Forgotten Days of Early Cuba

It was an unexpected treasure…even for Home Missions director of church growth David Crowe, who trolls the Internet like a hungry shark searching for hidden pieces of Free Will Baptist history. His patient search snagged an almost-forgotten letter about the beginnings of Free Will Baptist outreach in Cuba written by late Missouri pastor, Winford Davis.


Mystery Manuscript

The 17-paragraph, three-page, single-spaced letter covers the 10-year span when the Free Will Baptist presence in Cuba grew from a dream in Thomas “Pop” Willey’s mind to a robust ministry with its own association, five missionaries, and an 18-acre farm with a mission school and compound.

The document was signed by Winford Davis, a gifted preacher from Missouri. Davis played a major role in the 1935 organization of the National Association of Free Will Baptists and was a member of the landmark Treatise Committee.

The manuscript is undated, so its exact age remains in question. Even though Davis mostly refers to events in the early to mid-1940s, he mentions the Fidel Castro regime, which means the report was written no earlier than 1959, perhaps later.


Monett Connection

For several years, the Foreign Missions Board (now International Missions Board) operated out of Davis’ home in Monett, Missouri, while he was chairman and later promotional secretary-treasurer. He was  a creative denominational entrepreneur who used the technology of his day (slides and film) to communicate the Foreign Missions message. Davis was elected to the Foreign Missions Board in 1940 and served until 1950 when he resigned rather than relocate to Nashville.

He chose to stay in Missouri with his wife Burnice and their two small sons, because, according to the document, “I just could not see myself moving into this large city with my family, then leaving them alone the greatest part of the time with my boys to grow up in the city atmosphere and surroundings with no daddy at home.”


Dark Ship to Havana

The Davis document opens with the details of Thomas Willey’s move from Panama to Cuba, and his request that the National Association of Free Will Baptists send a “deputation party to Cuba for the purpose of aiding him in deciding where would be the most promising and logical location on the island for the beginning of a F.W.B. work.”

Five ministers traveled to Cuba to aid Willey: Melvin Bingham (Tulsa, OK), Bert Rogers (Wewoka, OK), and three Missouri ministers from Monett—Kenneth Turner, George Lashum, and Winford Davis.

They traveled in Bert Rogers’ car to Miami, arriving at 10:00 p.m. on January 21, 1942, six weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the nation into World War II. They stayed with Thomas Willey’s sister (Dr. Lydia Mason) until they shipped out for Cuba.

The Missouri ministers were all of draft age, and had to wire their local Selective Service Board for permission to leave the country for 10 days—finally receiving permission a scant six hours before sailing time. The preachers (and the car) boarded the S.S. Cuba, and made the 236-mile voyage to Havana under blackout conditions, zig-zagging to avoid being torpedoed by German submarines.

Davis wrote, “We were conscious of the danger, but far greater than that, we were keenly conscious of the divine presence and protection of the Lord.”

The men spent 10 days visiting and preaching in mission churches, accompanied by “Pop” Willey and an interpreter (Hugh Payne). They reported seven conversions, and recommended that Free Will Baptists focus their mission work in Cuba’s western province, Pinar Del Rio.


Cuban Honeymoon

By 1944, a number of mission churches had been established, and the Foreign Missions Board asked Davis to return to Cuba, bring back a report, and “take special cognizance of all official papers and records.”

This time, however, Winford made plans for a different traveling companion—his wife. He wrote, “I was nearing the age of 40, but as yet had never taken to myself a bride.”

He and his fiancé were married on April 3, 1944, and immediately boarded a train for Tennessee where he preached “a prophetic message each day during the Bible Conference” at Free Will Baptist Bible College, and had three conversions.

Winford is careful to note “the entire expense of the bride on this trip was paid by us, and not from the treasury of the Foreign Missions Board.” He was perhaps the only man in history to spend his honeymoon preaching in Tennessee and riding horses with “Pop” Willey across Cuba.


30 Days on Horseback

The newlyweds flew from Nashville to Cuba where Winford “covered the entire field” for 30 days on horseback while his bride stayed with Mabel “Mom” Willey at the Mission Compound.

“I witnessed the hogs sleeping in the kitchen while I would be sleeping in the adjoining room,” he wrote. “I experienced hogs and dogs fighting under the table (dirt floors) while we and the family were eating the meal.”

During his month-long tour, Davis preached 16 sermons, witnessed 80 conversions, baptized 31, and helped organize a church with 24 charter members in the town of Vinales. He and his wife returned home on May 16, 1944, three weeks before D-Day.

Winford’s words are chilling, “Some of the native preachers with whom we fellowshipped were executed before the firing squad after the takeover by Fidel Castro.”


Land Titles and Pistols

While reviewing official documents as instructed, Davis learned that the deed to the 18-acre farm the Mission had purchased was made out to Thomas and Mabel Willey, which meant the denomination did not own it. The letter explains that until the Foreign Missions Board incorporated, it could not hold title to Cuban property.

Davis describes the incorporation process in great detail—papers prepared by Rev. L. R. Ennis (NC) and subsequent recognition by the Cuban government in 1946.

He writes briefly about a third trip to Cuba, flying from New Orleans (May 12-18, 1947) to receive title to the property, and describes an unforgettable experience with a Cuban notary public.

“While this business matter was proceeding, some fellow came in and began to peck on an old noisy typewriter rather close by….The official ordered him out. He left, but in a short time, was back doing the same thing. Again, the official ordered him out in no uncertain terms. Again he left, and again in a short time was back at it as before. The Notary reached in a drawer and pulled out a huge pistol, and drawing it on him gave strict orders to stay away from that typewriter, else he would suffer the consequences. So, that was the last we saw of him.”


Last Things

The final paragraph explains why Davis resigned from the Foreign Missions Board and from the position as promotional secretary-treasurer. His explanation—that he preferred to raise his sons in Missouri rather than Nashville—is followed by a postscript every pastor will appreciate.

“My salary during the years I served as Sec’y-Treas. was $75 per month, (not per week).”

Winford Davis died in 1997 in his beloved Monett at age 93. He preached 70 years (pastoring 60 years), delivered more than 9,100 sermons, won 2,170 people to Christ, organized 13 churches, helped establish Missouri’s monthly magazine, The Gem, and served three years as editor. He was a member of the national Board of Education that urged the denomination to establish Free Will Baptist Bible College.

One more thing—David Crowe, who found the Davis document, plans to give it to the International Missions Department for their archives. But you can be sure that he will make copies just in case it disappears again and takes another 45 years to surface.


Download the Entire Letter


About the Writer: Jack Williams was editor of Contact magazine for 30 years and long-time member of the Free Will Baptist Historical Commission.