Paul Revere Print of Submersion Baptism
The Palmer Movement of Southern Free Will Baptists,
Southern Free Will Baptists have generally traced their ancestry back to the ministry of Paul Palmer, who in 1727 established the first known Free Will Baptist church in America in Chowan County, North Carolina. Very little is known about Palmer except that he organized North Carolina's 1st Baptist Church in 1727 in what is now Shiloh. A loose network of Baptist churches spread throughout North Carolina, numbering some 40 churches by the time of the American Revolution. In 1812, these mostly Southern churches organized into the Free Will Baptists, so called because of their belief that Jesus died so that all people, not just the elect, might come to salvation. Thus the organization of the Free Will Baptists marks an important moment in the evolution of Baptist theology which, up until then, had been strongly Calvinist.
The Earliest General Baptists in North Carolina
America’s first Free Will Baptists were called, like their English brethren, General Baptists. General stood for “general atonement,” their strong belief in the universality of the atonement—that Christ died for all men—& its attending doctrines. Both the General Baptists in England & America were nicknamed “Freewillers,” & the name caught on & began to be officially used by southern Free Will Baptists in the late 1700s. Though there were Baptists in North Carolina as early as 1685, the 1st organized church was not begun until around 1727, under the ministry of Paul Palmer. Palmer married into an English General Baptist family. Palmer’s father-in-law, Benjamin Laker, had been an active General Baptist layman who had apparently established an informal gathering of General Baptists in the Perquimans Precinct of North Carolina.
Laker had emigrated to Carolina from England, where he had been an active General Baptist who signed the 1663 edition of the 1660 English General Baptist Confession of Faith. In North Carolina, Laker, deputy to one of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, member of the governor's Council, judge, and Baptist leader, was in 1664 a resident of Betchworth Parish, Surrey County, England, and a member of the family of that name living in southern Surrey County in the vicinity of the towns of Guildford, Dorking, and Reigate. As a local political leader & prosperous farmer, Laker had lived in Perquimans as early as 1685. It is known from Laker’s will that he owned many English General Baptist books. Among the books he left in his will was a book called Christianismus Primitivus. This was the standard doctrinal text for the English General Baptists & was written by Thomas Grantham, the foremost leader of the English General Baptists in the 1600s.
Grantham’s book outlined the doctrine of the English General Baptists, who taught, among other things, that Christ died for the sins of all mankind; that, though the sin of Adam had been imputed to man, he could be set free & saved by the righteousness of Jesus Christ which could be obtained by faith alone; that a saved person could renounce his faith in Christ & hence come out of union with Christ, never to be redeemed again; that believer’s baptism was the only way to constitute a local church; that local churches should be self-governing; that God granted everyone liberty of conscience, & thus the king should allow every individual the freedom to practice his religion without fear of persecution & that individual Christians had the right to be involved in government & to keep & bear arms for the protection of family & freedom. These doctrines had been stated in the 1660 English General Baptist Confession of Faith, which was used by Laker & Palmer, & in turn the Southern Free Will Baptists until 1812, when it was condensed into the 1812 Former Articles.
There seem to be no records to support the presence of an organized General Baptist church in North Carolina before 1727 [the year Palmer’s church was organized], but Laker’s important social & political status would have given him a unique opportunity to spread his General Baptist faith. When Paul Palmer began to preach in 1726, he found an eager audience for his General Baptist doctrine. Baptist churches in North Carolina before 1755 were of the General Baptist persuasion.
Paul Palmer & His Followers
Little is known about the early life of Paul Palmer. In the late spring of 1717, Palmer was living in York County, Virginia, but soon moved to North Carolina. In March 1719, Palmer married a 33-year-old woman, who was already twice widowed, Joanna Taylor Jeffreys Peterson. Mrs. Peterson was a woman of some prominence, the step-daughter of the General Baptist Benjamin Lake. By 1720, Laker had settled in Perquimans Precinct, where by 1729, he had an estate of 964 acres. Palmer became a respected landowner & political figure in Perquimans Precinct. When he arrived in Carolina in 1719, he joined the local Quaker meeting. However, he remained a Quaker only until 1722, when he asked for a certificate of dismissal from the meeting. His influence allowed him a hearing to proclaim his General Baptist doctrine, & he began evangelistic work in 1726. In 1727, he established a General Baptist Church in Chowan County.
By October, 1729, a 2nd congregation had been started & a young man named William Burgess was ordained to lead it. That same month, North Carolina's governor complained to the Anglican bishop of London about Palmer’s nefarious activities. Palmer, he said, was holding daily meetings & making hundreds of converts all over the area. As a result of Palmer’s activity the Baptists were flourishing. The governor pleaded that he was powerless to prevent this tide of religious enthusiasm which was sweeping the province as a result of Palmer’s preaching.
A few early followers were to be of great importance to the young American Free Will Baptist movement. William Sojourner, Josiah Hart, & Joseph Parker were instrumental in establishing & pastoring the first few churches. Sojourner (also spelled “Surginer”) was an English General Baptist from Virginia who moved to North Carolina in 1742, & became involved in the Palmer work. Hart, a physician, was greatly influenced by Sojourner & became a successful evangelist for the early Free Will Baptists, planting churches in Craven & Beaufort counties in North Carolina.
Joseph Parker was born into a General Baptist family in 1705. In 1730, Parker & his wife, Sarah, went into Indian Territory in North Carolina to establish General Baptist works. These early ministers & their followers labored at a time when it was difficult to be a Baptist dissenter from the Anglican (Episcopal) Church, the established church.
Their work was made easier by the Act of Toleration. A 1738 court document states: Permission is hereby granted to Paul Palmer of Edenton, a Protestant minister, to teach or preach the Word of God in any part of the said province (he having qualified himself as such) pursuant to an Act of Parliament made in the first year of King William & Queen Mary entitled an “Act of Tolerating Protestant Dissenters.”
In a span of 25 years, these men established 20 or more General Baptist churches, & the movement grew rapidly. Palmer eventually learned of other Free Will Baptist churches beyond North Carolina & Virginia, & determined to avail himself of them. He decided to visit the New England churches in person. He seems to have visited churches in Massachusetts, Connecticut, & Rhode Island. Upon his return, he visited churches in New Jersey & perhaps Virginia & Maryland too.
The Coming of the Calvinists
This growth, however, would not last long. In the 1750s, the Calvinists intruded. The Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists, also called “New Lights,” felt that the General Baptists needed reforming, which basically meant that they needed to be converted from Arminianism to Calvinism. These Calvinistic Baptists criticized the Free Will Baptists for not requiring what they called an “experience of grace” as a basis for baptism & church membership. What they meant by this was not simply conversion or a personal experience of the grace of God in one’s life, but rather a “long & often ridiculous account of how one came to know he was elected to grace & was one of the sheep.” The General Baptists, on the other hand, simply required repentance & faith in Christ as the only requirement for baptism & membership in the church. In addition to this, the Calvinists claimed that the General Baptist churches were worldly & lax in their discipline. There is no way, however, to know whether this was the case or not. Old-fashioned strict Calvinists held such a low view of Arminianism that they tended to associate it with heresy or unorthodox doctrine.
Thus the Calvinistic Particular Baptists took it upon themselves to raid these early General Baptists & attempt to proselytize as many of the ministers & members to Calvinism as they could. While they were successful in converting a good many of the ministers to Calvinism, they had less success with the actual members of these early Free Will Baptist churches. A case in point is the Pasquotank Church, which had around 200 members before it was reorganized as a Calvinist Baptist church & only 12 members after.