Updated: Sep 24, 2020
The Original Free Will Baptist (1) community is located primarily in Central and Eastern North Carolina. While small in number, with fewer than 50,000 adherents, (2) they are rich in history. The OFWB community traces its history to the English General Baptists, who as early as 1700 were worshiping in North Carolina. (3) The OFWB community is proud of its General Baptist heritage. As such, the denomination’s own Articles of Faith originated from the 1660 English General Baptist Confession of Faith (4) and the 1812 articles of faith revision. (5) The community traces its history to Paul Palmer, who established and pastored the first General Baptist church in Chowan County, North Carolina. (6)
Today the home of OFWBs remains North Carolina. All total, there are 240 OFWB churches across North Carolina, including a small number in South Carolina and Georgia. (7) These churches are organized into eight conferences. These conferences coordinate and regulate the work of the denomination, as well as examining and ordaining ministerial candidates. (8) Despite its small size, the OFWB has several ministries. These ministries include foreign missions, a children’s home, printing press, and many others. (9) Its’ most successful ministry is the University of Mount Olive, a liberal arts university recently recognized as a “college of distinction” in 2013. (10)
Throughout its history, the denomination has gone through several cycles of growth and decline. (11) The denomination has survived early competition from the Particular Baptists, (12) the Campbellite Crisis, and a denominational split with the National Association of Free Will Baptists. (13) Despite difficult circumstances, the denomination has remained true to the “spirit and simplicity of the Palmer General Baptist background.” (14) This includes the practice of foot washing, more formally called the washing of the saints’ feet. (15)
Consistently throughout its history, OFWBs have held a high regard for foot washing. Beginning with its General Baptist heritage, the practice of washing feet was conducted almost universally. Although not required for church membership, most considered it an ordinance. (16) Foot washing remained a prominent practice among early Free Will Baptists throughout the 1700s. Foot washing was so universally practiced, that at the adoption of the 1812 confession, instructions were included recommending that foot washing be practiced every quarter. (17) In addition, the 1812 confession was the first Arminian Baptist confession to count foot washing as an ordinance. (18)
In the denomination’s history, several prominent pastors have reaffirmed the OFWB commitment to foot washing. In 1927 J. C. Griffin argued in his booklet, The Upper Room Ought, that it is not enough to know that Christ washed the disciples feet, rather Christians ought to do it. (19) Free Will Baptist historian George Stevenson describes foot washing as a way to open one to humility and love, which “serves to strengthen in us a bond of fellowship and brotherhood, to confirm the strength of our faith, and to reveal our weaknesses to us.” (20)
Today the OFWB consider foot washing as an ordinance of equal standing with baptism and communion. The OFWB Articles of Faith state that it “teaches humility, the necessity of the servanthood of every believer, and reminds the believer of the necessity of a daily cleansing from all sin.” (21) Foot washing is not unique to the OFWB but “it is one of [their] distinctive beliefs and practices, and it makes a very strong theological statement about the stance of the [Original Free Will Baptist] Church and the attitude for ministry (service) among both clergy and laity.” (22) Foot washing is also incorporated in the OFWB logo; a basin of water and a towel sit at the foot of the cross.
Foot washing is traditionally practiced following communion whereby members wash one another’s feet. Usually involving only basins of water and girded towels, it is simple in design but powerful in meaning. Thus significance is not found in the things used, but in the actions performed. The OFWB has little in way of a written theology on foot washing, yet there is an abundant unwritten tradition and theology.
In order to gather personal perspectives and experiences, an online survey (23) and interviews were conducted. These pastors comprise a voice for the continuation and expansion of foot washing in contemporary Christianity. A total of 54 pastors participated in the online survey. Over 90% were currently pastoring a church. In the survey, pastors were encouraged to provide personal reflections and stories on foot washing. From this survey group, seven pastors volunteered to participate in interviews. At the time of the interviews, five of the seven pastors had over 10 years of ministerial experience. The two other pastor informants were involved in youth and college level ministry.
As an action it involves the simple movements of taking off ones shoes, kneeling, girding oneself with a towel, and sprinkling and drying another’s feet. It can be done in levity and lightheartedness or performed in solemnity and silence. OFWBs have no rules or rubrics to follow, but at its core foot washing is a communal action. This action of washing and being washed creates a powerful experience between those involved. One interviewed pastor described foot washing as “a chance to serve someone in a very physical way.” (24) The practice of foot washing can vary between OFWB churches. In his book, Washing the Disciples Feet, OFWB pastor George Suggs describes the good nature and general lightheartedness he experienced with foot washing. He describes the occasion as one where “innocent humor” often emerged, especially on days when the water was very cold. (25) The level of intimacy involved can create a strange mix of levity and playfulness among participants. There can be a humorous element, but never there to the extent as to make it less important. 26 Other pastors describe it as a solemn occasion, where the only sound that can be heard is the sound of water. (27) Some pastors prefer to make foot washing “an extension of worship” (28) by including the singing of hymns as participants wash each other’s feet.
In both surveys and interviews pastors identified foot washing as an act of humility, which one pastor described as “an action that symbolizes humility and service where all are equal.” (29) Another stated that it is a “tradition that allows for us to experience and remember the servant’s heart that we are called to demonstrate.” (30) In every interview, pastors emphasized that this was an action that should inform and influence one’s daily life and activity. Pastors portrayed it as polyvalent action demonstrating humility, servanthood, and love. In addition, they stressed that the meaning of foot washing should “grow in our actions.” (31)
Interviewed pastors stressed that the meaning of foot washing must be experienced in order to be understood. Since there are no formal teachings or explanations of foot washing, foot washing is learned by doing. When asked how foot washing was learned, one pastor could only respond by stating “I learned by experience, it was never explained to me.” (32)
Typically, first experiences started in childhood. One pastor recalled as a young child having his feet washed by his father. Though at the time he did not understand why, he remembered his father weeping as he washed his son’s feet. Other pastors described how they learned foot washing from their grandparents. Similar stories were shared by other pastors as they recounted their most memorable experiences of foot washing. These usually involved watching older members participate in the service. For OFWB pastors, their rich experiences of foot washing helped to shape and mold their pastoral perspective.
In surveys and interviews, the pastors repeatedly stressed the personal connection foot washing created between participants and Jesus Christ. These pastors believed that re-enacting foot washing connected them to the original event as practiced by Jesus Christ. OFWB pastors view foot washing as a represention of Jesus’ earthly ministry of servant leadership, submission, and humility. In describing this connection, one pastor stated that foot washing promotes “unity and humility among the community of faith, [foot washing] is an act of faith that transcends time and joins us to those who first knew Jesus.” (33) OFWBs understand Christian identity through foot washing. In this action the summation of Jesus’ teachings are manifested and made present in the life of the Christian community. Foot washing is a submission to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ that “keeps [one] in a servant mind for others.” (34)
OFWB ministers often used words such as embodied, touch, and intimacy to describe foot washing. As one pastor stated, foot washing involves “physical touch, embodying and reenacting something that Christ did in the Scriptures in a way most congregants can never do in regards to the Lord’s Supper.” (35) According to this pastor, foot washing embodies servant leadership. The chance to hold and sprinkle water on someone’s foot is more than “a head exercise” and it “really embodies the story of who Christ is.” (36)
In the OFWB community, foot washing can create a deep spiritual experience. Pastors agreed that this action creates a unique opportunity for the Holy Spirit to be involved. When one opens oneself to this practice there can be a “[s]pecial presence of the Spirit and that particular time,” (37) in order for the “Holy Spirit to deal with them about individual issues in their life. [It] helps them become better servants.” (38) For other pastors, the spiritual dimension goes even further. The Holy Spirit creates the setting by making foot washing a powerful embodied prayer. One pastor stated that the “sacred dimension is really present or more poignant because the Spirit is present.” (39) Pastors agreed that the Holy Spirit prompted the action, but the spiritual dimension only occurred when one was open to it.
This does not mean that there are never feelings of apprehension or hesitation from participants. Foot washing represents how one must leave his or her comfort zone in order to serve Christ. Pastors have to overcome numerous cultural prejudices in a foot washing service. Pastors readily admitted that participation is low when compared with communion. (40) Allowing another to wash one’s feet can be difficult for some. (41) There is still an association with feet being dirty. As such taking another person’s foot, sprinkling water and drying it off, can be a strange moment for some. (42) Thus to overcome these feelings, OFWB pastors work hard by demonstrating and teaching foot washing to their congregations.
OFWB pastors have to model the servant leadership foot washing embodies. Through watching the pastor, congregations have a better understanding of the practice and are more willing to participate. (43) As a result, congregations have the opportunity to form deeper bonds and commitments through foot washing. It is much harder to hold animosity toward someone when one is washing another’s feet. These pastors believed that foot washing created a powerful opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation. As one pastor described it, foot washing “melts your soul. You realize at the point when you touch another person’s foot, and you wash that water over, that you are in a sense washing away the negative that has been there between. You’re washing away those feelings.” (44)
OFWB pastors have a strong sense of servant leadership and humility. The embodiment of love, humility, and service through foot washing creates a special kind of being-in-the-world. Foot washing helps to define what it means to be a servant leader. A pastor stated that “through the washing of the saints’ feet, we demonstrate how we are called to live—as a servant people.” (45) Another pastor also affirmed this by stating that in this practice “we affirm that we are a servant people who walk in the path of the humble service of Jesus Christ our Lord.” (46) This practice is inscribed and embodied, helping OFWB pastors to live as humble servants called to serve people. It creates an experience that is “not just talked but is experienced,” (47) thus demonstrating the mentality OFWBs have towards servanthood. For OFWB pastors, it is the never ending practice of bringing the love of Jesus Christ to all people. Therefore, foot washing is considered as a model for personal engagement and mission. According to one pastor, the goal is that “[w]e wash each other’s feet by what we do, by the services we render. You’re taking what you do and doing it in the community.” (48)
For OFWB pastors and members, foot washing is a fundamental practice that expresses the Christian story. David Hines, of the University of Mount Olive, writes that “[t]hrough the Washing of the Saints Feet, we define how we are called to live. Christians are called to be a servant people.” (49) In foot washing, love is visibly demonstrated. It is that moment where one can express love to one another. This is especially important since it follows the Eucharist. Following the moment of God’s visible “I love you” of the Eucharist, members respond with “I love you” to each other through foot washing.
In OFWB churches, foot washing is not meant to be an isolated event. Instead it connects with the Lord’s Supper that precedes it. Foot washing is the culmination of a journey so that in “baptism we have a new start. In Eucharist we remember how we came to be. Then in the Washing of the Saints Feet we learn how we are called to live.” (50) Thus the Eucharist and foot washing go together, comprising one Christian action. J. Matthew Pinson argues that only by observing both can “we meaningfully—and scripturally—symbolize the whole gospel in the worship of the church.” (51) The meaning conveyed in the Eucharist is carried over and enhanced by foot washing. Thus for OFWB pastors, foot washing helps to demonstrate the importance of sacrificing one’s ego and comfort for the sake of another person. It may even be the greatest ministerial tool OFWB pastors have available. Thus, as one pastor concluded, the “washing of the saints’ feet shows our everyday practice of being a Christian.” (52) For OFWB pastors it represents the never ending practice of bringing the love of Jesus Christ to all people.
1. In what follows “OFWB” will be used for “Original Free Will Baptist.”
2. “Original Free Will Baptist—Number of Adherents (2000),” The Association of Religion Data Archives, accessed December 2, 2013, http://www.thearda.com/mapsReports/maps/map.asp?state=101&variable=332.
3. The Articles of Faith and Principles of Church Government for Original Free Will Baptists (Of the English General Baptist Heritage) (Ayden, NC: Free Will Baptist Press, 2001), xxvii.
4. J. Matthew Pinson, A Free Will Baptist Handbook : Heritage, Beliefs, and Ministries (Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 1998), 5.
5. Michael R. Pelt, A History of Original Free Will Baptist (Mount Olive, NC: Mount Olive College Press, 1996), 104.
6. H. Leon McBeth, Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 712.
7. “Directory of Churches,” The Convention of Original Free Will Baptist Churches, accessed January 19, 2014, https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0Bxp_-UPwdYDFaGR2RlNScHM5bFE&usp=sharing.
8. The Articles of Faith, 103-104.
9. “Ministries of the Original Free Will Baptist,” The Convention of Original Free Will Baptist Churches, accessed May 8, 2014, http://www.ofwb.org/#!amenities/cee5.
10. “Mount Olive College Listed as ‘College of Dictinction,’” University of Mount Olive, accessed May 8, 2014, http://www.umo.edu/news/2012/9/mount-olive-college-listed-%E2%80%98college-distinction%E2%80%99.
11. The Articles of Faith, xxix-xxxvii.
12. Particular Baptists referred to General Baptists as “Free-Willers.” The Articles of Faith, xxxii.
13. Floyd B. Cherry, An Introduction to Original Free Will Baptist (Ayden, NC: Free Will Baptist Press, 1989), 25-35; 47-51.
14. McBeth, Four Centuries of Baptist Witness, 716.
15. Other names include: washing of the disciples feet and feet washing.
16. Pelt, A History of Original Free Will Baptist ,18.
17. Stevenson, George, “A Humbling Act Commanded by Christ,” The Free Will Baptist 82, no.31 (1967): 5.
18. Pinson, A Free Will Baptist Handbook , 19.
19. J. C. Griffin, The Upper Room Ought (Ayden, NC: Free Will Baptist Press, 1927), 29.
20. Stevenson, “A Humbling Act Commanded by Christ,” 5.
21. The Articles of Faith, 52.
22. Floyd Cherry, Original Free Will Baptist Believe: A Study of the Aritcles of Faith of Original Free Will Baptist, ed. Floyd Cherry (Pine Level, NC: Carolina Bible Institute & Seminary, 1996), 120.
23. Survey data was collected using SurveyMonkey. Responses are confidential, but an example survey can be found here http://surveymonkey.com/s/CQ29K8C.
24. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 31, 2013.
25. George G. Suggs, Jr. Washing the Disciples’ Feet (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2011), 16.
26. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 19, 2013.
27. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 30, 2013.
28. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 31, 2013.
29. Survey response by Original Free Will Baptist pastor, March 2013.
30. Survey response by Original Free Will Baptist pastor, March 2013.
31. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 29, 2013.
32. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 31, 2013.
33. Survey response by Original Free Will Baptist pastor, March 2013.
34. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, February 16, 2013
35. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 19, 2013.
36. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 19, 2013.
37. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 29, 2013.
38. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 29, 2013.
39. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 19, 2013.
40. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 31, 2013.
41. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, February 12, 2013.
42. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 19, 2013.
43. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 29, 2013.
44. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, February 16, 2013.
45. Survey response by Original Free Will Baptist pastor, March 2013.
46. Survey response by Original Free Will Baptist pastor, March 2013.
47. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 28, 2013.
48. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, February 16, 2013.
49. David Hines, “Tell Me the Story So That I Can Live the Story” (presentation, Mid-Year Spiritual Banquet OFWB Ministerial Association, University of Mount Olive, April 1, 2005), 5.
50. Hines, “Tell Me the Story So That I Can Live the Story,” 5.
51. J. Matthew Pinson, The Washing of the Saints’ Feet (Nashville: Randall House, 2006), kindle edition, 80.
52. Interview with Original Free Will Baptist Pastor, January 29, 2013.