Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the National Association of Free Will Baptists...
Honoring Our Heritage
by Eric K. Thomsen
Free Will Baptists from 12 states and 15 district associations gathered at Cofer’s Chapel Free Will Baptist Church in November 1935. They arrived at the two-story, brick building in Nashville, Tennessee, to form a new fellowship they dubbed, The National Association of the Original Free Will Baptists. Though these denominational pioneers met only three days, their decisions were monumental as they put aside long-standing differences to lay an organizational foundation that would stand in decades to come.
A New Beginning
It wasn’t easy. In fact, delegates wisely adopted the newly revised Treatise of Faith and Practices by unanimous vote without hearing it read aloud, following a motion to that affect by Rev. Lizzie McAdams. Damon Dodd captured the scene in his book, The Free Will Baptist Story:
“The motion was met with an immediate second, and the vote was overwhelmingly unanimous. This meant that the National Association of Free Will Baptists was now an official reality, that, at last, Free Will Baptists were united in a common cause.
The entire congregation was caught up in the spirit of the momentous occasion. Strong men embraced each other and wept tears of joy and victory. The shouts of rejoicing Christians were lifted in praise to God.
"At last, someone started an old hymn, the vast congregation joined in, an old-fashioned handshake ensued, and amidst such rejoicing and praising the Lord, the Holy Spirit’s stamp of approval was placed upon that transaction.”
It was 10:15, Thursday morning, November 7, 1935.
Seventy-Five Years Later
When the National Association of Free Will Baptists meets in Charlotte, North Carolina, July 17-20, it will celebrate the 75th anniversary of that timeless moment. Much has transpired in the years between.
Photos: Final meeting of the Western Associaiton, 1935; Cofer's Chapel, Nashville, Tennessee; 1956 convention officers (clockwise), Charles A. Thigpen, W.S. Mooneyham, Dean Moore, Thomas Hamilton, Harold Pitts.
The denomination has swelled to more than 180,000 members in 2,371 churches across 35 states and five continents. Modest offerings received at that first meeting have grown to an annual budget of more than $25 million as eight national departments carry out the ministry of the denomination across the nation and around the world.
A single missionary in 1935 has grown to a force of more than 100 international missionaries serving in 20 countries and 114 home missionaries in 26 states, Canada, Mexico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. A national Bible college and other regional colleges have been established to train Free Will Baptists for both ministry and professional vocations.
A flourishing Board of Retirement gives churches an opportunity to provide for the future of pastors and staff members, while the Free Will Baptist Foundation provides perpetual giving opportunities for those who wish to continue supporting the work of Free Will Baptists after their death.
Randall House Publications continues to expand production of Free Will Baptist Sunday School curriculum, and in recent years, those products have spilled over into use by other denominations and groups.
Women Nationally Active for Christ and Master’s Men assist local churches in their quest to involve every Free Will Baptist in Christian ministry.
Photo: (left to right) Rolla Smith, former International Missions director; Lorene and LaVerne Miley, pioneer missionaries to Côte d'Ivoire, West Africa.
The 75-year road hasn’t been easy. The denomination has endured turmoil from without and within—from the subtle influence of declining societal standards to disagreements over doctrine, polity, and personalities. Yet through all the challenges, Free Will Baptists have held fast to the basic tenets of their faith: free will, free grace, and free salvation.
As the National Association of Free Will Baptists turns its attention to the conclusion of its first century, the movement remains committed to the ideals that brought it together and dedicated to the possibilities that lie ahead.
Mark This Moment
To mark this important milestone, the Executive Committee planned this year’s convention around the theme, “Honoring Our Heritage.” Speakers at the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday evening services will define free will, free grace, and free salvation. On Wednesday evening, Executive Secretary Keith Burden will look into the future to the promise and challenges that lie ahead.
The Executive Office has produced two important commemorative items to be released at the convention. Honoring Our Heritage is a stunning video documentary that takes viewers on an unforgettable trip through Free Will Baptist history, from the oppression faced by our English General Baptist forerunners in the 1600s and the early development of Free Will Baptists in America to the highlights of the 20th Century and the growth and development of a fledgling denomination.
A segment of the DVD will be shown before each service, and the full-length documentary will be available for purchase at the convention.
Convention Sermons is a beautiful, hardbound book containing more than a thousand pages of sermons collected from 75 years of conventions. Timeless messages from men like LaVerne Miley, L.C. Johnson, and Robert Picirilli will encourage you, challenge you, inspire you, and give you a glimpse into Free Will Baptist life for three-quarters of a century. You will find both book and DVD at the Executive Office exhibit.
Each day, The Convention News will publish a special edition with commemorative articles from Free Will Baptist history printed on traditional newspaper imprints from the past. Each paper will include short vignettes about that particular publication and how it shaped Free Will Baptist thought and history.
Make plans now to join the 75th celebration in Charlotte, as we honor our heritage. One thing is certain. You will never have another opportunity!
About the Writer: Eric K. Thomsen is managing editor of ONE Magazine. To learn more about the National Association of Free Will Baptists, visit www.nafwb.org.
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