If it weren’t for Martha Stearns Marshall, there’s a good chance I would not be a Baptist today. I can count seven generations of Baptist blood in my family, and all of it started with what seemed to be an unfortunate incident — until you see how it turned out.
The first Cartledges in America were Quakers (Edmund and Mary) who came over with William Penn in 1682, helped to establish Philadelphia, and settled in a community named for their English home of Darby. The first generation of descendants (John and Edmund II) became Indian traders, lost much of their religion, and were described by one historian as “crude, raffish, violent … backslidden Quakers.” The approach of the Colonial Wars in the late 1730s ruined the fur trade, and a third generation of Cartledges (Edmund III) moved south and established a large plantation on what came to be known as Cartledge Creek near Rockingham, North Carolina. Political expediency, job opportunities, and intermarriage with an Anglican woman named Elizabeth Keble contributed to the Cartledges’ Carolina conversion to Anglicanism.
Sometime before 1762, Edmund III gathered his family (including sons James, Samuel, Edmund IV and Joseph) and moved even further south, settling on the Kiokee Creek in what is now Columbia County, Georgia, not far from Augusta. Edmund III became a captain in the King’s Militia in the royal colony, which had adopted a law in 1757 outlawing any worship “not according to the rites and ceremonies of the church of England.”
As the Cartledges were working their way south, so were Shubal Stearns, his sister Martha, and Martha’s husband, Daniel Marshall. As zealous Separate Baptists, they moved from New England to North Carolina, where they established Sandy Creek Baptist Church in 1755, in Randolph County. With Shubal Stearns as pastor and the Marshalls working beside him, the New Light message spread rapidly across the state and many Baptist churches formed.
Daniel Marshall was called to be pastor of Abbotts Creek Baptist Church near High Point, where Martha was remembered for contributing fervent prayers and powerful preaching to the worship services. Martha’s presence in the pulpit led to a delay in Daniel’s ordination because of the difficulty of finding other ministers who did not object to his practice of allowing Martha to speak openly in church.
In time, the Marshalls moved their evangelistic enterprise southward, preaching, establishing, and serving churches in South Carolina before a fateful day in 1770 when they crossed the Savannah River into Georgia, where they held a brush arbor meeting near Kiokee Creek. Traditions vary, but at some point during the service, most agree that Marshall was arrested by a “stern constable” for preaching a gospel contrary to the Church of England. The stern constable’s name was Cartledge. He is often identified as Samuel, but some records implicate a different brother. All are agreed, however, that following the announced arrest, Martha Marshall was quick to defend the gospel her husband had preached.
Samuel Boykin’s version of the story (History of the Baptist Denomination in Georgia, 1881), later copied by B. F. Riley (A History of the Baptists in the Southern States East of the Mississippi, 1898), says that Martha Marshall fluently quoted passage after passage of scripture with the result that “The stern constable, Samuel Cartledge, was so impressed by the inspired words to which she gave utterance that he was pricked to the heart, and was ultimately led to Christ” (Riley, p. 31).
An earlier account, by Jesse Campbell (Georgia Baptists: Historical and Biographical, 1847), relates that “Mrs. Marshall, who was present, quoted several texts of scripture with so much force as to confound the opposers and convict several persons” (Campbell, pp. 16-17).
That’s some powerful preaching, and it came from Martha Stearns Marshall. Among many others who were “pricked to the heart,” virtually the entire Cartledge family was converted. The brothers became founding members, deacons, and leaders of Kiokee Baptist Church. Samuel became a pastor and served faithfully for more than 60 years.
I’m descended from brother James, who saw to it that his children had a good Baptist upbringing, and we are Baptists yet. It’s no wonder that I am thankful for Martha Stearns Marshall.
I am also thankful for Baptist Women in Ministry, which sponsors the “Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching” each February, encouraging churches to invite a woman to preach at least once during the month.
There are still folks, lamentably, who believe women have no right to preach or teach men, but the weak biblical defense they offer for the view is countered by weightier scriptures that clearly endorse women as gospel proclaimers. The historical impact of women like Martha Stearns Marshall, Lottie Moon, and many others demonstrates that women can be just as effective in communicating the gospel as men.
If your church hasn’t yet observed the Martha Stearns Marshall emphasis by inviting a woman to preach, it’s about time you do. And the next time you need a pastor, don’t automatically assume that it has to be a man: many women deeply feel called by God to preach and pastor. Churches have been overlooking some of God’s best gifts for far too long, and the sooner we remedy that, the better.
[More detail about the above story, including an analysis of which brother is most likely to have arrested Daniel Marshall and lots of footnotes, may be found in my article “Samuel Cartledge: Colonial ‘Saul of Tarsus,'” published in Viewpoints 8:1982, pp. 13-31.]
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.