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Lighting the Darkness


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Telling Our Stories: A Biographical History

By David Lytle


The stories we tell make us who we are. The Jewish celebration of Passover includes the repetition of the story of the Exodus. This story doesn’t just bring solidarity to a community; it creates identity. To forget this story is to forsake one’s identity as God’s chosen and delivered people.

In much the same way, Protestants tell the story of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses. This bold protest against the abusive sale of indulgences and corrupt papal authority is celebrated by Protestants of all stripes. Our recapitulation of the story makes us people who stand for salvation by grace and for the authority of Scripture. Our stories create our identity.

Because we are human, our stories inevitably revolve around people. Americans remember George Washington’s Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware River. We remember Lincoln’s desire for the success of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” at Gettysburg and Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality before Lincoln’s Memorial. On a smaller level, no family get-together is complete without stories of crazy uncles, nurturing grandmothers, or hilarious cousins.

Because we are Christians, we do not simply tell human stories; we tell the story of God’s presence in our stories. Our ultimate story is the gospel—the good story of God’s entrance into our broken human story. Christians not only tell the gospel story but thousands of gospel stories as we recount God’s redemptive actions through His church.

Because God has deemed it right to use the church to carry the gospel to all nations, we, like the first church historian Luke, tell the story of the church. Unlike Luke, we do not have the inspiration of the Spirit. We do our best to tell the story of the church accurately. We hesitate to attribute human actions to God, because we don’t want to presume to have an “inside scoop” on things too great for us. Still, we tell the story of Christ’s church knowing God is using the church, knowing it is a flawed human story, and knowing it is identity forming.

If Free Will Baptists are to have an identity, we must tell our stories. No one else is going to talk about Paul Palmer or Benjamin Randall. It is up to us to tell our kids and congregations about the confident faith of Laura Belle Barnard. Only we can speak to the tenacity of David Marks, who wore out his body to preach the gospel in New York, Ohio, and Canada. These are the stories that shape Free Will Baptists.

Randall House is publishing a new collection of essays from various authors entitled Arminian Baptists: A Biographical History of Free Will Baptists. Because stories about people engender our identity as a people, this book aims to introduce readers to the story of Free Will Baptists. It starts in the seventeenth century with Thomas Helwys and ends with biographies of denominational pioneers Leroy Forlines, Thomas Marberry, and Robert E. Picirilli. Each contribution is a brief biography intended to introduce the reader to the life, thought, and legacy of key figures.

We were fortunate to have scholars from inside and outside the denomination contribute to this work. Matthew Pinson wrote essays on Baptist founder Thomas Helwys and the General Baptist theologian Thomas Grantham. Robert E. Picirilli wrote on Lizzie McAdams and John Welch. Twenty different authors contributed, including Kevin Hester, Paul Harrison, Danny Dwyer, and Timothy Eaton. We also were able to get some younger talent involved; Jesse Owens and Jackson Watts provided excellent chapters.

This book does not attempt to be a complete history of Free Will Baptists, nor does it try to capture every significant figure. We tried to include many significant figures in Free Will Baptist history and in our General Baptist origin story, but we knew the biographical approach was limited.

Still, we believe this book can introduce a new generation to names that should never be forgotten. We wrote it to inspire future research and scholarship, but we also wrote it to equip pastors and lay people with a better grounding in their history. We invite Christians from other traditions to look in on our story, to learn from our failures, and to find courage in the success God has allowed us.

While this is not strictly a theology text, we tried to examine some of the theological contributions of the great minds in our tradition. Thomas Grantham, John Jay Butler, and Leroy Forlines come to mind as noteworthy shapers of Free Will Baptist theology. This book is an invitation to engage with their lives and thoughts as they considered God and life in relation to Him.

We sincerely hope this book is well received and engaged with thoughtfully. Each contributor has a unique perspective that tells a small part of the larger story. Allow me to close with two brief excerpts:

J. Matthew Pinson explains Thomas Helwys’ doctrine of the church:

Helwys’s understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture for church practice also extended to his view of church polity, how the church should be led and governed. This led him to espouse views that differed from the episcopal and presbyterian forms of church government that were most popular in his day. Thus, while churches must maintain strong relationships and mutual accountability and care with each other, and while presbyteries (groups of elders or pastors) must ordain and care for ministers, local congregations are essentially self-governing. “No church ought to challenge any prerogative over any other.” Important decisions are made by the congregation, not just by its leaders. For example, church office bearers (ministers and deacons) “are to be chosen ... by election of that church or congregation whereof they are members.”

Unlike the episcopal and presbyterian models, Helwys believed the New Testament words “pastor,” “elder,” and “bishop” all refer to the same office. Bishops, rather than being authority figures over local pastors, are pastors. Elders, rather than laity who rule the church, are preaching pastors (many if not most of the early Baptist churches had more than one pastor or elder). So Helwys said, “And there being but one rule for elders, therefore but one sort of elders.” According to Helwys, the job of these elders is “to feed the flock concerning their souls.” Helwys’s doctrine of the church laid the foundation for Baptist ecclesiology and would shape generations to come.


Robert Picirilli on H. M. and Lizzie McAdams’ role in the formation of the National Association:

From early days in the ministry, Lizzie and H. M. intentionally promoted the Free Will Baptist cause. As early as 1917, H. M.’s annual report to the second session of the Co-operative General Association included that “he and Sister McAdams had held twelve revival meetings with 532 conversions, organized two new churches” and collected “considerable money…for the [Tecumseh] College and for publications, not forgetting Foreign Missions, and arousing a general interest for the Co-operative General Association.” For several years before Tecumseh College burned and closed in 1927, they were traveling representatives for the institution.

When influences began to lead up to the formation of the National Association of Free Will Baptists in November 1935, Lizzie and H. M. involved themselves. In June 1935, at the General Conference (of the Southeast) annual meeting in North Carolina, women organized the Woman’s National Auxiliary Convention (WNAC) and elected Lizzie, who was present, as third vice president, promoting missions. She had long labored to organize women’s “mission societies” in local FWB churches.

In November 1935, the National Association of Free Will Baptists (NAFWB) was organized at Cofer’s Chapel in Nashville, Tennessee. Lizzie was present and made the motion that the body adopt, without public reading, the Treatise recommended by the revision committee; the motion carried. At the second NAFWB session in 1938, the Home Missions Board was created, and she was elected a member. From that time on, at least until 1944, the work of WNAC and Home Missions became Lizzie’s primary focus. Before long, she was officially employed by both Home Missions and WNAC to travel and promote the work.

Order your copy of Arminian Baptists!


About the Author: David Lytle (M.A. Middle Tennessee State University, M.T.S Gateway Seminary) teaches history and Bible at Woodcrest Christian School in Riverside, California.


©2023 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists