Robeson Remembers: 125 Years of Baptists

First Posted: 1/15/2009

The Robeson Baptist Association will celebrate its 125th anniversary at the association’s annual meeting on October 23, 2008, at Antioch Baptist Church.
Twenty-six Baptist churches responded to the call to organize the new association from the former territory of the Cape Fear and Cedar Creek Associations.
On Thursday, November 1, 1883, at the Raft Swamp Baptist Church, the Robeson Baptist Association met for its first time. The introductory sermon was preached by Elder W. T. Jordan. Rev. A. R. Pittman was elected as the first moderator and D.W. McGugan was elected clerk. Elder Elias D. Johnson, great-grandfather of this writer, was pastor of the host church, Raft Swamp Baptist Church, and assisted in forming the new association.
Some of the pioneer ministers in Robeson Association were: Isham Pittman, A. R. Pittman, John Pittman, Furney Prevatte, F. A. Prevatte (son of Furney Prevatte), Elias Davis, Elias D. Davis (nephew of Elias Davis), and Haynes Lennon.

Baptist churches unite

The Baptist churches who banded together to form the association were: Ashpole (now First Baptist Church, Fairmont), Antioch, Back Swamp, Big Branch (now Orrum), Bear Swamp, Clybonville (or Clybournville), Cape Fear, Cheerful Hope, Ephesus, Hog Swamp, Long Branch, Lumberton, Mount Elim, Mount Moriah, Pleasant Grove, Pine Grove, Pleasant Hill, Providence, Raft Swamp, Red Springs, Saddletree, Spring Hill, Ten Mile, Tolarsville, White Pond and Zion’s Tabernacle.
Some of the original churches no longer exist. Others joined new associations.
In 2008 there are 69 churches in the Robeson Baptist Association.

The first Baptists

Morgan Edwards, an early Baptist historian, has written that there were some Baptists in North Carolina as early as 1660. There were few Baptist preachers in those early days, only individual Baptists who were scattered over sparse settlements. In 1720 the first Baptist preacher to arrive in North Carolina was Paul Palmer. He preached and made converts in every part of the Province of North Carolina. He gathered the first Baptists together in North Carolina in 1727 in Chowan County. The oldest surviving Baptist church, Shiloh, in Camden County, bears the date of 1727.

Baptists arrive in Robeson County

Many of the first settlers living in Robeson County brought their faith with them.
Robeson County was created out of Bladen County in 1787. Our earliest settlers began arriving in the 1740s when the county opened up for settlement and they brought their influences with them from the north and from the south. They moved into the county from the Cape Fear River and up the Lumber River from South Carolina.
They came in caravans from Virginia and other states. These early settlers were influenced by the Welsh Baptists from South Carolina and English Baptists from Virginia.
William H. Foote in his “Sketches of North Carolina” writes about the mission work of Rev. Hugh McAden, the first Presbyterian missionary to settle in North Carolina. In his diary he tells us that on January 13, 1756, on his journey on the Cape Fear River, he preached to a mixed multitude including Baptists.

Bladen County Baptist Church

The Bladen County Baptist Church organized in 1756 became the 23rd Baptist church in North Carolina. It is believed that its members came from Cumberland and Bladen counties and what was to become Robeson County in 1787. The Cape Fear Baptist Church in Cumberland County lays claim to being the descendant of the Bladen County Baptist Church. This church probably had influence on the earliest settlers in northeastern Robeson County.

The first Baptist churches in Robeson County

There are five Baptist churches in the county that were organized as churches by 1800. They are Saddletree, Bear Swamp, Antioch, First-Fairmont and Orrum.
Saddletree Baptist Church records, kept and preserved from 1820, state that the church was constituted prior to 1788. In its earliest written history, dated 1820, it is documented as being the oldest Baptist church in Robeson County. This church, now extinct, may have been the first church of any denomination in Robeson County and became the mother of many churches and some associations.

Pittman’s Meeting House

Pittman’s Meeting House under the leadership of Rev. Isham Pittman was organized in 1794 as a mission of Saddletree Church. It was later called Ashpole Church and presently is First Baptist Church, Fairmont.

Books by Baptist historians

David Benedict in his book, “A General History of the Baptist Denomination,” in 1813 states that Saddletree was constituted in 1788. Bear Swamp Baptist Church was constituted in 1791 and Ashpole Church is mentioned but no date is given.

Huggins’ book on Baptist history

M. A. Huggins’ book, “A History of North Carolina Baptists, 1727-1832,” gives the date of 1788 for the Saddletree Baptist Church. The book states that Antioch Baptist Church was constituted in 1789 and later reorganized in 1842. He lists Bear Swamp Baptist Church near Lake View, S.C., that has been a part of Robeson Baptist Association from its beginning was constituted in 1791. Ashpole, now First Baptist Church, Fairmont, was constituted in 1794 and Big Branch Church, now Orrum Baptist Church, was constituted in 1800.

The associations before Robeson Association

About the middle of the 17th century, Baptist churches in England initiated the practice of joining together in associations, with the chief purpose to maintain fellowship among scattered congregations. American Baptists adopted this practice, forming the Philadelphia Baptist Association in 1707, the Charleston, S.C., Baptist Association in 1751 and the Sandy Creek Association in North Carolina in 1758. The earliest Baptists in Robeson County were in the Charleston Baptist Association. In 1758 the Bladen County Baptist Church became a member of the Charleston Baptist Association and in 1762 it was one of the nine churches in North Carolina that withdrew from the Charleston Association.

The Kehukee Baptist Association

The Kehukee Baptist Association was organized in North Carolina in 1769. It was a Regular Baptist Association and the Sandy Creek Association was known as Separate Baptist Association. The Kehukee Association embraced all the churches of its order in the territory south of the James River in Virginia to the South Carolina line and as far west as Raleigh. This writer has a copy of Elder Joseph Biggs’ book, “A Concise History of the Kehukee Baptist Association” dated 1834. This association had much of the nature of the Primitive Baptists of today.
The pastor of the Kehukee Baptist Church when it organized was Elder John McGamre. McGamre and wife were buried in the 1790s in Sussex County, Va.
This writer witnessed the digging up of their graves and their reburial in front of the Antioch Baptist Church in Sussex County, June 13, 1999. He spoke at a special historic service held when the remains were reburied.

Paschal’s history of North Carolina Baptists

G. W. Paschal’s book, “History of North Carolina Baptists,” records that Saddletree Baptist Church of Robeson County and Ashpole (now Fairmont) Baptist Church were members of the old Kehukee Baptist Association. The other churches recognized as being founded in the late 1790s are not listed as members.

Neuse Baptist Association

The early Baptist churches in Robeson County were also members of the Neuse Baptist Association that originated by a division of the Kehukee Association in 1794.
The Neuse Association at the time of its organization was composed of 23 churches which were situated on both sides of the Neuse River, on the one side to the southern boundary of North Carolina. The oldest churches in Robeson County held membership in this association.

Cape Fear Baptist Association

In 1805, the Cape Fear Association was organized at Saddletree Baptist Church and member churches were in Bladen, Brunswick, Cumberland, Duplin, New Hanover, Onslow, Sampson and Robeson counties. The Cape Fear Association used the Philadelphia Confession of Faith. This confession of faith is found in the early records of Saddletree Church. The minutes of this association provide us with the reports on the spiritual life of the churches. Lack of growth in the churches was due to the scarcity of preachers.

Robeson Baptist Union

A forerunner of the Robeson Association was the Robeson Baptist Union that existed within the Cape Fear Association. The Union was organized January 4, 1831, at Saddletree Church. The first Robeson Baptist Union had five charter members: Bear Swamp, Ashpole (now Fairmont), Cross Roads, Burnt Swamp (now Antioch) and Saddletree churches. Other churches were added as the years went by. This writer has a copy of the original minutes of this Union.

Robeson Baptist Institute

Baptists have always been a people who believed in education. In 1891, Edward K. Proctor and A. C. Melke conceived the idea of a Baptist school in Lumberton.
Proctor made the first contribution of $1,000 and Melke contributed $5,000. Berry Godwin donated the site, a valuable lot of two and one-half acres. This property was beside First Baptist Church. The Lumberton Post Office presently is located on part of the land. Melke left the institution a valuable legacy in his will.
Baptist churches over the association made substantial contributions. The academy opened her doors in 1893. Professor John Duckett, father of Mrs. K. M. Biggs, was the first principal. General Thomas F. Toon was the principal of the Intermediate Department. Mrs. Henry T. Pope was teacher of the Primary Department. In 1893 there were 166 pupils of whom 51 were boarders.
The price of board ranged from $3 to $4 monthly but this did not include washing clothes. Washing cost 25 cents monthly. There was a charge of 10 cents to cover fuel and other incidental expenses. The school continued in operation until 1907 when the property was purchased by the Town of Lumberton and a graded school was built on the property.

Directors of Mission

Rev. J. D. Barnette was the first director. He served from 1948-1958. During his service four new churches were started and two missions begun.
Dr. Henry E. Walden Jr. served from 1959-1981, a period of 22 years. Five new churches were started during the time he served. The amount given to support missions increased from $142, 316 to $631,324. The association office building was constructed in 1975 by the churches during his service.
Dr. Robert C. Hensley served from 1982-1985. He and his wife had served as missionaries to Nassau, Bahamas and Panama. In leaving the association they returned to Panama as missionaries.
Dr. Ronald Loftis served Robeson Baptists from 1987-1995. He was very interested in training church leaders.
Dr. Michael K. Moore served as director 1996-2005. During his tenure he established a disaster relief ministry, encouraged members to do hands-on ministry, began a Hispanic ministry and established the Christian Counseling Center.
Rev. J. S. Parrish was called as director in 2005 and is the present associational leader.

Administrative assistant

Mary Lynn Davis has served the association as administrative assistant for 30 years, from March 1978 to the present. She has worked under the leadership of five of the six directors of mission.

Associational ministries

The association has started two Hispanic ministries, one a church and the second a mission. The churches have sent volunteers to numerous international and North America mission fields including Brazil, the Ukraine, Alaska and other states that have experienced disasters.
Today, there are 17,748 church members in the Robeson Baptist Association and 69 churches.

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