One of the truly unexpected results of the “Great Awakening” was the boost it gave to the emerging Baptist movement in the Colonies. And, it did so in a completely unexpected place and in a completely unpredictable way. Most of the beneficiaries of the Great Awakening were already “churched”, that is, already worshipping in Church of England, Congregationalist, Reformed or Presbyterian congregations. One group, though, benefitted immensely among the UN-churched: the Baptists.
The Baptist movement had been started in England over a Century earlier. John Smyth, a student of the Bible and sometime preacher, after due consideration, decided that he could not accept any of the then-current churches on some grounds or other. He was a Dissenter, but wanted nothing to do with existing Dissenting bodies. He was a Calvinist, but had no use for either Congregational or Presbyterian overhead. Smyth wanted a Church that required adult baptism, insisted on congregational independence, and embraced an emotional salvatory experience. Having determined that no existing body met his expectations, he baptized himself. Then, he began baptizing other people. He called his Church “Baptist” to differentiate it from the Anabaptists of Europe. Anabaptists practiced serial baptism. Smyth insisted on adult baptism, but argued that there must only be one. The movement grew in fits and starts, but altogether very slowly. It was opposed by almost everybody, but a few hardy souls kept it alive, and a few of those eventually migrated to the American Colonies.
Their numbers were small here, too, but got a boost when Roger Williams, a Puritan, gave up on that group and moved to Rhode Island to start his own Colony. He became a Baptist and insisted that that would be the official Church in that colony. He eventually left them, too, but before he did, they had gotten a strong start. The Great Awakening apparently “woke up” people from all sorts of backgrounds, and several of these, deciding that their old church was wrong, sought solace in the tiny, independent Baptist Church, and soon there were Baptists in every Colony.
Among the most active Baptist preachers were the Craig family, in Virginia. Virginia, of course, had an established Church: the Church of England. Neither clergy nor lay members were terribly impressed with the emotion-laden churchmanship and independent governance ideas of the Craigs, and most of them did jail time on more than one occasion, as a result.
Then came the American Revolution. Suddenly, not only was the Church of England suspect, at best, but the ideas of freedom from government interference and encouragement to self-rule that served as the practical foundation of the Baptists became worthy of being embraced, especially in Virginia! The Baptist movement grew considerably, as a result, and began to move west.