Moses Stanley and Free Baptists

The Native Ministry of New Hampshire, Nathan Franklin Carter

To begin at the beginning, an explanation of Sarah Stanley Grimke’s spiritual roots must start with Free Baptists.  Moses Clement Stanley, a New Hampshire native born in January 1826, was in the first year of his first pastorate when Sarah was born in Scriba, Oswego County, New York in April 1850.   In 1851 Moses became pastor of a Free Baptist church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin; in 1855 he went back east to another Free Baptist church in Farmington, Maine, a few miles from Wilton where his wife had been born Sarah Pease in 1827.  In 1859 Moses was in Two Rivers, Wisconsin as pastor of a Congregational church, and from 1860 onwards he served Episcopal churches in Michigan and Indiana.  The trajectory from Free Baptist to Episcopalian via Congregationalist raises many questions about the Stanley family as a spiritual environment for young Sarah.  Active in three denominations, Moses served in five states and demonstrated even more mobility geographically than spiritually.  Despite the hard feelings Moses Stanley expressed towards Sarah’s marriage to Archibald Grimke and her Unitarian associations in Boston, her own geographical and spiritual mobility seems quite continuous with that of her father.  She moved from Transcendentalism to New Thought to Hermetic astrology, from Massachusetts to Michigan to California, with the same freedom that Moses had demonstrated in his life. Fluidity seems one of the main themes in exploring both the Stanley and Weld/Grimke families. One of the more inspiring characters in my research has been Moses Stanley due to his ultimate embrace of his African-American son-in-law and granddaughter despite his initial opposition to Sarah’s marriage.  The struggle between conscience and tradition is painfully evident in his letters to her.  Ultimately the better angels predominated, and the Stanleys loved their biracial granddaughter dearly despite having dreaded the *idea* of race mixing.

Some biases from my early environment made me think of “free” and “Baptist” as opposites, but in the nineteenth century their role in American culture was quite different.  Brought up a Methodist in the South in the era of Civil Rights and Vietnam, I saw the Baptists as “more conservative” at every level—theologically, politically, culturally. That bias was upended in recent years by the discovery that in North Carolina Civil War history, my father’s Baptist ancestors had been largely Unionist while my mother’s Methodist forebears were Confederates.   Nineteenth century Baptists in the South were not quite the traditionalists that they became in the twentieth.  Having heard of Free Will Baptists all my life but seen Free Baptists only in history books, I found that they are names for the same movement which began in North Carolina in 1727. In the South the term “Free Will Baptists” has been near universal terminology and there are now about 300,000 Free Will Baptists headquartered near Nashville, TN.  But in New Hampshire,  Benjamin Randall began a Free Baptist movement  in 1780, most of whose congregations were ultimately absorbed into the Northern Baptists in 1911.  It had been strongly abolitionist in orientation.  This is the denomination in which Sarah Stanley spent her early childhood.  “Free will” refers to the belief in freedom as opposed to determinism, the Calvinist notion that God chooses who shall be saved and damned with no human power to affect the outcome.  The Free Baptist General Conference minutes for 1889  are available on Google books.  This 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article on Free Baptists gives a summary of the denomination as the northern members were being absorbed into the mainstream northern Baptists.