Free Will Baptists and Temperance

The 19th century in America was strongly influenced by a series of “benevolent” societies that were a part of the nation’s response to the Second Great Awakening (1795-1805). Strong drink and slavery especially fell under the crusading action of America’s Christian army. Free Will Baptists in New England joined the battle against “demon rum” very early.

Contrary to contemporary popular opinions, abstinence in the 18th and 19h centuries, even on the part of Christians, was the exception rather than the rule. An early Free Will Baptist report on temperance reminded the reader that strong drink had become an integral part of life, both in the social and the religious arenas.

In the early years of our nation, intoxicating liquors were sold without restriction…They were consumed by nearly all classes of the American people… They were freely used by business men, professional men and legislators. They were served as indispensable furnishings for births, weddings, all social occasions and funerals. They were even used for the dedication of churches and the ordination of ministers.[1]

Benjamin Randall, founder of the New England Free Will Baptists, practiced and preached abstinence from the beginning of his ministry, and others—John Buzzell, Hosea Quinby, John Chaney—had joined him. In fact, denominational support of the Temperance Movement began as early as the second Great Conference in 1829, when the delegated approved the growing national battle against strong drink.

In a formal statement in 1901, the denomination proclaimed intemperance as “the world’s greatest evil,” called its members to a lifestyle based on total abstinence, and even added a statement denouncing tobacco and “other” narcotics. In the light of contemporary woes for the tobacco companies, this early statement serves as an interesting footnote.

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.

[1] Frederick L.Wiley, Free Baptists in Temperance Reform with Last Temperance Statements of General Conference, Boston: Morning Star Publishing House, 1901, p. 3.