Free Will Baptists and Education

Free Will Baptists have a rather splendid and extended heritage in education. Hillsdale College in Michigan, Rio Grande in Ohio, and Bates College in Maine were, along with other institutions of note, founded by Benjamin Randall’s group of Free Will Baptists in New England. Bates College still maintains an excellent collection of the literature of that movement. Of course, these schools lost their identity as Free Will Baptists in the 1911 merger with the Northern Baptists.

While Free Will Baptists in the South and West were not as quick to enter the educational arena, the late 19th and early centuries did reveal new interest in these areas. In 1890, the Annual Conference in North Carolina appointed its first educational committee, and by 1898, the movement had completed facilities for the Free Will Baptist Theological Seminary. The school was located in Ayden, North Carolina, and, under the direction of Principle J.E.B. Davis, offered training for primary and high school students and for those planning to be involved in Christian ministry.

The course in theology included formal Theology, Free Will Baptist doctrine and history, Luke in Greek, and Preaching. By the end of 1898, Thomas E. Peden, an educator from Ohio, had come to assume leadership of the school.  In 1926, the Seminary was replaced by Eureka College which offered a true two-year college program along with a high school curriculum. Lack of interest on the part of churches and pastors, along with failed budgets, caused the school to fail and the college closed its doors in 1929. Even so, the two schools had served the denomination well for 30 years.

In its very first Triennial session in December, 1916, the Cooperative Association in the west agreed to adopt the existing Free Will Baptist Biblical Correspondence School founded by the Nebraska Yearly Meeting. Rev. John Wolfe was appointed to serve as Dean of the School and G.S. Lattimer and Ira Waterman were added as faculty. During the next year the Association received a gift that included buildings of a defunct school in Tecumseh, Oklahoma. The school opened for business in late 1917 under the leadership of John Wolfe and nine faculty members. The curriculum offered training programs for both pastors and teachers and was designed more as a Christian liberal arts college than as a Bible school. It continued to serve the denomination in the West and Midwest until 1927.

It would be another 13 years before the denomination regained a foothold in the educational arena when, in 1942, Free Will Baptist Bible College was founded in Nashville, Tennessee. Since that time other institutions of learning have been added to the movement’s educational program—Southeastern Free Will Baptist College in North Carolina, Hillsdale Free Will Baptist College in Oklahoma, and California Christian College in Fresno.

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.