Early colonial North Carolina was a religious wasteland, partly because it was a wasteland in general with few people. The early South did not show hardly any signs of being the “Bible Belt.”[1] The region had an abundance of natural resources, but not deep ocean harbors or inland rivers. The Lost Colony had failed in the 1580’s and although the Carolina proprietary colony (under eight English lords) began in 1663 it had no permanent settlements by 1700.

The only major settlements in the South had been Jamestown in 1607 and Charleston in 1670. When the Carolina colony divided into north and south sections by 1712, the centers of political and social power were clearly in Virginia and South Carolina. Religious activity also gravitated toward these colonies. The only organized Christian presence in North Carolina came from a few Quakers who crossed the Virginia border in the 1670’s. In fact, one early surveyor indicated North Carolinians were the most nonreligious of the Southern colonists: “they are not troubled with any Religious Fumes, and have the least Superstition of any People living. They do not know Sunday from any other day….”[2]

This began to change after North Carolina became a royal colony (under the English king) in 1729. The population soon grew rapidly. In 1752 there were about 100,000 colonists, in 1765 that figure had doubled, and by 1776 it had tripled. With over 300,000 people during the Revolutionary War, North Carolina was the fourth most populous of the Thirteen Colonies. The first national U.S. census in 1790 revealed North Carolina to be the third most populous state, with nearly 400,000 people.[3]

The Church of England (or Anglican Church) was the established religion of the colony, but it was the minority denomination. It only had a few priests and churches in a colony that stretched hundreds of miles.  This did not stop it from asserting itself, much to the agitation and chagrin of the other Protestants, which were viewed as “dissenter” sects. Colonial laws requiring taxes to support Anglican clergy and mandating oaths of loyalty to the English Crown and Church aroused widespread dissent. Quakers, Presbyterians, and Baptists never forgot, and they later gained revenge by dissolving official state support for any church after the Revolution. The public image of the Anglican Church was further damaged in America during the mid-1700s.

Clergy increasingly contended with the real Southern power base, plantation owners. The conflict between priests and planters in Virginia became especially vicious. A barrage of nasty accusations was exchanged, and when it was over the reputation of the Anglican clergy was permanently scarred. Many believed the church was full of drunkenness, adultery, and corruption. Anti-establishment sentiments were strong in the new colonies, and for good reason. This attitude of distrust toward hierarchical religion became entrenched in American culture for generations to come.

Furthermore, the First Great Awakening brought waves of reform to all the colonies that challenged official religion.[4] Unlike the established church, it emphasized personal faith, evangelistic zeal, and social equality. This evangelical faith was much more accessible and appealing to the common masses. Anglican scandal, anti-establishment sentiment, and spiritual revival all greatly benefited evangelical Protestants during the 18th century. This continued in the early 19th century as Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists went on to dominate American religion.

Swiss Lutherans lived in colonial New Bern and Reformed Germans were around Pamlico Sound, but they were eradicated by 1711 from the Tuscarora Wars. Presbyterians came to the counties just north of Wilmington in the 1730’s, many of them Highland Scots, and into the north central Piedmont in the 1740’s, most of them were Scotch-Irish. German Moravians also arrived in the Piedmont in the 1750’s while Methodists came in the mid-1770’s. Pamlico Sound had a Catholic settlement in 1737 and Wilmington had a Jewish community as early as 1738.[5] Baptists emerged early in the new American religious landscape, especially in North Carolina.

The first Baptist church in America was formed in Providence, Rhode Island in 1639 under Englishman Roger Williams. The first Baptist church in the South was formed in Charleston in 1696 under William Screven.[6] The first regional Baptist organization was the Philadelphia Association formed in 1707, and the first regional Baptist body in the South was the Charleston Association of 1751. The first national and state bodies came in the early 19th century with the Triennial Convention (1814) and the South Carolina Baptist Convention (1821).[7]

There were Baptist individuals in North Carolina as early as 1695 but they left no records that are known.[8] There was organized Baptist activity, probably in the form of worship and prayer services, as early as 1714 in the northeastern corner of the colony. The first organized Baptist church in North Carolina was founded in 1727.[9] Chowan Church was located between the Perquimans River and Chowan River, or the east side of Chowan River in present-day Chowan County.[10]

The church was led by Paul Palmer, a Maryland native who was baptized in Delaware, ordained in Connecticut, and married in North Carolina.[11] At the time there were two types of Baptists in England and America. Palmer was a Separate or General Baptist, as the tradition was known in England. General Baptists held to an Arminian theology and many became Free Will Baptists later. Others were Regular or Particular Baptists because they held to a more Calvinist theology. Both Baptist traditions developed in colonial North Carolina.

The Chowan Church did not survive, but in 1729 Palmer helped organize the second Baptist church in the state near Shiloh.[12] Shiloh Baptist Church exists today in Camden County, southeast of Elizabeth City, and is the oldest Baptist church in continuous use. Shiloh is also the second oldest church in North Carolina. St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Bath has the oldest church building in use, since 1734, but Shiloh’s congregation formed first. Even though St. Thomas parish formed around 1701, there is scant evidence of congregational life there until the 1730’s. In its early years the Shiloh church met in the home of William Burgess near Raymond Creek and its present building dates from the 1850’s. Shiloh was the mother church of nine other congregations in its history, and in the early 2000’s Shiloh had a membership of about five hundred.[13]

The other oldest Baptist churches in the state also formed early in the 18th century. There was Meherrin Church formed in 1730 near present-day Murfreesboro. Sandy Run Church, in Bertie County, was formed in 1740. In 1742 Kehukee Church was formed in Halifax County near present-day Scotland Neck. Kehukee Church went on to help organize the second oldest Baptist association in North Carolina during the 1760’s. This association brought the Particular, or Charleston, tradition to North Carolina Baptists. One of its original member churches was the Falls of the Tar Baptist Church, formed in 1757. The Falls Church was probably the first church in present-day Nash County, and the first church in what today is Rocky Mount. The Kehukee Baptist Association was also the first religious organization in present-day Nash County. Falls Church is still standing today, and you probably recognize it as the church on NC Highway 64 across from Stonewall Manor. The first Baptist association in North Carolina (1758), however, spread the General or Sandy Creek tradition. More on the rise of Baptist associations and conventions in the next blog post.

[1] Southern Culture: An Introduction (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2007) 226 – 227.

[2] Ibid., 230.

[3] William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006) 337.

[4] Southern Culture, 231 – 240.

[5] Ibid., 959 – 960.

[6] Bill. J. Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003) 75 – 75, 84.

[7] David S. Dockery, ed., Southern Baptist Identity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009) 223.

[8] Brief Baptist Biographies: 1707 – 1982, Volume 2, 354.

[9] God’s Hand on North Carolina Baptists: 2005 Annual Session, 175th Celebration Edition (Cary, NC: Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, 2005) 131.

[10] Brief Baptist Biographies, 354. Powell, 959.

[11] Brief Baptist Biographies, 354. God’s Hand on North Carolina Baptists, 144.

[12] Leonard, 117.

[13] God’s Hand on North Carolina Baptists, 144.

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