The United American Free Will Baptist Denomination
The Church, as has been scripturaly substantiated, is the earthy Bride of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is comprised of individuals who have committed themselves to Christian service under the saving Grace of God.
One hundred and twenty-five years ago, in the year 1867, the Free Will Baptist Denomination came into being. A small group of zealous and devout blacks, men who’d only recently been freed from the shackles of physical slavery in the aftermath of the Civil War, met in Greene County, North Carolina. The precise site of this embryonic Church was Shady Grove.
This “Colored” FWB Church was commissioned during the Eastern Conference of White Free Will Baptist held in Harts, Greene County. Motions were made that black members of FWB congregations be “Urged” to go unite and form their own Churches and General Conference.
This decree and similar ones from other white-based Conferences sparked a tremendous upsurge of highly “Visible” Black churches. Previously, there had been clandestine or invisible gathering of black congregations. But this legitimization of organized worship served as a highly impetus to loose the bonds of psychological \repression, giving wings to the birth of the Black FWB throughout the south.
Initially, the primary structure used in these early Church services was bush shelters. These primitive edifices were a carry over from those secretive years of worship during the antebellum era in the south. The general shape of such structures consisted of four (4) wooden frames posted in the earth with planks overlaid on top. These were capped by an assortment of bushes and shrubbery, hence its distinctive name. The minister and depending on the size of the shelter, several other church officials would stand under the floral canopy. The congregation would be assembled around the structure. The bush shelter way of worship spread; however, in a few years, a number of bona fide Free Will Baptist Churches were built replacing them.
Due to regional isolation, a number of scattered, sectional groups sprang up across the south. After some years of worship, the leaders of those quasis-independent groups united and held yearly meetings to discuss agendas; which would further the cause of the Free will Baptist Church. This was the beginning of the Annual Conference Women’s Home Mission and Sunday School.
Around 1887, the groundwork was laid for the organization of the General Conference. It wasn’t until March 2, 1901 that the North Carolina General Assembly incorporated the General Conference at St. John’s Church in Kinston, North Carolina on May 8, 1901.
It was short-lived Camelot. With so many diverse groups comprising one cohesive body, it was inevitable that the church would suffer growing pains. The first major schism arose over changes being made to the discipline. Doctrinal differences were so acute, that the Church divided in 1907. the smaller group remained Original Free Will Baptist.
The United American Free Will Baptist under Reverend W. H. Hodges, its first General Moderator, was composed of four (4) annual Conferences. They were Northwest, Northeast, Cape Fear, and Northern. The UAFWB grew rapidly. Near the close of the first quarter of the century, the young Conferences, on account of the Churches phenomenal growth, the leaders felt the Denomination could be served best by establishing divisions in all areas where the Church had spread. Thus, between 1935 and 1936, each of the four (4) existing Annual Conferences subdivided into A and B Divisions.
The Church not only grew, but it was also progressive. In December of 1947, the General Women’s Department was launched at Sweet Hope Free Will Baptist Church, Baltimore, Maryland. Periodically, groups continued to splinter from the main body, giving birth to new independent Conferences. Even so, the UAFWB Church is now composed of approximately 8 Annual Conferences.
The permanent headquarters of the Denomination is located in Kinston, North Carolina. In June 1981, the General Church Tabernacle building was completed and dedicated to uncompromising Christian service. The project was the last begun by the late Senior Bishop, R. D. Pridgen and completed during the tenure of the General Bishop, W. L. Jones. The edifice was constructed in a traditional black neighborhood of low-to-moderate housing to help infuse self-esteem and God centered pride in the community the Tabernacle would be serving. The site has further historical significance. It was the former location of Kinston College, a groundbreaking, Church-owned Institution of Learning for blacks during the first quarter of the 20th Century.
In 1989, the Denomination was further blessed by the addition of an Administrative and Educational Center built adjacent to the General Church Tabernacle. This accomplished under the inspirational guidance of our present General Bishop, Dr. J. E. Reddick.
The spiritual goals and ambitions are high for this new building. It is already the site of a fledging, yet efficient Bible College; which the present Church Administration is systematically seeking accreditation from Shaw University School of Divinity. It also serves to host seminars and classes for Church Programs such as the Christian Education Department. This Department stresses Christian Doctrines and ethics as it applies to every function in the operation and maintenance of the General Church office throughout the Denomination. The instructional and administrative use for this facility knows no boundaries. It is the goal of the General Bishop to tirelessly exhaust every potential and spiritual revelation for its utilization to God’s glory.
Though a wealth of other facts exists, these highlights should suffice as a comprehensive synopsis of the Church’s historical odyssey. The Denomination’s objectives are forever progressive in its works for Christian service and spiritual unity. In fact, our present General bishop, Dr. Reddick, has made several overtures during his tenure to the various splinter Conferences that were once part of the Denomination. He has met with varying degrees of success. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that total reunion with the parent body may yet be affected.
Regardless to the outcome of these negotiations, the continued strength, growth, and spiritual outreach shall be a mainstay of the United American Free Will Baptist Denomination. The universal goal of this church, as well as for all Christians, will forever be the same: Bringing errant souls to Christ.