The Union Baptist denomination existed for approximately 70 years (but see footnote i), from the time James W. Hunnicutt organized it circa 1841 until about the time Bushrod W. Nash died in 1911. The extent of its geography was mostly confined to Virginia and North Carolina. Its outreach was larger than its geographical presence. In addition to these two states, Hunnicutt may have been an influence in Pennsylvania, where he lived during the Civil War. (For more information on Hunnicutt, see the Encyclopedia Virginia and Forgotten Heroes of Southern History.) Nash preached in Bristol, Tennessee “at Mr. Burson’s church.”[i] Both Hunnicutt (before the War) and Nash (both before and after the War) visited other open communion Baptists in view of uniting them under one banner and one common cause. “…the effort of Rev. J. W. Hunnicutt, of Virginia, [was] to unite all the wings of the open communion Baptists in one grand, aggressive body, under the name and style of the Union Baptist Church.”[ii] Hunnicutt was the principal leader in the first 20 years, and Nash in the last 50 years.
I have been unable to detect the ministry of Hunnicutt among the Union Baptists after the War. Perhaps he became disconnected from them altogether. Under Nash’s leadership the Union Baptist Church gradually faded away, with many of the churches and members uniting under the banner of open communion and immersion – but not continuing as Union Baptists. C. C. Ware’s report says that Bethel Union Baptist in Lenoir County joined the Disciples in December, 1870 (Hookerton History). B. W. Nash can be found preaching at Bethel as late as May 1900. Presumably this is the same place, and, if so, some of the members had apparently remained true to the Union Baptist faith – or else the Disciples were allowing Nash to preach for them! (But in 1884 the Bethel where Nash preached is called a Baptist church.)[iii] Newspaper searches from 1900 to 1911 show B. W. Nash preaching at Bethel (1900), Lousan Swamp (1900, 1904), the chapel in Kinston (1903), and Airy Grove (1903, 1904).[iv]
The legacy of Union Baptists lives on in the Disciples of Christ and Free Will Baptists in North Carolina – and very likely even the Missionary Baptists, as some of these independent churches that dropped “Union” from their names gradually found their way into the larger Baptist body. At least one church – Hickory Grove “in the rich whortleberry section of Lenoir County…about 5 miles southeast from LaGrange” – joined the Methodist Protestant Church.[v] The latter being an exception, the desires of the organizers were at least partially fulfilled by union with other open communion immersing bodies of Christians. My distinct impression is that the Disciples garnered the largest number of Union Baptists, which further research might prove or disprove. Hunnicutt’s and Nash’s aim “to promote unity” among evangelical Christians was fulfilled in a way possibly neither hoped nor expected – in the demise of the Union Baptist Church.
[i] Bristol News, Tuesday, May 13, 1879, p. 3. A footnote by the editor of Origins in North Carolina by Rufus K. Hearne states “It is interesting to note that, not long after this [after one group of Free Will Baptists united with the Union Baptists, rlv], a group of these Union Baptists migrated to Oklahoma, and, in 1954, the Union Baptists of Oklahoma became a part of the Oklahoma State Association of Free Will Baptists.” This considered, a portion of the Union Baptist Church existed well beyond the 70 years associated with Hunnicutt and Nash, for over 110 years.
[ii] North Carolina Disciples of Christ, Ware, p. 321.
[iii] Ibid, pp. 106-07. A History of Original Free Will Baptists, Michael R. Pelt, p. 158. The Daily Journal, Wednesday, February 27, 1884, p. 1; The Daily Free Press, Tuesday, May 29, 1900, p. 1
[iv] These are very brief news bites, and I have chosen not to document each of them. Anyone with the time and energy can search for them at Newspapers.com.
[v] “Scenes in My Early Ministry,” E. A. Barnes, North Carolina Christian Advocate , Thursday, October 25, 1906, p. 4; Nash mentioned at this church in The Daily Journal, Wednesday, July 26, 1882, p. 1.