Primitive Baptist Faith and Practices
A great many of the early settlers of Appalachia were members of the Primitive Baptist Church. What were the beliefs of these people and their practices and why were they inclined to join such a church? This short article will attempt to explore these issues.
Each Primitive Baptist Church has been constituted on a set of beliefs summarized in Articles of Faith, which vary church to church, but contain several key elements in common, most of which are common to all Christian Religions. The first article is a belief in One True and Living God, and that Jesus was his only son and that the Holy Spirit was the Comforter that was promised to come into the world. The second broad category of belief is that baptism should be by immersion, most practicing baptizing backward, although a few baptizing face first. Third, a belief that the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, are ordinances or sacraments [this is a syntax issue which can cause some debate], and that only those ministers and deacons properly ordained may administer the ordinances. Though not a generally accepted ordinance, a widely practiced ordinance in Appalachia is the washing of the feet of the saints, though it is not generally practiced in Northern Primitive Baptist Churches. Only members of the church are allowed to participate in these ordinances. Membership is obtained by baptism or transfer by letter from another church of the same faith. For example, a member of a Southern Baptist Church could only join by baptism, not by transfer. Most, but not all, Primitive Baptist Churches do not permit their members to belong to secret societies, such as the Masonic Lodge, Odd Fellows or any other society which does not permit anyone to attend. This rule seems to have been developed just after the American Civil War to prohibit membership in the Union League and in the Ku Klux Klan and in order to make the rule fair extended to any institution which didn’t permit general membership. Most Primitive Baptist Churches in the pre-Civil War era and for sometime after the war, permitted membership of black persons, in fact I know of none that prohibit black membership at the present time, though most black persons formed their own churches in the Reconstruction period of American History.
The key point that makes the Primitive Baptist Church unique, at least in the current time, is a belief in Predestination. The belief is that God, before the world began knew the fate of all of the human race, and that cannot be changed by anything the person does while he lives and this issue goes to the very belief of what God is. In Primitive Baptist theology, God is an all powerful God, knowing the end from the beginning, and that by the weight of his foreknowledge, all things are set and cannot be changed. This does not relieve the person of responsibility for sins which the person may commit while here on earth. Since God is God and knows all things, and man cannot know all things, their is no certainty of eternal life, but what is referred to as a lively hope that one day that will be the case. The relationship between man and God, should be as if Heaven would be the person’s eternal home. [There are varying degrees of belief in the doctrine of Predestination and the above is an attempt to point a middle ground, and does not necessarily represent the view of any church or any one person, including myself.]
There are several church practices which might seem a bit odd to the outside observer, but in many cases are just as important to the formal articles of faith. First of note is singing and lack of musical instruments in worship services. There is no reference to musical instrumentation being used in the New Testament, and being based on the New Testament and not the old, unless specifically authorized by the New Testament, musical instruments are omitted. In this same vein, Sunday Schools, tithing, salaried ministers are also not done. It is unusual for a “collection” to be taken up at a Primitive Baptist Church in Appalachia, though it is practiced in Northern Primitive Baptist Churches. Singing is usually still done in a very old style, which is the object of some scholarly study, and apparently is a direct importation from Scotland, England and Wales, with some Irish influences. Most hymn books in use in Appalachia are printed without musical notes. This style of singing sometimes known as “short metre” is also practiced among some Old Regular Baptists, and some Presbyterians. Many Presbyterians are known as “Primitive Baptists who went to town.”
Since Primitive Baptist Churches don’t take up a collection, a question might come up of how do the churches take care of their normal operating expenses. Since these meeting houses are usually very simple, the usual expense is a light bill, and that is usually very low. When a major project is to be undertaken, the membership gets together and gets it done. This is a difficult concept to explain to those who do not belong to these churches.
Many Primitive Baptist Churches are organized in Associations which meet annually and discuss theological or procedural issues, and there is considerable preaching. These meetings are usually well attended, with people coming from great distances to attend. Regular Church services are held once a month in many areas, with members driving many miles to visit other churches when their own church is not in session. Ministers, known as Elders, never Reverend, travel great distances to serve small churches, and usually more than one minister is present at church services and all are given an opportunity to preach, pray or express their views, leading to some lengthy services.
These churches are congregational in polity, and this leads to many divisions. Each church may issue a decision on theology or practice which comes before it. This leads to divisions and “multiplication by division”.
Two or more Associations may cover the same geographic area due to these divisions, as well, there may be several independent churches in the same area. For example in Southwestern Virginia there are: The Sandlick Association, three Washington Associations, Three Forks of Powell’s River, St. Clair’s Bottom, Mate’s Creek and the Union Association. Some of these Associations are “in fellowship” with the others, but none are “in fellowship” with all of the others. Issues dividing these Associations are: Absolute Predestination of All Things, The issue of What From Eternal Punishment will take, What constitutes the Resurrection of the Body, What constitutes proper practice and whether or not a minister should preach on radio or TV.
WHO AND WHY:
It seems to be worth noting how the Primitive Baptist Church rose to prominence in the early 19th century. Many immigrants to America in the 18th century were from Northern Ireland and Scotland and members of Presbyterian congregations. In fact, many of the first churches formed on the frontier were Presbyterian. Presbyterians have a practice of having their ministers be seminary trained, even in the early days. There was a severe shortage of ministers to go around and the frontier was not an inviting field to serve in. Baptists had and have not such requirements. Theologically, in this time, the only significant difference was the issue of immersion versus sprinkling, and the Primitive Baptist Church seemed to suit many of these churchless Presbyterians. In addition, Baptists had been persecuted in Virginia prior to the Revolution, the Church of England was the established church. Baptist ministers, after the Revolution felt a large burden lifted and preached when and where they could and “evangelized” the frontier. In these early days, the Church of England was somewhat Calvinistic in theology and though a further stretch than Presbyterians had to make, many did leave the Episcopal Church to join these Baptist Churches. In addition many of the German sects were similar in theology to the Primitive Baptist Church, and many joined, again due to lack of ministers. A case in point is Ashe County, NC, it would appear that about 1/3 of the residents were of Scotch or Scotch-Irish extraction, 1/3 English and 1/3 German. The first church in Ashe County, NC was a Presbyterian Church formed on Grassy Creek in 1773, about 8 years after the first settlers arrived. This church was pastored by John Black and closed with the close of the Revolution about 1781. The first Primitive Baptist churches were, North Fork of the New River formed in 1785, Beaver Creek formed in 1786, Three Forks of New River formed in 1790. Adjoining Grayson County, Virginia had Fox Creek formed in 1783. Little River Church in what is now Alleghany County, NC dates from circa 1793. In current Smyth County, VA St. Clair’s Bottom Primitive Baptist Church dates from circa 1775. In 1800, there were 14 Baptist Churches in the Mountain District Association which covered most of Southwestern Virginia and Western North Carolina. The earliest Church of the Brethren or Moravian Church in the area seems to have been Flat Rock Church of the Brethren, in the Warrensville area of Ashe Co., NC, which dates from 1802.
There were Methodists in the area at an early date, primarily the Osborne and Phipps Families of Grayson County, VA at an early date, however, the earliest Methodist Church in the area seems to be Bridle Creek Methodist Church which dates at least to the 1820’s. There were not doubt other churches in the area which has passed out of existence and for which no record has been preserved. Early Churches multiplied in the area after 1800, mostly of the Primitive Baptist faith. Methodism seems to have “gotten off the ground” in the 1820’s and from that date multiplied. Very few Missionary Baptist Churches predate the Civil War. Many of the Churches known as “Old Regulars” are coexistent with Primitive Baptists and most are the results of schisms within the Primitive Baptist Churches. The Presbyterians didn’t reestablish their presence in Appalachia in many places until after the Civil War. The Episcopal Churches are for the most part 20th Century Churches as are most of any other denomination in Southwest Virginia, Northwestern North Carolina or Upper East Tennessee. The multiplication through division principle has had a great influence in many other denominations in Appalachia, rising to the multiplicity of churches in the area.
These issues may seem trivial to a non member, but are crucial to Primitive Baptists. For further information you may consult an excellent anthropological study, Pilgrims of Paradox, Calvinism and Experience among the Primitive Baptists of the Blue Ridge by James L. Peacock and Ruel W. Tyson, Jr., Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1989.
Happy hunting for the faith of your ancestors. Several libraries have excellent religious collections for further research, for example, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC; Duke University, Durham, NC; The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC; Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, The Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, KY; The University of Richmond, Richmond, VA; The Virginia State Library, Richmond, VA; and The Library of Congress, Washington, DC.