Baptist Women in Ministry honored Martha Stearns Marshall by naming February 2006 and every February after that as Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching to recognize women called to preach and to encourage all churches to enlist a woman to preach.
Martha Stearns Marshall (1732–1793) blazed the trail for women preachers and pastors in spite of scorn, persecution, and rejection by the colonial religious establishment of the eighteenth century. She was the most famous of many Separatist Baptist women preachers, deacons, and elders from that era.
Martha was a Holy Ghost-anointed Baptist preacher. According to her contemporaries, she was of singular piety, zeal, and surprising elocution. Her exhortations brought her audience to tears. She preached in church buildings, barns, town squares, and open fields. It was not unusual for thousands to gather to hear her proclaim the gospel message.
In 1747, Martha married Daniel Marshall, a Presbyterian “New Light” from Connecticut, and convinced him to become a Separate Baptist. Both of them had come under the spell of British Evangelist George Whitfield’s powerful preaching (Whitfield is credited with being the catalyst for the First Great Awakening). Soon after their marriage, the Marshalls sold everything they had and departed for the mission field in New York’s Susquehanna Valley to bring the gospel to the Mohawk Indians.
After the French and Indian War broke out, the Marshalls had to leave, and they joined Martha’s brother, Shubal Stearns, at Sandy Creek Baptist Church in Guilford County, North Carolina. A tremendous revival broke out that church and spread north, south, east, and across the Appalachian Mountains. Dozens of Separate Baptist churches were established. Ministers were ordained. Multitudes were converted to Christ and joined the newly formed Baptist churches.
Shubal recognized his sister’s divine gift, and along with her husband, he encouraged Martha to preach, and preach she did! She even was arrested and jailed in Virginia for refusing to stop preaching the gospel even though she was three months pregnant at the time.
Eventually, Martha and Daniel migrated even further southward, down the Piedmont into South Carolina and Georgia. They both continued to preach despite colonial authorities ordering them to stop. In defiance of the authorities and the laws that prohibited religious expression by unlicensed groups such as the Baptists, the Marshalls settled in 1771 in Georgia on the Kiokee Creek near Appling in Columbia County.
Daniel Marshall was a wanted man and was soon arrested in Augusta for preaching the gospel without government licensure. He was convicted, which made Martha furious. She let loose with scriptures that she had memorized, using them to support her case for religious liberty, challenging the arresting constable and the magistrate, and proclaiming that she and her husband would obey God rather than the laws of men.The British constable, Samuel Cartledge, was so moved by her passionate oratory that he converted and became a noted Baptist church planter and preacher. From their base of operations, Martha continued to preach and Daniel and his son, Abraham, established the first Baptist Church in Georgia, Kiokee Baptist Church, in 1772 and numerous other Baptist churches in Georgia and South Carolina.
I am especially proud of Martha, for my wife, Joyce, and my mother-in-law, Ramona Baston Smith, are direct descendants of this magnificent trailblazing woman preacher from the banks of Kiokee Creek. The Marshalls’ home site and the Old Kiokee church building are not far from our home–on Tubman Road, off Washington Road in Columbia County. The home site has interpretive markers and is well worth a visit.
Dan White is the pastor of North Columbia Church in Appling, Georiga.
This blog first appeared as a column in the Augusta Chronicle on February 7, 2014.