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by J. Matthew Pinson

"J. Matthew Pinson takes his readers on a trip through time to the roots of the Free Will Baptist denomination."

—Eric Thomsen, managing editor, ONE Magazine

Excerpt provided by Randall House Publications. Order this volume at




The English General Baptists, Forefathers in Great Britain

Most Free Will Baptists can trace their heritage back to Paul Palmer, who in 1727 founded the first known Free Will Baptist church in America.1 Paul Palmer married into the Laker family, English General Baptists who had moved to America. Fully convinced of the General Baptist faith, he established a General Baptist church in Chowan County, North Carolina, in 1727.2 Though the early churches did not use the title “Free Will Baptist,” they were commonly known as “Free-willers” and would begin to call themselves Free Will Baptists in the late 1700s.3 The 1660 English General Baptist Confession of Faith was used by Free Will Baptists in the South until it was condensed and revised in a new confession in 1812 (later called the 1812 Former Articles).4

The 1812 Former Articles were used in the South until well into the twentieth century. Though Free Will Baptists from a few regions had spontaneous beginnings (for example, the Randall Movement of Freewill Baptists5 in the North), the majority of Free Will Baptists today can trace their heritage, either by direct link or influence, to the Palmer Movement of the Carolinas.

Since the Palmer Movement originated with General Baptist settlers from England in the late 1600s, our English General Baptist forefathers will be discussed here. It must also be noted that the Randall Movement of Freewill Baptists in the North had extensive contact with the General Baptists of England in the 1800s, even to the point of exchanging representatives. Thus our English General Baptist heritage is instructive for all Free Will Baptists.


Smyth and Helwys in England

The General Baptists began with John Smyth and Thomas Helwys in England in the early 1600s. John Smyth (1570-1612) was a graduate of Cambridge University and taught there for a time.6 Originally, he had been a priest in the Church of England7 but had become dissatisfied with the unbiblical practices in that church. He went from being an Anglican priest to being a Puritan (one who remained in the Church of England but wished to purify it) to being a Separatist (one who wished to separate entirely from the Church of England). All the while, Smyth was a Calvinist as well as a paedobaptist (infant baptizer). Smyth had begun to pastor a small Separatist congregation who, like other Separatists, were being persecuted because of their lack of allegiance to the Church of England. King James I had “threatened to harrie them out of the land unless they conformed to the state church.”8 In an attempt to escape persecution and imprisonment, the small congregation exiled itself to Holland, where it settled in Amsterdam in 1607.9


Illustration of a Friends Meeting in the 17th century, from Cassell's Illustrated History of England, iii (London: 1864)

Smyth and Thomas Helwys, a lawyer and layleader in the congregation, began to consider the Scriptural teaching on the subject of baptism and came to reject infant baptism in favor of believer’s baptism. It is possible that this change in doctrine came about as a result of the congregation’s contact with the Dutch Waterlander Mennonites.10 This change made Smyth dissatisfied with his own “baptism” (he had been sprinkled as an infant in the Church of England). So, having no properly baptized person to baptize him, Smyth baptized himself (the so-called se-baptism) and then baptized the rest of his congregation.11 Later, in a book entitled The Character of the Beast, which condemned the Anglican Church for being too close to the Roman Catholic Church, he said, “. . . all that shall in time to come separate from [the Church of] England must separate from the baptism of [the Church of] England, and if they will not separate from baptism there is no reason why they should separate from [the Church of] England as from a false church. . . .”12

While in Holland, Smyth and Helwys apparently came into contact with the thinking of Jacobus Arminius, the father of Arminianism. As McBeth says, the General Baptists were less influenced by John Calvin and “more influenced by the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, whose theology made room for free will. The General Baptists also, like other Arminians, taught the possibility of ‘falling from grace.’”13 At this time Smyth and Helwys made the transition from Calvinism to Arminianism.14 Altogether then, the transition had been made from Anglican to Puritan to Separatist to anti-pedobaptist to Free Will Baptist.15

The baptism question continued to plague Smyth. His se-baptism was a real source of controversy among the other Separatists, and he began to entertain the erroneous notion that it was necessary to have some sort of succession in baptism (that he needed to be baptized by someone who had been baptized by someone who had been baptized, and so forth, all the way back to the early church). At this time, Smyth began to draw much closer to the Dutch Mennonites and soon took up Mennonite views. Mennonites believed that all war and self-defense are wrong, that Christians should not be personally involved in government or politics (or even vote), that capital punishment is immoral, and that Christians should not swear oaths in courts.


Helwys’s Break With Smyth

This shift was too much for Thomas Helwys, who believed the Mennonite positions were unscriptural. He and his followers were convinced of the necessity of individual Christian participation in government. But if that were not enough, Smyth also began to teach an unorthodox view of Christ which denied His true humanity. He also taught that Adam’s sin was not imputed to the human race and that Christ’s righteousness alone is not what justifies the believer, but rather a mixture of Christ’s righteousness and the individual’s own righteousness. Helwys and part of the small congregation went back to England shortly after Helwys had published the first Baptist confession of faith, A Declaration of Faith of English People Remaining at Amsterdam, in 1611.16

Back in England in 1612, Helwys wrote A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity, the first book in the English language to contend for full religious liberty for all people. That same year he established the first Bapt ist church on English soil in 1612. The congregation located at Spitalfield just outside of London. These first Baptists were General or Arminian Baptists. They were referred to as General Baptists because they taught that the atonement of Christ was a general atonement (that Christ died for all) rather than a particular atonement (that Christ died only for the elect, as the Calvinists said). From their beginnings the General Baptists were known as “Free-willers.”17

Not until a generation later did the first Calvinistic Baptist church begin.18 The Calvinistic Baptists were called Particular Baptists, because they taught a particular atonement. Hence the first Baptists were General or Free Will Baptists.


The Growth of the General Baptist Movement

By the 1640s, the English General Baptists had begun to establish numerous churches in England, and soon local associations began to spring up. Growth was steady, and by the 1650s, a “national association” of General Baptists was formed. The 1650s also saw the appearance of several General Baptist confessions of faith, doctrinal statements drawn up by local associations. In his book, Baptist Confessions of Faith, William L. Lumpkin states: “The Baptist confessions of faith which appeared during the period of the Commonwealth (1650-1659) were closely connected with the association movement, and they often served as its unifying instruments.”19 Such local doctrinal confessions as The Faith and Practice of Thirty Congregations (1651) and The True Gospel Faith (1654) served to give stability to the General Baptist associations by offering a unified set of doctrinal beliefs.

The 1660 English General Baptist Confession of Faith, however, was to become for General Baptists the most widely used confession in England. Later known as the Standard Confession of 1660, this confession was used by the Free Will Baptists in the American South until 1812, when it was condensed and revised. Thomas Grantham was the most outstanding leader of the English General Baptists during the middle and later 1600s, and he delivered the 1660 Confession to King Charles II on July 26, 1660.20 Grantham was the most able theologian of the General Baptists, having written numerous books and tracts, primarily on believer’s baptism. His most extensive work was entitled Christianismus Primitivus or the Ancient Christian Religion. In this book, Grantham outlined the theology of the English General Baptists, especially as it relates to the doctrine of the church. Grantham reprinted the 1663 edition of the Confession in Christianismus Primitivus, along with quotations from early Christian fathers, to prove that it contained nothing novel. Besides outlining the doctrinal beliefs of the English General Baptists, the 1660 Confession attempted to halt the persecution that the General Baptists had suffered at the hands of the Anglican Church and the English government by affirming their loyalty to England.

The Confession was signed mostly by men in and around London, but representatives from other areas of England were also present to sign the document. One such representative was William Jeffrey of Kent. Jeffrey and the General Baptists of Kent were the most insistent of all the General Baptists on maintaining the doctrine of feet washing as an ordinance. Jeffrey, says Lumpkin, “though a young man, was author of a remarkable doctrinal work, The Whole Faith of Man, which by 1660 was already a standard work of reference and appeal for General Baptists.”21

The English General Baptists went through many changes in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Many General Baptists left behind their traditional theology—some opting for mild Calvinism and others for unorthodox ideas. Not until later in the 1700s would the movement experience doctrinal cohesion and growth. Despite this period of doctrinal controversy and decline, the General Baptist faith and practice that had been articulated in the 1660 Confession was proclaimed and preserved in the New World by General Baptists who migrated to the American colonies.


America’s First Free Will Baptists


The Palmer Movement of Southern Free Will Baptists,

Southern Free Will Baptists have generally traced their ancestry back to the ministry of Paul Palmer, who in 1727 established the first known Free Will Baptist church in America in Chowan County, North Carolina.22


The Earliest General Baptists in North Carolina

America’s first Free Will Baptists were called, like their English brethren, General Baptists. General stood for “general atonement,” their strong belief in the universality of the atonement—that Christ died for all men—and its attending doctrines. Both the General Baptists in England and America were nicknamed “Freewillers,” and the name caught on and began to be officially used by southern Free Will Baptists in the late 1700s. Though there were General (Free Will) Baptists in North Carolina as early as 1685, the first organized church was not begun until around 1727, under the ministry of Paul Palmer.23 A variety of theories have been proposed concerning Paul Palmer’s origins. It is not known whether Palmer himself came directly from England or not.24 It is known, however, that Palmer married into an English General Baptist family. Palmer’s father-in-law, Benjamin Laker, had been an active General Baptist layman who had apparently established an informal gathering of General Baptists in the Perquimans Precinct of North Carolina.25


Benjamin Laker

A look at Laker tells us a great deal about the early American Free Will Baptists and their ties with the English General Baptists. He had emigrated to Carolina from England, where he had been an active General Baptist who signed the 1663 edition of the 1660 English General Baptist Confession of Faith.26 A local political leader and prosperous farmer, Laker had lived in Perquimans as early as 1685. It is known from Laker’s will that he owned many English General Baptist books. Among the books he left in his will was a book called Christianismus Primitivus.27 This was the standard doctrinal text for the English General Baptists and was written by Thomas Grantham, the foremost leader of the English General Baptists in the 1600s.

Grantham’s book outlined the doctrine of the English General Baptists, who taught, among other things, that Christ died for the sins of all mankind; that, though the sin of Adam had been imputed to man, he could be set free and saved by the righteousness of Jesus Christ which could be obtained by faith alone; that a saved person could renounce his faith in Christ and hence come out of union with Christ, never to be redeemed again; that believer’s baptism was the only way to constitute a local church; that local churches should be self-governing; that God granted everyone liberty of conscience, and thus the king should allow every individual the freedom to practice his religion without fear of persecution and that individual Christians had the right to be involved in government and to keep and bear arms for the protection of family and freedom. These doctrines had been stated in the 1660 English General Baptist Confession of Faith, which was used by Laker and Palmer, and in turn the Southern Free Will Baptists until 1812, when it was condensed into the 1812 Former Articles.28
With regard to Laker and his General Baptist influence in Eastern North Carolina in the late 1600s and early 1700s, Davidson says:

The will of Benjamin Laker has provided the first evidence that the earliest Baptists in North Carolina included those of a General [Baptist] persuasion.

It has been agreed that the records have not supported the presence of an organized General Baptist church in North Carolina before 1727 [the year Palmer’s church was organized], but Laker’s important social and political status would have given him a unique opportunity to spread his General Baptist faith. It should be remembered when Paul Palmer began to preach in 1726, he found an eager audience for his General Baptist doctrine. It also should be remembered that all the Baptist churches in North Carolina before 1755 were of the General [Baptist] persuasion. These factors surely would imply that there had been a General Baptist flavor in the state before Palmer began to preach.29

After Laker’s death, the small, unorganized band of worshipers of which he had been the leader wrote to the English General Baptists for help, in the form of either a minister or some much needed books.30 Though the English brethren were unable to provide them with a minister and could only give them books, God had set His hand upon a man suited for the work: Paul Palmer.


Paul Palmer and His Followers

Little is known about Palmer. By 1720 he had settled in Perquimans Precinct, where by 1729 he had an estate of 964 acres.31 Sometime before 1720, he had married Johanna Peterson, Benjamin Laker’s step-daughter and the widow of a Thomas Peterson. Palmer became a respected landowner and political figure in Perquimans Precinct. His influence allowed him a hearing to proclaim his General Baptist doctrine, and he began evangelistic work in 1726. In 1727 he established a General Baptist Church in Chowan County.32

A few early followers were to be of great importance to the young American Free Will Baptist movement. William Sojourner, Josiah Hart, and Joseph Parker were instrumental in establishing and pastoring the first few churches. Sojourner (also spelled “Surginer”) was an English General Baptist from Virginia who moved to North Carolina in 1742 and became involved in the Palmer work. Hart, a physician, was greatly influenced by Sojourner and became a successful evangelist for the early Free Will Baptists, planting churches in Craven and Beaufort counties in North Carolina. Parker was born into a General Baptist family in 1705. In 1730, Parker and his wife, Sarah, went into Indian Territory in North Carolina to establish General Baptist works. These early ministers and their followers labored at a time when it was difficult to be a Baptist dissenter from the Anglican (Episcopal) Church, the established church. Their work was made easier by the Act of Toleration. A 1738 court document states:

Permission is hereby granted to Paul Palmer of Edenton, a Protestant minister, to teach or preach the Word of God in any part of the said province (he having qualified himself as such) pursuant to an Act of Parliament made in the first year of King William and Queen Mary entitled an “Act of Tolerating Protestant Dissenters.”

In a span of 25 years, these men established 20 or more General Baptist churches, and the movement grew rapidly.33


The Coming of the Calvinists

This growth, however, would not last long. In the 1750s, the Calvinists intruded.34 The Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists, also called “New Lights,” felt that the General Baptists needed reforming, which basically meant that they needed to be converted from Arminianism to Calvinism.35 These Calvinistic Baptists criticized the Free Will Baptists for not requiring what they called an “experience of grace” as a basis for baptism and church membership. What they meant by this was not simply conversion or a personal experience of the grace of God in one’s life, but rather a “long and often ridiculous account of how one came to know he was elected to grace and was one of the sheep.”36 The General Baptists, on the other hand, simply required repentance and faith in Christ as the only requirement for baptism and membership in the church. In addition to this, the Calvinists claimed that the General Baptist churches were worldly and lax in their discipline. There is no way, however, to know whether this was the case or not. Old-fashioned strict Calvinists held such a low view of Arminianism that they tended to associate it with heresy or unorthodox doctrine.

Thus the Calvinistic Particular Baptists took it upon themselves to raid these early General Baptists and attempt to proselytize as many of the ministers and members to Calvinism as they could. While they were successful in converting a good many of the ministers to Calvinism, they had less success with the actual members of these early Free Will Baptist churches. A case in point is the Pasquotank Church, which had around 200 members before it was reorganized as a Calvinist Baptist church and only 12 members after. Nothing is known about what happened to these 188 former members. Since the historical records from this time are so sparse, it cannot be known for certain what they did. Some no doubt joined the churches that remained Free Will Baptist, while others doubtless gathered for worship in private homes. Some perhaps dropped out of church altogether.

Needless to say, this experience took a great toll on the growing movement, and with the majority of its churches taken over by the Calvinists, the young movement was forced to begin again, as it were, from the ground up. William Parker, the only early minister still living, together with a few others, trudged forward in the Free Will Baptist cause and continued doing what had been done before: evangelizing and planting churches. But the next 50 years were extremely difficult for the struggling movement, and growth did not begin again substantially until the early 1800s.

By the 1830s, total membership in the churches in Eastern North Carolina, not to mention Western North Carolina and South Carolina, exceeded 2,000. Thus the denomination had grown to at least more than five times the size it had been 75 years earlier, after the Calvinists had done their proselytizing.


A New Name, a New Confession of Faith, and a New Era

At the turn of the century and in the early 1800s, the name “Free Will Baptist” began to be used to designate the denomination, though “General Baptist” and “Free Will Baptist” were still used interchangeably.37 A symbol of a new era and increasing growth among the Free Will Baptists of the Carolinas was the publication of a confession of faith which has come to be known as the 1812 Former Articles. This confession of faith, as we noted before, was a condensed and revised version of the 1660 English General Baptist Confession of Faith, which had been used by the Free Will Baptists up until that time. The full title of the confession was An Abstract of the Former Articles of Faith Confessed by the Original Baptist Church Holding the Doctrine of General Provision with a Proper Code of Discipline. The title says a great deal: First, the confession was an “abstract” (a summary) of the “former articles of faith” (the 1660 English General Baptist Confession of Faith). Second, it is noted that this is a confession of the original Baptists of North Carolina—the General (Free Will) Baptists. And third, the distinctive doctrinal stance of the Free Will Baptists is general provision: the universal provision of the grace of God and the possibility of salvation for all who would “come and take of the water of life freely.”

The 1812 Former Articles taught basically the same orthodox General Baptist doctrines that were taught in the 1660 Confession. One difference, however, is quite apparent.

Article ten is surprising. In its original form in the 1812 version, it teaches eternal security. The Free Will Baptists of the South defined themselves theologically in debate and interaction with Calvinistic Baptists rather than with other types of Arminians. The tendency among General Baptists in England and America for the first 250 years of their existence was, if they erred, to err on the side of Calvinism rather than on the side of extreme Arminianism, such as Wesleyanism or Campbellism. Thus it can be understood why Free Will Baptists may have, for a few years, had questions about the doctrine of apostasy. But these questions did not last long, and in the 1830s, the statement teaching eternal security was deleted. Thus the Free Will Baptists retained their former General Baptist belief that had been outlined in their earlier confession: that those who are true believers may turn aside from faith and become as withered branches, cast into the fire and burned (John 15).

This confession of faith, as was mentioned above, was identical to the 1660 Confession of the English brethren in some articles, but some changes were made in the interest of brevity and clarification. The confession (as amended in the 1830s) was used in the Southeastern United States until well into the twentieth century.


Growth and Challenge, 1830-1867

As noted above, Free Will Baptists in the Carolinas experienced tremendous growth in the first few decades of the 1800s and by the 1830s had over 2,000 members in their churches. The annual conference of North Carolina Free Will Baptists had grown to the extent that they voluntarily split into two conferences, called the Bethel Conference and the Shiloh Conference.38 Tragedy struck again in 1839, when another group encroached upon the Free Will Baptists, attempting to convert Free Will Baptist ministers and church members to another doctrinal position. This time the interlopers were the Campbellites.39 They believed in a works-oriented view of salvation and in baptismal regeneration (the belief that one must be baptized in order to be saved), as opposed to the faith alone teachings of the Free Will Baptists. Campbellites also believed in the abolition of all confessions of faith or treatises.40

This new denomination was begun by proselytizing from Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, and the Free Will Baptists were affected as well. T. J. Latham, a school teacher and influential minister in the Bethel Conference, was the first minister to go over to the Disciples (Campbellites), and he took some other ministers and churches with him. The loss was great, with around 600 of the members leaving. This left the membership of the North Carolina Free Will Baptists at a little over 1,400. “However, recovery was rapid and in four years there were 2,563 members and 58 ministers.”41

In 1847, a controversy arose concerning membership in secret societies. At first, the conference had a majority vote that church members should not be allowed to be members of groups like the Freemasons. But, upon reflection, the conference changed its mind and voted that each church be allowed to make the decision on its own if members could join these lodges. Davidson states,
Article IX of the constitution of the Annual Conference stated simply that “all matters shall be decided by a majority,” and on that basis, the conference resolved “that we believe the Rules of Discipline gives to each individual Church its own key—the privilege of transacting its own business.42

Some churches whose pastors and church members were angry over the vote to leave the decision up to the self-governing local church left the Free Will Baptists—yet another setback. Despite these setbacks, Free Will Baptists experienced steady growth and expansion over the next few years until the onset of the War Between the States in 1861. The War took a great toll on the churches, especially in South Carolina. In the 1850s, average new baptisms (and hence new memberships) in the Annual Conference were between 150 and 200 per year. In 1861, however, only 125 new baptisms were reported, and in 1862, there were only 53—a significant drop.43 Yet toward the end of the War, new memberships began to increase, nearly doubling those of the 1850s. In 1864, 425 new members were reported; in 1865, 275; in 1866, about 300; and in 1867, 315.44 This kind of growth continued through the latter half of the 1800s.


The Expansion of the Palmer Movement

While Free Will Baptist strength in the South at this time centered in the Carolinas, Southern Free Will Baptists could be found in such states as Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee. These areas came under Free Will Baptist influence as Free Will Baptists from the Carolinas began to migrate south and west into frontier territory. Some of the Free Will Baptists outside of the Carolinas had independent origins (e.g., Separate Baptists who became Free Will Baptists in Tennessee), and others had been established by Free Will Baptists from the Carolinas who had migrated to the frontier, or by direct influence with the Southern Free Will Baptists on the Eastern Seaboard.45 And even these groups that had Separate Baptist origins were most likely influenced by Free Will Baptists who had moved west from Carolina.46 At any rate, these groups of diverse beginnings eventually identified themselves with the Free Will Baptists of the Carolinas, using articles of faith, hymnals, and other publications from the North Carolina Free Will Baptists.


The Culture of the Free Will Baptists

It will be instructive to understand the culture of the early General Baptist settlers and their descendants in the 1800s. The early Free Will Baptists were, like most religious dissenters (those not in the Anglican or Episcopal Church) of the day, probably first-generation settlers who had come directly from England, or second- or third-generation Americans who had been converted by the General Baptists. Most of the early General Baptists were hard-working farmers whose economic and educational advantages were few. This is not to imply that the early Free Will Baptists were “anti-intellectual”; rather they had not had the educational opportunities that would have been available to the English gentry class in the Southern colonies.47

While it is certain that they did not have the money or opportunities to take advantage of higher education (Baptists, as dissenters from the established churches in America, were not allowed to attend the higher educational institutions which had been established by the New England Puritans and the Anglicans [Episcopalians] of the South until the late 1700s), it is interesting to note that many of them could read and write at a time when the illiteracy rates in England and France were close to 50 percent, and in Southern Europe and Eastern Europe between 90 and 95 percent.

This is demonstrated by the surprising fact that the two earliest records we have of General Baptists in North Carolina deal with books obtained (no doubt at great expense) from England. Benjamin Laker, though perhaps more wealthy and influential than the majority of early Free Will Baptists, valued book learning so highly that he left Christian books in his will to friends and family members. The struggling group of General Baptist worshipers left behind after Laker’s death wrote the General Baptists in England requesting books that they might educate themselves in Christian doctrine. In their cultural context, this would indicate that these people were far from anti-intellectual, while, if they are judged by twentieth-century standards of “intellectuality,” which would not seem historically responsible, they may fall short.

Another interesting factor is that, while the Free Will Baptists of the southeastern United States seem not to have had the great monetary resources necessary for an educational structure in the 1700s and 1800s (and though this had the undesirable side-effect of the development of pockets of “anti-education” sentiments in the 1800s), they never openly denounced education in the way it was denounced among the early Freewill Baptists of the North.

It is also noteworthy that obituaries of Free Will Baptist ministers in the Carolinas, which appeared in the conference Minutes during the 1800s, many times lamented the fact that ministers were unable to avail themselves of education. In addition, the few written records we have from the early 1800s reveal a rhetorical literacy and a linguistic beauty that is hard to find in our own day.

Despite the poverty of many of the early Free Will Baptists in the South, who were usually farmers, there were always local political leaders, significant land owners, school teachers, and merchants scattered here and there in the churches. Free Will Baptists in the South never attained to the great wealth and influence of some in other Protestant denominations but were examples of the average, small farmer, what historian Frank Lawrence Owsley called “the plain folk of the South.”48

Like other common folk in the South, Free Will Baptists took part in such rich cultural practices as singing schools, camp meetings and revival meetings, porch-front picking and singing, barn-raisings, quilting-bees, outdoor sports like swimming, hunting, fishing, trapping, and “contests of marksmanship and horsemanship such as ‘snuffing the candle,’ ‘driving the nail,’ and the ‘gander pull.’”49 Then, of course, certain less wholesome cultural practices, such as horse racing, gambling, and cock fights, were strictly prohibited.

Music played a large role in the culture and worship of the Free Will Baptists of the South. The Free Will Baptists of the 1700s sang the popular evangelical hymns of their day written by such illustrious hymn writers as Charles Wesley (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”), Isaac Watts (“Alas! and Did My Saviour Bleed”), and John Newton (“Amazing Grace”). The Free Will Baptists of the South, as far as is known, did not publish their own hymnbooks until the 1800s. The first hymnal to be published was The Free Will Baptist Hymnbook, edited by William Lumpkin and Enoch Cobb in 1831.50 In 1832, Jesse Heath, the most prominent minister from the early 1800s, and Elias Hutchins (a visitor from New England) published a hymnal entitled Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, Selected for the United Churches of Christ, Commonly Called Free Will Baptists, in North Carolina; and for Saints in All Denominations.51 These two hymnals were used by the Free Will Baptists of the Carolinas until the 1850s.

In 1854, R.K. Hearn, Joseph Bell, and Jesse Randolph published a Free Will Baptist hymnbook entitled Zion’s Hymns, which remained in use through the latter half of the century.52 These early hymnals included the popular English hymns, American gospel hymns, and folk hymns, as well as hymns written on distinctive topics like feet washing. These hymnals, like most all hymnals of that day, were without notes, so the words of the hymns which were printed in the pocket-size, hardback books could be put to a variety of different tunes.
Another song book used by southern Free Will Baptists of the last century did have notes. It was called the Sacred Harp.53


Sacred Harp singing became very popular in the 1800s and is still sung today by Free Will Baptists in some parts of the South. Sacred Harp songs such as “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship” and “When I Can Read My Title Clear” became Free Will Baptist favorites and made their way into Free Will Baptist hymn books. Sacred Harp singing was a valuable tool of music education; since the notes were printed in shapes, it was easier for the ordinary person to learn to read notes. Frank Owsley discusses shaped-note singing and singing schools in his book Plain Folk of the Old South. A lengthy excerpt from this book is illustrative of the role Sacred Harp music played in the culture of the Old South.

The singing schools and the community, or all day, singings were among the most enjoyable of the social institutions of the Southern folk. Every summer usually in one of the neighborhood churches, a singing master would hold a school, which lasted ten days or two weeks. Sometimes two or three singing schools would be held, especially where there were rival singing masters. The business of learning to sing by note was direct and simple; and anyone with any musical talent could, under a competent leader, learn to read notes and to sing by note by the time the school ended. The seven-shaped note system or the [four-shaped] note system of the Sacred Harp was used. The names and relative positions of these shaped notes were first learned; then followed in rapid succession note values, sharps and flats, rests, repeats, majors and minors, crescendo and diminuendo, and the four traditional parts. . . .

Learning these elementary principles, however, was only one phase and not the most enjoyable one of a singing school. A good portion of the day would therefore be taken up with singing well known sacred and popular songs, and enjoying prolonged recesses devoted to courting, and having a generally sociable time. In the general singing, and even in the teaching, the benches were drawn up in a square with the master in the center and those singing bass, alto, soprano, and tenor in separate sections.


ABOVE: Sunday Singing School, 1825

The singing school, though an end in itself, was also the chief means of teaching the people to sing, a thing which they did often and long. At church, prayer meetings, the Sunday-afternoon singings of the younger people, and the all-day singings with dinner on the grounds, people met and sang together.54

Free Will Baptist Worship and Practice

The early Free Will Baptists of the South, like their General Baptist forefathers in England, took the New Testament pattern for the church very seriously. Thus, as in New Testament churches, simplicity characterized their worship and practice. A letter from Elias Hutchins, a visitor from the New England Freewill Baptists, gives us insight into the way that Free Will Baptists in the Carolinas worshiped. As Davidson says,

Hutchins especially was impressed with the reverence that was evident in the worship service of the Free Will Baptists. He spoke often of the well-behaved, solemn, attentive audiences. In one of his letters, he described a baptism service held at the Pungo Free Will Baptist Church in May, 1830, in which twenty persons were baptized.

Hutchins recounts:

The scene was solemn and impressive, well calculated to animate the Christian, and fill the minds of sinners with sensations of a favorable character; and the large congregation that witnessed the performance by a commendable decorum evinced great respect for the ordinance.55

The southern Free Will Baptists placed great stress on the value of the Christian ordinances. They retained the emphasis on feet washing as an ordinance that had characterized the Kent Association of General Baptists in England. In fact, the 1812 Former Articles was the first Arminian Baptist confession of faith to explicitly list feet washing as an ordinance. The Free Will Baptists of the 1800s continued this practice, seeing themselves as walking in the “old paths” of their forefathers in following the commands of Christ. In speaking of the early General Baptists in North Carolina, R.K. Hearn stated:

We bear the same name, we have the same book of discipline, we preach the old doctrine, we receive members the same way without an experience of grace, we commemorate the Lord’s Supper in the same way, we wash the saints’ feet the same way. . . .56

Free Will Baptist church government in the South was simple and democratic. Though it seems that the church polity of the early General Baptists of North Carolina was a bit more complex, the self-government of the local church was still valued. A great deal more emphasis on the self-government of the local church, while still retaining the importance of associational relationships, was witnessed in the 1800s. The fact that great emphasis was placed on the local church is demonstrated by the “localism” of the Free Will Baptists, who hesitated to form large associations. When a conference became very large, the conference would voluntarily split into two conferences to make travel easier and to facilitate more efficient conference business. This measure, however, tended to have the effect of detracting from a sense of denominational unity.

Several conferences arose in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia; Free Will Baptist families migrated west to states like Tennessee and Alabama; and ministers who moved to other states planted churches there. But these Free Will Baptists scattered across the South never formed a denominational structure because of the “localist” emphasis.

This phenomenon contributed to the lack of sufficient financial support of educational institutions, foreign mission works, and other ministries, which would have been established had the Free Will Baptists of the South had a more cohesive denominational structure. To say this is not to demean the self-government of the local church, local association, or conference, but the lack of a denominational organization among southern Free Will Baptists did negatively affect denominational growth and effectiveness. Free Will Baptists would have to wait until the latter part of the 1800s before they would witness efforts to bring all the Free Will Baptists of the South into one unified organization.




1 More will be said about the Palmer Movement in the section of this chapter entitled “America’s First Free Will Baptists.”

2 William F. Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in America, 1727-1984 (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 1985), pp. 29, 47-48. It should be noted here that the English General Baptists, from whom southern Free Will Baptists have descended, bear no direct relationship to the present-day General Baptist denomination in America. This Arminian Baptist group arose spontaneously in the Midwest in the 1800s (Ollie Latch, History of the General Baptists [Poplar Bluff, Missouri: General Baptist Press, 1954], pp. 125-26). American General Baptist historian Ollie Latch says that Benoni Stinson, the founder of the American General Baptists, was influenced by the early General (Free Will) Baptists of North Carolina (Ibid.).

3 Elizabeth Smith, “The Former Articles of Faith of the North Carolina Free Will Baptists,” The Free Will Baptist (July 27, 1960), p. 10.

4 Davidson, pp. 124-25. The 1812 Former Articles were in turn used throughout the Southeast until well into the twentieth century. Both the 1660 English General Baptist Confession of Faith and the 1812 Former Articles are reprinted in chapter three.

5 In this book, the name “Freewill Baptist” will be used to refer to the Randall Movement in the North, while “Free Will Baptist” will be used for the Palmer Movement in the South, since these are the ways the two groups have historically used their names.

6 B.R. White, The English Separatist Tradition: From The Marian Martyrs to the Pilgrim Fathers (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 116.

7 Also called the Anglican or Episcopal Church.

8 H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987) p. 33.

9 William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), p. 219.

10 Walter H. Burgess, John Smyth the Se-Baptist, Thomas Helwys, and The First Baptist Church in England (London: James Clarke and Company, 1911), p. 147.

11 Ibid., pp. 153-156; Davidson, pp. 16-17.

12 Quoted in Davidson, p. 17.

13 McBeth, p. 21.

14 ”Arminianism” is used here to signify anti-Calvinism in general rather than the specific thought of Jacobus Arminius. Smyth was influenced by the anti-Calvinism of the Waterlander Mennonites, whereas Helwys was more influenced by Arminius and less by the Mennonites. For a defense of this view, see
J. Matthew Pinson, “The Soteriology of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys”
(unpublished paper, 1997).

15 For purposes of convenience and understanding, “Free Will Baptist” will be used interchangeably with “General Baptists” when discussing the English General Baptists and their immediate descendants in the American colonies. It must be remembered that neither of these titles were officially used by Smyth, Helwys, and the early General Baptists.

16 This confession of faith is reprinted in chapter four.

17 Davidson, p. 19.

18 McBeth, p. 39.

19 William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Judson Press, 1959), pp. 171-72.

20 Ibid., p. 223.

21 Ibid., p. 221.

22 While some have mistakenly held the view that Benjamin Randall, the founder of the Freewill Baptists in the North, was the “founding father of Free Will Baptists,” the advent of Free Will Baptists in North Carolina, as will be shown in this chapter, predates the founding of Randall’s church in 1780 by about a century.

23 The names “General Baptist” and “Free Will Baptist” will hereafter be used interchange­ably when discussing the early Free Will Baptists of North Carolina.

24 Davidson, pp. 37-40. Davidson’s doctoral dissertation was first published by Randall House Publications in 1974 as An Early History of Free Will Baptists, 1727-1830, and was later incorporated into his comprehensive history cited above.

25 Ibid., pp. 38, 47-48; see George Stevenson, “Laker, Benjamin,” in Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 4, ed. William S. Powell (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), pp. 3-5. Johanna Taylor Jeffreys Peterson, Palmer’s wife, was Benjamin Laker’s step-daughter.

26 Stevenson, pp. 3-4.

27 Thomas Grantham, Christianismus Primitivus, Or the Ancient Christian Religion (London: Francis Smith, 1678). See Stevenson, p. 4.

28 The 1660 English General Baptist Confession of Faith and its successor, the 1812 Former Articles, are reprinted in chapter four.

29 Davidson, p. 49.

30 Michael R. Pelt identifies the English General Baptists to whom the Laker group wrote as the General Association of General Baptists which met in London on June 3-5, 1702 (Michael R. Pelt, A History of Original Free Will Baptists (Mount Olive, North Carolina: Mount Olive College Press, 1996), p. 24. This association was the orthodox group which had separated from the General Assembly of General Baptists due to doctrinal differences on the person of Christ. The General Association insisted that the General Assembly deal with those in their midst who were guilty of heresy on the person of Christ (e.g., that Christ’s flesh was “heavenly flesh” or that Christ is not fully God in the same sense that God the Father is fully God).

31 Damon C. Dodd, The Free Will Baptist Story (Nashville: Executive Department of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, 1956), p. 37.

32 Ibid., p. 39.

33 See Pelt, pp. 48-55.

34 For a more detailed sketch of the intrusion, the reader is referred to R.K. Hearn’s “Origin of the Free Will Baptist Church of North Carolina,” written in the late 1800s and reprinted in The Historical Review (Summer 1994), a publication of the Historical Committee of the Florida State Association of Free Will Baptists.

35 The Particular Baptists, like their brethren in England, were referred to as “particular” because of their belief in a limited atonement—a “particular” atonement—which was available only to the elect whom God had chosen irresistibly without regard to the free choice of the individual.

36 Latch, p. 118.

37 Davidson, pp. 196-98.

38 Pelt, p. 117.

39 Campbellites is a word used to describe the “Disciples of Christ” or the “Churches of Christ,” whose founders were Thomas and Alexander Campbell. This group started in the early 1800s.

40 See the essay by R.K. Hearn referred to above.

41 Dodd, p. 54.

42 Minutes of the North Carolina General Conference of Free Will Baptists (1853), p. 4; cited in Davidson, p. 244.

43 T.F. Harrison and J.M. Barfield, History of the Free Will Baptists of North Carolina (Ayden, North Carolina: Free Will Baptist Press, 1898, vol. 2, reprinted 1959), pp. 211, 214.

44 Ibid., pp. 217-21.

45 With reference to the first known Free Will Baptists of East Tennessee, Robert Picirilli has reminded us that “the recounting of this information does not, in fact, tell how the ‘free will’ doctrine came to be the faith of these three pioneer Baptist men [Moses Peterson, John Wheeler, and William Bonaparte Woolsey] [;] what sources of influence shaped their thinking we do not know. If there were other men who taught (or baptized) them in this doctrine—as there may have been—we do not know their names or whence they came to the Great Smoky Mountains” (The History of Tennessee Free Will Baptists. [Nashville: Historical Commission of the Tennessee State Association of Free Will Baptists, 1985], p. 10). Our lack of information on the influences on and origins of the Free Will Baptists of Tennessee and other states underscores the need for more research.

46 Frontier migration patterns is a fruitful area of future research in the history of the Free Will Baptists of the South. Some have assumed that new areas of Free Will Baptist work outside of the Carolinas were always spontaneous movements and unconnected with other Free Will Baptists. This view, however, does not take account of a few things: First, it is too coincidental that new Free Will Baptists who had formerly been, for the most part, Calvinistic Baptists would just happen to make the transition, not only from Calvinism to a full-blown Arminianism, but also begin to practice both open communion and feet washing—all with no influence from other Free Will Baptists. What is even more coincidental is that they almost immediately took on the name Free Will Baptist. It stretches the limits of credulity to think that all this is merely coincidence. It seems much more reasonable that Free Will Baptists from the Carolinas influenced these people with their doctrine and practice. A second and perhaps more crucial fact that is not recognized by the “spontane­ous appearance” theories is that myriads of Free Will Baptists from the Carolinas migrated to other southern states in the 1800s. These Free Will Baptists had to go somewhere; they did not disappear. Yet theories which over-emphasize the diversity and multiple origins of southern Free Will Baptists do not account for them. (The perspective outlined here is shared by G. W. Million in his History of Free Will Baptists [Nashville: Board of Publications and Literature, National Association of Free Will Baptists, 1958], p. 125.)

47 The term “anti-intellectual” has been over-used and, indeed, abused in some historical circles. Historian Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which tends to define “intellectualism” and “anti-intellectualism” from a twentieth-century cultural perspective rather than viewing the earlier generations of Americans in their cultural and economic contexts, comparing American literacy rates with those of the European countries, and so forth, has informed the consensus of American historical scholarship, but stands in need of correction at many points.

48 For a greater understanding of the cultural context of the common people of the Old South, and hence of southern Free Will Baptists, particularly in the late 1700s and early 1800s, it would be beneficial to consult Frank Lawrence Owsley’s masterful book, Plain Folk of the Old South (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1949, 1982). Owsley has a great discussion of camp meetings in the Old South.

49 Ibid.

50 Davidson, p. 248.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid.

53 Other song books which used “Sacred Harp” music were Southern Harmony, Christian Harmony, The Colored Sacred Harp, and The Social Harp.

54 Owsley, pp. 124-25.

55 Davidson, p. 212.

56 R.K. Hearn, p. 48.


©2007 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists