The National Association of Free Will Baptists, an organization of evangelical churches, has maintained its headquarters in Nashville since its formation in 1935. A derivative of Arminian or “general” Baptists, the denomination arose in the United States in the early eighteenth century when members of the prevalent “Regular” Baptists groups dissented over the issue of predestination. Rejecting the Calvinistic doctrine and believing that man has free will to accept or reject Christ, these individuals became known as “free will” Baptists. Many “free will” groups sprouted up independently of one another across the country, but significant movements developed in New England and the South around preachers Benjamin Randall and Paul Palmer. In the early twentieth century, after many followers had joined the Northern Baptist Convention, remnants of the Randall and Palmer lines eventually organized into two independent fellowships–the midwestern General Cooperative Association and the southeastern General Conference. In 1935 these two organizations met at Cofer's Chapel in Nashville and merged to form the National Association of Free Will Baptists (NAFWB), which currently has a membership of nearly 2,400 churches in forty-two states and fourteen foreign countries.
At its initial meeting, the national association adopted a treatise of traditional Free Will doctrine that has remained the foundation of the organization's principal beliefs and objectives. In addition to general atonement, essential elements of the denomination's fundamentalist doctrine include the Trinity, Christ's second coming, the Lord's Supper, baptism by immersion, footwashing, sanctification, and the Bible as an inerrant authority.
Education, publications, and mission work are among the NAFWB's primary activities. Immediately after its inception, the organization made plans to establish an educational institution that reflected the denomination's concerns, and in 1942 the Free Will Baptist Bible College opened its doors in Nashville. The college offers both associate and bachelor's degrees and emphasizes preparation for the ministry.
Closely related to its educational goals are the association's publication endeavors. NAFWB owns and operates Randall House Publications, which publishes Contact, the association's monthly magazine, as well as Sunday school and training literature. The NAFWB also maintains a strong missions program both nationally and abroad, and its Woman's National Auxiliary, established in 1936, actively supports this work and a variety of other benevolent causes.
Free Will Baptist organizations also exist at the regional, state, and local levels. Many of these fellowships were established long before the formation of the national association and have a rich history of their own. The oldest Tennessee organization is the Cumberland Association, created in Middle Tennessee in 1842. The Toe River Association, a regional alliance that served churches from areas in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, originated in 1850, but in 1872 East Tennessee churches separated from the group to form the Union Association. Finally, Tennessee Free Will Baptists established a state association in 1938. Not all Free Will Baptist churches participate in the various levels of affiliation. In spite of its complex organizational structure, the denomination emphasizes the autonomy of the local church and considers each the highest authority for its congregation.
Robert E. Picirilli, The History of Tennessee Free Will Baptists (1976); Melvin Worthington, The Fifty-Year Record of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, 1935-1985 (1988)