Martha Stearns Marshall, an eighteenth-century Separate Baptist, was a preacher. Her husband, Daniel, converted during the First Great Awakening, and the couple then spent eighteen months living among a tribe of Mohawk Indians, hoping to win them to Christianity.
When the French and Indian War of 1754 broke out, Daniel and Martha left New England and migrated to the South. They first settled in Virginia, where they observed Baptist work being done under the auspices of the Philadelphia Baptist Association. Both Daniel and Martha examined Baptist beliefs and concluded that scripture did indeed teach the practice of believer’s baptism.
The Marshalls were baptized and attended the “Regular” Baptist church, and Daniel was licensed to preach. Both Marshalls often prayed and preached during worship services, and Martha’s zeal apparently equaled that of her husband. Her behavior in worship scandalized the Virginia “Regular” Baptists, who opposed women speaking in public.
But among Martha’s family and friends, her behavior was a perfectly acceptable way for her to exercise her spiritual gifts.
Among those of Martha’s family living in Virginia was her brother, Shubal Stearns, a Separate Baptist pastor. Because Stearns experienced little success in establishing a Baptist church in Virginia, he urged his congregation and family to move with him further south to North Carolina. The Stearns and Marshalls eventually settled at Sandy Creek, North Carolina, near what is now Siler City in Randolph County.
Stearns, a powerful and eloquent speaker, found in North Carolina “a people almost destitute of religious privileges, but ready to listen to the earnest proclamation of the truth.” In 1755, Stearns founded a Baptist church at Sandy Creek, and within seventeen years, the church grew from 16 to 606 members.
The church sent out 125 preachers and established 42 other Separate Baptist churches and missions. These Separate Baptists differed from the “Regular” Baptists in many ways, but perhaps the most notable difference was that the Separate Baptists allowed women to have a more prominent role in worship and in church leadership.
Women served as deaconesses and as eldresses in some Separate Baptist churches, and women prayed and preached in their worship services. Martha became the best known of these women preachers. Historians have recorded that she often stood alongside her brother Shubal and spoke at many Baptist meetings. She also preached and assisted in her husband’s churches. In 1810, Virginia Baptist historian Robert Semple wrote of Martha’s contributions to Baptist work:
“Mr. Marshall had a rare felicity of finding in this lady, a Priscilla, a helper in the gospel. In fact, it should not be concealed that his extraordinary success in the ministry, is ascribable in no small degree, to Mrs. Marshall’s unwearied, and zealous co-operation. Without the shadow of a usurped authority over the other sex, Mrs. Marshall, being a lady of good sense, singular piety, and surprising elocution, has, in countless instances melted a whole concourse into tears by her prayers and exhortations!”
Baptist historian George Paschal, in his History of North Carolina Baptists, wrote of Daniel and Martha: “As a result of the labors of this earnest and fervent evangelist, in which he doubtless had the assistance of his saintly and gifted wife, Mrs. Martha Stearns Marshall, great numbers turned to the Lord.”
A few years after moving to Sandy Creek, the Marshalls founded a Separate Baptist church about thirty miles away at Abbott’s Creek. Martha served alongside her husband and “was noted for her zeal and eloquence,” and her preaching “added greatly to the interest of meetings conducted by her husband.”
The first difficulty the new church encountered was that no minister would cooperate with Stearns in ordaining Daniel. A pastor in South Carolina refused to participate in an ordination service because Daniel and the Separate Baptists “allowed women to pray in public and illiterate men to preach, and encouraged noise and confusion in their meetings.”
The ordination service finally took place when Elder Ledbetter, Daniel’s brother-in-law, agreed to participate in the ordination.
Along with pastoring his church, Daniel traveled throughout Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, and founded numerous churches. In 1771, the Marshalls moved to Columbia County, Georgia. Because the Anglican Church had been the state church in Georgia since 1758, organizing Baptist work there proved to be a difficult task. At one point, authorities arrested Daniel for violating the Georgia law, but because he defended his actions with such eloquence and passion, he deeply impressed the magistrate and the constable, and they both were converted. The magistrate, Colonel Barnard, later was ordained and traveled throughout Georgia, preaching and founding churches.
The Marshalls eventually founded the first missionary Baptist church in Georgia. It was located at Kiokee. A. H. Newman wrote of their efforts in founding this work: “Marshall was now sixty-four years old and had behind him a truly apostolic record. Almost equally useful was his wife, a sister of Shubal Stearns.”