Two years ago Robert Picirilli (professor emeritus and former academic dean at Welch College, and member of the Free Will Baptist Historical Commission) produced, and Randall House published, Little Known Chapters in Free Will Baptist History. These are intriguing stories of interesting events in Free Will Baptist history – yet the kinds that are not well-known and don’t usually make it into a general denominational history. As I begin to look into Free Will Baptist history, I found that to me much of it was not only “little-known” but also unknown! One facet of the revelation was a 19th century Baptist denomination called the Union Baptists of which I had never heard.
The Union Baptist Church was formed in Virginia by James Wesley Hunnicutt. It should not be confused with other Union Baptists that were a result of Civil War division.[i] Hunnicutt was born in 1814 in Pendleton District, South Carolina. Around 1832 he became a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church and attended Randolph-Macon College at Boydton, Virginia.[ii] At some point Hunnicutt came to disagree with the Methodist practice of infant baptism and withdrew from the church. He had formed the Union Baptists by 1841, and in 1842 published A Summary of the Doctrines, Held and Maintained by the Union Baptists: To Which is Annexed a Recantation of Infant Baptism. Hunnicutt (and possibly others) formed congregations in Virginia and North Carolina.[iii] In 1845 he established in Richmond, Virginia a monthly titled Union Baptist Banner and Pioneer – “devoted to the interest of the Union Baptist Church.”[iv] He supported in the Union of the nation and opposed secession, and after the War took a Radical Republican position, which apparently damaged his credibility among the Union Baptist churches and the people of Virginia and Carolina generally. Henceforth Bushrod Washington Nash became the leading figure and promoter of the Union Baptists. Methodist minister E. A. Barnes described B. W. Nash as “an educated man—a true Christian and a first-rate preacher; he was gifted as an orator.”[v]
The grand mission of the Union Baptists was to urge “the necessity of union between all liberal Baptists.”[vi] Histories written by Disciples of Christ and Free Will Baptists often emphasize that the Union Baptists failed “to unite all stripes of Baptists into one denomination and so this movement ceased to have existence.”[vii] This is true, but another aspect is that they ceased to exist because individuals and churches themselves united with Disciples and Free Will Baptists and were no longer distinctly known as Union Baptists.[viii] This, apparently, was not exactly the goal of Nash, but certainly was a fulfillment of a primary portion of the rhetoric and goal of the Union Baptists.
Some of Nash’s work is documented in period newspapers and may have escaped the notice of historians generally. These, for the most part, express Union Baptist history from their point of view. B. W. Nash moved his center of operation from Virginia to North Carolina in 1858.[ix] He is found as a leader in the Free Will Baptist Conference that met at Lousan Swamp in November of that year. He preached the introductory sermon, was received as a member from the Grand Council of Union Baptists of Virginia, and, along with S. J. Carrow, was employed as an itinerant for the ensuing year. The conference was “in favor of uniting with the Union Baptists. A resolution changing from the name of a General Conference to that of a Grand Council.”[x]
In 1859 Nash is found at a Convention held in April at the Providence Church in Muscogee County, Georgia. This appears to be an ambitious attempt to unite Baptist bodies holding free grace, free will and free communion. Delegates were present from “several orders of Union, United, General and Free-will Baptist denominations,” including the Grand Council of Union Baptists of North Carolina, New Salem United Baptist Association, Chattahoochee United Baptist Association, and Mount Moriah (Ala.) Free-will Baptist Association. Attending this meeting were prominent leaders such as Ellis Gore of Alabama and James E. Broadnax & D. J. Apperson of Georgia. J. W. Hunnicutt of the Union Baptists of Virginia was present. Gore was elected moderator and Hunnicutt clerk. The General Baptists present at the meeting are not individually identified, and perhaps were only present as visitors.[xi] The meeting seems to have concluded with good feelings and general resolutions of unity; whatever unity was accomplished was probably halted by the gathering clouds of war and the torrent that burst from them.
[i] This second group of Union Baptists owes their origin to the American Civil War. The national political conflict, secession, and war divided both Baptist churches and Baptist associations, especially in the Border States. Pro-Union Primitive Baptists often joined Union Leagues. The Primitive Baptists did not allow members to hold membership in secret societies. Considering the Union League a secret society, they often excluded these members from their churches or churches that held such members from their associations. The Mountain Union Association, formed in 1867, was the first “Union Baptist” association on this order and not connected to the Union Baptists formed by Hunnicutt.
[iii] “Hunnicutt evangelized in Eastern North Carolina before the War Between the States. He established Churches in the counties of Lenoir, Beaufort, Carteret, Craven, Duplin, Greene, Jones, Pender, Sampson and Wayne. 6 In these ten counties, in 1858, there were fifty Union Baptist Churches with over four thousand three hundred members.” –North Carolina Disciples of Christ; a History of Their Rise and Progress, and of Their Contribution to Their General Brotherhood, Charles Crossfield Ware, St. Louis, MO: Christian Board of Publication, 1927, p. 102
[iv] Richmond Enquirer, Friday, August 22, 1845, p. 2. “The ‘Union Baptist Banner and Pioneer’ shall be devoted to the interest of the ‘Union Baptist Church,’ to a fair and full exposition of their doctrines, usages, &c., &c., and to an untiring Christian defence of the same. Its constant aim will be to promote unity among all evangelical denominations of Christians…” The ad was signed by “Jas. W. Hunnicutt.”
[v] “Scenes in My Early Ministry,” E. A. Barnes, North Carolina Christian Advocate , Thursday, October 25, 1906, p. 4
[vi] A History of the Cape Fear Conference of Original Free Will Baptists: 1855-2010, compiled and written by Gary F. Barefoot, Alan K. Lamm, Michael R. Pelt, Ricky J. Warren, Commissioned by the Executive Committee of the Cape Fear Conference, 2011, p. 3; According to the compilers, “The term liberal was used to designate those Baptists who emphasized the concept of freedom implied in the terms ‘free will’ and ‘free salvation’.”
[vii] A Brief History Of The Liberal Baptist People In England and America From 1606 To 1911, G. W. Million and G. A. Barrett , Pocahontas, AR: Liberal Baptist Book And Tract Company, 1911, pp. 179-180 ; See also North Carolina Disciples of Christ, Charles Crossfield Ware: Nash “died in 1911. The last standing Church property of this group was old Lousan Swamp. It burned after the death of Nash. In its ashes is the last material vestige of Nash’s movement among the Baptists.” pp. 102-103
[viii] For example: “In 1870 most of the Union Baptist leaders made an ingenuous application of this Article. The
old order was broken up. Many of them came to the Disciples. In 1887, they had but fifteen churches and 535 members. Five years later they had lost two more churches and their membership had declined to 442. Nash continued with a remnant.” (North Carolina Disciples of Christ, Ware, p.102 )
[ix] “Union Association of Baptists,” Goldsboro Messenger, Thursday, October 15, 1885, p. 1.
[x] American Advocate, Tuesday, November 16, 1858, p. 3.
[xi] “Georgia Convention,” American Advocate, Vol. IV, No. 49, Thursday, June 2, 1859, p. 3.