A Brief History of Free Will Baptist Press
Because of a fire that burned the records and almost completely demolished The Press in 1913, we are unable to give the complete story of its history and operation. However, much credit is due to Rueben Cherry who, while a student at Mount Olive Junior College in 1959, made a most diligent search of available records, together with spending many hours in conference with aged men who had been officially connected with the institution and compiled much of the information contained herein. This information along with more current information that brings it up-to-date is as follows:
"From a simple resolution passed by the General Conference of Free Will Baptists of North Carolina on November 5, 1873, through many trials and difficulties, the Free Will Baptist Press has grown to a business worth a quarter of a million dollars."
As a result of this resolution, the Reverend E. Robert Ellis became the first editor. He began publication of a weekly church paper, The Free Will Baptist Advocate, from the newly established office in Fremont, North Carolina.
During the years that followed, the establishment experienced times of financial difficulty to the point that operation had to be suspended on several occasions. In efforts to keep the movement from dying, the office was moved from place to place in North Carolina over the years. From Fremont, it went to Toisnot (now Elm City), then back to Fremont, then to New Bern, then to Snow Hill (1889), then to Ormondsville (1891), then to Ayden (1895). Although The Press has remained in Ayden since it came, it has made several moves within the town. It has been at its present site (3928 Lee Street) since 1967.
Just as there have been many changes in the location of the establishment, there have also been several changes in administrative personnel. The Reverends L. E. Johnson and R. H. Holland seem to have followed Mr. Ellis in charge of the operation. The record is not clear whether or not they held joint editorship and managerial responsibility. The Reverend R. K. Hearn was given the loan of the equipment by the conference after the business had failed under its previous administrators. The terms of the loan to Mr. Hearn were "for one year and as much longer as may be thought proper, provided he publish it in the interests of the Free Will Baptists."
In 1889, a printing company was formed; the Reverend W. L. Bilbro became editor. The next year, the Reverend J. M. Barfield replaced him. In 1898, Elder E. T. Phillips became editor, a post which he held until the spring of 1916. At this time the financial condition was such that all employees resigned except the general manager, the Reverend J. C. Griffin.
The Reverend T. B. Mellette was employed as editor to succeed Mr. Phillips. He served throughout the summer and until Mr. C. K. Dunn took office on September 1, 1916, as editor and general manager. Mr. Dunn remained as the administrative head of the institution until his retirement in 1952. However, in 1921, his duties became so heavy that Elder Phillips was induced to return as editor, while Mr. Dunn remained as general manager.
The Reverend I. J. Blackwelder succeeded Mr. Phillips as editor in 1934. The Reverend R. B. Spencer became editor upon Mr. Blackwelder's resignation after serving one year. Upon Mr. Spencer's retirement in 1952, the Reverend F. B. Cherry was made editor, a post he held until July 1, 1954. At that time, the Reverend J. O. Fort succeeded Mr. Cherry. In 1959, Mr. Fort was given the title of manager-editor, in which capacity he served until September 1, 1960. It was then that the Reverend C. H. Overman was made editor. Mr. Overman had served for nearly three years as assistant editor. The Reverend N. B. Barrow succeeded Mr. Fort as manager and the Reverend C. H. Overman was made editor. Mr. Barrow held the position as manager until September 1, 1966, at which time the Reverend Walter Reynolds succeeded him as manager until December 1981. The Reverend David C. Hansley was manager/executive director from January through April 1983. Mr. Noel Thomas "Tommy" Manning followed Mr. Overman as acting editor in January 1969 and editor in April 1969 and served in that post until August 20, 1980. Janie Jones Sowers became acting editor in September 1980 and editor from August 26, 1981, through April 1994. During this time, R. Clifford "Cliff" Gray Jr. became manager/executive director in May 1983 and served until his retirement on June 30, 2011. Tracy McCoy became editor in May 1994 and served until November 1996. Sheryll Wood served as interim editor from December 1996 through February 1997. The Reverend C. H. Overman again became editor in February 1997 and served through June 2002. Following Mr. Overman's retirement, Mrs. Wood served again as interim editor in July and August 2002, and Darren E. Davenport, who had previously worked in the company in different capacities since May 16, 1994, became editor in September 2002. Upon the retirement of Mr. Gray, the Reverend Jefferson D. "Jeff" Daughtry was named president in July 2011. In September 2011, Mr. Davenport was named vice president and managing editor and currently serves in that position now. One month after Mr. Daughtry's departure on August 21, 2015, John R. "Rick" Watson was named president and chief financial officer on September 21, 2015, and still serves in this capacity now. On March 1, 2017, the Reverend Dr. John E. Hill Jr. was named editor of publications and currently serves in this position.
At the July 2022 meeting of the Board of Directors, under the direction of Rick Watson, the decision was made to restructure the leadership of The Press. On October 1, 2022, John Hill transitioned to Chief Executive Officer and Editor of Publications, while Rick maintained his position as Chief Financial Officer and Darren Davenport transitioned to Chief Operating Officer. As CEO/Editor, Dr. Hill would serve as a public relations person and also work with current writers and obtain new writers and expand publications through Palmer Publishing. Mr. Watson would continue his role in maintaining the financial affairs of the company, and Mr. Davenport would maintain and develop the day-to-day operations.
Company Name Changes
The name of this institution has undergone a number of changes over the years. The first name we find recorded is "The Free Will Baptist Advocate," the same as the weekly paper it published. When the establishment was moved to Toisnot (now Elm City), its name became "Toisnot Transcript." After financial failure in Toisnot, the establishment was returned to Fremont and given back its original name.
After the fire in 1913, a corporation was formed and a charter was issued under the name, "Free Will Baptist Publishing Company." The action authorizing this change was taken by the First Annual Session of the North Carolina State Convention of Free Will Baptists in September 1913. In 1914, the name became "The Ayden Free Will Baptist Printing Company."
A most important and far-reaching change was made in the corporation in 1926. At this time, the name of the institution was changed to "Free Will Baptist Press." It was chartered under the laws of the state of North Carolina as a non-profit corporation dedicated to the service of publishing literature for the Free Will Baptist Denomination. Its control was placed in the hands of Free Will Baptist individuals, churches, and larger Free Will Baptist bodies who had voting power in stockholders' meetings on the basis of the number of shares of stock held by each by virtue of the purchase of such stock at $10 per share. The stockholders met annually at the institution or other location and elected a board of directors whose responsibility was to direct the activities of the institution. Then in 1965, in keeping with federal laws, the corporation was changed to a nonprofit membership corporation and the name was modified to "Free Will Baptist Press Foundation, Inc." There were no longer any stockholders, only memberships, and only Free Will Baptist conventions, conferences, unions, churches, and Free Will Baptist organizations could hold memberships in the corporation. Representatives from membership holders met annually and elected a board of directors whose responsibility was to direct the activities of the corporation. In 2016 the board of directors made the decision to keep the name, "Free Will Baptist Press Foundation, Inc." but to begin trading under a new name, "Cross & Crown." This was done, mainly, to appeal to a broader constituency. On April 20, 2017, the board of directors brought before the annual meeting of the corporation a vote for the institution to become a nonprofit, non-membership corporation, and, at the September 2017 annual meeting, it was made official.
MORE TO COME...
Beginning with the January 2017 issue, the name of the publication changed to OFWB Community Magazine. This change was made, in part, as an effort to reach more people. Included with this change was the beginning of a more theme-based approach to topics of the day that speak more to the readership of the publication. It continues to include information from the OFWB ministries and organizations, church news, coming events, and advertisements, as well as theme-based articles.