When Free Will Baptists Went Liberal (Part I)

The 1911 merger between the Free Baptists[1] and the Northern Baptist Convention marked the former’s near extinction as a distinct religious body. However, this merger was symptomatic of a deeper theological shift among some Free Baptist leaders that had begun years before. In 1911, the Free Baptists merged all of their assets, missions organizations, and educational institutions with the Northern Baptist Convention’s. Many Free Baptist churches soon followed.

Some twentieth and twenty-first century Free Will Baptist laymen and historians lament the loss, wondering what might have been had the merger not occurred.[2] While such lamentation is not wholly unwarranted, those who lament the loss often neglect the reality that high-ranking Free Baptists in New England had already begun to embrace the tenets of Higher Criticism.[3] Some of the men were faculty members at Free Baptist colleges and seminaries. Invariably, they passed their convictions on to their students, including future Free Baptist clergymen. Furthermore, the denomination as a whole was being led into the growing ecumenical movement.

One might expect that conservative historians and theologians would focus their lament on the Free Baptists’ embrace of Higher Criticism and their participation in Protestant liberal ecumenism, which led to the financial and institutional losses, rather than on the losses themselves. Since they often do not, a more realistic assessment of the theological state of the Free Baptists in the early-twentieth century is needed.

Free Baptist Identity in the Early-twentieth Century

Free Baptists attributed their beginnings to the work of Benjamin Randall.[4] Randall was converted upon learning of the death of George Whitefield, whose preaching he had formerly scorned, and whose final public sermon he had recently heard. In 1780, Randall started a church in New Durham, New Hampshire, at the request of those converted under his ministry. Some Baptist ministers complained that Randall “was not sufficiently Calvinistic,” but he continued to preach as he had before.[5]

Several likeminded congregations banded together with Randall and the New Durham church to form an annual meeting. Other likeminded churches also followed this pattern, forming new associations and annual meetings. These were “the beginnings of the Free Baptist denomination.”[6] Their significance lies not only in their connection to Benjamin Randall but also in his connection to and protest against the reigning Calvinism of New England Baptists.

Free Baptists’ historical roots were identical to all other New England Calvinist Baptists.’ John Bunyan, Hanserd Knollys, Isaac Backus, and Roger Williams were essential to their denominational heritage.[7] What had separated them from other Baptists in their region was not separate origins but rather the anti-Calvinism of Benjamin Randall. Only the weakening of New England Baptist Calvinist convictions could reunite those whom Benjamin Randall had put asunder.

Hope of such a reunion began to grow less than fifty years after the founding of the New Durham church. The interdenominational ethos of the Second Great Awakening seems to have initiated Free Baptists’ interest in interdenominational union for the purpose of evangelistic ministry. In 1834, they noted, “The Lord put it into their hearts to call a general union meeting; accordingly the Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Free Baptist churches agreed to commit and conduct a union meeting.”[8] Such an endeavor would not have been uncommon in the wake of the Second Great Awakening and its revivals, but it apparently came to nothing.

The notion of “cultivating a better acquaintance and closer union of all open communion Baptist bodies” resurfaced in 1880.[9] In 1886, the Free Baptist General Conference expressed interest in uniting with other bodies for the purpose of “advancing our Lord’s kingdom.” Potential alliances, however, were not limited to Baptist bodies.[10]

By the 1904 General Conference, a committee of twelve was formed to consider the possibility of uniting with the Disciples of Christ, other Baptist groups, or the Congregational churches in New England. The Free Baptists also considered the possibility of not uniting with other groups, instead remaining in their current state. Davidson explains, “The final decision was a process of elimination.”[11]

Free Baptists decided that a union with the Northern Baptists made the most sense. Again, in the words of Davidson, “Because the Baptists agreed to open their doors to the Free Baptists, because the Free Baptists could retain at least part of their name, and because the Baptists guaranteed that Free Baptists’ identity would not be destroyed, alliance between the two groups seemed the only workable solution.”[12] A union with the Northern Baptists would take nearly a decade. While the Northern Baptist Convention was not officially formed until 1907, the process of uniting began in 1904.

Some might find it strange that a Christian body founded on the basis of separation from Calvinists, or even anti-Calvinism, would see fit to join with a historically Calvinist group. However, a great deal of theological change had occurred among New England Baptists over the course of 125 years.[13] According to the Free Baptists, Baptists in the North no longer clung to their rigid Calvinism.

Whether the New Hampshire Confession of Faith signaled an effective “Arminianizing” of Baptists across the North is somewhat irrelevant. Instead, the point is that by 1908 many Baptists across the North had forsaken their former Calvinism, thereby making it possible for the Northern Baptists and the Free Baptists to unite without any significant doctrinal disagreement. What some key Free Baptist and Northern Baptist leaders did have in common was their growing interest in ecumenism and liberal theology.

The Free Baptists and Higher Criticism

Historians rarely address the growing liberalism among key Free Baptists leaders. However, sufficient evidence indicates that liberal theology had made significant inroads with Free Baptist leaders and at Free Baptist educational institutions such as Bates College and Cobb Divinity School. This is not to suggest that the Free Baptists had embraced the methods of Higher Criticism in all of their schools or were proclaiming its tenets from the majority of their pulpits. But the evidence suggests that liberal theology was being taught in some of the classrooms where their future ministers were being trained and that liberal theology was being exported through books published by some of their faculty members.

Furthermore, academic freedom, or the ability to apply and teach the methods and findings of Higher Criticism, seems to have been a significant driving force behind the desire of some Free Baptists to merge with the Northern Baptist Convention. Such was the case for professor and Free Baptist leader Alfred Williams Anthony.

By all accounts, Anthony was a leading Free Baptist architect of the 1911 merger. For democratic groups such as Baptists, mergers do not typically occur swiftly or without resistance and complexity. The merger between the Northern Baptists and the Free Baptists took years of planning, leading, and follow-up. Anthony was a significant leader in these efforts. He served as the Corresponding Secretary and Treasurer of the General Conference of Free Baptists until 1938, when the entity was formally dissolved. He was a resilient, visionary leader, as his work in uniting the two groups demonstrates.

As a theologian, Anthony seems to have been deeply influenced by Higher Criticism, which becomes clear in his publications. Having studied under Adolf von Harnack and Bernard Weiss at the University of Berlin, Anthony took a teaching position at Cobb Divinity and published a book entitled The Method of Jesus: An Interpretation of Personal Religion in 1899. In it, Anthony downplayed the importance of abstract doctrines and creedal statements for Christianity. Furthermore, Anthony contended that the Apostles were bound by their first century time and experience to such an extent that we should test their words today.

Anthony was thoroughly convinced that Christianity had nothing to lose by imposing higher critical methods upon Christianity:

If literary criticism can show, and show as facts and not as conjectures, that the book of Isaiah was written by two men at widely separated periods of time, that the book of Daniel was penned several hundreds of years after the date usually assigned to it, that the Pentateuch is a compilation from several earlier sources, then, though we adjust our present views of the Bible, we shall be in no sense losers, but shall better know what the Bible really is, and shall thus come nearer to the truth.[14]

Anthony’s personal beliefs about the authorship of the Pentateuch, the authorship of Isaiah, and the dating of Daniel are potentially ambiguous. What is clear, however, is that he was deeply optimistic about Higher Criticism’s ability to discover the truth. Furthermore, he appears more than willing to embrace its findings publicly whatever they may be.

In Part II, we’ll examine the Free Baptists’ relationship with Higher Criticism through Bates College and Cobb Divinity School as well as their early involvement in the Ecumenical Movement. In the end, I’ll recommend a more chastened understanding of the Free Baptists and the 1911 merger.

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[1] Picirilli writes, “The General Conference was in transition in 1892, which included becoming incorporated and rewriting its charter and constitution. Among other things, this entailed changing the name from the General Conference of Freewill Baptists to the General Conference of Free Baptists.” Robert E. Picirilli, Little Known Chapter is Free Will Baptist History (Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 2015), 152.

[2] See Jack Williams, “The Day We Lost 600 Churches,” a presentation given at the Free Will Baptist Bible College Bible Conference, March 9, 1994.

[3] Davidson’s assessment is helpful: “At this point in time, it is useless to bemoan the loss of New England or to speculate as to what might have happened had this large and well established group remained Free Will Baptist and become part of the 1935 National Association [of Free Will Baptists]” (William F. Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in History [Nashville, TN: Randall House, 2001], 254).

[4] The General Conference of Free Baptists, Information Respecting the Basis of Union and Proceedings Relating Thereto Issued By Order of the Conference Board (Lewiston, ME: 1908).

[5] General Conference, The Basis of Union, 3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 2. What the Free Baptists celebrated about these figures was their commitment to religious liberty, the Bible as rule of faith and practice, congregational church government, the necessity of regeneration of the heart, and the believer’s baptism by immersion as a prerequisite for church membership.

[8] “Religious Intelligencer,” The Morning Star, vol. 9, no. 1 (Wednesday, May 7, 1834): 3; cited in Davidson, 255.

[9] Minutes of the Twenty-Fourth General Conference of Free Will Baptists, 1880, vol. 2, 28; cited in Davidson, 255.

[10] Missionary unions of the nineteenth century were radically different, theologically, from the Protestant ecumenism of the twentieth century. Historians such as William R. Estep have demonstrated that the nineteenth century missionary unions were concerned with world evangelism; this was undergirded by an understanding of the necessity of spiritual conversion through faith in Jesus Christ. The Protestant ecumenism of the twentieth century seems to have been guided by the conviction that the social teachings of Jesus were the very heart of the gospel, not repentance and faith. Therefore, the early attempts of the Free Baptists to unite with other groups for the sake of evangelism should not be conflated with the ecumenical spirit of Free Baptist leaders at the turn of the twentieth century. See William Roscoe Estep, Church Union and Southern Baptists (Fort Worth: Baptist Book Store, 1955).

[11] Davidson, 257.

[12] Ibid.

[13] In the words of the Free Baptists: “During this century and a quarter, the Baptists have been greatly modified. The yielding of rigid Calvinistic feeling recorded itself when in 1832 [sic] the New Hampshire Confession was adopted by the New Hampshire State Convention. In the Middle States where the old Philadelphia Confession is nominally held it has either been expurgated of its strongest expressions, or allowed to fall into ‘innocuous disservitude.’ The Baptists today have little, if any, more sense of restrictions in their Calvinism that Benjamin Randall did in 1780.” The General Conference of Free Baptists, Information Respecting the Basis of Union and Proceedings Relating Thereto Issued By Order of the Conference Board, (Lewiston, ME, 1908), 4-5.

[14] Alfred Williams Anthony, The Method of Jesus: An Interpretation of Personal Religion (Boston, MA: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1899), 248.

Author: Jesse Owens

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  1. I look forward to part II.

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