The Free Will Baptists are an Arminian Baptist denomination with origins in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Followers of the doctrine of the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, they reject the Calvinist belief in absolute predestination, maintaining instead that salvation is open to all.
The origins of present-day Free Will Baptists can be traced to two separate beginnings. Most descend from the southern movement, which originated in colonial North Carolina under the leadership of Benjamin Laker (active in the 1680s) and Paul Palmer (active in the 1720s), who were English General Baptists. The northern movement arose spontaneously in New England in the 1780s, when Benjamin Randall was expelled from a Calvinistic Baptist church for his Arminian views. Most churches in the General Conference of Free Baptists (originally “Freewill Baptists”) in the North merged with the Northern Baptist Convention in 1911. Those churches that remained Free Baptist organized the General Co-operative Association of Freewill Baptists. The National Association of Free Will Baptists, formed in 1935, resulted from the merger of this group and its larger counterpart, the General Conference of Free Will Baptists.
The early history of Georgia Free Will Baptists is difficult to establish, owing to the scarcity of historical records from the early nineteenth century. Historians have long said that Providence Church, organized in what is now Muscogee County, was the first Free Will Baptist church in Georgia. Yet confusion has arisen about when this congregation began. Evidently, the band of worshipers was organized by a layman named John Travis Brodnax. He was born in 1780 and apparently lived in the Carolinas before moving to Georgia in the early years of the nineteenth century. Around 1830 Brodnax moved to the area of present-day Muscogee County.
Around this time Brodnax met Cyrus White, who had left the Regular Baptists because of his shift from Calvinism to Arminianism. White was instrumental in forming the Chattahoochee United Free-Will Baptist Association in 1835. In the 1850s the Chattahoochee Association petitioned the North Carolina General Conference of Free Will Baptists, proposing “a convention for the purpose of a union of the Free Will Baptists of the South.” Eventually the Chattahoochee Association extended from Muscogee County to the southwestern corner of Georgia. By 1906 seven associations, stretching primarily across the southern portion of the state, with some churches in north Georgia, had been formed.
Missions and Education
In the nineteenth century Georgia Free Will Baptists emphasized home missions to the near exclusion of foreign missions, owing no doubt to the lack of a strong national Free Will Baptist mission thrust overseas. However, Georgia Free Will Baptists became bold leaders in the area of overseas missions as the twentieth century progressed. Leading the state and the entire denomination in this endeavor was Laura Belle Barnard of Glennville. Barnard, a missionary to India, was the first foreign missionary of the General Conference and became the first foreign missionary of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, established in 1935.
The Free Will Baptists of Georgia have also emphasized education. They did not have the resources to sponsor an institution of higher learning in the nineteenth century, however, and pockets of “anti-education” sentiment existed within the denomination. Despite these factors, the early Free Will Baptists in Georgia valued the life of the mind and the importance of study in the preparation of Christian leaders.
After Eureka College (formerly Ayden Seminary) in North Carolina burned in 1929, the only educational institution in operation among Free Will Baptists was Zion Bible School near Blakely. Headed by T. B. Mellette, who held degrees from several schools, including Columbia Bible College in Columbia, South Carolina, Zion served as the training ground for numerous ministers in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, and from even farther away. Many Zion graduates went on to become leaders in the national association. In 1942, after the national association established the Free Will Baptist Bible College in Nashville, Tennessee, Zion closed its doors and donated all its assets to the new school.
Organization and Membership
Geographically scattered and hampered by a lack of good transportation and financial resources, Georgia Free Will Baptists were slow in starting a statewide body. Only after two attempts were made to create a state convention did the present state association come into existence, after the national association was established in 1935. The first session of the new Georgia State Association was held on August 31, 1937. The body elected two boards: the Board of Missions and the Board of Religious Education. These boards reflect the emphases on missions and education of the Georgia Free Will Baptist heritage.
From the beginning Georgia Free Will Baptists were intimately involved in the national association. In addition to Barnard, numerous Free Will Baptists from the state were influential in the early association, including Mellette and K. V. Shutes. K. V. and Lora Shutes for many years directed the Superannuation Board, which administered an insurance program for full-time ministers in the denomination. Other early national leaders from Georgia included L. C. Johnson, the founding president of Free Will Baptist Bible College, and Ralph Lightsey, an early dean of Free Will Baptist Bible College and the executive secretary of the national association.
Among white Free Will Baptists, approximately 118 churches were affiliated with the Georgia State Association of Free Will Baptist in 2004. Membership in these churches, which were organized into 10 associations, totaled around 9,500. The cooperative budget of the association supports a number of mission works in Georgia and abroad, camps and other youth ministries, a system of local Bible institutes, and a number of other religious education activities. Georgia Free Will Baptists also support the ministries of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, including home and international missions, Free Will Baptist Bible College, a publishing house, and other ministries.
African American Free Will Baptists
Before emancipation, enslaved Georgians were integrated into white churches. After the Civil War (1861-65), Black Free Will Baptists formed separate congregations, the majority of which were located in south and southwest Georgia. At one time these churches supported a school in Dawson, as well as Sunday schools and other local organizations. The Georgia churches are members of the United American Free Will Baptist Church, a group with strength in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. The current membership in Black Free Will Baptist churches in Georgia is estimated at approximately 1,250 in 50 churches.