Without a Monument: The Life of Elder Paul Palmer

By Darrell Holley

The English General Baptists arose out of the diverse group of those dissenting from the official Church of England established by Henry VIII upon his break with Rome. Some, called Puritans, were willing to remain within that church but insisted on “purifying” it of many of its Romish practices, following the pattern of the Reformed churches of the Continent. Others, called Separatists, believed that the Church of England was so apostate that they should leave it completely and form new churches. Some of these Separatists fled to Holland for a time. (Some of these eventually made it to America as the “Pilgrims” of Plymouth Plantation.)

Some of these Separatists (through the influence of Dutch Anabaptists) began to have doubts about infant baptism and to consider the importance of the voluntary nature of the church, as well as the Biblical sources of its worship. A couple of these English Separatist congregations in Holland also rejected many of the doctrines of Calvinism, through the influence of the Dutch Mennonites and especially the Dutch Remonstrants. These returned to England, where in 1612 they formed the first Baptist church in England, a General or Free Will Baptist church. (These names were used interchangeably from very early on. They were called General Baptists because they believed in the General Atonement. In reproach, their enemies sometimes called them “Free willers” or “Free wills.”)

These English General or Free Will Baptists grew quite rapidly. In 1660, when their great theologian Thomas Grantham presented a copy of their confession of faith to the new king Charles II, he said that there were already twenty thousand General Baptists in England and Wales. However, their persecution grew as well. Their ministers were outlawed and their services proscribed.

In response, a few scattered Baptists began to trickle into America surreptitiously. (Sometimes these immigrants were General Baptists and sometimes they were Baptists who had turned Calvinist, so-called “Particular Baptists.”) Also, a few of the Calvinist Puritans and Separatists already in the New World began to adopt Baptist principles (people like Roger Williams). Gradually, a few little Baptist congregations were formed. In New England, they faced more persecution from the Calvinist Puritans, so some moved to areas like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, where they would be tolerated.

In 1663, King Charles II gave several of his courtiers a huge tract of land in America, which they named Carolina (from the Latin word for “Charles,” Carolus). They allowed almost complete religious freedom for Dissenters, not because they themselves were so devout but because they knew that they could thereby attract more colonists. As a result, many Dissenters went to the Carolinas: some were Quakers and a few were Baptists. But the Carolinas were a very large colony, and colonists lived scattered over hundreds of miles of wilderness. By the 1680s there were one or two Quaker meetings in what is now North Carolina and at least one Baptist church in Charleston, South Carolina (made up of General and Particular Baptists trying unsuccessfully to worship together).

General Baptists were scattered across what is now North Carolina by the 1680s, but they had not formed any formal congregations, nor, evidently, did they have any ordained ministers. Benjamin Laker, an English General Baptist, arrived in the Albemarle region by 1685. He became a prominent planter and gradually rose to political prominence, serving at various times as councilman, member of the grand jury, justice of the peace, deputy to one of the colonial proprietors, and a member of the governor’s council of advisors; his daughter Sarah married Thomas Harvey, the governor of North Carolina. Laker had a large family of children and step-children, but where they worshiped and how we do not know. We do know that Laker was interested in Free Will Baptist theology: when he died in 1701, he left his books by name to various people, including a copy of Christianismus Primitivus, a book on Free Will Baptist theology by Thomas Grantham, to his daughter Sarah Harvey.

He and his family were not the only General Baptists there; we know of others. In 1702, a group of General Baptists wrote to their brethren in England, asking for either a minister or books. No minister was found to go, but they did collect the sum of seven pounds, twelve shillings, to send the colonists some books. Just across the border in Virginia, there were a few Quakers and General Baptists (at least as early as 1699), but they were few and scattered and without proper pastoral help, not to mention being outlaws. About 1714 some General Baptists in Virginia wrote to England, requesting elders. The Association sent two brethren: one died at sea, but the other, Elder Robert Norden, arrived and began working in Burley, just across the James River from Jamestown. In 1727 they received two more elders from England.

Paul Palmer’s birthplace or birth date are so far unknown, perhaps in England, perhaps in Virginia. He was certainly living in York County, Virginia, in the late spring of 1717, when he married the widow Martha Hansford Hill, who had two small children and kept an “ordinary” (or tavern or inn). Before they had been married a year, Martha died, and her two brothers took the two Hill children and the tavern (and even Paul Palmer’s fiddle).

Within a year, Palmer moved across the border into the Perquimans area in northeast North Carolina. Perhaps he had relatives in the area already; there are records of others with his surname there at the time. In March, 1719, Palmer married a thirty-three-year-old woman, who was already twice widowed: Joanna Taylor Jeffreys Peterson. Mrs. Peterson was a woman of some prominence, the step-daughter of the General Baptist Benjamin Laker, and of some wealth: her second husband Thomas Peterson had owned a farm of about five hundred acres and had given one hundred acres for the formation of the town of Edenton.

What were Palmer’s religious views at this time? When he arrived in Carolina in 1719 he moved to the Perquimans area where most settlers were Quakers, and he promptly joined the local Quaker meeting. However, he remained a Quaker only until 1722 when he asked for a certificate of dismissal from the meeting. By this time he must have been a General Baptist. But where he learned of General Baptist views we cannot be sure. Perhaps he had learned them from conversations with his Baptist in-laws and from reading the works of Thomas Grantham. Perhaps he had already been familiar with General Baptists in Virginia. Indeed, perhaps he was from a General Baptist family in England and only joined the Quakers because they were the only Dissenter congregation available. Perhaps further research will shed more light on Palmer’s early life.

However he became a General Baptist, Palmer did so with vigor. Indeed, this is a characteristic of all his life. Whatever his hand found to do, he did it with all his might. He gave himself to reading and studying General Baptist theology evidently. (When his daughter died, her house contained a library of thirty books, quite a fine library for the Carolina frontier.) When or by whom he was baptized and later ordained is unknown so far. The nearest General Baptist minister at this time was Robert Norden in Virginia; a likely possibility is that he traveled there for baptism and, later, for ordination. By the mid-1720s Paul Palmer was a General Baptist elder, traveling regularly throughout the Perquimans area of North Carolina preaching and baptizing. Some of his earliest success was in Chowan County, where in 1727 he “settled” a congregation, forming the first General Baptist or Free Will Baptist congregation in North Carolina. This is extremely significant. Years later, when those General Baptist churches in New England and the Middle Colonies had almost totally died out or had capitulated to Calvinism, it was from the work of Palmer, started in the 1720s, that almost all Free Will Baptist churches in the southeastern United States would ultimately rise.

Soon Palmer’s work was achieving great success. Several prominent members of the Church of England turned Baptist and joined this new movement. By October, 1729, a second congregation had been started and a young man named William Burgess ordained to lead it. That same month, the governor complained to the Anglican bishop of London about Palmer’s nefarious activities. Palmer, he said, was holding daily meetings and making hundreds of converts all over the area. As a result of Palmer’s activity the Baptists were flourishing. The governor pleaded that he was powerless to prevent this tide of religious enthusiasm which was sweeping the province as a result of Palmer’s preaching.

Needing more ordained ministers and evidently finding few men properly qualified among his many converts, in the fall of 1729 he wrote to John Comer, the minister at the Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island. That congregation, formed in 1644, was a combined General and Particular congregation and was led by the twenty-five-year-old Comer, who had attended Harvard and Yale before becoming a Baptist. By this time the remaining two General Baptist churches in Virginia and the two churches in North Carolina had already formed a yearly meeting or association. Perhaps Palmer heard about Comer by way of Elder Robert Jones of Virginia; perhaps Jones knew Baptists in New England and corresponded with them. Quite likely the New England congregations sent fraternal letters to the Virginia-North Carolina conference.

Comer could not be of much help to Palmer. He did send one minister, a young friend of his with the impressive name of Constant Devotion. He also began corresponding with Palmer. When Palmer learned that there was a Free Will Baptist world beyond the four or five churches of Virginia and North Carolina, he determined to avail himself of them. Palmer’s education (like so much about him) is so far unknown. As a Baptist, he could not have been a student at any college in the entire English-speaking world, either at Cambridge or Oxford in England, or at Harvard or Yale in New England, or at William and Mary in Virginia. But he must have had interest in education: he owned a considerable collection of books; he did not ordain merely any adult male member of his congregations but sought for qualified candidates. As early as 1730 he had prepared a manuscript for publication entitled “Christ the Predestinated and Elected,” which evidently discussed the General Baptist doctrine that believers are predestinated and elected by means of their saving union with the predestinated and elected Savior. By 1729, Palmer owned almost a thousand acres in North Carolina. He was trained as a surveyor and was appointed surveyor of Albemarle County. In short, Palmer was a man of considerable native abilities and considerable self-education (if not formal schooling).

Palmer decided to visit the New England churches in person. In the fall of 1730 he traveled by sea to Boston. Given the means of travel at the time and the time, energy, and funds required to do so, Palmer’s journey from North Carolina to New England is amazing. One historian says: “Only a person of some means could have undertaken such a journey. His plan of visiting the churches of a remote section shows that he was a man of large conceptions, of proper self-respect, and calm assurance of his own powers.”[1] He evidently visited Boston and the churches in Massachusetts and Connecticut. In October, he met with Comer in Rhode Island. On his way home, he participated in an ordination in New Jersey and traveled overland, perhaps visiting the churches in Virginia and preaching in Maryland.

After returning to North Carolina, he continued his work, with his preaching circuits growing larger and reaching into the Roanoke River valley of North Carolina and into Maryland and South Carolina. In February, 1735, he visited the General Baptist brethren in Charleston, South Carolina; in the autumn of 1735 he returned to Maryland again, preaching near Baltimore. Numerous Free Will Baptist congregations were being formed in North Carolina. George Stevenson observes that even several generations later one of the places he baptized was still known as “Paul Palmer’s Landing” or “Paul Palmer’s Dipping Hole.”[2] By 1738 several more towns had been settled, and Palmer endeavored to reach New Bern and Edenton. He purchased land in both towns with his own funds and contracted with a carpenter to build two one-and-a-half story fifteen-by-twenty-foot frame buildings. The colony was growing, and Palmer wanted the Free Will Baptist work to progress as well.

Not all went well, of course. Only a handful of papers with Paul Palmer’s signature on them have survived. One of the most affecting is a note written in Palmer’s own hand on the title-page of a Bible, describing how he preached the funeral of his only son Samuel, who died in November, 1739, at the age of 18. He notes that he took for his sermon text Proverbs 8:17: “I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me.”[3]

He also encountered persecution. In the spring of 1740, Palmer returned to Maryland, where he incurred the wrath of the local magistrate. However, when the case was called in March, 1742, Palmer did not appear; by that time, apparently, he was dead. Like his birthplace and birth date, the circumstances of his death are so far unknown. Did he die in Maryland? Did he die at sea on the trip home? His wife Joanna lived until 1747, when she died at the age of sixty-one. She was survived by her daughter Martha Ann, who settled in Edenton. There is much that is still unknown about Palmer’s life and ministry. When his daughter died she left several bound notebooks, which some have thought were Palmer’s journals. If only these were available, but evidently they are lost.

Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, the work of Paul Palmer did not go from success to success after his death. Within twenty years of his death the Free Will Baptist movement which had reached upwards of twenty churches had been decimated by Calvinist Baptist missionaries to a low of four churches.[4]

 

So why is Palmer important?

First, his importance to the origin and growth of Free Will Baptists in America cannot be over-rated. The General Baptist churches of New England and the Middle Colonies, the prosperity and education of which Palmer so much admired, eventually either died or capitulated to Calvinism or other views. It is from the churches started by Palmer that virtually the entire work of Free Will Baptists in the American Southeast has grown. Though they suffered tremendously, a remnant survived to serve as witness to Palmer’s monumental work.

Second, his influence on early American religious history was profound. Both the Quakers and the Church of England failed to evangelize the area; as Pelt observes, “The failure of the Established Church (Anglican) to reach the thousands of new settlers along the coastal region of North Carolina and to provide a stable and continuing ministry for them meant that a wide door was open for Palmer with his message of general atonement and believers’ baptism.”[5]

In such an evil day, Palmer planted churches and had extraordinary influence in the colony. Another historian has said that Palmer and the other General Baptist ministers

were men of exemplary lives, of deep piety and unfaltering devotion to their great cause. In winter and in summer they traveled long distances to carry the gospel to those who otherwise would never have heard the voice of a messenger of Zion. In the districts where the more cultured lived they often heard the reproach of their ignorance, and were sometimes scornfully driven from the seat of justice where they had claimed the right to be protected in holding their services, they were sometimes rudely interrupted by the constable as they were worshiping God and breaking the bread of life to a people hungry for the gospel. Yet they were undeterred and they went everywhere preaching the word. And under their preaching many among a people otherwise destitute of the gospel professed the hope of salvation and were baptized. No one today who loves the Lord can fail to thank God for their labors.[6]

Third, he is a good model. His personal piety, his hard work, his self-preparation and self-education, his desire for theological precision, his missionary zeal in preaching “in season and out of season,” his bold resistance to the enemies of the Gospel, his eagerness “to spend and be spent” for the spread of the Gospel, his dedication to old Baptist principles, his hopes for progress in the new towns of America, his warm friendships with brethren wherever he found them—in all these ways, Paul Palmer recommends himself as a model for imitation.

One Southern Baptist historian has written:

I am a Particular Baptist throughout, but I have sometimes been moved to tears by the sad fate of Paul Palmer, when his flourishing field—the most prosperous body of Baptist people at that time in the world—was overrun and trampled down by his enemies. Paul Palmer excites my imagination and evokes my sympathy. He was a great and worthy man, and ought to have a monument somewhere.[7]

Well, truly he ought to have a monument. In some ways, modern Free Will Baptists are his monument. The ultimate success of Palmer’s life and ministry is to be found in them.

 

A Timeline of Events Related to Elder Paul Palmer

1663 – Carolina Colony formed (with religious freedom for Dissenters)

1685 (ca.) – Benjamin Laker, English General (Free Will) Baptist, arrives in Carolina

1699 – First General (Free Will) Baptists in Virginia

1717 – Paul Palmer marries Martha Hill, in York County, Virginia

1718 – Death of Martha Palmer

1719 – Paul Palmer arrives in North Carolina from Virginia

1719 – Palmer marries Joanna Peterson, step-daughter of Benjamin Laker

1719 – Palmer becomes a member of the Quaker Monthly Meeting in Perquimans Precinct, North Carolina

1722 – Palmer leaves the Quakers (evidently to become a General Baptist)

1727 – Palmer settles the first General (Free Will) Baptist church in North Carolina, in Chowan County

1729 – Second General (Free Will) Baptist church formed in North Carolina

1729 – Palmer corresponds with Rev. John Comer of Newport, Rhode Island

1730 – Palmer sends Comer a copy of his manuscript “Christ the Predestinated and Elected”

1730 – Palmer travels through New England and the Middle Colonies

1735 – Palmer travels to South Carolina 1739 Death of Samuel Palmer (age 18)

1742 (ca.) – Death of Paul Palmer (age unknown) 1747 Death of Joanna Palmer (age 61)

 

Notes

This article was originally prepared as a lecture. Much of the information relies on the following works. The reader may consult them for added details and confirmation.

William F. Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in America, 1727-1984 (Nashville: Randall House, 1985)

William F. Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in History (Nashville: Randall House, 2001)

George Washington Paschal, History of North Carolina Baptists, vol. 1 (1663-1805) (Raleigh: The General Board, North Carolina Baptist State Convention, 1930).

Michael Pelt, A History of Original Free Will Baptists (Mount Olive, NC: Mount Olive College Press, 1996)

George Stevenson, “Palmer, Paul,” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 5, ed. William S. Powell (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

[1] Paschal 158.

[2] Stevenson 12.

[3] See Pelt 46; Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in History, 32.

[4] For a description of this period, see Paschal 204-223; Pelt 56-72; Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in History, 57-74.

[5] Pelt 41.

[6] Paschal 201-02.

[7] Whitsett, quoted in Paschal 528 (note 88).

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