The Day We Lost 600 Churches

Prepared by Dr. Jack Williams at the Request of the Commission for Theological Integrity for presentation at Welch College.


When Leroy Forlines asked me to prepare this presentation, I eagerly agreed, since it focused on one of my favorite subjects—Free Will Baptist history. After several months of research, however, I began to feel as though I was in charge of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Why? Because no matter how I maneuvered events, when the calendar struck 1910, the Free Will Baptist movement in the North plowed into an iceberg, and in 1911, slipped beneath the waves of history. It happens every time, and nothing I can say will change it. There are some lessons to be learned; I hope we have learned them. There are many mistakes to avoid; I hope we can avoid them.

By the way, the biggest surprise in all my research is this: I never found the word merger used in any literature or discussions. The Free Will Baptists and Calvinist Baptists always used the words union or reunion . . . until after the merger. Today, merger is the word most often applied to the events surrounding 1911 by people like me who find what happened negative and distasteful.

The format I chose to follow is to answer four questions:

  1. What really happened in 1911?
  2. How did it happen?
  3. Why did it happen?
  4. Could it happen again?


On October 5, 1911, at the Ford Building in Boston, Massachusetts, the 21-member Conference Board of the General Conference of Free Will Baptists (a board composed of 14 men and seven women) signed documents transferring to the Northern Baptist Convention all invested funds and accumulated property. 

When the sun rose October 6, 1911, the Free Will Baptist denomination started by Benjamin Randall in 1780 had ceased to exist, swallowed up by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, the American Baptist Home Mission Society and the American Baptist Publication Society, the major agencies composing the Northern Baptist Convention.

Alfred Williams Anthony, one of the architects of the merger, described the event in the Ford Building this way:

In the long history of the Church of Christ it is one of the most sublime acts of self-surrender in order that they may all be one.

Charles White in his book, A Century of Faith, published by Judson Press in 1932 for the American Baptist Home Mission Society, calls the October 5, 1911, vote a reunion in which:

The Free Baptists gave over their properties, their enterprises, their going concerns, their good-will and their hopes, to appropriate organizations cooperating with the Northern Baptist Convention.

In 1957, American Baptist historian Norman Baxter said the merger was not an accident:

The ultimate union of Baptists and Freewill Baptists in October 1911 was not an improvised marriage; it was a premeditated action, the origins of which dated back at least to 1859 (History of Freewill Baptists, page 153).

Historian Matt Pinson feels the Northern Free Will Baptists were not led to merge on their own but were imitating what they saw in others and caught up in the spirit of ecumenism sweeping America at the time. The consensus of many is that we were “sold out” by our own leadership. You be the judge.

What Really Happened?

Members Lost

Conflicting numbers range from 45,000 to 100,000, but the actual number is probably closer to 60,000. The 1908 Free Baptist Register and Yearbook lists 68 yearly meetings and associations with 1,292 churches and 87,015 members. The 1911 Free Baptist Register and Yearbook (year the merger consummated) reports over 100,000 members. However, in the 34th General Conference Minutes (page 102) in 1910 (year of the merger vote), officials report 48 yearly meetings and associations with 53,799 resident members.

When it was time to vote for the merger, the group apparently “misplaced” 20 yearly meetings and 25,000 members. Not to worry, they found everybody in 1911…a year after the vote was tallied.

Colleges Lost

The numbers are staggering. Free Will Baptists lost three schools of academic grade, including New Hampton Literary Institution, Maine Central Institute, and the Manning Bible School. The denomination lost six colleges including Bates (Maine), Hillsdale (Michigan), Keuka, Parker, Rio Grande (Ohio), Storer (West Virginia) and two theological seminaries: Cobb Divinity School (Bates campus in Maine) and Hillsdale’s Theological department.

Along with the physical property went the trained faculty, hundreds (if not thousands) of students, libraries carefully built over the years, and the future.

Churches Lost

The title, “The Day We Lost 600 Churches,” could easily be, “The Day We Lost a Thousand Churches,” because if the Northern Baptist Convention did not absorb the 1,292 churches reported in 1908, they either died, joined other groups, or remained independent. 

Only a handful joined the southern Free Will Baptist movement.

Let’s suppose for argument’s sake that the numbers are 60,000 members lost and 600 churches. What would that mean today? It would be like losing every church and every member in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

Transfer of money and property

  • To American Baptist Home Mission Society: $130,298.10 in cash, mortgages, bonds, stocks (according to Alfred Williams Anthony in his 1913 report, “Getting Together”).
  • To American Baptist Foreign Mission Society: $66,569.05 in cash, stocks, etc. plus everything on all mission fields, including India, Barbados and Africa. By 1900, the Bengal-Orissa field in India had 17 missionaries, eight on furlough, and 63 native assistants; the visible results of their work in India at that time were one yearly meeting, two quarterly meetings and 18 churches; they had 45 ministers and a membership of 1,487, and 4,365 Sunday school pupils, and 4,437 pupils in day school. The yearly meeting in India had a theological school with $10,000 endowment funds; they also had a high school with 196 students. They had a permanent fund of $82,033.48 on hand. Also lost were four churches in Barbados with four ministers and 316 members and a small mission in Africa.
  • The Morning Star merged with The Watchman and ceased after 75 years of weekly circulation.

How Did It Happen?

Here’s a chronology of events that establishes a pattern moving toward merger in 1911.

1834 – William F. Davidson cites the earliest warning flag in the May 7, 1834, issue of The Morning Star in an article titled, “Religious Intelligence.” 

The Freewill Baptists had exhibited an ecumenical spirit from the earliest days of the 19th century. In 1834, they had been involved in a union meeting that sought to combine three or four denominations in evangelistic ministry…The Lord put it into their hearts to call a general union meeting; accordingly the Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Free Baptist churches agreed to commit and conduct a union meeting. (The Free Will Baptists in America 1727-1984, page 331).

1859 – Norman Baxter quotes a sermon preached by Dexter Waterman at the 17th General Conference in October 1859 (Lowell, MA), titled: “The Mission of the Free Will Baptists: Their Past, Present and Future.”

That they (the Freewill Baptists) honorably and successfully fulfilled their mission may be seen in the gratifying fact that the evangelical denominations are rapidly approximating each other and the views of the people who expressed non-fellowship with Brother Randall have become so modified that in the opinion of many of their ministers, we might and ought to be one denomination. (History of the Freewill Baptists, page 162)

1880 – Interest in cooperation with other unrelated bodies was revived. A committee was appointed “to consider the propriety of cultivating a better acquaintance and closer union of all open communion Baptist bodies.” The committee met and reported:

In this age of progress and marvelous displays of the Holy Spirit in bringing the people of God to act together for the greater spread of the Gospel, your committee can have no doubt as to the result we all seek, and in furtherance of this end, they recommend the adoption of the report of the joint committee.           

0. B. Cheney, for the Committee (Minutes of the General Conference, page 392)

1886 – The Pivotal Meeting—Its findings will be quoted at every conference until and after the merger. The 26th General Conference meeting at Marion, Ohio, October 1886, made the first official expression of merger sentiment, and went on record as holding the following position:

Christian Union

We, the delegates of the Free Baptist Central Conference, acknowledging the manifold blessings with which God has favored the people we represent, recognizing the importance of the work still before our people, taking into consideration the fact that God is moving His children of every name to closer relationships with each other, as well as with Himself, and in order that our position on the question of Christian union may not be misunderstood, hereby set forth the following declarations:

  1. We believe in the spiritual unity of all the followers of our Divine Lord, and desire so to manifest His Spirit as to evince our unity with Him and with all who love Him.
  2. We are ready to form such alliances with other Christian bodies as may promise larger results in advancing our Lord’s kingdom.
  3. We are ready to join in organic union with such Christian bodies as may so far agree with us in doctrine and usage as to give assurance of continued harmony and peaceful relations in Christian work.
  4. We regard loyalty to Christ and the Bible, and the independence of the local church, as suggesting a basis on which closer relationships with other Christian bodies may be attained.
  5. We direct the Conference Board to take into consideration, and report upon at the next General Conference, such opportunities for closer relationships with other Christian bodies, as may, in their judgment, give promise of increasing our own usefulness in helping bring the world to acknowledge Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords. (page 507)

1888 – Damon Dodd refers to a General Conference Directive:

In the meantime there had been some by-play in the General Conference to get everything ready for the coming merger. In 1888-89, a directive from General Conference had advised all Free and Free Will Baptist churches in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and other remote areas to unite with the Northern Baptist church nearest them, inasmuch as General Conference could no longer be responsible for them. Thus, a number of churches were sloughed off and given to the Northern Baptists with this one bold proposal. This explains why we have no trace of the Free Will Baptist churches today in the above-mentioned states. The Free Will Baptist churches, which would not go to the Northern Baptists finally were forced to close their doors and cease functioning (The Free Will Baptist Story, page 104).

1892 – Articles of Incorporation for General Conference and Constitutional change:

The year 1982 saw other significant changes made in the constitution of General Conference. The conference meeting was held that year in Lowell, Massachusetts, October 5-12, and there were 81 official delegates enrolled, besides ministers. The body approved the Articles of Incorporation, which had been drawn up in 1981 and approved of a change of name from General Conference of Free Will Baptists of North America to General Conference of Free Baptists.

In the minutes of the meeting of 1891, it is recorded that the yearly meetings and associations shall have the right to vote on the new charter of incorporation, and when 3/4 of the membership of the denomination has voted in favor, then all yearly meetings and association treasurers shall transfer properties and funds to the treasurer of the new conference. (The Free Will Baptist Story, page 104)

1904 – The General Conference met September 6-13, 1904, at Hillsdale, Michigan, and it is obvious that “merger fever” was spreading. Baxter notes that before the General Conference met:

The first permanent steps towards union were taken by the Wisconsin Yearly Meeting and the Minnesota Yearly Meeting, both prior to 1904. Also, sometime before 1904 and apparently after and independent of the western action, some Freewill Baptists and Baptists in Maine met in Augusta on the matter of denominational union. They came to the conclusion on that occasion that “the Baptists and Free Baptists are so near together in faith and practice that co-operation is not only desirable but maybe made practicable.”

The report of the action thus taken in Maine reached Rhode Island “through private channels,” so that sometime before October 1904, Rhode Island Baptists and Freewill Baptists had publicly approved the sentiments expressed privately by their Maine counterparts.

In that same year, in July, The Standard, the regular Baptist paper published in Chicago, printed an article entitled “Is the Free Baptist Denomination Needed?” It was written by an anonymous Freewill Baptist.

In the next issue, Editor George Mosher spoke even more pointedly when he said: “The people of our denomination have been burning to take up this discussion for some time, and only fear of a reactionary effect, harmful to our mission interests, has hindered.” (History of the Freewill Baptists, pages 165-166)

The General Conference re-affirmed the 1896 position on union with other groups and appointed a standing committee: Committee on Conference with Other Christian People that included 12 people—10 men and two women and chaired by Alfred W. Anthony. The establishment of this committee was the decisive action that almost guaranteed merger. The committee was appointed because delegates from the Disciples Church were present to encourage Free Will Baptists to join their movement.

1907 – The General Conference met in Cleveland, Ohio, October 1-7. Both the Disciples Church and the Congregationalists were notified that their requests to unite with Free Will Baptists must wait until the Baptist question was acted upon first. The Committee on Conference with Other Christian People reported that two members died (including Dr. George H. Ball), one member resigned: R. R. Kennan (Minnesota), and they had conducted eight meetings during which they discovered four pronounced tendencies:

Early in our deliberations it was recognized that four pronounced tendencies existed among our people: (1) To unite quickly with the Disciples. (2) To move towards the Baptists. (3) To join with the Congregationalists. (4) To remain as we were without any compromise or conference with other people.

Only group four was ignored. The committee recommended to the General Conference that the vote for the merger take place then and there. However, Damon Dodd noted in The Free Will Baptist Story:

Two items in the articles came under heavy fire from the opposition, made up of representatives from Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma.

They were:

1. That all doctrinal differences be settled by taking the literal teachings of the Scriptures as interpreted by the merged body.

2. That all monies in the various General Conference accounts as well as all denominational property, be turned over at once to the treasurer of the merged group.

A straw vote at this conference showed a majority of General Conference to be opposed to the merger, and had the issue been decided then and there, it would have been soundly defeated. However, the matter was given to the constituent yearly meetings and associations, to be decided on by vote in the various associations, and the final result to be tabulated three years hence, in 1910. Evidently this was a shrewd maneuver to assure passage, for the northeastern states were strongly in the majority and were solidly in favor of the merger (page 107).

1908 – The following document called, “The Basis of Union or Plan of Co-operation” stated:

The Basis of Union, formulated in Boston, Mass., March 28, 1908, by a joint committee representing Baptists and Free Baptists reads as follows:

After more than three years of conference, and careful study of the situation, a committee representing the American Baptist Missionary Union, the American Baptist Home Missionary Society, and the American Baptist Publication Society on the part of the Baptists, and the General Conference of Free Baptists on the part of the Free Baptists, under instruction of the Bodies appointing them, have formulated and do now recommend to their respective societies and constituencies the following plan for co-operation in missionary and denominational work.

First, the following brief historical statement shall be put into the records of each party to the co-operation: (18 paragraphs of history)

Second, it is recommended that the Constitutions of the American Baptist Missionary Union, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, and the American Baptist Publication Society be so changed as to admit to membership Free Baptists on the same terms as Baptists.

Third, that the general missionary work of the Free Baptists be adopted and carried on by the American Baptist Missionary Union, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, the American Publication Society, as the missionary agencies of the bodies thus united.

Fourth, that the churches of the united bodies will be expected to contribute to general missions through the above agencies, and the representatives of these agencies shall have equal standing in all the churches.

Fifth, that all the missionaries and pastors of the united bodies shall be recognized as on the same footing in all denominational activities.

Sixth, that this union shall go into effect January 1, 1909, provided that previous to that time the Free Baptists shall have approved it, and three-fourths of the Baptist State Conventions, where there are Yearly Meetings or Associations of Free Baptists, shall have approved it.

Seventh, it is suggested that in states where the Free Baptists equal twenty-five percent of the Baptists, or, more, the two organizations be consolidated into one new society to be called “The United Baptist Convention of the State of ______________ and as a sub-title, “union of Baptist and Free Baptist Societies.”

This document was distributed to every association, and each association urged to vote to accept or reject it.

1910 – Three years later, the General Conference reconvened July 13-20, in Ocean Park, Maine, for the official vote. Damon Dodd describes the two-day fight:

…with the western delegation protesting all the way. Their champions were Rev. T. C. Ferguson, of Missouri (who is yet living), Rev. John H. Wolfe and Rev. Morris of Nebraska, and Rev. Maywhorter of Indiana.

Ferguson was vigorously outspoken and objected to the manner in which the matter was being decided. He raised the question as to whether the General Conference had a right to take funds, which had been gathered for a Free Will Baptist program and give them over to any other group. He was answered by Professor Anthony, who said, “Away with the old dead hand of the past. We are looking for a new day.”

Maywhorter and Wolfe objected to an organic union which would completely remove the Free Will Baptist identity and purpose, whereupon they were assured by Rev. Mauck that, “This is not to be an organic union, but merely a fellowship arrangement for the mutual benefit of both denominations.” The battle continued for two days before the resolution of merger could be brought up for vote. When it finally came, and votes were in from the yearly meetings and associations, it was carried by an overwhelming majority.

According to the Clerk’s record of the vote on the floor, Ferguson of Missouri, was the lone dissenter. The others, realizing that their cause was lost, simply refused to be counted either way. Said Rev. John H. Wolfe, “we knew they were going to hang us, so we were not concerned about the kind of rope they used: (The Free Will Baptist Story, pages 107-108)

1911 – On October 5, at the Ford Building in Boston, Massachusetts, the 21-member conference board signs all legal documents finalizing the merger. This made it official. But while these 11 important dates were rolling past, other actions were taking place to smooth the way for the merger.

Proponents published articles, made speeches, and traveled widely promoting the merger vote. In the December 16, 1909, edition, the editor of The Morning Star describes a visit by Henry M. Ford to the Southwestern Free Will Baptist General Convention in Weatherford, Texas, where he remained for six days, meeting in a tent that seated 400 people. The singing was lively, the preaching biblical and enthusiastic. One brother, during his sermon, quoted accurately, without a break, more than 100 passages of Scripture and gave chapter and verse off-hand. This was certainly as rare as it was remarkable. There is a strong tendency toward doctrinal preaching with a free use of Scripture. In their preaching, they always start out to prove something from the Bible, and draw from Scripture, combining and weaving together texts in a most unique and remarkable manner.

These brethren were not ready to consider union. Denominational lines are rigidly drawn and differences rather than likes are emphasized, but the tolerant Spirit is growing and sweetening, yet they are not ready to accept or favor anything looking toward co-operation of or affiliation with any people who do not have “Free Will Baptists” written upon their banner. The brethren are preparing for a great forward movement the coming year: they have already caught the larger vision of the Kingdom of God for this southwestern country.

The Morning Star proved to be a much-used tool in promoting the merger. On October 7, 1908, it published the article, “How to Unite Churches.” The April 22, 1908, edition published six articles on denominational union, and soon began a standing column, “Contribution and Union.” 

These proponents downplayed opposition to the merger and eventually condemned those who opposed to it. Consider several statements recorded in “Getting Together,” published in 1913 by A. W. Anthony:

Three yearly meetings in Illinois find it somewhat difficult to discover the favorable points of contact with the Baptist organizations. For quite a term of years past Free Baptist interests in Nebraska have been growing weaker. It is pitiful now that a few of our brethren, misunderstanding the denominational situation, prevent friendly co-operation with our Baptist brethren in the state who are ready, if permitted, to evince fellowship and render help.

(Southwest Association) . . . . This Convention, composed of Associations in Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma, has been reported as having a membership of 10,000 and more. Situated in a section of the country where conservatism prevails in all religious bodies the members of this convention could not understand how a union between Baptists was possible.

“Twenty Years After” by A. W. Anthony (1904-1924):

After all of these years it can be said that but one irreconcilable focus of dissent remained. That was in Nebraska, and probably, had one man been minded otherwise, that would speedily have disappeared. That one man kept alive objections and oppositions as long as he could and as best he could, transferring the scene of his activity in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, yet with an uncertain and decreasing support. Legal requirements have been carefully and considerately heeded. Three lawsuits have been brought to prevent the transfer of property in local communities, two in Tennessee and one in Nebraska, which have in each instance, after trial, been decided in favor of the course pursued by the General Conference and in harmony with its agreements.

General Conference Minutes (1913):

The opposition still surviving in a few persons and places, regrettable as it is, appears to be waning and to leave behind it few results of much importance. (page 96)

“Union as a Christian Proposition” by James Howe (1908):

In accord with a sentiment that is in the air and will not down Free Baptists and Baptists are urged to unite. The impulse to do so is of Christ. It is the Master’s will. By that star we should steer our course. Whatever strabismus afflicts sectarian eyes that star is visible. The command for baptism is not more plainly written than the prayer of Christ for unity.

Not many things are on record for which Christ prayed. With deep, constraining desire those recorded things that He did pray for must have pressed upon His heart. One such prayer reads: “That they may all be one, even as thou Father are in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me.” Can any scholar claim that these words are obeyed by sects that merely have evangelical faith in common, while they present the scene of sectarianism in the way before it described? A type of the unity that our Lord desired He took pains to designate. It is the oneness of the Father and the Son. In discussions on the Trinity this is spoken of as “an hypostatical union,” that is, a union within the very substance or essence of the Godhead; hence one as intimate, as inherent, as inseparable, as close as thought can reach or words express. Not even our orthodox sects, however agreed in doctrine, sustain such a union as that. Tested by this standard the present relations of Free Baptists and Baptists do not meet the will of our Lord. Why do we openly disobey Him? We are living without that intimate, heart-to-heart, closest possible union, and shall be until burying our differences we become one fold under the one Shepherd. Truly the movement to effect that union of the Lord.

Henry Ford’s seven-point article, “Union…Why?” printed in The Morning Star, August 20, 1908:

First, because we are Free Baptists. That is our family name, our given name is Free or Free Will. Many forget that generically we are Baptists as essentially and as actually as any other denomination bearing that name, and always have been. We are not Free Methodists or Free Presbyterians or Free Episcopalians, but Free Baptists.

Second: Because in union we are surrendering neither character, doctrine, genius nor purpose. If in 1780 Baptists had been what they are now and had we been then what we are now, Benjamin Randall would never have been justified nor would he have consented to organize a separate denomination. He did not want to do so as it was; he certainly would not want to now. We separated from the Baptists because of the ultra-Calvinism on their part and of ultra-Free Will on our part. The Baptists have come to hold a modified Calvinism, and we a modified Free Will. “Differences have virtually ceased to exist.”

Third: Because severed members of the same family better be united. It is more Christian, looks better to the world, gets rid of the old estrangement. Brothers and sisters of a common parentage better come together in a family reunion and own each other.

Fourth: Because union is more practicable. The Kingdom of God will come more nearly being realized in union than in division and can be carried on more efficiently and consummated more speedily. What will surest and soonest bring the Kingdom of Heaven on earth is not only right to espouse but is wicked and wasteful to deny.

Fifth: Because a better motive would be furnished for labor and a wider vision would be given. Not the Baptist Church, not the Free Baptist Church, not any sect nor any school, but the Kingdom of Heaven and the reign of Jesus. People are wont to say, “let us tend to our own work.” We have no work apart or aside or distinct from all God’s children. We are promoters of the Kingdom of God upon earth. We have no other business whatsoever and no church or denomination has any other business. If we have any other we are promoting something not distinctively Christian, we are building up a sect.

Sixth: Because we would be only carrying out the mind and purpose of the Fathers in founding our denomination, namely not to build up a sect, but to hasten the greater kingdom of God until Jesus comes.

Seventh: Because if we do not willingly choose it Providence and the force of events will crowd it upon us.

Why Did The Merger Happen?

History reveals gradual steps leading toward merger. First, northern Free Will Baptists began to rewrite their own history to say, “Benjamin Randall and his peers were neither Calvinists, nor Arminians, only plain Bible reading Baptists” (Basis of Union, 1908). 

Second, they began to de-emphasize doctrinal distinctions and denominational identity. Over six years of conference meetings and deliberation Baptists and Free Baptists iterated and re-iterated three distinct things:

  1. “Baptists and Free Baptists are so near together in faith and practice that co-operation is not only desirable, but may be made practicable” (The Maine, or St. Louis Plank, 1905).
  • “The original occasion and cause of separation between our two bodies have practically disappeared, and in all the essentials of Christian doctrine as well as of church administration and polity we are substantially one” (The Brooklyn Plank, 1907).
  • “Differences, if still existing, may be left, where the New Testament leaves them, to the teaching of the Scriptures under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (The Boston Plank, 1908).

The “Basis of Union” goes on to say:

During this century and a quarter, the Baptists have been greatly modified. The yielding of rigid Calvinistic feeling recorded itself in New England when in 1832 the New Hampshire Confession was adopted by the New Hampshire State Convention. In the Middle States where the Old Philadelphia Confession is nominally held, it has either been expurgated of its strongest expressions, or allowed to fall into “innocuous desuetude.” The Baptists today have little, if any, more sense of restriction in their Calvinism than Benjamin Randall had in 1780 (Basis of Union, 1908, page 4).

Also, consider the statements made in the 1908 paper, “Some Duties in Union” by B. C. Jordan:

One of our ministers told me that he and his wife would not go if all the rest of his denomination did, and that he and his wife would be the whole of the Free Baptist denomination. He expected me to applaud his decision. I did not. I thought he was more loyal to the Free Baptists than to the Savior. It is good to be a Free Baptist I but I think it is still better to be a Christian.

It would not make much difference whether the new church should be called Baptist, Free Baptist, United Baptist, or Untied Baptist, so long as they believe and do the same things.

But someone may ask, “What about close communion and Calvinism?” lsn’t it wiser to let each church decide all these minor things for themselves?

The Morning Star went another step when it printed an article by J. M. Foster praising Calvinism in the May 20, 1909, issue:  

The world has rebelled against Calvinism, but it is only the fruit of its rebellion against God; for Calvinism is simply the affirmation of God’s sovereignty, His government of the world and of the universe.

A. W. Anthony, professor at Cobb Divinity School, abandoned Baptism by Immersion by 1894:

Anthony himself by 1894 had abandoned the position that immersion was the only form of baptism. In a letter to a classmate who was serving a Congregational church and who apparently had quizzed Anthony on what to do about pedo-baptism, Anthony said, “I should baptize as the Church wished me to. There are too many good Christians in the world, having the Life and manifesting the Life, who have never been immersed to make me hesitate long were I serving a whole body of such people as are you. I should endeavour to extend the Life” (Dated January 30, 1894, Anthony papers, Dexter.)

Norman Baxter cites three reasons for the merger in History of the Freewill Baptists.

  1. Theological. This movement of the Baptists towards the Freewill Baptist position on the two heretofore divisive matters of election and close communion left the Freewill Baptist Gospel no distinctiveness and therefore no unique appeal to the people. What the Freewill Baptists had been preaching with effectiveness and with which they had gained a real hearing had now been appropriated and was being said with equal vigour by a larger denomination. The devastating effect of this adoption was that the Freewill Baptists had nothing left to feed upon and their alternative, union or extinction, was soon evident (p. 156).
  • Geographical. At a time when there was a nation-wide move from the country to the city, Free Will Baptists failed to start churches in cities (pp. 156-160).
  • Leadership. At the time when the Freewill Baptists needed able leadership to counteract the disintegrating forces then at work, that leadership was lacking in both numbers and quality. In general, young men and women were leaving the denomination “to seek, from various motives, spheres of life and service beyond its pale.” This meant that the number of young men that ordinarily would have been available for ministerial offices was considerably decreased. Of the remainder who did enter the Freewill Baptist ministry, many subsequently left because of the restrictions imposed by a small denomination. Many blasts were levelled at such “hirelings.” Cheney, in a Lawrence, Massachusetts, address, censured those who left the smaller denomination for the larger, motivated in so doing, solely by salary considerations. The author of the article in the Quarterly on the Freewill Baptist denomination branded as “miserable” the apology offered by those who left the denomination saying that “its prestige is small and the honours and distinctions which it awards are of little value.” He urged young men to stay in the smaller body in spite of “God’s call to a larger one” because “a sort of leadership might be maintained in the smaller body which would be lost in the larger one.”

    Whatever the motives for leaving were, the effects were disastrous. In 1880, 114 of the 290 Freewill Baptist churches in Maine were without pastors and Maine had about one-fifth of all Freewill Baptist churches! (pages 160-161).

Another contributing factor on the road to the merger was the ever-growing rumor that the denomination had fulfilled its mission and was consequently ready for reunion with Baptists

Consider the following statement from Dexter Waterman in 1859:

That they (the Freewill Baptists) honorably and successfully fulfilled their mission may be seen in the gratifying fact that the evangelical denominations are rapidly approximating each other and the views of that people who expressed non-fellowship with Brother Randall have become so modified that in the opinion of many of their ministers we might and ought to be one denomination.

In his work, Norman Baxter commented on Waterman’s statement:

Judiciously Waterman did not then state what he or other Freewill Baptist leaders thought of this particular idea of one people but at least it is an approach towards reunion. 

Nearly twenty years later, President Cheney of Bates was much more explicit in an address entitled “Denominational Adhesiveness,” given at Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1877. On that occasion he viewed the “special work of our hands” as the union of all liberal Baptists, and by that he meant a voluntary association of all Baptists who were of one mind on such questions as free will and open communion. But he was even more categorical a little further on in the same address. He asked the question whether Freewill Baptists would always remain a separate people, and although he said that he himself did not expect to live to see the day of reunion, he felt that it would come in “God’s own good time.” His reason, as Waterman’s, was that there was no longer any theological need for a separate existence and he urged that if Freewill Baptists kept working and building “so much more influence we shall have and the sooner that which many of our own number and many in the larger Baptist body desire, namely the union of all Baptists will be consummated” (Baxter, History of the Freewill Baptists, page 162).

College President Joseph Mauck delivered a 1907 address to the Baptist Congress titled, “What are the next steps to Effect Organic Union of Baptists, Free Baptists, and Disciples of Christ?” Though the paper contains seven points, consider point two:

A second step would be a spirited campaign against pride in name. This weakness of all of us and of other denominations, merits the unvarnished term of sin.

For one, I would deem it an ornament and crown to their (Free Baptist) history if it were to be their last high mission as a distinct denomination to give up their noble name, take on that of another body, and so give a concrete example of self-surrender to the prayer of the Christ that His disciples might be one.

This is the same Joseph Mauck who insisted at the 1910 General Conference when votes were being tabulated that “This is not an organic union…but one of fellowship. Dr. Mauck lied—either to the Baptist Congress in 1907 or to the Freewill Baptist General Conference in 1910.

Mauck wanted Free Will Baptist delegates to accept as a vote for fellowship what he knew had been for six years a concentrated effort to push the denomination toward irreversible organic union. For once done, the vote could never be rescinded.

Another factor contributing to the merger was the reduction in conference meetings. Triennial conference meetings—meeting every three years—left far too much control in hands of boards and committees rather than delegates. This problem was exacerbated by a move toward centralized church government as illustrated by the 1892 move to incorporate and deed property to conferences, connectional church government.

This move toward centralized church government coincided with the rise of ecumenism taking place in general church culture. Gene Robertson in a paper titled, “The Free Will Baptist Merger of 1911,” prepared for a graduate course at Middle Tennessee State University in 1993 cites the power of liberalism as the major factor in the merger—Reconstruction theology.

In his 1917 report to the 36th General Conference, Alfred Williams Anthony finally admits why some opposed the merger—German Higher Criticism, which some of the college professors were teaching—the merger was an escape to a larger body to more easily avoid reprimand:

One underlying cause of the union of Baptists and Free Baptists, spoken of privately at times among friends, has, I think, never been mentioned in public. I mention it now. Time enough has elapsed to permit at length perfect frankness.

Think back with me a few years, to the time when in all religious circles there was intellectual unrest and there was in progress theological reconstruction. At that time to some the term “Higher Critic” was as plainly a mark of evil as the name “the Devil,” or “Mephistopheles,” or “Perdition.” We had no heresy trials; but we had what in many respects is worse; we had insinuations, and innuendoes, and we had covert charges made behind men’s backs, and we had institutions undermined by having students advised to stay away. We did not quarrel. Only in a partial and a guarded way did the columns of The Morning Star reflect the situation, but The Morning Star, and our theological schools, east and west, and all of our denominational enterprises suffered. The men who cried at the gate, “Wolf, wolf!” when there was no wolf, made men fear the gate. Experiences of pain came to teachers who were seeking in all good conscience to discover and reveal the ways of God, when they found their scholarship an object of suspicion, their names whispered under bated breath, and the institutions with which they were connected made to suffer because of them.

Our denomination was like a small boat passing through the storm and stress of Biblical Criticism, theological reconstruction and personal misunderstandings. Like the little boat in mid-ocean, bestead with winds and storms which larger vessels may defy, we found it impossible to coordinate work and workers in their proper places committed to their proper tasks, for which they were peculiarly fitted, or for which they had special proclivities. It is dangerous to joggle a small boat and unseat or disqualify for service any of the small crew. We did not all realize it then. But we disheartened both passengers and crew…

They discovered that ancient dogmas and a divisive propaganda, upon which denominations once thrived, were now destructive of denominational integrity and efficiency, and were not essential to the spirit of Christ.

Gene Robertson points out that two major players in the merger were infected with Higher Criticism:

One of the ways modernism was apparent in the northern Free Will Baptist before the merger was through the education and ideas of the leadership at the time. Alfred Williams Anthony was educated at the University of Berlin. He studied under Professors Adolf Harnack and Bernhard Weiss, two of the most well-known German proponents of Higher Criticism.

Indeed, the de-emphasis on theology that Liberalism led to allowed the Free Will Baptists to let go of the distinctions in their theology. The career of professor Benjamin Francis Hayes, who was considered the leading intellectual of his time in Free Will Baptist circles, reveals increased acceptance of the Liberalist views growing in the country. Professor Hayes’ work in Apologetics and the Philosophy of Religion consisted of trying to “adjust the theological conceptions to the advancement of historical and critical knowledge.” The “progressiveness” of his thought was surprising for a “man of his age, in such a conservative environment.”

These statements from Hayes’ biography praise him for his work in Higher Criticism. His own personal theology progressed to a point where he saw God as “the orderly procedure of the Power that is immanent and operative in all the processes of nature, and he learned to think of that power not as man-like being, irregularly acting up on the universe, but as the essence of all being, continuously acting within it, as the Spirit.”

There’s an intriguing reference to modernism in B. C. Jordan’s 1908, “Some Duties in Union.”

What is called the higher criticism or the new theology is distracting the Christian world at the present time. It is paralyzing many Christians and churches and denominations. It seems to me it has poisoned our own beloved denomination to some extent, but I am glad to think that the Baptists with whom we are talking of uniting are freer from this dangerous form of heresy than we are, or perhaps any other people, except, possibly, Methodists. 

What a hoot! The Northern Baptist schools were less than ten years away from leading the fight for Protestant Liberalism, and Jordan knew it.

Gene Robertson again refers to the liberalism problem:

The Morning Star, a Free Will Baptist periodical throughout the early 1900’s, frequently carried articles that demonstrated the increasingly liberalist views of the Bible and theology. In the February 11, 1909, edition an article on Charles Darwin appeared praising the scientist for his excellent work. The article went on to state that, “Darwin’s theory came into conflict with the Bible, literally and narrowly interpreted.”

The Randall movement as a denomination joined the Federal Council of Churches when it organized in 1908. According to the 1910 minutes (23rd General Conference):

Resolved, That six delegates and six alternates be elected as our delegates to attend the next session of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America to be held in December, 1912.

Resolved, That this General Conference direct its treasurer to pay to the treasurer of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, the sum of $100.00 the same being our apportionment for the fiscal year.

In 1913, Alfred W. Anthony in his short paper, “Actual Union,” said:

We Baptists and Free Baptists have a larger mission in the world than simply to be junk-mongers of broken-down and discarded enterprises. We are apostles of unity and charity; pioneers of a unifying process destined to sweep through other denominations and profoundly affect the visible Kingdom of Christ on the earth; we are philosophers of a newly recovered reality, the reality of seeing things as they are, of shaking off the shackles of dogmatism and intolerance; we hold within our reach the possibilities of a new Christian statesmanship which will make the church a new revealer of mercy and a new almoner of power in the creation of a new Christian Society. We need to recognize our essential unity and plan broadly and wisely for its fuller expression.

By 1918, Anthony was secretary for the Home Missions Council of the Federal Council of Churches.

The influence of Post-Millennial eschatology also contributed to the slide toward the merger. Dr. Warren Partridge commented at the 1907 meeting of The Baptist Congress in the address, “The Organic Union of Baptists, Free Baptists, and Diciples of Christ:”

There was probably never a time in the history of the world when the oneness of the society, which Jesus came to organize, was so emphasized as today. The idea of the solidarity of Christian society has a grip on the Christian consciousness, which has never before been surpassed in the history of Christendom.

There is a great movement towards consolidation of allied denominations. This movement, I believe, is making for righteousness and the establishment of the universal kingdom of Christ.

Consider the statement regarding eschatology found in the 1913 General Conference Minutes (pages 79-80).

Committee on Doctrine

Your committee beg leave to report that in their judgment it is neither necessary nor advisable in the present circumstances to formulate a credal statement of our denominational doctrines. They are well-known and scarcely need restatement or rehearsal.

We therefore content ourselves with affirming that, we, as a denomination hold fast the faith once delivered to the Saints, which in brief is:

The Fatherhood of God, the Saviorhood and divine authority of Jesus Christ, His Son, the Revelation of God in His Word, the Renewing of the Holy Spirit, the Brotherhood of man and the Unity of the Christian Church. We believe in a Progressive Kingdom of God in the earth whose extension among the nations has been made the glorious privilege and duty of the Christian Church. In this Kingdom love and justice, and equality and righteousness are cardinal principles. We demand liberty in interpreting the truth for ourselves and freely grant the same measure of liberty to others. We hold that the great emphasis should be placed, not on differentiating doctrinal statements, but on Christlikeness, love, justice, mercy, social service, evangelism. We acknowledge no class distinctions, except those which righteousness and sin create, no human mediators between men and God, but assert the existence of one universal Christian democracy for tho extension of which we will ever pray and work. Whom therefore Christ accepts we accept as a brother and extend to him the hand of fellowship. We believe in the final triumph of this Christian democracy which is the Kingdom of God on earth, and in its continuance in the world to come. A share in its blessedness, both here and yonder, we prize above all material good. The words which our Lord placed in our lips we now make our earnest prayer—”Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven.” Amen.

Could It Happen Again?

I am confident there will never be another merger like 1911 if…

  1. We preach Free Will Baptist distinctives: free will, free grace, free salvation, and free communion. We must remember and embrace Arminian heritage and acknowledge the possibility of apostasy. We should practice faithfully the third gospel ordinance—feet washing.
  2. We make a conscious effort to preserve and publish the Free Will Baptist name. Put the Free Will Baptist name on everything from hymnbooks to church signs, colleges to Sunday School literature.
  3. We teach the next generation Free Will Baptist history and heritage.
  4. We take care of denominational business every year at the national convention. This is crucial, because it means nothing grows longer than 12 months before being held accountable.
  5. We avoid self-perpetuating boards or boards with only a select few.
  6. We stay out of alliances with groups that lead to compromise. We do not belong to the World Council of Churches or National Council of Churches. We left the National Association of Evangelicals in 1972.
  7. We must avoid isolationism, splintering, and fragmentation.
  8. We hold national agencies accountable to stay doctrinally sound, financially sound, and morally sound in education, literature, and missions.

In conclusion, I agree with Dr. William F. Davidson, who wrote in The Free Will Baptists in America 1727-1984:

At this point in time, it is useless to bemoan the loss of New England or to speculate as to what might have happened had this large and well-established group remained Free Will Baptist and become a part of the 1935 National Association. But New England’s potential was enormous and the losses were staggering.

Unfortunately, ecumenism, then as now, was not kind to the smaller denomination. The two bodies had agreed prior to union that each should take the other without requiring alteration in faith or practice and that the Freewill Baptists would continue to enjoy their identity and heritage. It quickly was recognized that those agreements were ideal rather than practical. The smaller denomination disbanded.

Looking back on the merger in 1924, Alfred Williams Anthony, joint secretary for the two denominations and a Freewill Baptist in background, listed the advantages of the merger: 1) The Freewill Baptists as a small body had gained the confidence and enthusiasm of a larger body, 2) the Freewill Baptists had enjoyed economic relief as the larger body had taken over the financial responsibility for missions and education, and 3) competing churches—Baptists and Freewill Baptists—in local communities had united and become one large, progressive church Whatever the advantages, the Freewill Baptists of New England had paid an exorbitant price. From this point, identity was lost and the denomination simply ceased to exist.

We can do better than this! It’s an old story, one that happened after the merger in Southern Illinois. The late Paul Ketteman dug it out of history and told it:

After the 1911 merger, 15 or so Illinois churches escaped the Northern Baptists. Two preachers tried to pastor all those churches. One had to cross the Big Muddy River every Sunday to begin his long circuit. He would arrive on his horse, wringing wet from the river and back up to the stove to preach while his clothes steamed dry. Then he got back on his horse and rode to his next appointment.

One week the river flooded. Folks met for prayer feeling sure the preacher could not cross the swollen waters. Having finished praying, they glanced into the torrent below, and far out in the swift water they saw two horses pulling a buckboard, and that Free Will Baptist preacher standing up on the seat singing at the top of his voice, “I’II never turn back anymore.”


Record of the merger vote taken by the New Durham Quarterly Meeting and sent to A. W. Anthony, found in a manuscript at A.B.H.S: 

“Be it resolved that the New Durham Quarterly Meeting, home of Benjamin Randall and the mother quarterly meeting, should be the last to endorse a movement for union which we believe to be immature and for which the majority of both Baptists and Free Baptists are unprepared.

Be it furthermore resolved that though in sympathy with a union of Christian brethren in spirit and work, we of the New Durham Quarterly Meeting do hereby put ourselves on record as opposed, for the present, to organic union with the Baptist denomination.” 

It is signed by E. W. Cummings, the clerk, who initialed the following, evidently addressed to Anthony: 

“I think if you had been present you would have despaired of taking the New Durham Quarterly Meeting over to the Baptists.” 

This action is what we might expect from the home territory of the Freewill Baptists, but it is notable that even it is not categorically opposed to union and that the New Hampshire Yearly Meeting voted in favor of the Basis of Union.

From the A. W. Anthony report to the 1910 General Conference, the year of the merger vote:

The two bodies of the North, the Baptists and Free Baptists, are in substantial agreement. Most Baptists of the North are no longer Calvinistic nor close communioners.

From A. W. Anthony: “20 Years Later:”

There may be regret on the part of some Free Baptists, there may be satisfaction in the minds of some Baptists, that since the union of the two bodies has been taking place no new Free Baptist churches have been organized.

From the 1904 Minutes of the General Conference:

We recommend that our own Quarterlies be used in all our Sunday schools.

Dr. A. D. Williams, retiring moderator of the General Baptists issued the following warnings about Calvinism, mergers and Free Will Baptists in his 1893 sermon preached at the General Association.

  1. We need still to go forward in the preaching of a general atonement and its related doctrines. Calvinism is not dead. All the denominations around us are still preaching it—sometimes to be sure, in a diluted form except the Methodists, while The Cumberland Presbyterians are perhaps a little more than half free will—full of logical inconsistencies. It is no time for us to be silent. It is rather a time for us to cry aloud and spare not, until predestination, and election, and all that sort of heathen philosophy, has ceased to be preached in Christian pulpits, and all men everywhere are made to feel that if they are not saved, it is solely because they themselves would not.
  • We need to go forward with our free communion. Free Baptists are coquetting with close communionists, and some of them—I trust not many—seem about ready to curtail their communion to “immersed believers,” but this is not free communion.

At one point before the merger, officials feared the denomination might disintegrate over the issue. Consider the statements made in the 1907 General Conference Minutes (page 164):

Report of Committee on Denomination

In reviewing the present condition of the denomination as compared with that of three years ago there appear many causes of great encouragement and of profound gratitude to God.

Present Condition of Denomination

The denomination has become unified and solidified as never before. At the time of the last General Conference fears, which did not appear unfounded were entertained that there might be a breaking up of the denomination on this question of union, some going one way, some another. But there have been no secessions. Denominational loyalty, deep and consistent, has steadily increased. Internal unity has been established.

A great irony—at the missionary service at the 1910 General Conference, July 17 at 7:30 p.m., the speaker who addressed the delegates on the subject, “Africa,” had traveled by ship from Liberia. He was known in Africa as none other than Prince Somayou, who gave up the throne of the Bassa tribe to preach the gospel. His denomination, for whom he gave up his people, 

voted itself out of existence within five days.

About the writer: The late Dr. Jack Williams was a long-time member of the Free Will Baptist Historical Commission and the editor of Contact magazine for more than 30 years.