The Primitive Baptists emerged in Georgia and elsewhere as a distinct denomination during the early nineteenth century in response to the growing importance of missionary efforts in the Baptist church. The Primitive Baptists opposed such efforts, embracing a more conservative theology that relied upon such established ideas and traditions as the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and a literal interpretation of the Bible. Though strongest in rural and frontier areas of the South and West, Primitive (also known as Old School, Predestinarian, and Antimission) Baptists existed in all parts of the United States, with counterparts in the Strict Baptists of England and Australia, and the Covenanted Baptists of Canada. In 2005 there were approximately 12,000 Primitive Baptists in Georgia and about 425 churches serving them.
Inspired by the revivals of the Second Great Awakening, many Baptist congregations in the early nineteenth century began to form mission societies. Some conservative Baptists disagreed with the idea of missionary work, however, since such efforts contradicted the traditional Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Predestination, the belief that God has already chosen who will and will not receive salvation and that only God can grant this divine election, clashed with missionary work’s emphasis on personal efforts toward salvation. Also troubling to more conservative Baptists were the emerging seminaries, Sunday schools, and auxiliary organizations, as well as the general centralization that accompanied missionary work. Some Baptists began to protest the appearance of these “man-made” agencies, arguing that such money-based agencies and missionary societies had no place in the churches of apostolic times, were not mentioned in the Bible, and thus should have no place in the modern church.
Formal opposition in Georgia to these new “institutions of the day” began as early as 1819, when the Piedmont Association resolved to have “nothing to do with missionaries.” In 1829 the first open schism over missions took place in the Hephzibah Association (in Augusta and Richmond County), when the antimission churches withdrew and formed the Canoochee Association. In 1836 most of the Baptist associations in Georgia divided over the antimission controversy in what was known as the “big split.” By 1848 almost all Baptist bodies in the state had aligned themselves with one side or the other. The chief organ of the southern antimissionaries, the Primitive Baptist, published in North Carolina, gave its name to the movement in the Deep South, including Georgia. The name “Primitive Baptist” reflected the antimission Baptists’ desire to preserve the original, or primitive, Baptistry of apostolic times. The Primitives chiefly disagreed with the deemphasis of the doctrine of divine sovereignty and a perceived overreliance on money, church bureaucracy, and the validity of human efforts toward salvation.
The Primitive Baptists later underwent a number of further divisions over such issues as the manner of addressing the unconverted in sermons, whether preaching the gospel was a “means” of regenerating the elected, limited versus absolute predestination, the validity of outsider baptism, divorce, membership in secret societies, and the use of instrumental music in worship. After the Civil War (1861-65), African American Baptists in Georgia left white-dominated congregations and established many Primitive Baptist churches and associations of their own.
Despite their frequent divisions, most Primitive Baptists agree in maintaining a strong adherence to predestinarian theology, although they do not label themselves as Calvinists. Other tenets include strict church discipline; a bivocational, unsalaried ministry (although many churches provide some financial support to their pastors, and others support full-time ministers); primarily extemporaneous preaching; simple meetinghouses (although newer church buildings often feature modern amenities); feet washing; and an capella style of congregational singing. The singing style often bears a close relationship to the shape-note singing tradition, exemplified in the various editions of the Sacred Harp.