Sandy Creek: Tributary of Baptist life celebrates 250 years
Inside the white country church, pastor Travis Brock and guests from as far away as Georgia, Texas and Illinois exchanged greetings and waited in anticipation of the event, a full year in the making. The congregation and choir sang old standards such as “Amazing Grace” and “I Love to Tell the Story” with both smiles and tears.
“It is humbling to think what God has done in this place,” Brock said before the celebration. “One pastor I spoke with said that God had done more through this church than through any other since Pentecost.”
When the Sandy Creek church was founded, the United States did not exist. The year was 1755, and two recent converts to the Baptist faith, both products of the revival preaching of the First Great Awakening, made their way into a very rural and isolated Randolph County and there with 16 others founded the first Separate Baptist Church in the South.
Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall both believed that they would be well received among the settlers in North Carolina who favored emotional, expositional preaching to the confounding, high-church style displayed in churches in the North and in Charleston, S.C. Within a few years, the church had drawn more than 600 members and within 17 years had planted 42 other churches.
Just outside the church today stands an obelisk, erected during the church’s bicentennial year as a memorial to Stearns, the first pastor of the church. The monument sheds light on the importance and expansive ministry of the Sandy Creek church.
“It is a mother church, nay a grandmother, and great grandmother,” the monument reads. “All the Separate Baptists sprang hence, not only eastward towards the sea, but westward towards the great river Mississippi, but northward to Virginia and southward to South Carolina and Georgia. The Word went forth from this sion [zion], and great was the company of them who published it, in so much that her converts were as drops of morning dew.”
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson preached at the church during its anniversary celebration. “Of all the honors and kindnesses extended to me over the years, none is so great as being asked by your pastor to come here on this anniversary of Sandy Creek Baptist Church,” Patterson said.
He said Baptists usually describe the “Southern Baptist river as flowing from two tributaries, one having its beginning in Charleston, S.C., the more Reformed tradition of Baptist life, and the other at Sandy Creek.”
“I am a Sandy Creeker. If I could manage to have honorary church membership in any church in the Southern Baptist Convention, it would be Sandy Creek,” Patterson said, adding that he fully appreciated what the church has carried on throughout the years. “We Sandy Creekers still believe we are in the era of evangelism, missions and great revival.”
Likening the North Carolina church to the church at Philadelphia in Revelation 3, Patterson said God had set an open door before Stearns and Marshall. Sandy Creek was a pioneer, missions-minded church. Today, he said, the church remains the same, evidenced by the burden Pastor Brock shares with his congregation for the lost souls in his community.
Patterson said the church had survived all of these years “by the sweet providences of God.”
But that doesn’t mean that the church hasn’t struggled.
Church records indicate that some members of the Sandy Creek church protested the modern missions movement and the new institutions being formed by the newly organized Baptist State Convention of North Carolina in 1830. Members who opposed the convention continued to meet at the site, naming themselves Sandy Creek Primitive Baptist Church.
Members in support of the missions program in the state planted a new Sandy Creek Baptist Church at a nearby school in Shady Grove. They retained their original name and remained there until 1905 when a portion of that church returned to worship again at the site established by Stearns.
The church constructed a new meetinghouse in 1942 -- the building Sandy Creek Baptist Church meets in today -- just below the Sandy Creek Primitive Baptist Church.
Added to the internal struggles of the church have been the Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression and the financial struggles following these events. But church members have always been faithful, Brock said, citing the generosity of one such member, Ida Williams.
Born in 1882, Williams, who never married, saved money from the sale of eggs to buy Sunday School literature for the church in the late 1940s. She died in 1967, leaving a portion of her estate to the church for the construction of a parsonage.
Patterson said such sacrificial giving and continuing ministry illustrate the same principles that were at work in the life of the church at Philadelphia, which endured physical hardship and personal adversaries. He said that Christ would make those who overcome a “pillar in the temple of God.”
“Here on earth you are going to labor for a while and you are going to have to run. You will have times of trouble, but there is going to be a day when you will have a permanent residence in heaven,” Patterson said.
“God has set before you an open door. There is no place where the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Sandy Creek Baptist Church have not gone to preach the Gospel of Christ,” he said, encouraging the church to continue its evangelistic mission in the spirit of Stearns, its founder, who believed in and preached a “Jesus vital to the hearts of men.”
Brock and the members of his congregation still believe the same evangelistic spirit is alive in the church today, and they are reminded of it on a weekly basis. Behind the pulpit in the little church is a stained glass window, affectionately known as “The Eye of Shubal.” A stark blue circle in the center, Brock said, reminds Baptists of the piercing gaze of the church’s first pastor.
But that is history, and as the church was celebrating its past, it was looking forward into its next years of ministry.
“The challenge for us is to not get caught up in the history, but to be concerned about the present and the future,” Brock said. “There is so much more that we could have done, but we wanted to point to God rather than to focus on man.”