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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Highways and Hedges Project - Part I: The Holiness Baptist Family.

I have mentioned earlier about the Highways and Hedges project, and as part of it I want to share the history of some oft-overlooked smaller denominations and fellowships with you.  The information I am presenting here is not meant to be comprehensive, but merely a glimpse of the material I will be doing for the bigger project and it also serves to show where my research is coming to this point.  Also, new material comes my way all the time, and as it does updated information is a necessity as well.  That being said, I want to begin this series - which will not be consecutive - with a good synopsis of one group of these churches I have been researching to this point.  

Yesterday in the mail, I got a long-awaited and much-welcomed package from Rev. Robert "Cricket" Watson, who pastors the Antioch Holiness Revival Center in Perry, FL, and is also the moderator of a small fellowship I have had interest in called the Holiness Revival Center Association.  This particular group (hereafter for space sake referred to by initials HRCA) is part of a family of churches that is itself unique and has been of interest to me for many years, and these all have roots in a group called the Holiness Baptists.   Today, I want to share a little bit of the family legacy of this group of fellowships, as it adds a bit of color to the oft-stereotyped field of Pentecostal/Charismatic studies, which although needed, oftentimes focuses more on the histories of large groups like the Assemblies of God rather than these little "highway and hedge" fellowships.   So, it is time to share their story with you here today.

The story here starts with a group called the Holiness Baptist Association, an old body that originated in 1893 in Wilcox County, GA, when a group of Southern Baptists began to teach a more Wesleyan-flavored doctrine of "sinless perfection" which got them duly disfellowshipped from the Little River Baptist Association, which itself dates back to 1880 according to its website (www.littleriverassociation.com).  The Holiness Baptists organized into an association the following year, 1894, and a Dr. S.R. Mitchell served as its first Moderator.   Unfortunately, there are no pictures available of these two pioneering churches to show you here, but for the most part, all of the early churches of this Association were in southern Georgia and northern Florida, where most continue today.   As of 1989, the Holiness Baptist Association reported in their Minutes that they had 29 churches and around 1000 members.  Of the 29, all but one were in Georgia.  


The Pineview Holiness Baptist Church, Tifton, GA - one of the 29 congregations of the Holiness Baptist Association.




Wray Holiness Baptist Church, Wray, GA

Holiness Baptist Church, Waycross, GA



In my research, I discovered that the Holiness Baptist Church in Georgia also has a "correspondent" (this is a uniquely Baptist term meaning that churches can share pulpits, etc.) relationship with two similar Holiness Baptist associations in North and South Carolina.  The North Carolina Holiness Baptist Association is still very much active, and is centered around Hendersonville, NC - Lexis.com research listed two incorporated churches, Union Hill and Clear Creek, both in Hendersonville, that are in this fellowship.   The South Carolina Holiness Baptist Association is centered around Greenville, SC, although headquartered in Columbia, and has three churches in the Greenville area and one in Columbia.   I am in the process of trying to obtain more information on these two associations, as this was recent knowledge, but they are definitely of the same background as the Georgia churches.

Union Hill Holiness Baptist Church and cemetery, Hendersonville, NC

It is also worth mentioning that in Arkansas at the turn of the century, another group calling themselves the "Holiness Baptist Association" existed, but in 1914 they were assimilated into the Assemblies of God, and its founder, W. Jethro Walthall, later served as District Superintendent for the Arkansas District Council of the A/G (Charles Edwin Jones, A Guide To The Study of The Pentecostal Movement, Volume One. {Metuchen, NJ:  The Scarecrow Press, 1983} pp. 267).  This group, however, was unrelated to the existing Georgia group, as it had different origins.  However, it is worth mentioning as a historical note. 

Like many church bodies, the Holiness Baptists were not immune from schisms and disagreements, and two of those occurred in the course of its history.  The most recent of those happened in 1977, which resulted in the formation of the Calvary Holiness Association.   This small fellowship of 14 congregations, centered around Broxton, GA, and similar in many ways doctrinally to its parent body, was formed in 1977 by disaffected members of the Holiness Baptists due to some confidence issues in the trustee committee of the parent body.  Its first moderator was a minister from one of the dissenting churches, Rev. James A. Harrell, and they based their campmeeting tabernacle in Broxton where they have a yearly meeting during the third week in July annually.   Although I have been unsuccessful in getting any print material on this body, they have recently gotten a fairly informative website online that has most of the information on their group available - it is at http://www.calvaryholiness-broxton.org/Home.  They have approximately 1000 members as well, and they are fairly active in fellowshipping with other conservative Holiness/Pentecostal groups, and have a considerable involvement in publications such as The Holiness Messenger, a widely-distributed periodical based out of Oklahoma that has a wide base of readership among many independent conservative Holiness/Pentecostal groups and fellowships (The Holiness Baptists, in particular the Wray, GA, congregation, also participate in this).


The Calvary Holiness Association campground tabernacle near Broxton, GA.

The second schism occurred in 1934, when Rev. Luther Turner(8 August 1888-7 September 1979), a Holiness Baptist evangelist based in Salem, FL, founded the Baptist Purity Association which is still based in Salem to this day.   Luther Turner, born near Abbeville, GA, was actually a colorful person and a dynamic preacher who had convictions over the Holiness Baptists using wine or grape juice in Communion - Turner had the conviction that only cold water should be used to represent the Blood of Christ, and he actually became pretty dogmatic on the issue, which became a defining principle of the Baptist Purity Association and its churches later.  Turner's daughter by his first marriage, Ida Gutierrez, self-published an excellent and heart-felt biography of  her father and his ministry entitled Sawdust Trail several years back that is well worth the read - it is a hard book to find, and I was thankful that her brother-in-law and current moderator of the Baptist Purity Association, Rev. Bobby Joe Hires, provided me a copy of it as well as with some other valuable materials for this research. 


The Baptist Purity Church in Salem, FL - headquarters church for the Association.



Dorms at the Baptist Purity Campground outside Salem.




Sermon booklet by Rev. Luther Turner


Rev. Luther Turner(1888-1979), founder of the Baptist Purity Association


The teachings that Luther Turner communicated through his abundant sermon material (Rev. Hires provided me with 2 books of his sermons for this research) can be summarized as follows:

1.  Water in communion instead of wine or juice.

2.  Eschewing consumption of alcohol, tobacco, soft drinks, tea, coffee, chocolate, and chewing gum.


3.  No movies or sports.

4.  Given the Missionary/Southern Baptist roots of both the Baptist Purity Association and its parent body, the Holiness Baptists, Turner also taught the eternal security of the believer in Christ.

5.  Divine healing was highly emphasized, and the use of doctors and conventional medicine was not forbidden but was strongly discouraged.

6.  A Holiness emphasis on sinless perfection, similar to that of other old-time Holiness/Pentecostal groups.

7.  Conservative dress - also along lines of similar Pentecostal/Holiness groups.

8.  Tongues taught as initial evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as alluded in Acts 2- same as other classical Pentecostals. 

The Baptist Purity Church is mildly Calvinistic, strictly Holiness, fully Pentecostal, and also premillenialist in eschatology, although premillenial in this case definitely is not synonymous with dispensationalist (many similarly-minded old-time Pentecostals were actually post-tribulational, and this seems to be what I understand as well the position of the Baptist Purity teachings on this).  That being said, the Baptist Purity Association, like the Holiness Baptists, is definitely both clearly Baptist and clearly Pentecostal.  And, that was one of the reasons I chose it as part of my project. 

The Baptist Purity Association is still very active today, although it is small in number.  It is primarily centered in north-central Florida, although there are two congregations in Georgia as well.   The stats I have from their 2007 Annual Report have them at 8 churches - 6 in Florida and two in Georgia - but no membership statistics as none are reported in their minutes, although I would estimate that they possibly have an estimated 2000 members total in all their congregations.   They are headquartered still in Salem, FL, where they have an annual campmeeting and quarterly association meetings.  They do even have a church fairly close to us, in Plant City, FL (Sharon Baptist Purity Church) which is pastored by their Association secretary, Rev. Richard Joyner.   Overall, they are actually a pretty fascinating group, and are definitely worth more consideration and study.


In 1966, a schism occurred in the Baptist Purity Association when two of its ministers, Rev. Charles Stephens (1933-2009) and Rev. Riley Pridgeon (1918-2007) chartered the Macclenny Holiness Revival Center Association (later shortened to Holiness Revival Center Association, or HRCA) just outside Jacksonville, FL.  According to a taped interview transcript of Rev. Pridgeon's testimony taken in 2001, the separation from the Baptist Purity Association was a cordial one, and for the most part, most of the doctrine and convictions of the HRCA are pretty much the same as the Baptist Purity Association.   Rev. Pridgeon and his late wife Josephine had a long and fruitful ministry that began in the 1940's, when both of them sang and preached throughout north Florida, and their efforts resulted in the planting of many congregations.   Often subsiding on fish and cabbage and living in tents (at one point, the Pridgeons had only milk and crackers to feed their baby), their road to ministry was a tough one, but it was rewarding for them (Luther Turner, founder of the Baptist Purity Association, also had a lot of early trials, as money was often scarce and they had to rely a lot of God's provision - I have heard this testimony many times from a number of great old-time ministers, and it is an inspiration to me personally).   Their testimony is actually a record of God's provision for them as they did what they believe God called them to do, and it is quite humbling to read things like this in lieu of the "superstar" status many seek today in ministry.   Rev. Stephens testimony is less documented at this point, but he also ministered for many years with his wife, Corliss, and at present she serves as a secretary for the HRCA.  Stephens' daughter, Michelle, is also the wife of the current HRCA moderator, Rev. Robert "Cricket" Watson, who also pastors the main church, Antioch Holiness Revival Center in Perry, FL, which Pridgeon was a founder.  In 1973, according to a letter I received from Rev. Watson giving me some background on the HRCA, the original charter was dissolved although a current charter was filed in 2009 with the State of Florida.  

The Holiness Revival Center Association today currently consists of three congregations - in Perry, FL; Steinhatchee, FL; and Macclenny, FL.   In the past there seems to have been more documented, including one that closed recently in Fitzgerald, GA, but despite the lack of numbers they persist as a fellowship still.   They hold an annual campmeeting in June at the Perry church, and each one of the congregations has its own homecoming service as well.   As of their 2010 Annual Reports, the HRCA lists a total Sunday School attendance at all three of its congregations at about 2,513 people, which for three churches is impressive.   Community outreach seems to be a major factor in these churches' ministries too, especially in Perry, FL, where their activities are very well-documented in the local papers there.   There is also some "correspondent" fellowship carried on with both the Baptist Purity Association as well as an independent fellowship, Full Gospel Assembly in Panacea, FL, pastored by Rev. B.B. Barwick.  It is not known whether there have been any schisms or daughter fellowships formed out of the HRCA, but this is a subject that definitely will be researched in the future. 

Antioch Holiness Revival Center in Perry, FL - headquarters church of the HRCA

Rev. Riley Pridgeon (1918-2007), one of the founders of the Holiness Revival Center Association


Rev. Robert "Cricket" Watson, current moderator of the Holiness Revival Center Association.

This pretty much gives the story thus far on these unique fellowships that form the legacy of the Holiness Baptists that started in south Georgia and north Florida in the late 1800's, and it is quite a legacy as will be that of many groups I will be documenting in the future.   The purpose of these articles and the project as a whole is to tell the story of these groups as a witness to their own interesting and unique heritages, and it is also meant to be more than a scholarly discourse (although it is hoped that scholars will take this material seriously).  I have come to know a number of these people personally, and they are decent, sincere people that really believe they are called to serve God in their respective ministries.  I am not going to say I see eye-to-eye doctrinally with everything these groups teach, and indeed that is not what this project is about, but they are definitely my brethren in Christ and I respect them as such.  As we continue this project, I will be sharing more with you later on other groups and fellowships that are equally unique and interesting, and you too will be enriched with the knowledge of those little "highways and hedges" churches and fellowships no one seems to have taken time to get acquainted with.  Some of you may live in areas where these churches are, and some of you may have even drove past one of their congregations.  Some may even have looked at the church sign and said "Hmmm...that looks interesting!  Baptist Purity; what is that?"  I have taken that basic curiosity, which I too have had, to a new dimension by getting to know the people that are part of that roadside church with the interesting name.   And, hopefully, this will encourage you to do the same, as it is a rewarding experience.  God bless until next time.

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I want to take this time to acknowledge the people who have provided much of this information, as without them a project like this is not possible.  First, my thanks to Elder Philip Popwell, of the Antioch Holiness Baptist Church in Brunswick, GA, who provided me with copies of his Association's minutes many years ago.  Also, my appreciation to Rev. Bobby Hires of Salem, FL, for giving me an abundant wealth of printed material on the Baptist Purity Association and its founder, his father-in-law Rev. Luther Turner.  Finally, I acknowledge Rev. Robert "Cricket" Watson and his wife Michelle, who pastor the Antioch Holiness Revival Center in Perry, FL, and also have provided a wealth of information on the HRCA and on the ministry of Rev. Riley Pridgeon, one of its founders.   God bless and be with each of these individuals for their time and generosity.