The awakening of the Freewill Baptists: Benjamin Randall and the founding of an American religious tradition
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. INTRODUCTION 1
2. THE COLONIAL BAPTIST MILIEU PRIOR TO 1740 11
The Puritans Roger Williams Colonial Baptist Diversity
3. TOWARDS A COMMUNITY OF BAPTISTS 1740-1780 35
The Revivals Bring Controversy The Pre-Whitefield Baptist Churches Isaac Backus The Origins of the Warren Baptist Association The Founding of Rhode Island College
4. THE AWAKENING OF BENJAMIN RANDALL 76
Randall’s Childhood and Early Spirituality Randall’s Conversion Randall’s Call to Preach
5. THE AWAKENING OF THE FREEWILL BAPTISTS 110
Organizing Churches Problems in New Durham Organizing a Movement Further Organization Ordaining Leaders Death of Randall
6. THE THEOLOGY OF THE FREEWILL BAPTISTS 168
Henry Alline Elias Smith Randall’s Effort to Control the Connexion
7. THE LEGACY OF BENJAMIN RANDALL 224
8. CONCLUSION 249
1. June 30, 1780, Covenant of the Church of Christ of New Durham 254
2. April 13, 1791, Covenant of the Church of Christ of New Durham 255
The scholastic endeavor may appear to be the task of one individual but in reality it is a communal task. Many individuals and organizations have contributed in significant ways towards the completion of this research endeavor. I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to William H. Brackney for his support, guidance, and vision for this project. Dr. Brackney’s support for my abilities has not wavered since my entrance into the Baylor University doctoral program and his belief in me and my work served as a life preserver many times when I felt as if I was about to go under. I would also like to express appreciation to Dr. William L. Pitts who constantly demonstrates gracious hospitality whether he is in the classroom, his home, or in England. Scholars cannot accomplish any project without the able assistance of librarians and I am indebted to the following institutions for their expert support: Edmund S. Muskie Archives and Special Collections at Ladd Library of Bates College; Franklin Trask Library of Andover Newton Theological School; Jesse H. Jones Library of Baylor University; Maine Historical Society; and Tuck Library of New Hampshire Historical Society. Specific thanks also to Marc Nicholas, Social Science and Humanities Reference Assistant at Jones Library, who discovered numerous sources that I had trouble locating on my own. Special thanks are also in order to the members of the First Free Will Baptist Church in New Durham, New Hampshire, who allowed me unlimited access to the church records that helped this project come alive. Individuals have also contributed to my own personal sanity and well being throughout this academic process. Personal words of thanks to my colleagues in the v
lounge who provided numerous laughs along the way and helped keep things in perspective. I would like to express a final word of thanks to Clova Gibson who provided expert assistance throughout the dissertation process.
To Natalie: “let’s live” Anna: “let’s dance” Luke: “let’s tackle ” Reid: “let’s play”
CHAPTER ONE Introduction
In the early part of the eighteenth century, the Great Awakening brought confusion and diversity to the religious life of the American colonies. Following the example of British Evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770), itinerant preachers used innovative methods to stir the hearts of colonists and this resulted in spiritual vigor and reform throughout the region. Individuals left the established churches in their home towns because of a perceived lack of spiritual vitality and they formed new congregations. The nascent Baptist movement benefited greatly from the religious turmoil initiated by the revivals as it experienced significant numerical growth in the eighteenth century. While scholars have long debated whether the “Great Awakening” is the correct terminology for what occurred in eighteenth century colonial America, it is beyond dispute that the religious upheaval initiated by the revivals had a direct impact on the formation of Baptist congregations in the colonies. 1 In New England, one significant development in Baptist life was the birth of a new faction of Baptists that espoused belief not in God’s election, but in humanity’s free will to choose or deny God’s offer of salvation. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Freewill Baptist movement, as
1 See Jon Butler, “Enthusiasm Decried and Described: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction,” Journal of American History 69 (September 1982): 305-325 and Frank Lambert, Inventing the Great Awakening (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).
2 it came to be known, originated and developed through a series of revivals in upcountry New England, including Southern New Hampshire, Southern Maine, and Vermont. One of the principal founders of the Freewill Baptist movement was Benjamin Randall 2 (1749-1808). Randall himself had experienced conversion following his attendance at one of Whitefield’s revivals in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1780. Following his conversion, Randall began to evaluate the spiritual vitality of his fellow parishioners in a local Congregational church and was unimpressed with the level of piety and holiness exhibited by the membership. He soon began to participate in and lead spiritual meetings outside of the authority of his congregation. In the same year that the colonies each declared independence from Great Britain, Randall helped form a separate congregation and declared his independence from what he perceived to be a spiritually dead Congregational church. Randall’s spiritual journey continued as he became the leader of a Baptist congregation at upcountry New Durham in New Hampshire. Randall was not content to preach only to his congregation and, like many of his separatist peers, he began to itinerate throughout northern New England. His emphasis upon free grace, freewill, and free communion soon attracted the attention of neighboring Calvinistic Baptist ministers who questioned his theology and eventually distanced themselves from Randall and his ministry. Seemingly unaware of his theological divergence from the Calvinistic Baptist majority, Randall was not deterred by the lack of support from the Baptist clergy. In response to his censure by the Calvinistic Baptist majority, Randall formally constituted
2 There are inconsistencies in the spelling of Randall’s name. Even Randall himself used a couple of variations including Randal and Randell. For the sake of uniformity I will use Randall unless the name is part of a quotation.
3 the New Durham Baptist church as a Freewill congregation in 1780. His itinerant preaching resulted in the founding of additional Freewill Baptist congregations and Randall established a system of quarterly and yearly meetings called the Freewill connexion in an effort to maintain accountability within the movement. Randall spent the remainder of his life (1780-1808) attempting to oversee the spiritual vitality of numerous congregations in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts. The Freewill Baptist movement is a uniquely American story and the academic community has yet to explore fully the significance of the Freewill Baptist movement to the greater Baptist and evangelical traditions. 3 One way to examine the importance of the Freewill movement is to evaluate one of its principal founders, Benjamin Randall. Randall’s spiritual odyssey from an unconverted member of the established Congregational church to becoming one of the leading figures in the genesis of a new religious tradition merits investigation. Yet, Randall’s designation as the founding father of the Freewill Baptist tradition does not go unchallenged. For example, the Maine Historical Society holds the papers of Ephraim Stinchfield, a contemporary of Randall, and refers to Stinchfield as the “founder of the Freewill Baptists.” 4 Among other
3 The Freewill Baptist movement in New England is not to be confused with the General Baptist movement in England. During Randall’s life, the Freewill Baptist movement in the colonies had no relationship with the General Baptists in England. Dan Taylor (1738-1816), is considered the great organizer of the General Baptists in England and helped form the New Connection of General Baptists in 1770. On Taylor and the New Connexion, see F. W. Rinaldi, “The Tribe of Dan: The New Connection of General Baptists 1770-1891” (Ph. D. diss., University of Glasgow, 1996). For a confessional statement of the New Connection see the Articles of Religion of the New Connection in William L. Lumpkin, ed., Baptist Confessions of Faith (Philadelphia, PA: Judson Press, 1959) 342-344. Following the death of Randall, John Buzzell, the heir-apparent to Randall, began corresponding with the General Baptists in England. 4 Ephraim Stinchfield Collection at the Research Library of the Maine Historical Society, Portland, Maine.
4 objectives, this project will assess whether Randall initiated the movement or was an early advocate who came to be the leading figure. Another area in need of investigation is Randall’s leadership style. Randall was not content to supervise only the spiritual vitality of his own congregation and he organized a structured meeting schedule in an effort to oversee the spiritual vitality of the other Freewill Baptist congregations throughout New England. Historically Baptists have recognized the priority of local church independence and Randall’s hierarchical system of supervision must be assessed in light of eighteenth century Baptist practice. Another factor that must be addressed is the existence of freewill theology from the beginning of the Baptist story in England. Although the General Baptists did not become the numerically dominant expression of Baptist theology, like Randall, General Baptists believed in unlimited atonement as they emphasized the human response to the gospel. Randall’s freewill theology was not an innovation in Baptist life even though it was considered unorthodox by Randall’s New England Calvinistic Baptist peers that numerically dominated the colonies. Although historically it has been the minority position in Baptist life, freewill theology and Baptist doctrine are not mutually exclusive. By 1840 there was a virtual transatlantic community of “Arminian” Baptists. There is room in the Baptist narrative for both Calvinistic Baptists and those espousing a freewill theology. 5
Unfortunately only a limited amount of primary source material pertaining to Randall survives. Randall kept a journal that details much of his life and ministry but
5 In fact, Baptists in the eighteenth century cannot adequately be divided into two types based solely on their belief in the theology of the atonement; those who believed the resurrection to be beneficial for all people (general atonement) and those who believed the resurrection was only beneficial for the elect (particular atonement). The issue of atonement was but one distinguishing mark and it did not serve as the defining characteristic of eighteenth century colonial Baptists.
5 only portions of it can be found in the published work of Randall’s successor as leader of the Freewill Baptists, John Buzzell (1766-1863). Buzzell’s work, The Life of Elder Benjamin Randall, principally taken from documents written by himself, 6 was printed in 1827, and offers a glimpse of Randall’s journal. As the title indicates, Buzzell provided only limited narrative that introduced lengthy passages taken directly from Randall’s journal. At the turn of the twentieth century, another book focusing on the life and ministry of Randall was published. Like Buzzell before him, Frederick Wiley, a Freewill Baptist minister, relied heavily on Randall’s journal to compose the narrative of his life story entitled Life and Influence of Benjamin Randall, Founder of the Free Baptist Denomination. 7 Wiley’s foreword reports that he had access to both Randall’s journal and some of Randall’s other works that “if published would make two or three respectable volumes.” 8
In 1804, the Freewill Baptists authorized a reprint of a work by Maritime evangelist, Henry Alline 9 (1748-1784), Two Mites, Cast into the Offering of God, for the Benefit of Mankind (1781). 10 The 1804 edition included amendments made by Randall
6 John Buzzell, The Life of Elder Benjamin Randall, principally taken from documents written by himself (Limerick, ME: Hobbs, Woodman, & Co., 1827). 7 Frederick Wiley, Life and Influence of Benjamin Randall, Founder of the Free Baptist Denomination (Boston: American Baptist Publication Society, 1915). 8 Ibid., n.p. 9 Scholars are indebted to the work of former Queen’s University historian George Rawlyk for his tireless efforts in exploring Alline’s significane and contribution. See specifically George A. Rawlyk, Ravished by the Spirit: Religious Revivals, Baptists, and Henry Alline (Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1984). 10 Henry Alline Two Mites, Cast into the Offering of God, for the Benefit of Mankind (Halifax, NS: A. Henry, 1781).
6 of Alline’s original work and can be examined and compared with the original 1781 edition in an effort to understand Randall’s own theological perspective. Alline’s influence was not only felt through his personal ministry and his theological writings but also through the hymns he wrote. Alline’s Hymns and Spiritual Songs published in 1797 served as the leading guide for Freewill Baptist worship for a number of years until the Freewill Baptists published their own hymn book in 1823. The 1823 hymnal included numerous hymns from Alline’s original hymnal and a number composed by Benjamin Randall as well. An examination of Randall’s hymns will be necessary in recovering Randall’s theology.
Historiographical Considerations Despite his contribution to the American religious landscape, the academic community has devoted very little attention to the life and ministry of Benjamin Randall. Besides the above mentioned works devoted to Randall’s life, other works that focus on the organization and development of the Freewill Baptist denomination devote attention to Randall’s life and ministry. Works such as Isaac Stewart’s The History of the Freewill Baptists, for Half a Century, 11 published in 1862 and Damon C. Dodd’s The Freewill Baptist Story, 12 published in 1956 provide no new insight into the specifics of Randall’s life and appear to rely solely on Buzzell’s work as the source of information on Randall’s life and ministry. Both of these works are denominational histories published by the
11 Isaac Stewart, The History of the Freewill Baptists, for Half a Century (Dover, NH: Freewill Baptist Printing Establishment, 1862). 12 Damon C. Dodd, The Free Will Baptist Story (Nashville, TN: Executive Department of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, 1956).
7 Freewill denomination and offer little to no critical examination of Randall or the early days of the Freewill movement. Eastern Baptist College historian Norman Baxter’s History of the Freewill Baptists, 13 published in 1957, advanced the frontier thesis as the primary explanation of the origins of the Freewill Baptists. However, the frontier thesis is inadequate to explain the difference between the Freewill Baptists and the other movements that began during that era, such as the Methodists, the Christian churches, and the Universalists. Wellesley College historian Stephen A. Marini’s dissertation, New England Folk Religions, 1770-1815: The Sectarian Impulse in Revolutionary Society, is one of the few academic works that gives Benjamin Randall and the Freewill Baptists serious consideration and evaluation. In Marini’s estimation the Freewill Baptists were similar to other Separatist communities of the era as they focused on “fervid piety, ecstatic worship forms, Biblical literalism, the pure church ideal, and charismatic leadership” 14 In his study, Marini focused primarily upon the common region shared by the Freewill Baptists, Shakers, and Universalists in upcountry New England. All three groups remained in many ways consistent with their orthodox contemporaries but were considered extremists for some of their radical departures, including the anti-Calvinistic position of the Freewill Baptists. In an effort to evaluate the rise of the Freewill Baptist movement the student must first understand the social and religious culture in which Randall lived and worked. The eighteenth century in the American colonies was a tumultuous period as a new nation was
13 Norman Baxter, History of the Freewill Baptists: a study in New England Separatism (Rochester, NY: American Baptist Historical Society, 1957). 14 Stephen A. Marini, New England Folk Religions, 1770-1815: The Sectarian Impulse in Revolutionary Society. (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University Press, 1975), 2.
8 formed out of conflict with England. Religiously speaking, the eighteenth century was significant because the series of revivals that began in the 1740’s continued to have an impact upon the religious consciousness of the people leading up to and following the Revolutionary war. After establishing the diversity that existed amongst the seventeenth and early eighteenth century colonial Baptists in chapter one, it is necessary to discuss how the Calvinistic Baptists developed into the dominant expression of the movement. Chapter two will describe the changes and developments that occurred following the revivals that led to the dominance of the Calvinistic Baptists. It is also important that the details of Randall’s life be redrawn and analyzed. Randall inherited a growing bias against Calvinism and its effects. With others, he established the Freewill denomination by forming congregations throughout New England. Chapter three will present the details of his conversion experience and chapter four will focus on his efforts in preaching revivals, forming congregations, and organizing the burgeoning movement. The fifth chapter will examine Freewill Baptist theology and its unique polity. Attention will be given to Randall’s theology, the cross currents of the Maritime evangelist, Henry Alline, and other New England thinkers. Randall’s own innovative scheme for overseeing the spiritual health and well-being of other Freewill congregations also requires assessment. The sixth chapter of the project will focus on factors that gave permanent shape to the Freewill movement in the first quarter century. The Freewill Baptist movement faced new trials and challenges after the death of one of their leading figures. Randall’s influence did not end with his death and is evident for decades as he became a popular
9 icon of Freewillism. The work will conclude by marking the enduring legacy today of non-Calvinistic Baptists and their place in the Baptist story as well as on the American religious landscape. The Great Awakening of the 1740’s initiated by Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and a host of others is often marked as the turning point of the Baptist story in America. Few historians would dispute Brown University historian William G. McLoughlin’s assertion that the New Light Separates who eventually adopted the Baptist view of believer’s baptism “brought about a revolution in the Baptist denomination.” 15
As a result of the formative role of the Great Awakening on the development of the Baptist tradition in colonial America little attention has been devoted to the vast differences in theology that existed within the Baptists community prior to 1740. Historians have focused instead on the dramatic numerical increase in the midst of the eighteenth century revivals that spurred the growth and development of the Baptist tradition. Forty years after the Whitefield revivals swept the colonies the Freewill Baptist tradition encountered stiff resistance from Calvinistic Baptists who came to numerically dominate the Baptist scene in colonial America only after they enjoyed a dramatic increase in numbers in the midst of and following the Great Awakening. To ignore the theological variety of the Baptist churches that existed prior to the Awakening is to disregard a number of Baptist congregations that should not be forgotten when telling the Baptist story. From their beginnings in America, Baptists have not exhibited one
15 William G. McLoughlin, New England Dissent, 1630-1833; the Baptists and the Separation of Church and State 2 Vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971) 1:319 .
10 monolithic Baptist theology, but a variety of Baptist theologies that when examined in full produce a true picture of the Baptist tradition in colonial America.
The Colonial Baptist Milieu Prior to 1740
Benjamin Randall, the great organizer of the Freewill Baptists in colonial New England, was disowned by his Baptist peers for his failure to accept Calvin’s doctrine of election. The doctrine of election was accepted by the established Congregational churches as well by the majority of the eighteenth century Baptists in New England. The eighteenth century Baptists that rejected Randall’s theological diversity stand in stark contrast to the colonial Baptists of the seventeenth century that did not exhibit theological homogeneity. This chapter will demonstrate the theological diversity that existed among seventeenth and early eighteenth century Baptists in colonial New England. In order to understand the development of the Baptist tradition in the colonies one must first recognize the dominant hold on religious matters enjoyed by the Puritans. While the Freewill Baptist movement did not begin in New England until the last two decades of the eighteenth century, the theological foundation that fostered the development of the movement began with the arrival of the first Puritan emigrants from England in 1620The story of the development of Puritan theology in the colonies, including the covenantal theology that demanded strict moral obedience and the controversial Half-way covenant that redefined church membership, must be understood in order to appreciate the religious landscape in which the Freewill Baptist movement originated.
12 The Puritans In many ways, the first Europeans to settle in New England set the tone for the religious ethos of the colonies. In 1620 the Puritan Pilgrims arrived in the New World and established Plymouth Plantation in an effort to complete the reformation that they believed the Church of England had abandoned. The Puritans immigrated to the colonies in an effort to enact and enforce the religious changes and innovations they believed to be in obedience with God’s word. The Pilgrims envisioned a commonwealth of saints that lived together under one standard, the Bible. In the words of Harvard Divinity School professor David D. Hall, “all other forms of truth were incomplete or partial next to Scripture. It was the living speech of God.” 1 The Puritans believed that they had received a unique calling from God to demonstrate to the world how a colony of believers could live in harmony both with one another and with God. In a sermon preached during the Pilgrims’ voyage to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony, future Governor John Winthrop made it clear to his audience that they were now partners with God as he proclaimed, “We are entered into covenant with Him for this work.” 2 The covenant between God and the Pilgrims was established before the first home was built or the first crops planted by the Pilgrims in the New World. 3 The covenant between God and the Pilgrims was the same as the one established between God and the Israelites, a conditional covenant based upon the
1 David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England, (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 24. 2 Ibid. 3 The Puritans did not originate in the American colonies but came from England in part to organize a pure church. See Ch. 1 “Ecclesiology and Soteriology” in Stephen Brachlow, The Communion of Saints: Radical Puritan and Separatist Ecclesiology, 1570-1625 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), 21-76.
13 obedience of the community to God and his law. As Perry Miller at Harvard long ago stated, “the covenant between God and man is an agreement of unequals upon just and equal terms.” 4 As long as the Pilgrims continued to obey God and his commands they would be blessed. If the Pilgrims rejected God and his commands then God’s blessing would be removed. The conditional covenant coupled with the Puritan doctrine of election resulted in a community that worked to live up to a heavenly calling while at the same time remaining completely dependent upon God to determine the eternal destination of each individual. Miller pointed out the unique dynamic that existed for the colonists, “the federal God, who is exceedingly shrewd, perfected the adroit device of incorporating the Covenant of Works in the Covenant of Grace, not as the condition of salvation but as the rule of righteousness.” 5 The Puritans had a calling that they had to live up to and yet their efforts did not guarantee blessing or salvation beyond the earthly existence. This dichotomy resulted in a society of hopeful doubters who yearned to live lives that pleased God and yet remained aware that despite their obedient actions their eternal destiny was firmly in the grip of God. It was a complex situation summed up nicely by Yale historian Edmund S. Morgan: “Though God’s decrees were immutable and no man whom He had predestined to salvation could fail to attain it, the surest earthly sign of a saint was his uncertainty; and the surest sign of a damned soul was security.” 6
4 Perry Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1939), 376. 5 Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, 384. 6 Edmund Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1963), 70.
14 God’s involvement was not limited to ecclesial matters and God’s law was to be obeyed in all realms of life. In colonial New England church and state were not separate spheres that precluded involvement in the other but were entities that coexisted under the divine leadership and direction of God. Individuals that questioned the prevailing opinion concerning the role of civil government in spiritual matters soon discovered the consequences of expressing an opinion at odds with the established order.
Roger Williams A classic example of how the Puritans treated an individual with differing views on theological matters is Roger Williams. 7 On February 5, 1631, Williams (1604?- 1683), accompanied by his wife, arrived in New England eager and excited about participating in the innovative spiritual experiment that was the colonies. Williams had hoped to find a community of saints able to live and worship free of the control and supervision of the Church of England. Williams’ expectation of discovering a pure church was unrealized as he quickly assessed the church in the colonies to be just as corrupt as the Church of England which he sailed to the colonies to escape. Williams lived for a time in Salem, Plymouth, and Boston and in each settlement was unimpressed with the piety of the local congregations. Williams was also outraged that some colonists would return to England and willingly worship in the Church of England that they had separated from. Williams believed complete separation from the Church of England was necessary for the congregations in the colonies but his was the minority opinion. The majority of the colonial Puritans believed the best way to reform
7 For a recent excellent biography of Roger Williams see Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America, (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1999).
15 the church was from within as they hoped the Church of England back home would be inspired to further reformation when they observed the spiritual purity of the new churches in the colonies. Williams enjoyed no such optimism regarding the reform of the Church of England and believed strongly that the best way to reform the church was to sever all ties with the national church that he considered to be corrupt. Williams urged the congregation in Salem to separate themselves from the congregations in Boston and Plymouth and this proved to be the final straw for the civil leaders of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Williams was formally brought to trial for his subversive actions and teachings and was formally banned from the colony on October 9, 1635. Williams was given six weeks to remove himself from Massachusetts before the authorities would enforce the punishment and in the beginning of 1636 Williams found himself living among the Narragansett Indians southwest of Boston. The treatment of Williams by the Massachusetts Bay leadership exhibited the abuse of power that Williams spoke out against as the civil courts imposed a verdict on a spiritual matter. Williams left England because of the corruption of the Church of England and discovered a different but in his opinion still corrupt church alive and well in New England. We will return to Williams’ life and ministry when looking at the development of the Baptist tradition in the colonies. While outspoken dissenters caused problems for the Puritans, these were at least easy problems to solve as the courts consistently punished and fined those who expressed divergent theological opinions. A more complicated problem developed as existing members of the Puritan community and their descendants chose not to express divergent