Free Will Baptists: What’s in a Name?

By Robert E. Picirilli [1] 

Many seem to think that the Free Will Baptists of the North—the Randall movement—consistently used “Freewill Baptist,” while those in the South—the Palmer movement—usually used “Free Will Baptist.” The facts tell a different story.


 The Randall Movement   

The Northern denomination began with the planting of a church in New Durham, New Hampshire, by Benjamin Randall in 1780. “They organized simply as a Baptist church.” [2] That was the only name used for more than twenty years.

Freewill, a Derogatory Name Finally Accepted

Long before 1780, believers of Arminian persuasion were mocked as “free willers.”  Historians of the Northern movement agree that this was first a term of derision, accepted only gradually and with some reluctance.  Frederick L. Wiley observes that the name, “though a contemptuous nickname, was eventually accepted by the majority of our people.” [3] In 1804, the Legislature of New Hampshire, in response to a request from the Randallites, passed the following resolution:

Resolved, That the people in this State, commonly known by the name of Freewill Antipedo Baptist church and society, shall be considered as a distinct religious sect or denomination, with all the privileges, as such, agreeable to the Constitution. [4]

That, minus the “Antipedo,” [5] is the name that stuck.

Different Spellings of the Freewill Name

When we read the work of an author like Stewart, we should realize that, for the sake of consistency, he chose to represent the name the same way all the time and in the form he preferred. From his book we would never learn that the Freewill took any other form. But it did. At least two other variations are possible and were widely used: Free-will (hyphenated, with or without a capital on Will) or Free Will (two words).

Within the Northern denomination, even official documents sometimes used Free-will (or Free-Will) and sometimes Freewill. The 1839 edition of the Treatise of Faith and Practices, for example, has Freewill both in the title and in “Published by the Trustees of the Freewill Baptist Connection.” But the 1850 edition has Free-will in both places. In any printed publication, the name will be represented in the form chosen by the writer, editor, or printer.

The Morning Star was the Northern denomination’s leading periodical. The issue for July 15, 1835, was “Published … by the Freewill Baptist Connexion.” The one for May 26, 1852, was “Published by the Free-will Baptist Printing Establishment.” Other publications show the same variety, including The Free-will Baptist Magazine that began in 1826.

They also used Free Will as two words. While the printing establishment did not do this, many of the things published or written across the Randall movement did.  John Buzzell, a close associate of Randall’s, after describing the founding of the New Durham church by Randall, observes: “This is the beginning of the now large and extensive connection, called Free Will Baptist.” [6] In Abel Thornton’s 1828 autobiography, the writer of the preface uses Free Will Baptist (pictured below). An 1876 handwritten journal is identified as the record of “Mill Creek Free Will Baptist Church” (in Kansas). The handwritten minutes of the Ohio River Yearly Meeting, for 1833, refer to “the Treatise on the Faith of the Free Will Baptist [sic].” An 1846 obituary in Anson, Maine, indicates that the deceased, Rev. William Paine, was converted “under the labors of … a Free Will Baptist preacher.”




Many other instances could be cited, making clear that across the broad sweep of the Randall movement the name often appeared as Free Will Baptist. It is correct to say that the Randallites were “Free Will Baptists.” Harrison and Barfield called them that (in 1897), and so did the record of the old Bethel Conference in North Carolina (in 1832) [7]—just as publications in the North often referred to the freewillers in the South as “Freewill Baptists.”

From Freewill to Free Baptists

The Randallites officially became Free Baptists in 1892. Stewart notes that many preferred this shorter name as “more expressive and appropriate … since we believe, not only in free will, but free salvation and free communion.” [8] In 1910-11, it was the “General Conference of Free Baptists” that completed a merger with the Northern Baptists and ensured that as a separate denomination the Randall movement would go out of existence.


 The Palmer Movement 

Although there are significant parts of the denomination, now, that had their origins in the Randall movement, the greater parts trace their origins to Paul Palmer in 1727 in eastern North Carolina.

Baptist the Original Name; Free Will a Nickname

Like those in New England, the North Carolina Free Will Baptists also at first simply called themselves Baptists. There, too, it was apparently common for Baptists holding to Arminian sentiments to be derided as freewillers—whether one word or two!  This was evidently a carry-over from England. Adam Taylor notes that Thomas Helwys, the founding pastor of the original General Baptist church in London, and those who followed his lead, were derisively called “heretics, anabaptists, and free-willers.” [9] William F. Davidson observes that the nickname was in fairly common use throughout the 17th century in England.” [10]

Baptists in the Lineage of English General Baptists

The Baptists who were ultimately called Free Will Baptists in North Carolina, and spreading out from there, traced their spiritual lineage to the English General Baptists. When they needed to distinguish themselves from Calvinistic Baptists, they said something like “Baptists holding to a general atonement,” and so they came to be known as General Baptists.  In 1812, they produced a revision of the 1660 Standard Confession entitled, “An abstract of the Former Articles of Faith confessed by the original Baptist Church, holding the doctrine of general provision.”

When the North Carolina General Baptists first applied the name Free Will Baptist (spelled one way or another) to themselves is not clear.  Rufus K. Hearn said, in 1875, “We were called Ana-Baptists, Baptists, and General Baptists, until the year 1828, when we adopted the name of Free-Will Baptists.” [11] For this date he was apparently relying on a statement by Elias Hutchins of the Northern Freewill Baptists, who visited in North Carolina during the period 1829-1833. Michael Pelt observes, “There is no reason to doubt Hutchins’ statement.” [12] Regardless, Free Will Baptist had become the name that stuck.

Spellings of Free Will in the South

Once again, however, as in the North, the Southern brethren, here and there, used Free Will, Freewill, and Free-will with equal freedom. To illustrate this I cite things published before 1900, but the variety continued after that.

In North Carolina, the oldest conference was the Bethel Conference. On the cover of the 1833 minutes the name is Free Will Baptist, but inside there is reference to Free-will Baptist churches. The North Carolina General Conference replaced the Bethel; in 1845 the name is Free Will Baptist; in 1851 Free-Will Baptist; in 1857 Freewill-Baptist; in 1864 Freewill Baptist. The Cape Fear Conference shows similar vacillation, alternating betwee Free-Will Baptist and Free Will Baptist at least until 1901.

Interestingly, the denominational paper published in Ayden, N. C., for May 27, 1896, is titled The Free Will Baptist. But in smaller print to the left of the masthead it is identified as the “Organ of the Freewill Baptist Church” and published by the “Freewill Baptist Pub. Co.”

One of the early histories of Free Will Baptists in North Carolina was by Rufus K. Hearn, first published in 1875 (referenced above). Hearn used Free Will and Free-Will interchangeably. Another early history was by Harrison and Barfield, apparently published in 1897. They, too, alternated between Free-Will and Free Will. [13]

Varieties Outside North Carolina

Given that this was true in North Carolina, one is not surprised to find it so across the Palmer movement. In the handwritten record book of the South Carolina Conference, for example, in 1858 the form is Freewill and in 1860 it is Free Will; the rest of the years show first one and then the other. In Alabama, the oldest association is apparently the Mount Moriah: the minutes for the late nineteenth century (beginning 1874) sometimes use Free-Will and sometimes FreewillFree Will does not appear until 1906. In Tennessee, the minutes of the Cumberland Association from 1876 on show at various times Free Will, Free-will, and Freewill. In Arkansas and Oklahoma the old minutes show similar variety.



The evidence certainly demonstrates that Free Will Baptists, both in the Randall movement and in the Palmer movement, have throughout their history been very inconsistent in the spelling of the name. All three forms—Free Will, Free-will (or Free-Will), and Freewill—are equally valid and equally old in both segments of the denomination.

These days, however, it is appropriate that all of the denomination, for consistency, express our name in the way that has become dominant: Free Will Baptists.  Everyone should know that we write our name with two words!

I have an appeal to make: Free Will Baptist and the plural Free Will Baptists should be used correctly! Without an “s” on the end, Free Will Baptist is either an adjective or a singular noun. As an adjective, it modifies some other noun in phrases like “Free Will Baptist people,” “Free Will Baptist doctrine,” “a Free Will Baptist preacher,” or even “Cumberland Free Will Baptist Association.” As a singular noun it refers to one person, as in “I am a Free Will Baptist.” But Free Will Baptists is a plural noun and should always be used when not modifying some other word and meaning more than one of us.  It still embarrasses me to see, plastered on the front page of the minutes of some of our associations, words like “The John Doe Association of Free Will Baptist.”  Then I can’t help asking myself, “Free Will Baptist what?”

We have a time-honored name, one we can wear without embarrassment. These two little four-letter words, Free Will, give any knowledgeable hearer a quick summation of our theology of salvation.

[1] This article represents a much larger chapter to be published in a book by Randall House Publication.

[2] I. D. Stewart, The History of the Freewill Baptists, for Half a Century, with an Introductory Chapter: Volume I. from the year 1780 to 1830 (Dover, NH: Freewill Baptist Printing Establishment, 1862), 55.  (There never was a volume II.)

[4] Hosea Quinby, Freewill Baptist Quarterly Magazine 1:3 (December 1839), 81.

[5] The “Anti-paedo” was an old name for all Baptists because they were opposed (anti) to infant (paedo) baptism.

[6] John Buzzell, The Life of Elder Benjamin Randall: Principally Taken from Documents Written by Himself (Limerick, ME: Hobbs, Woodman & Co., 1827), 84.

[7] T. F. Harrison and J. M. Barfield, History of the Free Will Baptists of North Carolina (W. E. Moye, 1897?), 57, 219.

[8] Stewart, 176.

[9] Adam Taylor, The History of the English General Baptists, vol. 1, The English General Baptists of the Seventeenth Century (London: Printed for the Author by T. Bore, 1818), 86.

[10] William F. Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in America 1727-1984 (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 1985), 19.

[11] R. K. Hearn, “Origin of the Free Will Baptist Church of North Carolina,” in the Toisnot Transcript (May 20-June 17, 1875), reprinted in D. B. Montgomery, General Baptist History (Evansville, IN: Courier Company, Book and Job Printers, 1882, 148-178), 169.

[12] Michael R. Pelt, A History of Original Free Will Baptists (Mount Olive, NC: Mount Olive College Press, 1996), 107.

[13] See Harrison and Barfield, 84-85 for a few of many such examples.