Primitive Baptists And The 20th Century

By Joe Hildreth

The 20th century was not kind to us when we consider our testimony and our numbers. Even as the population of America increased greatly, the number of our churches and our membership sadly declined, possibly near 50%. Many churches have closed and I am afraid this will continue for some years to come. As we know, many of our churches have as few as ten to twelve members or less.

However, may I emphasize that sometimes such churches do survive, i.e. Shoal Creek near Newborn, Georgia. In 1955 Shoal Creek had only six members; today this church has about seventy. There are members in these small churches yet holding high the banner of our Lord and Saviour. In the early part of the 20th century Wilson Creek Church near Triune, Tennessee had only two sisters remaining who remained faithful and today this church is a strong congregation. Yet the probability remains that quite a number of our small churches will fade away.

There is clear evidence in this 21st century the tide will turn. We must continue to fight the good fight of faith. It is most encouraging to see the present generation of younger ministers as well as some older ones of our day, proclaiming the gospel in new places both here and abroad. May we pray that they will be “endued with power from on high (Luke 24:49). These words were spoken by Jesus to His disciples just before He ascended to glory.

Why did the 20th Century bring such decline and even devastation and so much heartache to our beloved church? Why were so many candles removed from our sister churches?

These are my thoughts:
(1) Consider the establishment of one Sunday a month worship during the pioneer and frontier days. Since many churches were remote and the number of ministers insufficient to provide a pastor for each congregation, the system of “circuit riders” developed. This system did not affect our people so intensely until the 20th Century. Other denominations, such as the Missionary Baptists and Methodists, moved away from the circuit rider system. Most Primitive Baptist churches were in the rural areas. Great changes began to occur in the 20th Century. Two World Wars, especially the second, brought a more mobile society. Television and the media in general began to claim much of our time. More mothers were in the work place. The agrarian period was shrinking and our people were moving to the cities and towns. One or two Sundays a month seemed sufficient. There were opportunities to attend sister churches. This visitation aided the comfort level of small churches. There were some, including me as a child, who enjoyed going to a different church each Sunday, but also many of the members did not regularly visit other churches. What transpired? The children often attended Sunday school and other activities with their playmates.

When I came to Atlanta from Alabama in 1954, there were only two churches in Georgia and Alabama having services every Sunday – Antioch in Birmingham and Bethany in Atlanta. There are quite a few more now, but even today most of our churches meet only once or twice a month. What kind of impression do we leave when the doors of our churches are closed on the day of worship? I am not sure there is a ready solution to this long-time custom. Nevertheless, this situation has taken its toll.

(2) Sometimes the rural churches were not easy to find and were not a part of a community. For our churches to grow, it appears to me that such growth must come from the surrounding area. In some cases the old rural communities have faded away as residents relocated in growing areas. Ofttimes the churches did not follow to the towns and cities, sometimes because of the church cemetery.

(3) As many of our churches became smaller, they began to look inwardly rather than outwardly. The besieged city complex took hold.

(4) Children were not made to feel they had an important place in worship as they grew older. Also, many parents did not impress upon their children that the church was a most important part of their life – not only attending church regularly, but reading the scriptures in the home, giving thanks for God’s blessings, inviting the pastor and his family periodically, having gatherings to broaden and encourage fellowship.

When I grew up I never saw a child baptized, and very few teenagers. The nearby churches we attended had very few young people, and they were not members. Most of the churches within a 40-mile radius of our home are gone now; the buildings used by other denominations, for community activities, singings, and sometimes completely removed. Yes, it is extremely sad that Lanett, Shawnut, Ephesus, Union, Lebanon, Columbus, Bethlehem, Bethel, LaGrange, Mt. Pisgah – all no longer exist. Mt. Olive, the closest, is now a Progressive Church (since about 1980). The body of Elder W.M. Mitchell who served the church for fifty years is buried in the churchyard. He was a co-editor with Elder Sylvester Hassell and Elder J.R. Respess of The Gospel Messenger.

(5) Limited teaching of practical godliness made it harder for many to learn the application of biblical exhortations to their daily lives, thus dulling awareness of how to “let your light so shine” in our communities and making the gospel seem disconnected from one’s pressing needs and problems. In some cases churches became no more than museums of man-made traditions, inimical to spiritual growth.

(6) Frequent splits and divisions in the early part of the 20th Century were traumatic and dishonoring to the Cause of Christ. The major ones were as follows:
(a) The introduction of instrumental music by a large number of churches in Georgia and a few churches in other states in the first decade of the 20th Century.
(b) The division with the Absoluters which lasted from about 1900 to 1935, beginning in the northeast and spreading across the country.
(c) The feet-washing controversy, mostly in Georgia and Alabama in the 1930’s. Many associations and some churches were split asunder. Much reconciliation has come about in the 1950’s and since, but the divisive spirit had done its damage. Many churches in Alabama and Georgia never recovered and are no more.
(d) The Trumpet Baptist division in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1930’s had its trauma. The churches were reconciled some years ago, but as in all division, much was lost.

These splits and controversies had traumatic effects upon our people. Especially was the absoluter division devastating. This controversy affected every state where there were a sizeable number of Primitive Baptists. The growing influence of the absolute doctrine began to be felt in the late 1800’s and reached its zenith in the 1920’s. It has wiped out many churches across the eastern part of our nation – all of New England, New York, and New Jersey, and all but a small number in Maryland and Delaware. Virginia and North Carolina were greatly affected. So were sections of Alabama. Georgia was largely spared from the Absoluter ordeal. Other states had relatively few problems with this aberration.

The Absolute view continued to be evidenced even among churches not engulfed with this doctrine. For instance, such expressions as, “Brother Joe, you have to be born a Primitive Baptist,” and, “You will join the church when God gets ready for you.” Yet, many, many times since a child have I heard preachers say, “God is not going to take you by the hair of your head and bring you into the church.” I have never heard it preached from the pulpit, but some advocated that “all events and things are working together for good.” Please bear in mind that this writing relates to the 20th Century.

The tragedy of these divisions has to be laid, as Paul states in his first letter to the Church at Corinth, to the carnality of man. May the favor of God, prayerfully, here in the onset of the 21st Century, deliver us from such divisions that were so infectious in the 20th Century.

(7) We cannot ignore the societal factors that have had much affect upon us. These include the high divorce rate, exposure to the very liberal media, especially television, and the problem of liberalism in our schools, especially colleges and universities.

What can reverse the trend the 20th Century has brought us?
1. Frequent and earnest prayer to our God and Saviour.
2. Every Sunday worship if at all possible.
3. Merge small churches.
4. Emphasize family worship, both in church and home.
5. Reach out to others in our communities, i.e. visitation in nursing homes, hospitals, etc. The Apostle Andrew is a scriptural example of reaching out:
a) He reached out to a relative by bringing Peter to Jesus – John 1:40-41
b) He was observing the children in the company of 5,000 and came to Jesus and said, “There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves and three small fishes” John 6:9.
c) He assisted the Greeks who had asked to see Jesus – John 12:20-22
In reaching out to others, consider relatives, children, and inquirers.
6. Church buildings located where they can be seen and easily found.
7. Consult with our sister churches that have been successful in finding solutions.
8. Church members have gatherings often to build fellowship among all ages and interests – not separate but together.
9. Realize we are in the age of technology and meet the challenges and the opportunities of our day.
10. Emphasize that worship services are very important – including singing.
11. Have regular Bible study which the pastor conducts.
12. Preachers who are also dedicated pastors. In this day it is important that the pastor know each member, not just by name, but learn their problems and personalities – visit in their homes as often as possible.
13. Preachers who emphasize both the doctrines of grace and instruction in facing the challenges of daily life and becoming more Christ-like.
14. Be careful in reacting to the problems arising between our sister churches and brother ministers. Be sure the medicine is not worse than the disease. From the 20th Century have we not learned that divisions create a “remedy” having the stench of death?

While this narrative describes negative aspects of Primitive Baptist history, my prayer is that we will grasp each positive opportunity and, yes, “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain.” (Rev.3:2)

Post Script:

The sources of my information have been association minutes, church periodicals, and contacts across the nation for nearly 60 years. In 1951 I obtained minutes from nearly every association (222 of them) in the U.S.A. Collecting minutes has been, more or less, a hobby of mine. Others have given me their collections, including many minutes in the early 1900’s. Through the years, especially from church periodicals, I have known the churches not in associations (very few percentage-wise until recent years) and the churches having service every Sunday, whose number has been gradually growing.

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