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  • “And All the Baptists in Kentucky Took the Name United Baptists”: The Union of the Separate and Regular Baptists of Kentucky
  • Keith Harper (bio)

The summer of 1801 found Kentuckians in a season of unprecedented religious fervor. Led by men like James (“Preaching Jim”) McGready, the fire of the Great Revival spread quickly throughout the commonwealth. Scores of anxious Kentuckians left their fields, shops, and homes to mind their spiritual estates. Some estimate that the famous Cane Ridge Revival alone drew in an excess of twenty thousand souls as the revivals claimed converts by the hundreds. It was, as Paul Conkin describes it, “America’s Pentecost.”1

Amidst the furor of the revival, the Separate and Regular Baptists of Kentucky agreed to lay aside their differences and became “United Baptists.” At first glance, this union appears to be a natural fit. After all, both groups shared many of the same theological perspectives as well as a common polity, or way of conducting church business. [End Page 3] Both believed the Bible to be completely true. Both baptized new believers by immersion. Both believed in local-church autonomy. Both hired their own ministers and managed their own resources. Upon finalizing their union, Kentucky Baptist historian J. H. Spencer noted that “the distinguishing appellatives, ‘Regular’ and ‘Separate’ were dropped, and all the Baptists in Kentucky took the name United Baptists.”2

Theological similarities notwithstanding, achieving unity among early-national Baptists was neither as natural nor easy as one might assume. The issues bearing on union between Regular and Separate Baptists are complex and open to further inquiry along numerous lines.3 For Kentucky Baptists, the actual process by which they achieved their union is a compelling story in its own right. In fact, the Union of 1801 actually constituted the fourth attempt to bring these two groups together since 1785. Offering a plausible explanation for how they finally achieved union is not easy, but it is clear that between 1785 and 1801 most Kentucky Baptists wanted some sort of union. Ultimately, they achieved it, thanks to a combination of trusted leadership, precedent, and their many similarities. Furthermore, the union between Kentucky Baptists meant more than surrendering their “Separate” and “Regular” identities. As both parties modified their respective theologies, they created a doctrinal consensus that facilitated mutual recognition and allowed for cooperation between the two groups. Beyond mere religious fraternity, the Union of 1801 indicates that the Kentucky Baptists of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries were determined to frame any such fellowship around carefully articulated theological parameters. [End Page 4]

Baptists in Colonial America

Baptists became a regular feature of the American religious landscape in the early-seventeenth century. Not surprisingly, early American Baptists resembled their British brethren. There existed three main groups. The General Baptists held to an Arminian theology characterized by the belief that Christ died for all, without exception. The Particular Baptists held to a Calvinistic theology and preached that Christ died only for the elect, whom God chose before creation. The Seventh-Day Baptists maintained that Christians should worship on Saturday, not Sunday.

Most Baptists maintained local-church independence but remained connected through “associationalism.” Churches formed associations for mutual fellowship, edification, and preservation of doctrinal integrity. They provided a forum whereby attendees might discuss current events and debate theological issues. Associations also conducted a limited amount of business, and their decisions, though not binding, carried considerable weight.4 Over time, the Philadelphia Association became especially prominent. Organized in 1707, this association introduced a measure of stability and organization among American Calvinistic Baptists by supplying preachers to churches which had no ministers and sending itinerants into areas with no churches. Before long, the association had extended its influence far beyond the Philadelphia area with the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742), which mirrored the Second London Confession (1689), except in affirming the “laying on of hands” and hymn singing.5

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the colonies began to experience a wave of revivals. Established ministers disdained and discouraged “revival exercises” in which converts wept, writhed, and [End Page 5] swerved from despair to spiritual ecstasy. Not surprisingly, many Christians, especially the new converts (New Lights), favored...


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