Original Free Will Baptist History
Dating back to the 16th Century, the Original Free Will Baptist Denomination finds its roots in the English Separatist Movement and the Arminian belief in the General Atonement of Christ. The complete history of the Original Free Will Baptists can be found in the denominational archives located in the Moye Library on the campus of Mount Olive College (www.moc.edu). Publications about who we are and from where we came include: “An Introduction to Original Free Will Baptists” by Dr. Floyd B. Cherry “A History of Original Free Will Baptists” ©1996 by Dr. Michael Pelt (published by the Mount Olive College Press) Both publications are available at www.fwbpress.com or by calling 2527466128.
The following is a brief history compiled from the pages of the book by Dr. Michael Pelt and used with his permission.
Original Free Will Baptists trace their origin to the earliest English General Baptists at the beginning of the seventeenth century, who derived their name from their belief that Christ died for all persons, the doctrine of general atonement as opposed to the Calvinist view of an atonement for the “elect” only. Their first leader, Thomas Helwys, died in an English prison because of his advocacy of religious freedom for all, as opposed to a state church that required submission to its teaching and form of worship. During the revolution against King Charles I in the 1640s and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s, the number of General Baptist churches increased rapidly. In 1660 they presented a confession of faith to King Charles II in which they set forth their doctrines as well as their convictions about religious liberty, hoping to retain such liberty under his rule. This document became known as the Standard Confession and continued to be used for generations. Because of the severe legal restrictions imposed by the English Parliament on all Dissenters, including Baptists, who desired to worship according to their own beliefs and practices, some General Baptists chose to leave England and settle in the American colonies. In the late seventeenth century, a few had begun to settle in Virginia and Carolina. As early as 1702 a group of them living in the Albemarle region of North Carolina wrote to their brethren in England, requesting a minister or books, but only the latter could be supplied. This group was likely holding meetings in private homes and they needed leadership or other helps to guide them. In response to a similar call for help, the Kent Association, south of London, sent Robert Norden to Virginia in 1714 and small congregations were gathered in Isle of Wight, Surrey, and Prince George counties. Some members of these congregations later moved to North Carolina where they could enjoy more liberty to worship as they chose. The first General Baptist to begin preaching and gathering congregations in North Carolina was Paul 1 Convention of Original Free Will Baptist Churches - History
Palmer, who came from Virginia and was soon afterward married to Johanna Peterson, the widow of a prominent citizen of Chowan Precinct and the stepdaughter of Benjamin Laker. Laker’s family was among those General Baptists who had emigrated from England to Carolina in 1684. Palmer became a General Baptist and was soon proclaiming his newfound faith and is reported to have “settled” the first Baptist church in North Carolina in Chowan Precinct north of Edenton in 1727. A second congregation was formed in neighboring Pasquotank Precinct in the home of William Burges, who became its first pastor. During the next several years, Palmer traveled throughout the coastal areas of North Carolina, making converts and establishing preaching points where leaders were chosen to become pastors of new congregations. Other men who would join him in this effort were Josiah Hart, William Fulsher, William Surginer, and a number of younger men who were converted and later called into this ministry. By 1755 there were as many as twenty General Baptist churches scattered across the coastal plain. Palmer himself died as early as 1743, followed by William Surginer in 1750. During this time a yearly meeting of these churches was held for the purpose of providing inspiration and mutual support to its ministers and member churches. In 1754, the Philadelphia Baptist Association (Particular Baptist) sent Reverend John Gano on a mission to the Carolinas. On his return, he reported on his encounter with the General Baptists and alleged that many of their ministers and church members were baptized without having had “an experience of grace.” The Philadelphia Association then sent two of their ablest ministers to visit these churches and to conduct examinations of individual members to determine who could give satisfactory evidence that they were among God’s “elect,” and therefore eligible for membership in the church. The churches were then reconstituted as Particular Baptist churches with only the “elect” as members. In four churches that were reorganized by the ministers only about five percent of the original members were included. Other churches were soon reorganized in like manner by their pastors who had already embraced the Calvinist doctrines. Only four or five churches and their pastors refused to submit to this procedure and remained true to their General Baptist heritage. Among the pastors the names of Joseph Parker, William Parker, William Fulsher, and John Winfield are found in Morgan Edwards’ account of these events. For a halfcentury these General Baptist churches made little progress but somehow managed to keep the faith, struggling against poverty, isolation, lack of education, and the disaffection of their Baptist neighbors. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, these churches began to show evidence of new life with a revision of their articles of faith in 1812 and a steady increase of churches and new members. Their growth was a small part of what is termed the Second Great Awakening in America that occurred during that period. About 1828 they were bold enough to formally adopt the name, which their detractors had used to identify them — Free Will Baptists. By 1830 their conference was large enough to divide into two conferences, Bethel and Shiloh. The following year action was taken to organize a conference in South Carolina. Among several active ministers of this period, the name of Jesse Heath stands out. His leadership was vital in helping Free Will Baptists to learn about other faith groups beyond North Carolina and inspiring them to carry the gospel to their neighbors. During the 1830s, the influence of Thomas Campbell, who visited North Carolina in 1834 in order to promote his “Restoration Movement,” began to have a disruptive impact on some Free Will Baptist pastors and churches, especially in the Bethel Conference. This resulted in the defection of several ministers and the division of a number of churches. Campbell’s views were directed against the use of denominational names and the use of creeds and articles of faith on the grounds that the Scriptures 2 Convention of Original Free Will Baptist Churches - History
alone could unite the churches and restore Christianity to its primitive form. In 1842, a conference embracing Free Will Baptist beliefs and practices and consisting of churches from both Bethel and Shiloh was convened, which became known as the General Conference of Original Free Will Baptists. Churches of this conference continued to prosper, benefiting greatly from revivals during that period, and thereby passing on their heritage to future generations. This was also a period of increased migration from North Carolina to other states across the South, resulting in the planting of Free Will Baptist churches over a wider area. As the number of churches increased throughout much of North Carolina, new conferences were formed. The Cape Fear Conference was organized in 1855 with eight churches and seven ministers and the Pee Dee Association in the southern part of the state held its first meeting in 1869. Between 1853 and 1886, the General Conference experienced phenomenal growth with an enrollment of 118 churches in 1886, spread out over an area extending eastward as far as Tyrrell County and westward as far as Wake and Chatham counties. Two of the most outstanding ministers of this period were James Moore and Rufus K. Hearn. Moore was licensed by his local church in 1825 and ordained in 1827; he was a faithful pastor and leader in the conference for 53 years. Hearn was ordained in 1853 and served as clerk of the General Conference for many years and later as an editor of The Free Will Baptist, the denominational paper that was first published in 1873. He was also the author of “A History of Free Will Baptists in North Carolina,” the first known attempt to write a history of the denomination. Because of the great distances involved in travel for ministers and delegates to attend the General Conference and the difficulty of accommodating the large crowds, the conference in session in 1886 agreed to form the Western and Eastern divisions with the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad as the dividing line. As these conferences continued to grow, the Eastern division in 1895 agreed to a further division in order to form the Central and the Eastern conferences. The number of new churches added to all the conferences in the latter half of the nineteenth century exceeded that of any other like period in the history of the denomination. At the end of the nineteenth century there were several conferences, but as yet no effective organization to unite them for the purpose of achieving larger goals and mission of the denomination as a whole. After the failure of the Union Conference, organized in 1892, to accomplish that purpose, leaders of the Union Conference in 1912 proposed to form a convention in hopes of including other organized groups of Free Will Baptists located in the southern and western regions of North Carolina. Ministers and delegates from churches belonging to four conferences met at Bailey, North Carolina, in 1913 to adopt the constitution and bylaws of the new Convention and to consider other items of business. One of these was the adoption of an earlier proposal to establish a Free Will Baptist Orphanage. Steps were taken to amend the charter of the Free Will Baptist Publishing Company, which had been established at Ayden, to allow for a wider ownership of that enterprise. There was also a resolution calling on the churches to make gifts to their conferences designated for Ayden Seminary, a school that had opened in 1898. This institution was the first successful attempt to offer an educational program for Free Will Baptists. Following a building program on a new campus in Ayden, it became known as Eureka College in 1925 but was forced to close its doors in 1929 due to financial insolvency. After an earlier attempt at the turn of the century had failed, the desire to form a General 3 Convention of Original Free Will Baptist Churches - History
Conference of Free Will Baptists across the South was finally achieved in 1921. This organization met annually until 1938. Meanwhile, in the early 1930s, efforts were made to bring together the General Conference in the South and the Cooperative General Association in the Midwest to form a national organization to be known as the National Association of Free Will Baptists, which was achieved in 1935. About two decades later, conflicts arose between Original Free Will Baptists in North Carolina and the national body. Representatives of the national body took issue with the Free Will Baptist Press over the publication of literature for the denomination. Some alumni of the National Association’s Bible College were antagonistic toward Mount Olive College, a liberal arts college sponsored by the Convention. Finally, a controversy over church policy arose when a minister refused to accept the discipline of the Western Conference of which he was a member and the National Association sought to intervene on his behalf in the civil case that resulted from the dispute. Serious tensions developed from these issues, resulting in a decision in 1962 by the Convention of Original Free Will Baptists to withdraw from the National Association. During the past century the Convention of Original Free Will Baptists has developed and maintained its own denominational program, including a publishing foundation, a children’s home, a retreat center, a liberal arts college, home and foreign missions, and other ministries. At the beginning of the twentyfirst century the Convention, together with its member conferences and local churches, is in the best position ever to carry out the mission and purpose for which it was brought into being. Persons joining any one of the local churches should become better acquainted with the heritage and faith of this denomination so that they can identify with it and participate in its efforts to make Christ known to the world.
4 Convention of Original Free Will Baptist Churches - History