The Difference Between Southern Baptists & Free Will Baptists

by Lilly Taylor

Within the Baptist Christian denomination, there are numerous smaller divisions. Southern Baptists and Free Will Baptists vary on several key concepts, such as whether salvation can be lost, and also on several procedural issues such as the sacrament of communion and the ritual of foot washing within the church. Many of these differences spring from the historical roots behind each group, which have been passed down for hundreds of years.

Once Saved, Always Saved?

The most significant difference between Southern Baptists and Free Will Baptists surrounds the pivotal issue of whether salvation is eternal or whether it can be lost if a person backslides, or drifts away from the teachings and beliefs of the church. Salvation is defined as cleansing of the penalties of sin through acceptance of Christ's sacrificial death. Southern Baptists believe that once a person accepts salvation, he is forever saved. Free Will Baptists believe that a person can fall from grace if he strays from his Christian faith, and salvation is not guaranteed.

Communion and Foot Washing

Another significant difference is that Free Will Baptists believe Holy Communion should be offered openly to all believers, while Southern Baptists feel it should only be taken by believers in good standing with their churches and in good spiritual stead within their faith. Some Free Will Baptist churches also still perform the ritual of foot washing within the church, which is rarely, if ever, done in Southern Baptist congregations. This ritual is based on the Biblical description contained in the book of John, chapter 13.

History of Origin

The Free Will Baptist movement started in both North Carolina and New Hampshire in the 1700s. These two groups were divided by the issue of slavery until a merger was completed in the early 1900s. According to Robert Baker, a professor of church history, the Southern Baptist denomination began to organize in 1814, as large conventions were held that revealed that the divisive issue of slavery was causing a rift between Baptists in America. Although both groups had southern connections, the Free Will Baptists had stronger ties in the north.

Similarities and Statistics

The fundamentalist beliefs of both Southern and Free Will Baptists are similar with regard to basic theology and their understanding of the nature of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the inerrancy of the Bible. Alex Murashko reported in the Christian Post that there are estimated to be 5.79 million Southern Baptists worldwide and Albert Wardin, Jr., a retired history professor, says there are 435,000 Free Will Baptists. Both groups are congregational, which means that each church is autonomous and not subject to rules from a governing body.

Photo Credits

  • SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty Images