Free Will Baptists: A History of Migrants

At the turn of the twentieth century, very little was known about the development of the Palmer Movement of Free Will Baptists. Since then, historians have gathered and synthesized myriad documents into excellent narrative accounts.[1] Now Free Will Baptist historians need to begin filling in details and applying relevant historical analysis.

Our understanding of how Free Will Baptists spread geographically could benefit greatly from such research. Two periods of intense migration occurred in the history of the Palmer Movement. By applying migration pattern analysis, we can better understand this complex process. For example, migration analysis strengthens Benjamin Laker’s connection with the English General Baptists and offers insights into why so many Free Will Baptist churches have ties to the Separate Baptists.

The Story We Know

Benjamin Laker emigrated from Surrey, England, to the colony of North Carolina in 1684. Laker had converted to the General Baptist tradition almost twenty years earlier.[2] As far as we know, there were no General Baptists waiting for him in the colony when he arrived. However, just after his death in 1701, General Baptists from the area sent a letter to the General Association of General Baptists in London asking them to send ordained ministers and books for their aid.

A little over fifteen years after Laker’s death, his twice-widowed stepdaughter, Johanna Taylor Jeffreys Peterson, married Paul Palmer. Perhaps through his relationship with Johanna or reading doctrinal literature, Palmer became convinced of General Baptist doctrine. After his conversion, he traveled to Isle of Wight County, Virginia, to be ordained by a small group of General Baptists that had emigrated from England around 1700. For the next twenty years, Palmer preached the good news of salvation everywhere he went, forming churches in Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

The next great geographic advance of the General/Free Will Baptist tradition came at the turn of the eighteenth century. Around the time of the American Revolution, settlers began moving into the backcountry: western Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. In these frontier settlements, Separate Baptist congregations with Arminian and Calvinists adherents formed.

However, over the years, Arminian theology became dominant among Separate Baptists, and they eventually changed their name to Free Will Baptists. Still, the General Conference of Free Will Baptists in North Carolina were hesitant to associate with these churches. Michael Pelt suggests that this early hesitancy reflected doctrinal differences that were resolved over time.[3]

This narrative spans two massive periods of migration. During the late eighteenth century, English migration to America was slowing, but still significant. A hundred years later, Americans began moving into the hinterland. Therefore, a better understanding the history of migration patterns will enhance our understanding of Free Will Baptist history.

Transatlantic Migration

The English began migrating to North America in the late sixteenth century. However, no one associated with the Palmer Movement arrived until the late seventeenth century. Migration patterns during this time suggest that Laker was probably not the only General Baptist to settle in North Carolina. Palmer’s success gathering churches could also be attributed, in part, to these patterns.

Migration to the Chesapeake area (Virginia and Maryland) began during the early seventeenth century and peaked about fifty years later. After 1680, English emigration declined dramatically in the colonies. However, the decline was slower in North Carolina, because it was still relatively new in comparison with the rest of England’s settlements. This meant there was more opportunity for adventurous investors.

In addition, North Carolina proprietors targeted religious dissenters in their late seventeenth-century advertisements. They even published several tracts advertising religious toleration through Francis Smith, a General Baptists publisher in London. Pelt theorizes that Laker was enticed to immigrate by these publications.[4]

However, the Lakers were probably not the only General Baptist family to settle in North Carolina at that time. Before the late seventeenth century, most migration to the Chesapeake consisted of single men, seeking financial gain. Usually, these individuals had no familial or social connections awaiting them in the New World.

However, about the time the Laker family boarded a ship in England, the demographics of immigration shifted significantly. English men and women began migrating to the Chesapeake and Carolinas in nearly equal numbers, reflecting an increase in family migration.[5] Families migrate differently than individuals. Most often, English families migrating into still untamed regions during the 1780s and 90s were seeking increased religious liberty rather than profit. In addition, families usually migrated in communal groups, building small enclaves of the Old World in the colonies.

Therefore, the Lakers were likely not the only General Baptists to immigrate to North Carolina in the late seventeenth century. The letter requesting English General Baptist ministers and literature after Laker’s death suggests a similar conclusion. As Pelt has noted, Palmer’s later success gathering General/Free Will Baptist churches in Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina was likely due, in part, to the preexistence of General Baptist families in these communities.[6]

More research needs to be done along these lines. The 1702 letter senders and the families of Palmer’s churches could help us understand the transatlantic migration process much better. George Stevenson tracked Laker’s migration by combing shipping manifests and church records in Surrey County, England. Similar studies could be carried out for these folks.

Backcountry Migration

The American frontier crossed the Appalachian Mountains and entered the vast hinterland during the mid-eighteenth century. Frontier life was in many ways radically different from that of the civilized communities “back east.” Some of this difference was intentional. People who were unwelcome in the small towns and communities of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina sought to escape social restraints in the wilderness.

Later, when family groups began migrating inland, they brought along their communal structures. In this new setting, social institutions were adapted to the constraints of backwoods settlements. Church attendance and membership became primarily a matter of geography in these transient communities. Settlers set aside doctrinal differences to worship with the few Christians in their area.[7] As the population in these settlements increased through procreation and further migration, these small ecumenical gatherings were replaced by traditional denominations.

Despite their adaptation, these centers of community were extremely important to pioneers isolated in the wilderness. Separated from civilization by miles of dense woods and mountains, churches were the primary source of community on the frontier. In such circumstances, even people who were casual church attenders back east made sure to be at church on Sundays to catch up on the news of the community.[8]

When we consider these aspects of backcountry migration, the mode of Free Will Baptist expansion inland makes more sense. The first “Separate Baptists” were New Light Congregationalists from Connecticut who moved to Sandy Creek, North Carolina in 1755. They adopted some elements of Baptist doctrine and were accepting of people holding to Calvinism and Arminianism. In frontier communities, the limited ecumenicalism of the Separate Baptists provided a good middle ground for many evangelical settlers.

During the late-eighteenth century, many Separate Baptists began uniting with Regular Baptists who were Calvinists. At this time, as Robert Picirilli notes, “the more convinced Arminians among the Separates were the least likely to merge with the Regulars.”[9] By the time the Calvinists left the Separate Baptist congregations, there were enough people in the area to support several churches of differing doctrinal positions.

The Arminians who refused to join the Regular Baptists retained the Separate Baptist title for a while, but soon adopted the name Free Will Baptists. In some cases, they waited until the mid-nineteenth century to change their name. Regardless, as Robert Picirilli has noted such denominational titles were fluid on the frontier.[10] In 1825, Lucretia Patterson referred to the churches that would become the Cumberland Association of Free Will Baptists as the society of Free Will or Separate Baptists.[11] Such ambiguity suggests that some Free Will Baptist migrants may have embraced Separate Baptism as a temporary solution to their frontier circumstances.

Even if Free Will Baptists intended to join the Separate Baptists only temporarily, their doctrine would likely have been affected. This explains why, at first, the General Conference in North Carolina was hesitant to unite with frontier Free Will Baptists. But when the frontier moved further west, these churches began to reclaim their General/Free Will Baptist heritage as new Free Will Baptist migrants joined them and their relationship with the General Conference developed.

The paucity of records in the South makes tracing Free Will Baptist migration in the Palmer Movement very difficult. However, as the Free Will Baptist Historical Collections at Welch College and the University of Mount Olive continue to grow, this project will become more possible. Hopefully, researchers will soon be able to provide a more detailed account of the Palmer Movement’s development.


Several historians have provided an excellent overview of how General/Free Will Baptists first came to America from England and then spread inland. They’ve laid an incredible foundation for future historians. Incorporating the study of migration will help us develop and refine this narrative, filling it out and opening new avenues of investigation.


[1] See Michael Pelt, A History of Original Free Will Baptists (Mount Olive, NC: Mount Olive College Press, 1996); William F. Davidson, Free Will Baptists in History (Nashville: Randall House, 2001); and Robert E. Picirilli, and Michael Pelt.

[2] See George Stevenson Papers in the Free Will Baptist Historical Collection at the University of Mount Olive and Pelt, A History of Original Free Will Baptists, 22.

[3] Ibid., 156-159.

[4] Ibid., 22-23.

[5] Ned Landsman, “Migration and Settlement,” in A Companion to Colonial America ed., Daniel Vickers (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 81.

[6] Pelt, 36.

[7] Gregory H. Nobles, “Breaking into the Backcountry: New Approaches to the Early American Frontier, 1750-1800,” William and Mary Quarterly vol. 46 no. 4 (Oct., 1989): 648-49.

[8] Nobles, 649.

[9] Robert E. Picirilli, “Free Will Baptists in Tennessee“ Tennessee Baptist History (Fall, 1999), 49.

[10] Picirilli, 49-50.

[11] Lucretia Patterson, The Experiences of Lucretia Patterson, A Religious Tract Written by Herself (Nashville: Republican Press, 1825), available in Tennessee State Library.

Author: Phillip Morgan

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