Stewart the founder
A. M. Stewart’s venture to Texas brought him to the Marshall area in Harrison County – “where he taught his first school.” While teaching at Marshall he preached “whenever opportunity afforded, and to him belongs the honor of organizing the first Freewill Baptist church to be founded in Texas.”[i] This first Free Will Baptist church was constituted near Clayton, Texas in 1876.[ii] Though in Texas in 1876, he returned to Georgia before 1880, when he is found in the census at Cedar Springs, Early County, Georgia. He is single, living alone, and a school teacher. He was (apparently) still living in Georgia in 1882 when he attended the Chattahoochee Baptist Association,[iii] but he had returned to Texas by 1883 when he married Emma Eugenia Ross November 7, 1883 in Panola County, Texas. Their marriage occurred at the Ross homestead – which was near Clayton, and by which one might guess that Emma was a member of that first Free Will Baptist Church there.[iv] “After his marriage, feeling the need of a better equipment for his ministerial work, he took a course in the Theological Department of Chicago University, from which institution he was granted a diploma.”[v]
Burgess and Ward in Free Baptist Cyclopædia, as well as other writers, credit six more early East Texas Free Will Baptist Churches to the labors of Stewart, in addition to the Clayton Church: Lone Star and Rape’s Chapel in Cherokee County; Beckville and Union Chapel[vi] in Panola County; Good Hope[vii] and Union Springs in Rusk County.[viii] With these first churches as constituent members – at least the ones already organized by the time – Stewart organized the Texas Free Will Baptist Association in 1878.[ix] Doubtless Stewart licensed and/or ordained the first Free Will Baptist ministers raised up in East Texas, such as James Pierce “Jim” Lunsford[x] and Doctor Reuben Gideon “Dock” Jimmerson.[xi]
Later Stewart moved his center of operation to Central Texas, where he is credited with organizing several churches. The first Free Will Baptist Church of Brazos County (and the vicinity) was Bright Light, organized by P. H. Adams in 1886. At times Stewart has been credited as a co-organizer of Bright Light, but perhaps he simply followed up the constitution of the church with a revival meeting. He is credited with suggesting the name of the church.[xii] “The church was organized in the summer of 1886 by the Rev. P. H. Adams...Soon after the church was organized a revival was held under a brush arbor with the Rev. A. M. Stewart as evangelist.”[xiii] After the organization of Bright Light Free Will Baptist church in 1886, eleven other churches were organized by W. T. Wood and A. M. Stewart, including Concord, Tyron Hall, and Wellborn in Brazos County; Givens’ Creek, Iola, and Spring Hill in Grimes County; Hollis, High Prairie, Plain View, and Willow Hole in Madison County.[xiv] (It is not altogether clear whether the author intends that the churches were organized by either Wood or Stewart, or by both Wood and Stewart.) Stewart was a charter member and the first pastor of the Bryan Free Will Baptist church, which he organized in 1894.[xv]
[i] Ibid. Cf. footnote 1 re the first Free Will Baptist Church founded in Texas.
[ii] Some sources identify this church as named Liberty Free Will Baptist Church of Clayton, Panola County, Texas, but perhaps it should be Friendship Free Will Baptist Church of Clayton instead. For example, when the Texas State Association met at Friendship at Clayton in 1940, E. S. Jameson states “that they were meeting in the first Free Will Baptist church to be organized in the state of Texas, 62 years ago.” (From the Red to the Rio Grande, p. 79) Friendship Free Will Baptist Church “was located halfway between Clayton and Delray communities just off present-day Farm Road 1970.” (Beckville, Texas: History of the Town and Its Schools, Jane Metcalf, p. 208)
[iii] “Our records show we had Rev. Angus McAlister Steward listed in our Chattahoochee Association Minutes in 1881-82.” Correspondence from Geraldine Waid, Archivist of the Georgia Free Will Baptist Historical Society, October 3, 2017
[iv] Emma Ross may not have been an original member there, being about 13 years old when the Clayton Church was organized. If not, it is likely that she was by the time she married A. M. Stewart. Based on the obituaries on page 10 of the 1930 Texas Free Will Baptist Association minutes, Emma’s mother (Mrs. S. J. Ross) was a charter member of Texas’s first Free Will Baptist Church: “Friendship Church: Our beloved sister and mother in Israel, Mrs. S. J. Ross, who was a charter member of the first Free Will Baptist Church in Texas.” The report of the Committee on Obituaries at the 1926 Texas Free Will Baptist Association (Minutes, p. 8) reveal two other charter members: “…Bro. J. B. Duke and Sister J. B. Duke, of Friendship Church. Brother and Sister Duke were charter members of the first Free Baptist Church in Texas. They had been faithful for nearly 49 years. Their posterity has shown their training by their faithfulness to the church.” The “nearly 49 years” statement suggests that the church was organized later in the year than their deaths, which occurred in January and April, respectively. In the church was constituted after April, its age would not yet have reached 49 years. These known charter members are Sarah Jane Davis Ross, wife of Arthur Brown Ross, Sr. and mother of Emma; and Jack Brinson Duke and his wife Lucinda Carolina Fallwell Duke.
[v] “Rev. A. M. Stewart Passes Away,” The Panola Watchman, 1913
[vi] Now known as “Union Arbor,” and sometimes listed as “Union Harbor” in minutes.
[vii] A question must be raised concerning the Good Hope Free Will Baptist Church. She counts her existence from 1875 – see, for examples, the Good Hope Church website and From the Red to the Rio Grande, p. 306. Yet Free Will Baptist historians seem to consistently agree that the first Anglo Free Will Baptist church organized in Texas was organized at Clayton, in Panola County in 1876. Pastor E. S. Jameson, who was from the Good Hope community, in the 1940 minutes of the Texas State Association of Free Will Baptists speaks of the Clayton church as the first Free Will Baptist Church. The Texas Free Will Baptist Association (the East Texas Association organized in 1878) has several such references in the minutes. So Good Hope counts her beginning in 1875 without apparently asserting any claim ahead of the Clayton Church. This creates something of a quandary. Perhaps a group at Good Hope was gathering by that time, but not constituted as a church? Perhaps Good Hope was organized as a missionary Baptist Church and then later changed to Free Will Baptist? Edna Mae Watson’s piece about “Thomas Franklin B. Jimmerson” in Rusk County History says that the Jimmerson family first joined the Missionary Baptist Church at Zion Hill when they came to Texas. Some members of the Jimmerson family were members of Ebenezer and Mission Springs missionary Baptist churches (both organized later than Good Hope). A change of Good Hope from Missionary to Free Will is a theory without proof, but a workable theory nonetheless – as is “already meeting, but not yet a church.” It seems D. R. Jimmerson, E. S. Jameson and others would have been in a position to know whether Good Hope was an older Free Will Baptist Church than the one at Clayton, yet never claimed that it was.
[viii] Free Baptist Cyclopædia: Burgess and Ward, p. 642; A Brief History Of The Liberal Baptist People In England and America From 1606 To 1911, Million and Barrett , p. 298;
[ix] The Free Baptist Cyclopædia says, “The Good Hope and Union Springs churches, in Rusk County, and the Union Chapel and Beckville churches, in Panola County, all gathered by Rev. A. M. Stewart, entered into the organization” – implying that the Lone Star and Rape’s Chapel churches either were not yet organized or did not enter the organization at the time. The Cyclopædia somehow inexplicably fails to mention the Clayton Church, which surely was a constituent member.
[x] One descendant of Lunsford has a note that he was ordained in 1877 by the “1st Free Will Church” in Cherokee County. In correspondence Elaine Maduzia revealed that she has lost most of her records due to a computer crash, and that this one online is all that survived – so she could not document the source of this information.
[xi] In the obituary of A. M. Stewart in the Carthage newspaper, Jimmerson stated at the funeral that “to him Bro. Stewart gave license to preach.”
[xii] From the Red to the Rio Grande, p. 282
[xiii] “250 Visit Harvey for Homecoming at Bright Light,” The Bryan Eagle, Tuesday, May 18, 1954, p. 5
[xiv] “Free Will Baptists,” The Bryan Eagle, Sunday, August 1, 1897, p. 4
[xv] Some sources give 1897, which appear to be incorrect. “First Free Baptist Church, Bryan, Texas,” The Bryan Eagle, Tuesday, April 22, 1913, p. 24; “Bryan Free Will Baptist Church launched in ‘94,” The Bryan Eagle, Wednesday, October 25, 1939, p. 22; See also From the Red to the Rio Grande, p. 292.