The Church in Early America

Upon arriving in Rhode Island, the only American colony founded upon the principle of religious liberty, the Mumfords began to fellowship with Baptists in Newport. They were not quiet, however, about their belief in the Sabbath. In 1665, within the first year of the Mumfords' arrival, Tacy Hubbard started keeping the Sabbath with them, becoming the first convert in America. Shortly afterward, her husband Samuel joined her. In 1671 the first Sabbath-keeping church in America officially began with seven members. William Hiscox was the first pastor of the church, serving from 1671 until his death in 1704.

In 1708, a second church was officially organized in Westerly, Rhode Island (later renamed Hopkinton). Throughout the eighteenth century, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and New Jersey seem to have been the main areas of Sabbath-keeping churches. During this time, German Sabbath keepers immigrated to Pennsylvania. Peter Miller was the best known minister of the German Sabbath-keepers in Pennsylvania and was a friend of Benjamin Franklin.

The time of the American Revolution was difficult for many of God's people. The history of that era also demonstrates how spiritually dead many of the ministers and members were. Several congregations were greatly divided on the issue of warfare and political involvement. Jacob Davis, pastor of the Shrewsbury, New Jersey, Church of God, joined the Continental Army as a chaplain. Many of the members followed his example and enlisted also. One member, Simeon Maxson, boldly objected and labeled any church members who supported carnal warfare as "children of the devil" (Richard

Nickels, Six Papers on the History of the Church of God, p. 60). He was put out of the congregation because of his stand.

Sabbath-keepers in the Shrewsbury area were impoverished and divided by the War. Many relocated to Pennsylvania after the Revolution and, prior to 1800, most of those moved to Salem, Virginia (later West Virginia). The area around Salem became one of the major centers of God's people from about 1800 on into the twentieth century. The history of God's people in this area is not, however, the story of unity and of a great work being done. It is the story of division, apostasy and spiritual lethargy on the part of the majority—much of it furthered by the influence of the prominent Davis family, which produced many of the leading ministers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The vast majority of the brethren appear to have been so spiritually dead that they blindly followed apostate ministers into Protestantism.

William Davis, born in Wales in 1663, went from the Church of England to the Quakers, then became a Baptist. In 1706, he accepted the Sabbath and applied for membership in the Newport church, but was rejected because he held wrong doctrines. Finally, in 1710, he was accepted for membership and, in 1713, was authorized to preach and to baptize. Yet he believed in the Trinity, the immortality of the soul and in "going to heaven"—totally contrary to the doctrines taught by the Church at that time! For the rest of his life, Davis was variously in and out of fellowship with the Church. "Davis played a powerful role in shaping the future of Sabbatarian Baptists." (Nickels, p. 55).

In the earliest days, no special thought was given to an official church name. The congregations in their correspondence with one another referred to themselves as "the Church of Christ which is at Newport" or "the Church of God living in Piscataway." Most members simply called it "the Church." Outsiders referred to them as Sabbatarians or Sabbatarian Baptists. When the church in Newport received an official state charter in 1819 (it had been established in 1671, but legal requirements were changing), it was registered under the name "Seventh-Day Baptist Church of Christ."

In 1803 a general conference was organized by eight Sabbath-keeping congregations in the Northeast in order to coordinate their evangelistic efforts and cooperate in the publication of literature. In 1805 they adopted the name "The Sabbatarian General Conference." By 1818 the name was changed to Seventh-Day Baptist General Conference and the organization had grown to include Sabbath-keeping congregations outside the Northeast.

The Church was undergoing many changes. We can note a progression from non-Trinitarianism to the Trinitarian position championed by the Davis family and others. A statement written in 1811 upheld the traditional teaching of the Church noting "that Sabbatarian Baptists believed the Holy Ghost to be the operative power or spirit of God. there are few. who believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, are three absolute distinct persons, coequal. and yet one God" (Nickels, p. 91). Just 22 years later, in the 1833 Expose of Sentiments, however, the official position was: "We believe that there is a union existing between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and that they are equally divine and equally entitled to our adoration" (Nickels, p. 91). Even as late as 1866, it was acknowledged that some of the ministers still possessed a strong aversion to using the word "Trinity."

During this time many ministers and members had gotten so far from the Truth that they were now merely Protestants who met on Saturday. The November 18, 1983, edition of The Westerly Sun newspaper described the anniversary celebration of the oldest Sabbath-keeping church in the United States with this headline: "Church Will Celebrate 275 Years Marked with Change." The article in the newspaper said the "church will celebrate its 275th anniversary this weekend—an experience which has been marked by change from societal pressures, despite its Sabbath-keeping custom."

The changes that have occurred have been marked by a steady erosion of the Truth and a move into mainstream Protestantism. In fact, the Seventh-Day Baptist churches in Rhode Island have long since ceased housing the living Church of God. They are merely old buildings, museums of where the Truth was once taught and the Work of God was once carried on. The congregations that now meet there believe in the Trinity, observe Christmas and Easter, and have even gone back and built steeples—definite pagan symbols—onto some of the old buildings.

While the bulk of Sabbath-keepers were moving further and further from the Truth, there were individual members and congregations that remained faithful. We find records of the South Fork church, in West Virginia, which observed the Passover and avoided unclean meats in the early 1800s. This little group was forced to withdraw "fellowship from the General Conference and all other Seventh-Day Baptist organizations, because of doctrinal differences" (Nickels, p. 68). By the 1870s, another generation was on the scene and, eventually, most of the South Fork Church accepted the Seventh-Day Baptist organization.

Another group, calling itself the Church of God at Wilbur, was organized in 1859 by Elder J. W. Niles from Pennsylvania. It was still functioning in the 1930s and was called by Andrew Dugger, in his book A History of the True Religion, "the oldest true Church of God now functioning in the state of West Virginia" (p. 311).

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