The story of persecuted Baptists in the colonial South is a reminder that religious liberty came at a cost and should be prized and defended today. While the persecution of Baptists in Virginia before the American Revolution is well documented, other persecution across the South has often been overlooked. Including the fact that persecution helped lay the foundation of what would become the largest denomination in Georgia and its defining role in addressing laws concerning the separation of church and state.
The Kiokee Baptist Church, the oldest Baptist Church in Georgia, recently celebrated its 250th anniversary. Overlooked in its history is that many of its early members came to Georgia to escape religious persecution. Events across the south in the year 1771 contributed to the birth and growth of Kiokee and Baptist work in Georgia.
Daniel Marshall, Kiokee’s founder, was a leader of the revivalist Separatist Baptist movement in the South. Marshall and his brother-in-law, Shubal Stearns had migrated from New England. They founded the Sandy Creek Baptist Church in 1755 in North Carolina where Stearns would remain pastor until his death in 1771. Marshall moved several times, planting new churches in North Carolina, South Carolina before his final move to Georgia in 1771.
Separatist Baptist were passionate evangelists, a product of the revival fires of the First Great Awakening (ca. 1740-1776). It was their custom, as seasonal farming demands allowed, to go two by two on itinerant preaching tours across the south. Stopping at farms, towns and villages they inquired, “Do you want a sermon?” Churches were far and few between at that time. If the answer was yes, as it often was, time was given to round up family, neighbors and friends before launching into a worship service including a sermon typically lasting between one and two hours. Sometimes they would preach two or three times a day.
Marshall wandered far and wide on his preaching tours from Virginia to Georgia. It was in Virginia that he first personally encountered what was described as “harassment” from the Church of England, but it would not be the last. A minister was required to have a “license” to preach issued by the Church of England. Furthermore, the preacher was restricted to only preaching in the locations specified on the license. These restrictions did not suit the Separatist evangelistic fervor, they wanted to share the gospel with everyone they could before Jesus returned.
Around 1770, Marshall was living in South Carolina, not far from the Savannah River and the colony of Georgia. At some point, he was conducting an outdoor service in Georgia. While on his knees in prayer, he was grabbed and arrested and charged with “preaching in the Parish of Saint Paul without a license.” With some protest and the promise by a local Georgia resident, that Marshall would be in court in two weeks, the service continued. The trial resulted in Marshall being told not to preach in Georgia anymore. He responded, “Whether it be right to obey God, or man, judge ye.“
Within the next year, 1771, both the Anglican minister who had initiated Marshall’s arrest and Marshall would move. The Anglican minister moved to the prestigious Christ Church in Savannah, and Marshall to the Kiokee Creek area of Georgia. The new minister at Saint Paul’s in Augusta was not only sympathetic to Marshall’s ministry, correspondence with his bishop in London indicates he used the Kiokee Meeting House to conduct services in that area of the parish.
During that same year, 1771, persecution of Baptists was taking place in North Carolina. What was called “The Regulators Movement” would drive families to relocate to Georgia. North Carolina’s Governor Tryon was in the process of building a grand new governor’s palace in New Bern, N.C. To pay for the project he was redirecting funds (taxes) meant to provide services for the people of the state to pay for his grand palace. Furthermore, he was not enforcing other laws which were adding economic burdens to the citizens while enriching the upper class.
The Regulators sent and published petitions which fell on the seemingly deaf ears of the governor. The flash point came when a crowd of 4,000, mostly farmers, clashed with 2,000 British soldiers at the Battle of Alamance in May 1771. Some historians refer to this as the first shots of the American Revolution. Fifteen people died in the battle.
Although few Baptists and Quakers were active in the movement, the governor described the Regulators “as a faction of Quakers and Baptists who were aimed at overturning the Church of England.” Following the trial and execution of some of the leaders of the movement, the governor “granted amnesty” to the rest. Fearing further repercussions by the governor, large numbers of people including Baptists and Quakers began moving to Georgia where land was being offered to new settlers.
The Quakers were granted a tract of land and named their new settlement “Wrightsboro” after Georgia’s Governor Wright in what is now McDuffie County. One of Daniel Marshall’s adjoining neighbors was representative of those who were neither Baptist nor Quaker who migrated to Georgia in 1771. His name was William Few, and his brother had been one of those executed by Governor Tryon. Few would later represent Georgia at the U.S. Constitutional Convention, signing on behalf of the state, and then be elected one of the first U.S. senators from Georgia.
Baptist historian Morgan Edwards, the source of much of this information, visited North Carolina in 1772. He later observed that the Sandy Creek Church had begun in 1755 with 16 members, quickly grew to 606 and as a result of the aftermath of the Battle of Alamance had been reduced to 14 by 1775. He stated more than 1,500 families had moved and many more were preparing to do the same as soon as they sold their properties. Pastor Shubal Stearns died in November 1771, after seeing his congregation scattered, with a broken heart. He too may be considered a casualty of the persecution.
The persecution resulted in thousands of people uprooting their lives and relocating. Some of those came to Georgia and became members of Kiokee and other churches organized before the Revolution. Who better to pastor persecuted people than someone like Daniel Marshall who had experienced it himself? Many of them took up arms a few years later during the Revolution. For some, taking up arms included the purpose of securing freedom of religion.
Although, as would soon be discovered, securing independence from England did not guarantee freedom of religion. Less than two years after Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, in 1783, the new Georgia state legislature was considering bills concerning religion. The preamble stated, “... every encouragement ought to be given to introduce religion, and learned Clergy, to perform divine worship, in honor of God.” One was to provide state support for churches via tax revenue. The second was to charter a college which would in part be for the purpose of educating clergy.
In response to this proposed legislation, the Georgia Baptist Association was organized in 1784. The Kiokee Meeting House was the location of the meeting. The voices heard undoubtedly included ministers and laymen who had experienced persecution by a state-controlled church. The new association agreed to send messengers with a protest to the state capital to address their concerns.
The proposed legislation for state support of churches was dropped. The college, which became the University of Georgia, was chartered, but without the provision of “training clergy” as a stated purpose. A precedent of Baptists speaking out was set for the future relationship of church and state in Georgia. A relationship that had grown out of persecution, and was born of sorrow and sealed by the sacrifices of those who had lived through it and served in the War of Independence which followed. Kiokee Baptist is a tangible legacy of that struggle. They did not forget, nor should 21st century Baptists, that religious freedom came at a cost. It should be prized and diligently defended, less it be lost once more.
Charles Jones is a Southern Baptist historian, pastor, and newspaper columnist.