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Churches and Associations in Florida
By Robert Ashcraft, 2006

      Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in 1512, on the festival occasion of Pascua de Flores, hence it is known as the land of flowers, or Florida. Florida was purchased by the United States from Spain in 1819 and became a part of the United States in 1821 under terms of the Adams-Onis Treaty, by which Spain relinquished her claims.

      Since the Spanish settled the peninsula, the religion was the Roman Catholic. A number of priests accompanied the army of occupation and preached to the aborigines. It was under the French flag that the Huguenots introduced Protestantism into Florida in 1562.They were of the Reformed or Calvinistic order. They landed near the mouth of the St. Johns River, and raised the French Flag at Fort Caroline. An army of Spaniards came down from St. Augustine, fell upon the French and massacred the entire colony. Later the British occupied the country.

      The occupation of Florida by the Spanish had every appearance of success. For 115 years Spain and the Spanish missionaries had exclusive possession of Florida. When the Spaniards left Florida, the English found little development. However, a few Baptist families had already moved across the borders from Alabama and Georgia to farm the land.

      The first Baptist church in Florida, Pigeon Creek Baptist Church, was organized January 7, 1821 in Nassau County, near what is now Callahan. Edward Joiner stated, “A Calvinistic type theology was implied in the statement of faith, along with a strict code of discipline.”1 This church was received into the Piedmont Association in Georgia.

      Joiner further noted, “Fleming Bates appears to have been the first Baptist minister to do anything like extensive work as a missionary in organizing churches. He

served as pastor at Pigeon Creek until he moved to Alachua County, where he became pastor of the New Zion Church, near Gainesville. He labored with and was survived by another pioneer preacher in northeast Florida named John Tucker, who came to Florida in 1832. Together they organized several churches in northeast Florida, and after Bates’ death Tucker was the only Baptist minister in that area for several years.”2

      Farther to the west, near Marianna in Jackson County, three miles from the Alabama line, the Bethlehem Baptist Church was organized on March 12, 1835. Jeremiah Kembril and E. H. Calloway, preachers from Alabama, constituted this church with 19 members. After the organization three members were received, and E. H. Calloway was called as pastor. In 1861 the name was changed to Campbellton Baptist Church.3 This church was received into the Chattahoochee Association of Alabama.

      By 1835 there were eight Baptist churches in Florida and the Suwannee Association was formed on September 26, 1835. The Association was organized at Providence Church in Columbia County, by the following churches: Bethlehem, Sardis, Ebenezer, Indian Springs, Providence, New River, Orange Hill and Elizabeth. According to Joiner, “Ten years later the anti-missionary movement became dominant among the leadership of the association, and the missionary churches, including most of the original churches, were excluded. In 1847 the association changed its name to the Suwanee River Primitive Baptist Association.”4

      However, the missionary Baptists in middle Florida organized the Florida Association on October 22, 1842, under the leadership of William B. Cooper. This included the Ebenezer, Indian Springs, Providence, Bethlehem and Sardis churches, originally in the Suwanee Association. Other churches included were Elizabeth, Concord, Monticello and Aenon.5

      Growth in Florida was hindered before 1840 by the necessity to carry guns to church for protection from the Indians. However, by 1845 the state had one association, 32 churches, 26 ministers, and 1,333 members.6

      In 1847 two other associations were organized: the West Florida Association which was made up of churches in west Florida and some in Alabama, and the Alachua Association, made up of twelve churches.

      The move to organize a Florida Convention was first made in the Florida Association meeting in 1853, and the West Florida and Alachua associations were invited to send delegates to consider the organization. While the Florida Association was meeting at the Concord Church, near Marianna, delegates from the associations met in the home of Richard Johnston Mays, a short distance from the church, to organize the convention. This was accomplished on November 20, 1854.7

      Seventeen delegates participated in the organizational meeting. Although not mentioned in the official proceedings, Dr. J. R. Graves was present. Edward Joiner suggested that the presence and influence of J. R. Graves may have been responsible for the constitution making no provision for “membership through societies based on finances.”8

      The next fifteen-year period showed an increase of the Baptists in the state from 1,333 in 1845 to 6,483 in 1860.

      As was typical in most of the states,the Florida Baptist Convention struggled during its first few years. Robert A. Baker noted, “The postwar convention meetings in Florida, for example, were poorly attended and the financial picture was bleak.”9

      Edward Joiner noted that between 1880 and 1901, theological discussion among Florida Baptists concentrated on Landmarkism, liberalism and foot-washing. After

summarizing the primary points of Landmark ecclesiology, Joiner concluded, “Among Florida Baptists, J. R. Graves was a silent but strong influence. . . He was present and lectured twice at the Florida Baptist Convention of 1880. His doctrines were publicly endorsed, moreover, and Graves was praised as ‘defender of our faith’ and worthy to be heard in all the churches.10

      Joiner also noted the opinion of L. D. Geiger, who was Executive Secretary from 1901-1909, “that Southern Baptists were more indebted to J. R. Graves than to any other man. The reason he gave for that statement was that J. R. Graves had put on the doctrinal brakes when they were needed.” Joiner continued, “Geiger’s statement . . . helps to explain the paradox that while Landmarkism was officially condemned by the Southern Baptist Convention, many Southern Baptists were heavily influenced by some Landmark views. Joiner concluded, “Obviously, many Southern Baptists saw in Graves a sharp tool which served their own inclination to theological conservatism.”11

      In commenting on problems faced by the Florida Baptist Witness, the state periodical, between 1900-1920, Joiner noted, “Landmark ideas did continue to affect the thinking of many Florida Baptists in some areas.”12

      Writing under the heading, “Theological Controversy,” Joiner later stated, “It appears however, that although Landmarkism was dying as an organized movement among Florida Baptists, it was not dead yet, and some of its ideas persisted among Florida Baptists.” He then gave this footnote, “By the 1920’s many Landmarkers had left the Southern Baptist Convention and formed their own independent organizations.”13

      Later Joiner made the following interesting conclusions:

...some evidence is found of the continuation of Landmark influence in theology and polity among Florida Baptists during the 1940’s. The main strength of Landmarkism as an organized movement was concentrated in independent Baptist churches not related to the Florida Baptist Convention. However, Landmark ideas appear among Florida Baptists despite the absence of the name. Examples are (1) the theological conservatism and fundamentalism characteristic of Landmarkism though not identified exclusively with it and (2) a theological exclusivism which suggests that only Baptists perpetuate a valid continuation of the Christian tradition.” As an example, Joiner cited a 1948 article by L. O. Calhoun, which stated, “Baptists can prove both historically and doctrinally that they are the only ones that can give New Testament Baptism.14



1 Edward Joiner, A History of Florida Baptists, Convention Press, 1972, p. 17.
2 Edward Joiner, p. 18.
3 Edward Joiner, pp. 18-19.
4 Edward Joiner, p. 20.
5 Edward Joiner, p. 21.
6 Robert A. Baker, The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People, Broadman Press, p. 133.
7 Edward Joiner, pp. 35-36.
8 Edward Joiner, pp. 38-39.
9 Robert A. Baker, p. 234.
10 Edward Joiner, pp. 92-93, and citing Florida Baptist Convention, Annual, 1880, p. 5.
11 Edward Joiner, p. 93.
12 Edward Joiner, p. 127.
13 Edward Joiner, p. 163.
14 Edward Joiner, p. 200 and citing L. O. Calhoun, “The Danger of Accepting Alien Immersion,” Florida Baptist Witness, Oct. 21, 1948, p. 3.

[From Robert Ashcraft, Contending for the Faith - An Updated History of the Baptists, 2006, pp. 528-530. Used with permission. The endnote numbers have been changed. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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