Preserving Free Will Baptist History

The Historical Commission of the National Association of Free Will Baptists is charged with preserving and promoting the denomination’s history. The Free Will Baptist Historical Collection housed at Welch College fulfills a key aspect of this duty by housing the many records Robert E. Picirilli has spent decades collecting, organizing, and preserving. For the past three years, I have served as his assistant. The Collection contains a wide variety of records that have been well-organized for researchers to access with ease. However, this process also relies on the faithful help of people throughout the denomination. When everyone takes part, the Commission is best able to fulfill its task.

Records that Free Will Baptists Create

Free Will Baptists have created many formal records since they migrated to America in the seventeenth century. Records preserve the ideas and actions of people beyond the moment. Every culture creates records, even non-literate oral cultures. However, oral cultures can preserve information only through memory, which relies on interpersonal communication and is prone to deterioration.[1] Written records provide a much more reliable resource.

Even though they lived in a literate society, Free Will Baptists in the Palmer Movement were usually not wealthy enough to create many written records before the twentieth century. In addition, many Southern records were lost or destroyed during the Civil War and its aftermath. Therefore, the Palmer Movement produced and preserved few records compared to the remnant of wealthier Freewill Baptist Randall Movement churches in the North that joined the National Association. During the twentieth century, Free Will Baptists increased in affluence, resulting in many more written records, especially after the National Association of Free Will Baptists was formed in 1935.

Oral histories could fill some of the gaps in our records. Older Free Will Baptists hold memories of many events, which are important for understanding Free Will Baptist development over the last eighty years. More, they may be able to recount stories they heard as young people from their elders. In fact, an octogenarian in the 2010s could have second-hand oral knowledge from the nineteenth century! While this kind of information is susceptible to mistakes in transmission and to memory loss, no other sources remain for such information. Interviewing these saints and committing their responses to video or audio recording or to written transcriptions provides an invaluable resource for historians.

Beyond memory and oral traditions, Free Will Baptists have also produced many written records. Literate cultures use writing to preserve information in a more flexible and reliable way. Writing allows a level of precision in thought and communication exceeding verbal exchange. In addition, information in literate societies can become “objective” by “taking on a life of its own” separate from its creator.[2]

Social records are especially important for Free Will Baptist historians, because they contain information about the actions and events of religious organizations, political organizations, or social groups. Primarily, they include minutes and periodicals from churches, associations, and ministries. Pamphlets and books that detail the actions and events of various Free Will Baptist people and organizations provide more great social records. Even bulletins, flyers, photographs, posters, promotional materials, and other printed everyday materials (broadly known as realia) from special events contain valuable information.

Social records are one of the primary record forms preserved at the Collection and constitute the majority of our holdings. We’ve actively sought to collect all Free Will Baptist periodicals and associational minutes. The Collection is on most Free Will Baptist periodical mailing lists and some associational clerks send in old and new minutes. However, many gaps persist in both sets of records. The Collection also holds many realia articles from all over the denomination. Clergy and laypeople provide an invaluable service in helping us gather all of these materials.

Instrumental and legal records are also important for preservation. Instrumental records hold information designed for a specific task, such as defining the beliefs and practices of a Free Will Baptist organization (e.g., treatises, statements of faith, and church covenants), analytically addressing some aspect of Free Will Baptist theology or doctrine, instructing in spiritual growth (by a Free Will Baptist author), and presenting research data on Free Will Baptists.

The vast majority of legal records created by churches and associations are charters filed with the government. However, sometimes Free Will Baptists have become embroiled in much more complex legal matters such as the 1962 denominational split that produced reams of records; the Collection also preserves these kinds of documents depending on the importance of the legal proceeding to the denomination as a whole.

Individuals create many records to preserve personal information that can be incidental (e.g., birth, marriage, and death records), extemporaneous (e.g., diaries and journals), or reflective (e.g., memoirs and autobiographies). Personal documents can also take the form of interpersonal communications such as letters, emails, and audio or visual recordings. Personal records created by people who have had significant influence on the denomination, such as Laura Belle Barnard, Raymond Riggs, John L. and Mary Ann Welch, and Isaac Yandell are also preserved in the Historical Collection.

The limits of resources and the pertinence of records created by Free Will Baptists about non-Free Will Baptist subjects make these records a secondary concern. Still, they’re important, and we’re happy to preserve these records of Free Will Baptists’ wider influence in the world when possible.

How the Historical Collection Preserves Records

Preserving documents is an intentional endeavor that can be surprisingly complex at times. Determining what to keep is often difficult. Records that are kept must be catalogued so that future researchers can find them. Last, preserving records from deterioration requires special care.

Generally, the Collection’s purpose is to preserve “anything published or preserved by, for, or about Free Will Baptists.”[3] However, the limits of space, time, money, and manpower make preserving everything impossible. Instead, we try our best to preserve what we think could conceivably be important for future researchers.

For instance, we could never preserve all the audio and video recordings of sermons produced by Free Will Baptists. Such a project would likely require its own small warehouse and team of archivists! However, some important sermons or sermons preached by influential people in the denomination such as L. C. Johnson are preserved when possible.

We also must limit the number of copies for any record. For example, the Collection is already preserving many copies of the minutes of the National Association from 1935 to the present, making the addition of another copy an imprudent use of resources.

When the Collection acquires new records, they’re entered into Welch Library’s online catalog as soon as possible. From anywhere in the world, researchers can search the catalog by author, publisher, subject, title, or a variety of other more technical filters. Ideally, this means they can find specific records they already know exist and discover new records that relate to their work. Researchers can even request scans of specific records to be emailed to them when necessary, although our resources are limited and such requests may take time to fulfill.

After cataloging, records are preserved in the Collection. The vast majority of records produced by Free Will Baptists are destroyed before we can see them. Usually, this is a careless act of shredding or burning because people don’t think their records are valuable enough to preserve. In other instances, people try to preserve records in musty stacks, spare rooms, storage closets, and even display cases where they are exposed to climate fluctuations, harmful light rays, insects, and mice. While this kind of destruction is unintentional, it still erases our denominational memory.

Records of all types need to be stored in an accessible climate-controlled space that is reasonably secure from theft. At the Collection, records are stored in archival-quality envelopes and boxes or on shelves in the main room of the collection. These materials can’t be checked out of the library, and some records can be accessed only with the assistance of the archivist or a librarian. We also use various archival methods to slow or stop deterioration.

Another aspect of our preservation task is providing unbelievable access to researchers. With the help of North American Ministries, we’re currently scanning all of the minutes within our holdings and uploading text-searchable pdf files to This is a massive project, requiring many man-hours. We began with the minutes of the National Association of Free Will Baptists and then proceeded alphabetically through the states, beginning in Alabama. Currently we’re scanning minutes from the state of Mississippi. The results are already benefitting researchers around the denomination, opening new vistas of historical study.


Free Will Baptists create many records in their day-to-day operations. The Free Will Baptist Historical Collection preserves and catalogs those records in an accessible climate-controlled space that is open to researchers everywhere. Although we actively seek important additions to our holdings, we primarily rely on the faithful support of donors to supply the Collection with historical material. Hopefully, this overview of our process will encourage us all to take part in preserving our denominational memory.


If you would like to help Free Will Baptists preserve our history, please consider donating materials to the Historical Collection. Donations can be mailed to the address below. For counsel determining what are important records for preservation and what the Collection needs, contact Phillip Morgan at

Welch Library

NAFWB Historical Collection

1045 Bison Trail

Gallatin, TN 37066


[1] Much of the general information on manuscript production in this post is drawn from James M. O’Toole and Richard J. Cox, Understanding Archives and Manuscripts Archival Fundamentals Series II (Chicago, IL: Society of American Archivists, 2006).

[2] O’Toole and Cox, 5.

[3] Robert E. Picirilli, “Free Will Baptist Historical Collection: Collection Development Policy and Manual” (Unpublished, 2017), 1.

Author: Phillip Morgan

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