By Kevin Riggs

As a fourth-generation Free Will Baptist minister, I have been asked to write a series of three articles about our denomination’s heritage. My intention is to answer three questions: (1) Who are we? (2) What are we? (3) Where are we going?

If you are expecting a detailed history, you will be disappointed. My goal is not a transfer of information but a transfer of inspiration. I hope to pass on our heritage. I will leave our history to those more qualified.

The dictionary defines history as a “story or record of important past events connected with a person or a nation.”1 The dictionary defines heritage as “what is handed down from one generation to the next; inheritance.”2 Our history as a denomination is a rich inheritance. The story of Free Will Baptists pales in comparison to the importance of our heritage.

Identity Crisis

One character in a popular 80s TV show experienced an identity crisis when he attended his friend’s bar-mitzpha. The young teen was fascinated by Jewish tradition and their knowledge of who they were. Returning home, he drilled his parents with questions about his own ancestry, and like many Americans, his family had no information to share with him. Disappointed, he came to the following conclusion: “As an American I am not a pure-breed, I am a mutt.”

While I would stop short of calling our denomination a “mutt,” it is true that the history and heritage of Free Will Baptists is hard to define. We evolved from a variety of people, places, and things. We cannot trace our beginnings to any one individual or group. But ask any veterinarian, and he will tell you that diverse breeding produces animals that are healthier, smarter, and live longer. Free Will Baptist history is not specific, but richly diverse.

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.3 We do know, however, that the first Baptist church in America, founded in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1638 was a General Baptist (freewill) church. 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.

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.’”4 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.5 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.

Randall’s northern movement grew rapidly but merged with the Northern Baptist in 1911.6 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.

Free Will Baptists Defined

Who are we? In no way does the sketch above do justice to our history, but since I am more concerned about heritage than history, let me tell you who I think we are. We are a denomination that found its identity through times of crisis. In other words, we are a group of people not afraid to stand and fight for our beliefs. We are not afraid of conflict. Our movement was born in the midst of religious conflict—both in England and in America. We are not afraid to speak our minds, to swim against the current, and to call a spade a spade. This characteristic has been both our strongest trait and our weakest link.

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 extreme Calvinism. It was passion that caused our denomination to stand against slavery, against alcohol during the prohibition, against liberalism, against neo-orthodoxy, against connectional church government, against fanatical Pentecostalism, against abortion, against gambling and the lottery, and against same-sex marriages.

At times, however, this passion has produced a false sense of pride or feelings of inferiority. Our strong convictions tempt us to think we are more holy, more righteous, and more right than others. But when our strong stands created conflict—both within and without—we have been tempted to feel sorry for ourselves, adopting a martyr’s mentality.

What we need is a healthy sense of pride—a pride that comes from understanding our heritage. We need the passion of Benjamin Randall, Paul Palmer, C.E. Riggs, Laura Belle Barnard, L.C. Johnson, Roy Thomas, Dan Cronk, and LaVerne Miley. We need a healthy passion that refuses to quit, refuses to make excuses, refuses to be puffed up, and refuses to feel sorry for ourselves. We need a passion that follows God, regardless of the cost and regardless of the obstacles. That is what our history teaches us. Passion, born out of conflict and conviction, is our heritage. That is who we are.

1 E.L. Thorndike / Clarence L. Barnhart. 1979. Scott, Foresman Advanced Dictionary. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company (481).

2 Ibid (475).

3 In the October / November 2005 issue of ONE Magazine, David Crowe writes about a possible connection between Free Will Baptists, the first Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island, and John Alden, a Pilgrim Father who signed the Mayflower Compact. The title of the article is “From Plymouth Rock to Antioch.”

4 John Buzzell. 1827. The Life of Elder Benjamin Randall. Published by Hobbs, Woodman & Co. (3).

5 William F. Davidson. 1985. The Free Will Baptist in America: 1727-1984. Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications (218).

6 As a result of the merger with the Northern Baptists in 1911, Free Will Baptists lost more than 500 churches, all denominational property, and several major colleges. (A Treatise of the Faith and Practices of the Original Free Will Baptists); published by the Executive Office of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, Nashville, TN; 1935 (2).

Article adapted from ONE Magazine, April-May 2006.