For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Roots of Appalachian Christianity

Posted on: July 14, 2012

The Roots of Appalachian Christianity: The Life and Legacy of Elder Shuban Stearns, by Elder John Sparks, University of Kentucky Press, 2001, 327 pp.

This book was a gift to me for participating in a friend’s wedding. An odd gift, I know, but perfect. I was just moving to the area at the time, and they know a book is always appreciated. It just took me nearly seven years to get around to reading it. Even though reading through the genealogy of various Baptist church sects was a bit of a slog, I’m glad I did.

This book tells the story of Elder Shubal Stearns, a Baptist convert-turned-preacher from Massachusetts in the colonial era, who migrated to North Carolina to found a community of churches there that are important ancestors to modern Appalachian churches. He started his own Sandy Creek Association of Baptist churches that practiced footwashing, communion, tightly-controlled groups of churches, “Holy Tone” cant in preaching. Stearns himself was a powerful figure, with his association founding dozens of churches across North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina in the pre-revolutionary era. Stearns converted hundreds and ordained dozens of preachers in his mold.

Sparks traces out the many factors influencing Stearns development and conversion from New Light Congregationalist to Baptist, then examines the unique strain of Baptist belief in the Sandy Creek Association. He offers a biography of Stearns pieced together from multiple, scattered sources, trying to construct a single narrative of his person and preaching. However, Sparks’ tale does not begin with Stearns’ life, nor does it end with his death. With the passion and fervor of a genealogist uncovering his family tree, Sparks gives a detailed account of each preacher’s legacy, and each church’s splits and reunions with various doctrine. This is the story not of a man, but of his influence, traced meticulously through personal accounts, church histories and theological debates.

While Sparks does make some leaps and assumptions about attitudes and causalities in his account, his case is strong and it is fascinating. He has his own agenda within the Baptist realm, speaking out against a competing origin story about “Old Landmark Baptists” that claims to trace its roots all the way to Wales. While I was not interested in this argument about Baptist history, I learned a lot about the history of various church splits in Baptist, Calvinist and Pentecostal circles. The final chapter examines seven denominations active in the Appalachian region, and documents their connections (and disconnections) from Shubal Stearns’ Sandy Creek Association. The book contains many minute theological distinctions that sometimes make me roll my eyes, but it was also eye-opening for me to get an insider’s perspective and astute analysis of the differences between these various sects with connections to Appalachia.

This was no light read, and there is no overcoming a certain tedium at the genealogy of churches preachers, but Sparks’ style was warm and engaging. I enjoyed the book, and I learned quite a bit.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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