Sandy Creek Revisited
One of the most popular and widely repeated explanations for the doctrinal make up of the Southern Baptist Convention is that the denomination was formed by the convergence of two distinct, if not opposite theological traditions. These traditions are often referred to as the “Charleston” and “Sandy Creek” streams, named after the two churches and associations that best represent those traditions.
Charleston refers to the First Baptist Church of Charleston (established in 1682 and relocated to Charleston in 1696) and the Charleston Baptist Association of churches (established in 1751). The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith was the doctrinal foundation of the church and was formerly adopted by the association, as well. As a result it became known throughout the south as the “Charleston Confession.” This association, like its sister association in Philadelphia that was formed in 1707, was thoroughly committed to the Particular (or Calvinistic) Baptist viewpoint on the sovereignty of God in salvation. In America, those of this persuasion became known as Regular Baptists.
Sandy Creek is the name of the church that was founded in North Carolina in 1755 by Shubal Stearns and his brother-in-law, Daniel Marshall. Three years later an association of churches by that same name was formed. These Baptists largely came out of the Great Awakening in the middle of the 18th century and were known as Separate Baptists. The churches that joined together in forming the Sandy Creek Association had a healthy skepticism regarding confessions and creeds. This grew out of experience with the dead orthodoxy that many of them had left behind in their former Congregationalism. This distinguished them from the Regular Baptists, who were enthusiastically confessional in their churches. However, this distinction must not be stretched beyond what the historical record will bear.
Unfortunately, such stretching to the point of distortion is exactly what some have done in the way that the differences between the “Sandy Creekers” and “Charlestonians” are portrayed. The argument goes like this: The Charleston Stream was Calvinistic and confessional while the Sandy Creek Stream was evangelistic and non-creedal. The implication, and sometimes the actual declaration, is that the Sandy Creek tradition was opposed to the doctrines of grace as expressed in historic, evangelical Calvinism. That misrepresentation has been so regularly repeated by so many spokesmen who occupy positions of respect within the Southern Baptist Convention that it is widely regarded as an indisputable fact. In reality, it is closer to an urban legend.
Dr. Paige Patterson recently acknowledged the tendency to overstate the case when distinguishing between the Sandy Creek and Charleston traditions. In his dialogue on election with Dr. Al Mohler at the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention’s Pastors’ Conference, he said, “The Sandy Creek tradition was … less Calvinistic, though, to be perfectly fair about the whole matter, it was certainly a long way from being Arminian, because the Sandy Creek statement of faith has a very Calvinistic strain to it also.”
This observation is patently true and easily demonstrable from the historical record. This issue of the Founders Journal addresses that distortion by focusing on the Separate Baptist tradition. Tom Nettles has done all Baptists a wonderful service in his 3 volume work called The Baptists (Christian Focus, the 3rd volume is forthcoming). His article that follows is excerpted from his chapter on Shubal Stearns in volume 2. Gene Bridges’ article provides some groundbreaking work on the cultural background out of which the Separate Baptists emerged. His insights bring a much-needed perspective on the differences between the Sandy Creek and Charleston traditions.
While the question of Southern Baptist origins is not hugely important in the big scheme of life and ministry, it can be part of a vitally important conversation about the nature of the gospel as it relates to our doctrinal, genetic code. If the Sandy Creekers and Charlestonians were in basic agreement on what the gospel is and how it works, then the united testimony of those two streams can provide a helpful reference point for evaluating the prevalent understanding of these crucial matters in our own day. If what our forebears believed about the gospel was true then, it is still true today. God has not changed. Fallen humanity has not changed. The gospel has not changed.