Middle District FWB Church

Free Will Baptist History

by Judy Street

Free Will Baptists can be traced to from General Baptist who settled in the American colonies in the late seventeenth century. The first Baptists, who originated with the ministry of Thomas Helwys near London in 1611, were General Baptists.(Riggs) That is, they believed that the atonement of Jesus Christ was "general" (for all) rather than "particular" (only for the elect). Thus, they were Arminian in doctrine.(Treatise FWB)
The first Baptist Church on English soil, founded in 1612, was a General Baptist church, and our denominational roots are deeply intertwined with theirs. General Baptists were part of a larger group of believers who suffered persecution at the hands of the Church of England. Many of these believers fled to Holland, Amsterdam, and eventually to America, via the Mayflower.
In 1620, the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock and founded a new colony. Whether any “freewill” Baptists were on the Mayflower is unknown. We do know, however, that the first Baptist church in America, founded in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1638 was a General Baptist church.
One of these English General Baptists who settled in the American colonies was Benjamin Laker, who arrived in colonial Carolina as early as 1685. Laker had been associated with the illustrious General Baptist theologian and writer, Thomas Grantham, and had signed the 1663 edition of the General Baptists' Standard Confession of Faith.(Pelt) The earliest Free Will Baptists in America arose from English General Baptists in Carolina who were dubbed "Freewillers" by their enemies and later assumed the name.
Two distinct branches of Free Will Baptists developed in America. The first and earliest was the Palmer movement in North Carolina, from which the vast majority of modern-day Free Will Baptists have their origin. The later movement was the Randall movement, which arose in the late eighteenth century in New Hampshire. These two groups developed independently of each other.
Paul Palmer founded the first known Free Will Baptist Church in America in Chowan County, North Carolina, in 1727. Palmer’s group can be traced directly to English General Baptists through his wife Johanna and her father, Benjamin Laker. Palmer had previously ministered in New Jersey and Maryland, having been baptized in a congregation which moved from Wales to a tract on the Delaware River in northern Pennsylvania.
The first historical record of Palmer is chronicled in a colonial document dated April 30, 1720, which reveals that he was involved in some sort of court case disputing the ownership of a slave. In 1722, Palmer made a request of the Quakers of Perquiminans County to remove him from their membership. No one is certain when Palmer actually came to North Carolina. He apparently came to the Carolinas from Maryland and was living in North Carolina by the 1720s, as supported by the aforementioned documents. Theologically, Palmer aligned himself with the General Baptists, who held that a person is not predestined to salvation; rather when the gift of salvation is offered, a person has the freedom of will to choose or reject God's gift.(Davidson) Palmer differed from the Particular Baptists who followed a Calvinist view of election. The Free Will Baptist movement developed out of the General Baptist movement. Palmer’s popularity as an evangelist began to rise in 1726. Most of his preaching took place in the northeastern sector of North Carolina, but he also traveled to other parts of the state and even as far as the borders of South Carolina. No evidence exists that Palmer ever held the position of pastor, but three churches directly trace their origins back to his evangelistic work. The first was established in the community of Cisco in Chowan County in 1727. The second was established in the home of William Burgess in 1729, and the third was established at New River located near the South Carolina border. While Palmer's influence on the General Baptist and the Free Will Baptist movement was brief and limited, it was nonetheless important. He is credited as being the "Father of the General or Free Baptist Churches in North Carolina." The details of Palmer's death are not known, but it is generally accepted that he died in 1747.
The northern line, or the Randall movement , had its beginnings with a congregation organized by Benjamin Randall. In his book, A Survey of Church History (Randall House, 1973), J.D. O’Donnell writes, “The Southern movement was given impetus by the Great Awakening. The Randall movement (Northern) was born out of the Whitefield revivals and grew with the Second Great Awakening” (p.139).
In 1770, English evangelist George Whitefield toured the Colonies, holding revivals. A 21-year old New Englander named Benjamin Randall heard Whitefield preach on September 28. Two days later, on September 30, 1770, Whitefield died, and Randall was convicted of his sins. Randall reflected, “The first thoughts that passed through my mind, were, ‘Whitefield is now in heaven, and I am on the road to hell.”(Pelt) Following his conversion, Benjamin Randall joined the Congregational Church but departed in 1775 over liberal doctrines. In 1776, Randall was baptized and joined a Baptist church, but he soon realized his beliefs did not align with their strict Calvinism. In June of 1780, after much personal reflection, prayer, and Bible study, Randall started a church in New Durham, New Hampshire. The stated, foundational beliefs of his new church were the free will of man and the universal call of the gospel. In 1799, the name “Freewill Baptist” appeared in the minutes of the church. In 1804, the government of New Hampshire confirmed the name and the group “Freewill Baptists” by legislative act.(Riggs p 36)
In America, long before the Civil War, Free Will Baptists stood against slavery. In 1834 and 1835, the Free Will Baptists in New Hampshire, and New York, adopted the following resolutions:
“Resolved, that we will as Christians and Christian ministers, use our influence to promote the doctrine of immediate emancipation, in doing which we wish to treat the oppressor and the oppressed in the spirit of the gospel.
“Resolved. That slavery is an unjust infringement on the rights of the slaves; an unwarrantable exercise of power on the part of the master; a potent enemy to the happiness and morals of our slave population; and, if continued, must ultimately result in the ruin of our country.(Centennial Record of FWB 192)
Randall’s northern movement grew rapidly but merged with the Northern Baptist in 1911. A small remnant that did not merge reorganized into the Cooperative General Association of Free Will Baptists. Palmer’s southern movement struggled, losing churches to the Particular Baptists (Calvinistic), but managed to organize into associations and conferences. In 1921, the Southern churches organized a General Conference. The two independent movements—northern and southern—united on November 5, 1935, at Cofer’s Chapel Free Will Baptist Church, in Nashville, Tennessee, and established the National Association of Free Will Baptists.(Davidson)
The first Free Will Baptist Conference to be organized in the state of North Carolina was in the year 1780. This conference was called Bethel F.W.B.Conference, according to the best available history. Bethel Conference was organized at Gum Swamp Church in Pitt County. It was made up of five churches and three ministers. The Free Will Baptist name had been established many years earlier.
In the mid 1800’s this particular part of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee was being served by the Toe River F.W.B. Association. The churches were spread over such a large area and transportation so difficult, delegates could not always to represent their church in the annual meetings. Because of this hardship a small group of churches and ministers came together and organized the Jacks Creek Free Will Baptist Association in 1895.
What makes us unique? For one thing, we are conservative. Always have been. Always will be. We live life conservatively. Our denominational departments have conservative budgets. Our church buildings are modest. And our doctrine is fundamental. We believe the Bible from cover to cover, and most of us believe the cover as well. In our dress, in our lifestyles, in our politics, and in our beliefs, we are a conservative group of people.
We are a grass-roots denomination, and the people in our churches are hard-working, family-loving, flag-waving, salt-of-the-earth people. They will go the extra mile and sacrifice the extra dollar for what they believe. They will also tell you exactly what they think and where they stand. But through it all, they will love you and accept you.
Free Will Baptists are passionate people. What we believe, we believe to our core. We are passionate about Jesus. We are passionate about the lost. We are passionate about the Bible. We are passionate about missions. When our passion is aimed in the right direction, there is nothing we will not attempt and nothing we cannot accomplish.
It was passion that kept our English General Baptist brothers from compromising when persecuted. It was passion for religious freedom that boarded the Mayflower and headed to the New World. It was passion that kept struggling churches in North Carolina from folding under the pressure of other doctrines. It was passion that caused our denomination to stand against slavery, against alcohol during the prohibition,and against liberalism. That is what our history teaches us. Passion, born out of conflict and conviction, is our heritage. That is who we are.
Works Cited
Davidson,William. The Free-Will Baptist In America, Randall House Publication, 1985.
Mliier, Ulis. History of the Jack’s Creek Free Will Baptist Association, Burnsville, N.C. Yancey Graphics,1994.
National Association of Free Will Baptists.
O’Donnell,J.D. A Survey of Church History, Randall House Publication, 1973:139.
Pelt,Michael. A History of the Orginal Free Will Baptist, 1996.
Riggs,Kevin, ”Who Are Free Baptist.” One Maganize, April-May 2006 36-37.
“The Centennial Record of Free Will Baptist 1780-1880”, Dover N.H. The Printing Establishment, !96.
United American Free Will Baptist Conference, Inc. (http://uafwbc.org/)