably in 1757, was a delegate from Grassy Creek to the first meeting of the Sandy Creek Association in 1758. He says in a manuscript which he left: "At our first Association we continued together three or four days; great crowds of people attended, mostly through curiosity. The great power of God was among us; the preaching every day seemed to be attended with God’s blessings. We carried on our Association with sweet decorum and fellowship to the end. Then we took our leave of one another with many solemn charges from our revered old father, Shubael Stearns, to stand fast unto the end."
From the foregoing facts and considerations [we] have arrived at the conclusion that Grassy Creek Baptist Church was regularly constituted some time between 1755 and 1758, probably in 1757, by Elders Shubael Stearns and Daniel Marshall.
This church continued in connection with the Sandy Creek Association till 1770 -- a space of twelve years -- when it was, by mutual consent, divided. This wide-spread community frequently held its annual sessions with this church.
The church, very soon after it was founded, became a strong and flourishing body, having a good house of worship for that day, with a large membership, many of whom possessed considerable wealth and occupied a high social position. At this early date the members were much scattered over the country, both in Virginia and North Carolina -- some living fifty miles or more from the location of the church.
It was for many years the seat of operations for the denomination in this region. It was the centre of a radius extending forty miles or more in almost every direction. It spread out its arms or branches(1) on every side, which rapidly matured into churches, and Grassy Creek soon became the mother of many daughters.
Most of our ministers in those early times were very deficient on the score of education, but they were full of zeal, energy, enterprise, and perseverance. With ardent piety and firm faith in God, they went forth proclaiming the gospel, exposed as they went forth proclaiming the gospel, exposed as they were to great hardships and privations, and for the most part, without fee and reward, except a good conscience and the Divine blessing. Their labors, however, were abundant and successful
The early Baptist churches made but little provision for the support of their pastors. The preachers themselves were much to blame in the matter. In denouncing church establishments as wrong, and the clergy that was supported by taxation as mere hirelings, for the want of correct discrimination, they unwittingly inculcated unscriptural views upon the subject of ministerial support, and some went even so far as to refuse receiving anything for preaching the gospel, choosing to support themselves and their families the best they could by secular engagements. In avoiding one extreme they fell into another. They not only injured themselves and impaired their usefulness in declining to receive the "reward" to which the Saviour said the workman is justly entitled, but they inflicted much injury upon the churches by encouraging the spirit of selfishness, which muzzles the ox that treads out the corn.
For a period of a century and a quarter, notwithstanding so many churches have been either wholly or partly formed out of this one, and the civil commotions, the calamities of several wars and the various other vicissitudes through which it has passed, still under the blessing of God it has maintained up to the present a large membership, who have been faithful to the truth, and contended earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints. This church, as a place for public worship from its early history, has been particularly noted for the large congregations that attend upon its meetings.
Rev. Samuel Harris, usually called Col Harris, a man of wealth, ability and high social position, who resided in Pittsylvania county, Virginia, not far from the land of Birch Creek (commonly called Kentuck) Baptist meeting-house, some sixty miles from this place, (Grassy Creek) entered the ministry in 1759, but owing to some peculiar views which he entertained respecting ordination, he refused to be set apart to the ministerial office till 1769. In 1765, Mr. Harris went down into Orange and Spottsylvania counties, Virginia, on a preaching excursion. His labors were greatly blessed in awakening attention to the subject of religion, and in leading precious souls to Christ. "He continued many days, preaching from place to place, attended by great crowds, and followed throughout his meetings by several person who had been either lately converted, or seriously awakened under the ministry of others, and also by many who had been alarmed by his own labors.
"When Mr. Harris left them he advised some in whom he discovered talents to commence the exercise of their gifts, and to hold meetings among themselves. They took his advise and began to hold meetings every Sabbath, and almost every night in the week, taking a tobacco house for their meeting house. After proceeding in this way for some time, they resolved to send for Mr. Harris, in order to procure his services, to preach and baptize now converts. Sometime in the year 1766, Elijah Craig and two others traveled to Mr. Harris' house, but they found to their surprise that he had not been ordained to the administration of ordinances. To remedy this inconvenience, he carried them about sixty miles into North Carolina to Elder James Reed, by whom he (Mr. Craig) was ordained" (see Benedict's History of the Baptists, p. 648)
From the best information that I have been able to obtain in regard to this affair, referred to above, it appears that Mr. Harris conducted this party that came from Spottsylvania county, Virginia, to Grassy Creek, where they were received by experience and baptism into the fellowship of the church. Mr. Craig, one of the party, had, from the time of his conversion, although unapprised and without church relations, been exercising his gifts in exhortation, and in proclaiming to his fellow men the glad tidings of salvation. He was not only baptized, but was also, at the same time, by the authority of this church, solemnly and publicly set apart to the full work of the gospel ministry, by Elders James Reed and (supposed to be) Dutton Lane. Mr. Reed, the pastor of this church, and some of its members with Mr. Harris, by urgent solicitations, accompanied these brethren back, to receive and baptize converts, and establish a branch of this church in Spottsylvania county, Va. By the way, two of the most prominent and influential members of this church at that time were brothers of Col. Harris -- Richard and Charles Harris. The former was an elder or deacon, and the latter its clerk for many years; -- and as they were men of means and standing, it is probable that one or both of them were in the delegation. And after making the necessary preparations, they set out on their journey of nearly two hundred miles. Accordingly, in due time, they reached the place of destination, and commenced their labors with remarkable success. Elder Reed baptized nineteen on the first day of his arrival, and more on the day following. Prosperity smiled upon them, and God so abundantly blessed their efforts in building up the Redeemer's cause, that on the 20th of November, 1767, the brethren in Spottsylvania were regularly constituted into a Baptist church, which was called Upper Spottsylvania, but now Craig's church, which has stood until the present time, and has become the mother of many churches.
Mr. Craig became a zealous and useful minister of the gospel. The Lord attended his efforts to extend the kingdom of Christ with his blessing, and made him instrumental in the conversion of many souls. During the ministry; he was called upon to suffer persecution for Christ's sake. At one time he was confined in Culpepper jail for preaching the gospel, and at another in Orange jail for the same offence. Besides fines and imprisonment, he suffered as a minister of reconciliation many other hardships and privations. Mr. Craig was man of considerable talent, a good preacher in his day, and a successful pastor. He removed to Kentucky in 1876, where he finished his work in 1808 and fell asleep. The following anecdote has often been told on Mr. Craig: He was once arrested as a disturber of the peace: that is, for preaching the gospel, and carried before three magistrates, who would not hear any arguments for or against him but at once ordered him to jail. He said to the officer whose duty it was to conduct him to prison, "Elijah Craig will have no hand in putting Elijah Craig to jail -- if you want him there you have got to put him there." Accordingly he voluntarily became helpless, and fell to the ground, and of course the officer was compelled to carry him to prison without Elijah Craig's assistance.
At this early date, Grassy Creek Church belonged to that party of Baptists who were denominated Separate Baptists, which cognomen originated in New England.
About the year 1740, a powerful revival of religion commenced in New England, under the labors of the celebrated Whitfield and other ministers of the gospel, such as had never before been witnessed in this country. It met with much opposition and obloquy, and was opprobrious called the "New Light Stir." The efficient agents in this great awakening, their adherents and sympathizers, as well as the converts, were denominated "new Lights," but afterwards they received the appellation of "Separates," without any reference to denominational distinctions; and, as a very large proportion of the subjects of this wide-spread revival became Baptists, this sobriquet [nick-name] was for many years afterwards attached to a large number of New England Baptists and their descendants; and as the Baptists of middle and upland North Carolina descended from New England Baptists, they were known in early times by the name of Separates. All of these were for a considerable period embraced in the Sandy Creek Association. At this time, all the Baptists in the northeastern portion of North Carolina were called Regular Baptists, and were comprehended in the Kehukee Association. All the Baptists in the province were included in the two Associations -- Sandy Creek and Kehukee. The members of the former are doubtless able to trace their pedigree from the Welsh Baptists, through New England; and the latter, very justly, claim their descent mostly through Virginia, from the same source. I think it could be shown, if it were necessary, from authentic history, that the Baptists of North Carolina received their ordinances from the Welsh Baptists, who claim a history that runs back to the first century of the Christian era.
For many years the Baptists were divided by these party names -- Separates and Regulars -- but after the churches in the eastern portion of the colony called Regulars, which had fallen into loose practices in church order and discipline, were reformed and remodeled to the true Baptist standard by the labors of Elders Robert Williams, John Gano, Peter P. Vanhorn, Benjamin Miller and others, they differed from the Separates only in some small matters. There was but little difference in their views of doctrine and church order. The leading sentiments of both parties were Calvinistic. The principal objection of the Separates to union with the Regulars was that some of their churches retained members in fellowship who were baptized before their conversion. On the other hand, the Regulars complained that the Separates were not sufficiently explicit in their principles, having never published or sanctioned any Confession of Faith. While this was true, still they claimed that as a Christian community they believed in the doctrines set forth by the Baptist Confession of Faith as truly as did the other party, but they did not approve of a church binding itself too strictly by a Confession of Faith, because it was liable to abuse, and thereby usurp too much authority over the conscience and endanger Christian liberty; and besides, they held that the Scriptures were a sufficient guide in all matters of religious faith and practice. The ministers of both parties met together in religious meetings and united in their efforts to build up the Redeemer’s kingdom. Thus co-operating and interchanging views awakened an earnest desire to remove every cause of separation and become more closely united as brethren in Christ. They discussed in a friendly manner the points of difference between them, which caused them to lay aside all their prejudices, and compromise all their disputes; and, at length, the union of the law parties was happily effected; the party names by which they had been distinguished were dismissed and forever buried; and all the Baptists in North Carolina were afterwards known by the name of "Regular Baptists."
This church, in its commencement, entertained some peculiar sentiments which do not prevail at the present time. They believed that the laying on of hands should follow every case of baptism; but it seems that it was never observed as a rite that occupied a place so distinct in church economy as to make it necessary to constitute a true profession of Christianity; and therefore they did not make it a test of fellowship. In a few years they became satisfied that is was without divine warrant, and was accordingly laid aside as unauthorized by the New Testament.
The practice of the imposition of hands came into existence from mistaken views of such passages of Scripture as speak of the laying on of hands as a symbolic act that was used when a person was publicly set apart to some office, (Acts 6:6,) or as the appointed sign by which the miraculous influences of the Holy Spirit were imparted in Apostolic times, (Acts 8:17,) or in setting apart the sin-offerings under the Mosaic dispensation, (Heb. 6:2.) In Hebrews 6:1, 2, the Apostle Paul speaks of the rudiments or first principles of the doctrine of Christ as having been taught in the old dispensation by its rites and ceremonies. In the second verse he refers to the "laying on of hands." Remember the phrase, "not laying again the foundation," is understood before it, and by supplying the ellipsis, the passage reads thus: "not laying again the foundation of the laying on of hands."
It is evident that this passage does not refer to the imposition of hands, either in setting apart a person to office, or in conferring the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit, or to that of confirmation; for in neither case is there any doctrine taught by the act. But it is very clear that it alludes to what took place under the Old Testament dispensation. The laying on of the hands of the priests and of the people on their sacrifices which distinctly prefigured the imputation of sin to Christ, the great anti-type in every sin-offering. The Jews were accustomed to call the laying on of hands. The doctrine taught by this act, as one of the introductory elements of Christianity, was the imputation of sin to Christ as the sinner's substitute. The Apostle was addressing Hebrews, who very well understood them as believers in Christ, that they should not go back to learn by this type of the old dispensation the first principles of this important doctrine in the Christian system, since Jesus, the Messiah, had come as the true sin-offering, and bore our sins in his own body on the cross.
As to the feet-washing ceremony, it seems that it was observed to some extent, not, however, as a church ordinance, but only as a social ordinance in their individual capacity. As strict constructionists, they endeavored to follow out literally all the commands of the Master. The rite was founded on the injunction of Christ to his disciples, (John 13:140; "ye ought also to wash one another's feet." But the practice soon fell into disuse, and feet-washing, as a religious ceremony, for many long years has been numbered among the things of the past.
In ancient times, the people of Palestine generally traveled bare-footed, or wore sandals -- sole tied to the feet with strings -- which did not protect them from dust and mud, so that when any person came from a journey it was customary to wash his feet as an act of kindness and hospitality. This service was usually performed by menials -- servants of the lowest order. Our blessed Saviour, in washing his disciples['] feet, intended, doubtless, to teach us by his holy example, our duty to perform the humblest services for one another as brethren in Christ Jesus. The command is, at the present day, generally understood to mean that Christians should possess that humility which would lead them to perform the lowest act of kindness to the very least of the saints, if it were necessary for his comfort and happiness, and not simply and literally washing each other's feet, when there is no need of performing such an act, which seems to partake somewhat of the nature of "a voluntary humility." Christians should imbibe the spirit of Christ, and imitate his example in humility, in deeds of love and kindness, in order to promote the welfare of his followers.
This church, besides the office of the deaconship, retained for many years that also of lay-elders. They were not ruling elders in the Presbyterian sense of that term; for they did not exercise any more authority in its government than any other member. It appears that the church has always been governed upon purely democratic principles. The elders aided the pastor in the discipline of the church, and attended to such other matters as are usually assigned to the deacons. They were held to be just about the same in office; the difference seems to have been more in names than in anything else.
The principal authority for ruling elders in the church is claimed to be found in Rom. 12:8; I Cor. 12:28, and I Tim. 5:17.
The phrase (Rom. 12:8,) "He that ruleth (let him do it) with diligence," does not point out any particular office, but evidently refers to certain endowments which God bestows upon individual Christians, and which qualify them to be guides and leaders among the brethren. In the passage which contains the phrase, the Apostle was speaking of the various gifts which God by his grace imparted to different persons for the edification of the church, that each one should be satisfied in his place and with his work, and endeavor to improve his talents, whatever they might be, for the advancement of Christ's Kingdom in the world. There is no proof that the Apostle in the phrase, "he that ruleth," (ho proistamenos -- literally, he that presides,) meant the office of lay or ruling elders.
The word "governments" (I Cor. xii:28 -- Gr. Kubernescis) is thought to designate the office of ruling elders, but it would seem that nothing more can be made of this word than a reference to a class of Christian men, found in almost any church, who are qualified by wisdom and grace to guide, as pilots, the people of God, not as officers invested with authority to rule the church of Christ, but simply as members possessed of piety and prudence.
The passage, (found in I Tim. v:17) "Let the elders that rule (preside) well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine," is appealed to with much confidence as affording scriptural authority for the office of ruling elders, as distinct from that of preaching elders. But an observation or two will be deemed sufficient to show that it does not really give any warrant for such an office in the church. The most that can be claimed from the passage under consideration seems to be only an inference which has no foundation in fact; for an inference, to be legitimate, must have for it base an established fact. The divine institution of such persons as lay or ruling elders in the church of Christ cannot be found in the Holy Scriptures. According to the New Testament there are only two classes of officers in the Christian church -- elders, pastors or bishops, and deacons. The word (Gr. prostates translated rule, literally means preside, and very clearly points out the official character of the pastor, who presides not as a ruler but as a shepherd to watch over and guide the flock committed to his charge. The phrase double honor refers not so much to that affection and esteem which are due to ministers of the gospel as it does to their proper maintenance. They who labor in word and doctrine are justly entitled to a liberal and comfortable support, especially those who are entirely consecrated to the pastoral work. All the elders that rule well should be counted worthy of "double honor"; that is, a competent support. But who ever heard that lay or ruling elders claimed or received a maintenance from a church as its officers. That ministerial support was chiefly referred to by the phrase "double honor," the 18th verse, which follows the one under consideration, puts beyond question: "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn." And, "the laborer is worthy of his reward."
It is an observable fact that about this time there were many instances of individuals in various parts of the country who had never heard Baptist preaching, but who, having been awakened by divine grace, or recently converted, came to the conclusion from reading the Scriptures, and from what they had heard of the Baptists, that they held the true doctrine, and practiced the ordinances in their original simplicity, and being so anxious to know more about them, they would travel from one to two hundred miles to attend their meetings, to learn the way of the Lord more perfectly. Take the following as an example: About the year 1770 there lived in Albemarle county, Va., a young man who, after much painful anxiety, was brought to a knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus; and having examined the New Testament he saw the duty of believers’ baptism, and having heard of the Baptists who practiced it, he felt desirous of becoming intimately acquainted with that denomination; and hearing of an Association to be held at Grassy Creek Meeting-house, determined to attend, although it was nearly two hundred from his residence. Having attended that meeting, and ascertained more accurately the doctrines and practices of the Baptists, and believing them to be in accordance with the word of God, regardless of the frowns and persecutions of a wicked world, he was baptized upon a profession of his faith in Christ, and went on his way rejoicing. He became an eminent minister of the gospel, known as Elder Benjamin Burgher.
It may not have be out of place to observe what revival measures were then employed, and how such meetings were conducted. At the close of his sermon, the minister would come down from the pulpit and while singing a suitable hymn would go around among the brethren shaking hands. The hymn being sung, he would then extend an invitation to such persons as felt themselves to be poor guilty sinners, and were anxiously enquiring the way of salvation, to come forward and kneel near the stand, or, of they preferred to do so, they could kneel at their seats, proferring to unite with them in prayer for their conversion. After prayer, singing and exhortation, prolonged according to circumstances, the congregation would be dismissed to meet again at night at the meeting house or in the capacity of a prayer-meeting. They held afternoon or night meetings during the week, or several nights during the week. In these night meetings there would occasionally be preaching, but generally they were only prayer, praise and exhortation, and direct personal conversation with those who might be concerned about their soul’s salvation. In seasons of religious awakening, large crowds would attend these meetings, which were blessed in the conversion of many souls. It was not uncommon for the brethren, and especially the sisters, to give expression to their feelings in outbursts of joy and praise; but it appears that they were free from those wild and fantastic exercises which prevailed in many other places. It seems that protracted meetings as now held, and what is termed the anxious seat system did not come into use at Grassy Creek till about 1824 or '30. I would remark in passing, that after careful examination of the church records running back more than a hundred and ten years, and from an intimate relation with it as pastor for nearly thirty, I am convinced that as large a proportion of the converts, that have united with the church under the present revival measures, which have been practiced for more than fifty years, are as consistent church-members and as faithful in maintaining an exemplary Christian character, as those did before the anxious seat system was employed. The anxious seat, like everything else that is good, is liable to abuse, but that is not a sufficient reason why its prudent use should be abandoned.
While the manner of conducting revival meetings then differed, in some respects, from that of the present day, yet then , as now, in effect it was the same. They were called big or great meetings, which are but other names for protracted meetings. An entry is found on the church records, showing that "a great meeting commenced on the 23d of July, 1775," -- the year before the Revolution -- which resulted in adding 18 members to the church by baptism. __________
1. A branch is a company of the members that hold meetings elsewhere, but are not regularly organized into a church.
[Robert I. Divin, The History of Grassy Creek Baptist Church, 1880; rpt. 1977, pages 29-70. jrd]
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