Beginning in the 1820s, Baptist churches in Appalachia and elsewhere split into those favoring and those opposing missionary work. Staunchly Calvinistic Baptists resisted the intense missionary efforts then under way in both foreign and domestic fields. They believed in predestination, that before the beginning of time God had chosen or ‘‘elected’’ those individuals who would receive salvation. The church’s role was to identify and gather together these chosen ones, or the saints as they were known. Thus, it was not only impossible to save or convert sinners through evangelical or missionary work but also actually contrary to God’s plan. Known initially as ‘‘Anti-Missionary Baptists,’’ these churches slowly became identified as ‘‘Old School Baptists’’ or ‘‘Primitive Baptists,’’ because they claimed to be modeled after the ‘‘primitive church’’ as established by St. Paul.
Today four Primitive Baptist divisions exist in West Virginia, differing according to their understanding of predestination and certain other matters. These are the Single and Double Predestination Primitives, the Progressive Primitives, and the Primitive Baptist Universalists.
Organized into five small associations of individual congregations, Primitive Baptist Universalists are found in only a handful of regions of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and in McDowell and Greenbrier counties, West Virginia. There are also out-migrant fellowships in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Advocating a theology that pronounces a universal heaven for all after Resurrection, Primitive Baptist Universalists believe in hell only as a factor of the present world, a kind of emotional and psychological destitution generated by separation from God as a punishment for worldly sins. Known in the mountains of Central Appalachia by the pejorative misnomer, ‘‘No-Hellers,’’ these unusual Primitives are Calvinistic at both ends of their theological perspective. They believe not only in the traditional concept of universal Adamic sin but also in the universality of Christ’s atonement for that sin, meaning that at Resurrection the slate is wiped clean for all humankind so that the total human family is returned to communion with God in a kind of eternal Eden. Thus, redemption is every bit as inescapable as was original sin. The key scriptural passage for this movement is in I Cor. 15:22 ‘‘For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.’’
Because Primitives generally do not cooperate with state or national canvasses of denominational affiliations, it is almost impossible to report their numbers; nevertheless, the 2000 Religious Congregations & Membership in the United States, published by the Glenmary Research Center of Nashville, found 36 Primitive Baptist churches distributed over 15 counties of West Virginia.
This Article was written by Howard Dorgan
Last Revised on October 22, 2010