The First Great Awakening in America (1726-1742) introduced a new type of revivalistic preaching that brought new life to the churches that embraced it, but caused conflict with those who could not accept it. As the revival became more popular and affected more churches, splits were inevitable. Denominations divided into revivalist and anti-revivalist factions and, in some cases, entirely new Christian movements were born.
One such movement was founded by Benjamin Randall. Randall was converted under the preaching of George Whitefield, a Calvinistic preacher who had come to the colonies from England. After a period of personal study, he determined that the Bible taught baptism upon conversion rather than infant baptism, and he found himself uncomfortable in his local Congregational church. After a time in a Calvinistic Baptist church, he became convinced that Scriptures defended general atonement rather than election and predestination and again, he was out of place in his new church home.
On June 30, 1780, Benjamin Randall founded the first Free Will Baptist church in New England, located in New Durham, New Hampshire. His “Thirteen Articles of Faith” included both believer’s baptism and general atonement. By 1782, a scant two years later, the new movement numbered 12 churches in New Hampshire and Maine. In December of that year, Randall and his fellow ministers established a “Quarterly Meeting” designed to draw churches together in fellowship and ministry.
In a single decade, the denomination grew so dramatically that a larger central organization was needed. The Yearly Meeting was formally organized on May 23, 1792. Finally, in 1827, the Yearly Meetings were combined in the Free Will Baptist General Conference. Phenomenal growth for the new denominational kid on the block!
About the Writer: William F. Davidson was professor of Church History at Columbia International University, in Columbia, South Carolina. Dr. Davidson is an alumnus of Peabody College, Welch College, Columbia Bible College, Northern Baptist Seminary, and New Orleans Baptist Seminary. The Ayden, North Carolina, native also served as pastor of Free Will Baptist churches in Kentucky and Virginia.