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Free Will Baptist (or, formerly, Freewill Baptist) is a denomination of churches that share a common history, name, and an acceptance of the Arminian theology of free grace, free salvation, and free will. Free Will Baptists share similar soteriological views with General Baptists, Separate Baptists and some United Baptists. The autonomous power of the local church is highly valued. The denomination remains relatively rural and is especially strong in the southern United States.
Theology and practice
Additionally, Free Will Baptist congregations believe the Bible is the completed, inerrant word of God, and believe in the straightforward grammatico-historical interpretation of Scripture.
Free Will Baptist Doctrine is distinguished from the majority of Baptist groups (including the Southern Baptist Convention and its offshoots, as well as fundamentalist Baptists) in that Free Will Baptists reject the popular Baptist view of "unconditional perseverance of the saints" (also commonly referred to as the "Doctrine of Unconditional Eternal security" or "once saved, always saved"). Instead, Free Will Baptist Doctrine holds to the traditional Arminian position, based on the belief in a General Atonement, that it is possible to commit apostasy, or willfully reject one's faith. Faith is the condition for salvation, hence Free Will Baptists hold to "conditional eternal security." An individual is "saved by faith and kept by faith." The concept is not of someone sinning occasionally and thus accidentally ending up "not saved", but instead of someone "repudiating" their faith in Christ. Free Will Baptists believe that an individual maintains his or her free will to follow Christ, but in the event a believer turns from faith in Christ, there is no remedy for this apostasy (based on an interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6).
Free Will Baptists observe three ordinances: baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the Washing of the Saints' Feet, a rite occurring among some other evangelical groups but not practiced by the majority of Baptist denominations.
Free Will Baptist congregations hold differing views on eschatology. Traditionally, churches in the eastern part of the country have tended to follow a premillennial interpretation, while western churches often hold an amillennial view. Churches commonly advocate (voluntary) tithing, totally abstaining from alcoholic beverages, and not working on the Sabbath.
Free Will Baptists can be traced to General Baptists from England 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. 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.
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. 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.
The "Palmer" Line
In 1702, a disorganized group of General Baptists in Carolina wrote a request for help to the General Baptist Association in England. Though no help was forthcoming, Paul Palmer, whose wife Johanna was the stepdaughter of Benjamin Laker, would labor among these people 25 years later, founding the first "Free Will" Baptist church in Chowan, North Carolina in 1727. Palmer organized at least three churches in North Carolina.
His labors, though important, were short. Leadership would descend to Joseph Parker, William Parker, Josiah Hart, William Sojourner and others. Joseph Parker was part of the organization of the Chowan church and ministered among the Carolina churches for over 60 years. From one church in 1727, they grew to over 20 churches by 1755. After 1755, missionary labors conducted by the Philadelphia Baptist Association converted most of these churches to the Particular Baptist positions of unconditional election and limited atonement. By 1770, only 4 churches and 4 ministers remained of the General Baptist persuasion. By the end of 18th century, these churches were commonly referred to as "Free Will Baptist", and this would later be referred to as the "Palmer" line of Free Will Baptists. The churches in the "Palmer" line organized various associations and conferences, and finally organized a General Conference in 1921.
The "Randall" Line
While the movement in the South was struggling, a new movement rose in the North through the work of Benjamin Randall (1749-1808).
Randall initially united with the Particular or Regular Baptists in 1776, but broke with them in 1779 due to their strict views on predestination. In 1780, Randall formed a "Free" or "Freewill" (Randall would combine the words "free" and "will" into a single word) Baptist church in New Durham, New Hampshire. By 1782 twelve churches had been founded, and they organized a Quarterly Meeting. In 1792 a Yearly Meeting was organized.
The "Randall" line of Freewill Baptists grew quickly. However, in 1911, the majority of the Randall Line churches (and all the denominational property) merged with the Northern Baptist Convention. Those churches that did not merge and remained Freewill Baptist joined with other Free Will Baptists in the Southwest and Midwest to organize the Cooperative General Association of Free Will Baptists in 1916.
The Union of the Lines
Fraternal relations had existed between the northern and southern Free Will Baptists, but the question of slavery, and later the Civil War, prevented any formal union until the 20th century. On November 5, 1935, representatives of the General Conference (Palmer) and the Cooperative General Association (a mixture of Randall and Palmer elements west of the Mississippi) met in Nashville, Tennessee to unite and organize the National Association of Free Will Baptists. The majority of Free Will Baptist churches organized under this umbrella, which remains the largest of the Free Will Baptist groups to this day.
Free Will Baptist Bodies
The largest of the Free Will Baptist denominations is:
- The National Association of Free Will Baptists, a body of predominantly white Free Will Baptist churches in the United States and Canada, organized in 1935 and headquartered in Antioch, Tennessee. The group also does overseas work through the International Fellowship of Free Will Baptist Churches, with member associations in Brazil, Côte d'Ivoire, Cuba, France, India, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Spain, and Uruguay.
Other major Free Will Baptist groups include:
- Original Free Will Baptist Convention - a North Carolina based body of Free Will Baptists that was organized in 1913 and initially joined the National Association of Free Will Baptists, but split from the National Association in 1961 due to some inner differences. The Convention comprised the majority of North Carolina-based Free Will Baptist churches, though a minority would split from the North Carolina state convention and maintain affiliation with the National Association. The Convention also maintains mission activity in eight countries – Philippines, Mexico, Bulgaria, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Liberia, and Guinea.
- United American Free Will Baptist Church - the largest body of African-American Free Will Baptist churches, organized in 1901 and headquartered in Kinston, North Carolina.
- United American Free Will Baptist Conference - a body of African-American Free Will Baptist churches that withdrew from the United American Free Will Baptist Church in 1968; headquartered in Lakeland, Florida.
- Unaffiliated Free Will Baptist local associations - a number of local Free Will Baptist associations remain independent of the National Association, Original FWB Convention, and the two United American bodies. Researchers have identified 10 such associations, though there may be more. The unaffiliated associations of Free Will Baptists include over 300 churches with an estimated 22,000 members. They have no organization beyond the "local" level.
- Eastern Stone (TN)
- French Broad (NC)
- Jack's Creek (NC,TN) Has member churches in these states according to the 2008 Minutes of the Jack's Creek Free Will Baptist Association
- John-Thomas (NC,KY,WVA,VA)
- Mt. Mitchell (NC)
- Original Grand River (OK)
- River Valley Association (AR)
- Stone Association of Central Indiana (IN)
- Toe River (NC,TN, & SC)
- Western (NC)
- Western Stone (TN)
Free Will Baptist Colleges
- California Christian College - Fresno, California
- Free Will Baptist Bible College - Nashville Tennessee
- Gateway Christian College - Virginia Beach, Virginia
- Hillsdale Free Will Baptist College - Moore, Oklahoma
- Mount Olive College - Mount Olive, North Carolina
- Southeastern Free Will Baptist College - Wendell, North Carolina
Formerly Free Will Baptist Colleges
- A Free Will Baptist Handbook: Heritage, Beliefs, and Ministries, by J. Matthew Pinson
- A History of Original Free Will Baptists, by Michael Pelt
- Baptists Around the World, by Albert W. Wardin, Jr.
- Dictionary of Baptists in America, Bill J. Leonard, editor
- Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, Samuel S. Hill, editor
- Sub-Groups Within the Baptist Denomination (in the United States), by R. L. Vaughn
- The Free Will Baptists in History, by William F. Davidson
- Benjamin Randall - Christian History Institute's Biographical Sketch
- California State Association of Free Will Baptists
- International Fellowship of Free Will Baptist Churches
- National Association of Free Will Baptists
- United American Free Will Baptist Conference, Inc.
- The Convention of Original Free Will Baptist Churches
- The Original Free Will Baptist International
- The Original Free Will Baptist Mission Church of Liberia
- The Free Will Baptist Web Site
- Missouri State Association of Free Will Baptists
- West Virginia State Association of Free Will Baptists