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Reflections on the Kehukee Association PDF Print E-mail
Written by Elder William Everett   

In response to an inquiry regarding the present condition of the Kehukee Association, I shall try to be as clear as possible.

My description must begin with my first recollections of the ministers and the practices of the Kehukee Association.

     In response to an inquiry regarding the condition of the Kehukee Primitive Baptist Association in the latter years of the Twentieth Century, I will try to be as accurate in my recollections as possible. My characterization must begin with my first recollections of the ministers and the practices of the Kehukee Primitive Baptist Association, the oldest Baptist Association in North Carolina.

     Contentious doctrinal turmoil regarding the doctrine of absolute predestination pervaded the Primitive Baptist order at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Elder Sylvester Hassell, an eminent Elder, educator, historian and author, of the Kehukee Association, maintained a good relationship during this strife with Elders of his day. He is credited with restraining the passions of the people. After the death of Elder Hassell in 1928, no one of his stature remained to continue his policy of moderation. The churches of the association experienced turbulent times, but did not divide. Some churches held to the *absolute predestination viewpoint and some to the *conditionalist viewpoint. This situation in the midst of the churches set family against family, and church against church. Church memberships began declining. This destructive condition abated with time, but animosities continued for years. The Kehukee Association  settled  into  the  absolute  predestination  doctrinal  position.

     I did not know Elder Sylvester Hassell, but I knew  individuals who were acquainted with him.  I was told that Hassell was a vegetarian, and abstained from all meats. He used a parasol to shield his fair complexion from direct sunlight, and always wore a coat and neckwear.  He was remembered by some as aloof and arrogant. Elder Hassell was ridiculed by some of his contemporaries for not being “strong in the faith.” Hassell maintained better relations with Elders of other sections of the country than he did in his own locale. Editors of religious periodicals of the day and Elder Hassell remained  friendly until his death. Jealousy abounded within the ranks of the Kehukee Association; this characteristic hastened the decline of the once august body. Ministerial jealousy was prevalent when I came on the scene, and obvious until the association finally reduced itself to irrelevance. I recall a question asked of me by  an elderly brother. The brother knew I was knowledgeable of Hassell’s History of the Church of God. He asked, “Do you think Hassell was strong in the faith?”  I thought the question was strange. I quickly realized what the brother meant by his expression  ‘in the faith’. What the question implied was, “Do you think Hassell was strong in absolute predestination?” The dogma of the absolute predestination of all things was the yardstick  by which a person’s faith was measured.  If a person did not strongly advocate predestination, they were not considered “strong in the faith.”

     Primitive Baptist history clearly proves that the advocates of absolute predestination have declined and border on extinction. If  Elder Hassell had survived to prepare someone to follow in his steps,  our Primitive Baptist  history may have been different.   

      I was called upon to conduct the funeral of Elder Hassell’s last surviving son, Calvin.  The cremains of Calvin Hassell are interred at the base of the monument at the grave of his wife. Elder Hassell’s granddaughter and his great grandchildren were in attendance. Elder Hassell’s great grandchildren were not aware of his religious literary accomplishments.

     It is a sad commentary on Primitive Baptist  history that succeeding generations have no knowledge of their past. Decades of neglect have yielded irreparable damage.

      Elder Hassell speaks for himself in his articles rejecting the doctrine of absolute predestination.


Reflections

     My reflective journey begins with the manner in which I acted out my childhood impressions of Primitive Baptist Elders, while I lived at Oxford Orphanage in Oxford, N.C.

     Farmland, pastures and woodlands gave the orphanage campus a backdrop of rural tranquility. Two creeks snaked their way through the fields and woods. Muddy water of a narrow creek gurgled slowly around the small rocks and smooth stones in the middle of the stream. Early warm weather pressed new growth from the reeds along the edge of the flow. The budding trees in the forest provided a silent background for the meandering brook. I jumped from the weed-filled creek bank onto the largest stone. Babbling, gentle sounds of flowing water broke the silence of the springtime afternoon. Orphanage boys were allowed to roam the fields and woods Saturday afternoons. Alone, I pretended I was a preacher. Perched atop an imposing stone, I looked around for curious eyes. Certain there were no onlookers, I imagined my congregation. Where were my listeners? They were in my young mind only.

       My imagination reflected the indelible images of my younger years in the home of a great-aunt and uncle. Abandoned by my mother and neglected by my father at age six (1936), Aunt Ada and Uncle Fernanda White took me into their home. Devoted Primitive Baptists, they treated me as their own. Saturday and Sunday I was always with them--at church and in homes of other Primitive Baptists. Uncle  Nanda,  as I affectionately knew him, was a deacon at Flat Swamp Church, a church of the Kehukee Association. He always sat on the front bench and allowed me to lie on the

bench with my head on his leg. Sometimes I would sleep; sometimes I would day dream and sometimes I would listen.


      My mother remarried, removed me from this secure environment in Robersonville, into less-than-desirable circumstances in Hamilton. Following the failure of her second marriage in 1939 I  lived with my grandfather and grandmother in Oak City. My grandfather died in 1940. I was placed in the Masonic Orphanage, at Oxford, North Carolina in 1941. I remained at the orphanage until I graduated in 1949.

        Primitive Baptist recollections often filled my senses in the carefree times of my orphanage life. Frequently I remembered Primitive Baptist ministers and their practices from my childhood.

     Standing on the stone, I pretended to preach. I mimicked what I had seen and heard, when I accompanied Aunt Ada and Uncle  Nanda  among the churches of the Kehukee Association. Impressions of young minds often last a lifetime.

      The twenty third Psalms was familiar to all orphanage students. We were taught to memorize Bible verses.  In a staccato or auctioneering style voice, I would recite each verse. Raising my tone with each verse, and add an  “Ah, yes,”  at intervals. Lowering the sound of my voice, I would stoop and imitate what I recalled seeing and hearing ministers do in my early years.


      These images of the ministers of the 1930s, who were on the scene after the passing of Elder Sylvester Hassell were indelibly etched in my young mind.

     Elder J. C. Moore, son of Elder A. J. Moore was chosen Moderator of the association in 1929, after the death of  Hassell. A. J. Moore was a classmate and close friend of Elder Hassell. Elder J. C. Moore’s influence was limited as he did not survive long after the death of Elder Hassell.

    Elder A. B. Denson, a stout man of limited education was stricken with a form of palsy. His head constantly shook side to side. Elder Denson farmed and sold monuments. He lived in the City of Rocky Mount, N. C. Denson was on the scene at the death of Elder Hassell and participated in the funeral  of Hassell.  Elder Denson’s staccato delivery was accentuated by constant jerks of his head. Ministers of the day were prone to emphasize extraordinary spiritual experiences to illustrate a  born again condition. Elder Denson followed Moore as Moderator of the association. Denson died in 1952.

    Elder A. B. Ayers of Martin County, served as moderator after the death of Elder Denson. Elder Ayers farmed. He did not exhibit the extreme chanting characteristics of his contemporaries. His educational experience was limited. Ayers was well respected in his community.  He took his own life in his latter years, after learning he had a terminal illness.

    Elder R. B. Denson, son of A. B. Denson, an enterprising man of limited education, operated a general store and farmed. The younger Denson visited farms in the Rocky Mount, N. C. area on Mondays, bought live chickens and sold the poultry to merchants in the vicinity. What he could not sell locally, he transported in crates as far as Philadelphia. He truck-farmed when vegetables were in season. Elder R.  B. Denson died in 1959.

     Elder Joe Fly was large-framed, but nonassertive in his nature. He also, was limited in any formal learning. Elder Fly sold Watkins Products from the trunk of his automobile. He used a chanting preaching style.

      Elder B. S. Cowan of Bear Grass, in Martin County, was a gentle man and a gentleman. Elder Cowan was afflicted with a large goiter on his neck.  Cowan farmed and was quite educated.  He was a calm and deliberate speaker. He yielded to the massive growth on his neck and his gravelly speech seemed directed in one direction.

Elder W. E. Grimes, a slender man, with an easygoing but intolerant attitude followed Elder Ayers as moderator of the association.  Elder Grimes was a farmer by occupation. A temperate speaking technique was used by Elder Grimes. My mother’s brother married one of the daughters of Elder Grimes.

     Elder E. C. Stephenson was an unkempt and unlearned man. He too, farmed and chanted to an extreme. It was not unusual to see him with snuff juice dribbling from his mouth. Stephenson’s shirt, buttoned at the top and minus a tie, often was stained with brown drippings. Elder Stephenson was labeled  Snuffy.

     It was not uncommon for men to use snuff or tobacco inside the meeting house while services were in progress. Cuspidors were strategically placed. Low profile sandboxes, supporting iron wood stoves served as cuspidors, also.

 

     Etched in my memory are the prosperous days of the Kehukee Association. Every autumn the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad junction at Parmele was crowded with incoming visitors to the association. The church at Flat Swamp was nearby.  It was not unusual for autos to meet the trains, and transport the visitors to private homes. The rail line continued to Robersonville and Williamston, passing through the main geographical area of the association. Fondly I recall the crowded homes, filled dining tables, sleeping in barn lofts, playing with other children and sleeping at the foot of beds.


     As an adult, I came on the Primitive Baptist scene again in 1967, in an unusual manner. I received a letter from an aunt, inviting my wife and me to attend a Skewarkey Union meeting at the Robersonville Primitive Baptist Church. An Everett family reunion was planned together with the Union meeting. My aunt informed me that relatives whom I had not seen since I left for the orphanage would be present. My wife and I decided to attend.

     Arriving at the church we heard the singing as we drew closer to the building. The windows were open and the slow singing from the Lloyd hymnal brought back memories of my childhood  with Uncle  Nanda  and Aunt Ada. Only the personalities had changed.  It was from this nostalgic location  that I began a search for the roots of the faith of my forefathers. I united with Falls of Tar River Primitive Baptist Church, Rocky Mount, N. C. in 1968, and was ordained to the Primitive Baptist ministry in 1969. Life’s painful lessons often teach:  Old roots reject new grafts.

     At the time the Kehukee Association was intact, though it was gradually declining. Its fellowship extended to most of the Predestinarian associations in N.C., VA and MD. At the time there were the Contentnea, Black Creek, White Oak and Little River Associations in eastern North Carolina.

    In 1969, there was a popular and respected preacher in the White Oak Association, whose wife divorced him. He married again, to a  woman who had never married. That created a mean spirited controversy in the White Oak Association and it split and became two sides of  the White Oak. That meant that the other associations had to choose which side of the White Oak they would fellowship. When the choosing of sides was over, that meant that each association, which split over the issue had two sides. All being of the absolute predestination persuasion, but still two sides.

    The Kehukee Association recognized one side of the White Oak, but did not split, and the other associations recognized their favorite sides. The two sides of the other associations, that split continued to decline, as did the Kehukee.

    Circa 1979, Elder David Spangler, the editor of the Signs of the Times, an absolute predestination publication, was advanced in years. He made his intentions known that he intended  to appoint an editor to succeed him. Two natural brothers, Elder Donald Smith and Elder Wallis Smith, were associated with Spangler in the publication.  One brother, served as circulation manager and presumed he would be named to replace Spangler as editor of the Signs of the Times, a Primitive publication.

     Elder Spangler did not make the choice immediately, and the circulation manager became impatient and began to criticize some of Spangler’s writings. There was some sentiment at the time that it was time for Spangler to step down as editor. There also was a sentiment that Elder Spangler should remain as editor of the Signs of the Times. The brothers charged that Spangler was departing from the absolute predestination position. The two brothers began to visit with influential Elders to garner support for their position. Supporters of Elder Spangler made the rounds seeking backing for their position, also.

     Churches served by Elder Spangler withdrew from the north central N.C. association to which they belonged. Elder Spangler appointed another Elder as editor of The Signs. The appointment apparently did not please the two brothers. The brothers also served churches within the association from which the churches Spangler served had removed themselves. Shortly afterwards the churches served by the two brothers left the association. This disturbance created dissension within the association located in north central N.C.

    When three associations of southern Virginia met in 1981, they did not recognize the troubled North Carolina association.  This put the Kehukee in the position of having to choose which faction to recognize.  This situation also meant recognizing associations according to where the associations stood in their choice of sides. The two brothers visited extensively in all the associations of N.C. and Virginia, seeking support for their personal positions.

    Churches in the Kehukee Association were prone to follow the influence of their pastors and deacons. Deacons regularly exerted biased and undue influence over the churches. The Kehukee Association  pastors were visited by the two brothers regularly. The brothers visited churches and associations in Virginia, also. Similarly the supporters of the newly-appointed editor of the Signs sought support. Factional choices in this matter fell like dominoes into associations in Virginia and N.C.

     The two brothers finished their support-seeking rounds before the association meeting and had the support of the pastors and churches they had concentrated on.  The Kehukee Association was the next to the last association in this area to meet in October of 1981.  Two weeks before the association was scheduled to convene at Williams  Primitive Baptist Church in Edgecombe County, the host church, decided they could not provide for the meeting. The association power-brokers at the time, decided at the last minute to use the original Kehukee meeting house. The Kehukee Church had been abandoned earlier and removed from the rolls of the association. A quick effort prepared the old building for use; all of the churches prepared for the provisions to host the association.

    The association was opened in the usual manner. The same moderator was chosen and all the traditional things attended to.  The moderator called for the visiting brethren to be seated with the association in the customary manner. A female member of the Norfolk Church, rose  and presented this motion:  I move to seat all Contentnea and all associated with Elder A. P. Mewborn and Elder W. W. Stallings, Black Creek, Upper Country Line, Seven Mile and all independent churches.   The motion was seconded by another female member of the same church as the one who made the motion. I knew them both well. I was once pastor of the Norfolk Church in Norfolk, Virginia.

When the discussions began, few understood what was being considered. The voting tally will attest to that reality. Many messengers confessed their ignorance of the difficulties under consideration. Some messengers refused to vote;  their refusal to vote were considered abstentions.

     I was given the floor and stated that we should not take sides in a dispute that involved a religious periodical. It was the consensus of some of the members, and also my opinion, to recognize all, or recognize none, for the time being. I spoke further, until Elder Henry Jones, an illiterate elder of the Contentnea Association called out,  “Shut up and sit down!” This overt disorderly and rude act was  overlooked by the moderator.

     Also, assembled at the association were brethren from the southern Virginia associations which had refused to recognize the N.C. association that was in a state of discontent.

      A vote was called for on the motion, and I rose and called for a  roll call  vote.  The final tally was: Eight yeses, six noes, and eight abstentions. Those who abstained did not understand the issues and they openly stated their ignorance of the matter. With this misunderstanding the vote was allowed to proceed. This action, of course, was an offense to the messengers of the associations who were not recognized.

     The association continued with its usual practices for the two-day period. The atmosphere was cold, but the association was completed.  No one spoke of the contentious conference.  Several weeks later the Skewarkey Union Meeting convened at Bear Grass Church in Martin County, N.C. The female clerk of the host church stood and invited into the pulpit only those ministers whose churches had voted  yes  on the motion at the previous associational meeting. Effectively that excluded the churches that had voted  no .  The members and ministers of the churches which had voted  no  left the church house and removed to the Skewarkey church house, five mile distant and held services. At the time, I was pastor of the Skewarkey Church in Williamston.   In the process of time, the group excluded at the Union Meeting banded together and called themselves the Eastern Kehukee Association. The others labeled themselves the Original Kehukee Association.

     Almost immediately after this divisive incident, a few of the dissenting churches declared themselves independent of any association. The Falls of Tar River Church was one of the first to declare its independence. Assemblies in the Contentnea and Black Creek Associations also became independent bodies.                 

     Time progressed and I came to the realization that we needed to be associated with a viable group of Primitive Baptists on a nationwide basis.  Elder D. B.  Stokes and I were sharing a radio broadcast at the time, and Elder John Tidwell called about the program. It was then that I approached Elder Tidwell about establishing a dialogue to determine if some common ground could be found for reconciliation. Elder Tidwell was sympathetic to beginning such an endeavor.  I asked Elder Stokes and Elder Randall Saunders if I could speak for them in this dialogue, provided I kept them informed of the progress. They agreed.

      Elder Stokes, at the time, served four churches in N.C., one in Pennsylvania., and Black Rock Church in Maryland. Elder Saunders was pastor of Healthy Plains Church in N.C. Because of health conditions I had previously resigned the care of Norfolk, Muddy Creek, Skewarkey and Scott’s Churches.

      Elder Tidwell and I became close, and we soon overcame any differences we perceived existed. Elder Devon Harris, pastor of Angier Church was very encouraging. Deacon Gerald Lawrence of Angier Church and I spent many hours conversing about our differences. In the end, we realized there were really no differences that could not be reconciled. Thus began the healing of the schism which took place following the death of Elder Sylvester Hassell in 1928.  Nearly a century of intolerance and lost opportunity was bridged.

      I was invited to speak at Angier Church. Elder Harris and Elder Tidwell were invited to Healthy Plains Church. Both congregations began visitations. It was during this time that I was invited by Elder Daniel Hall of Georgia to fill preaching appointments in that area. Elder Hall and I were acquainted, as he at one time lived in my vicinity.

     While in Georgia I sought counsel from Elder Elzie Speir, Sr. In the course of our talks Elder Speir advised,  “Son, you’ll make more headway by dealing church to church, than trying to go the association route.”  Elder Speir’s advice was wise and correct.

      In 1981, there were 22 churches represented in the Kehukee with  260 members. Today the two groups may have less than 30 members.  There are only seven churches remaining in the two sides. The group calling themselves the Original Kehukee Association is now void of ministers.

       The churches that withdrew from associations and became independent have stabilized. These independent churches, at the beginning of the Twenty First Century, are showing signs of life. Today there is a healthy relationship between those churches that once were a part of the eastern N.C. associations and the Old Line (nonabsolute churches) nationwide.

    At the beginning of the Twenty First Century, there remains two sides in the Kehukee Association, two in the Contentnea, two in the Black Creek and two in the Little River. The White Oak has vanished.

     The two natural brothers involved in this dispute are presently estranged. This dispute extended into Canada, and two Canadian brothers were religiously divided as a result of the Signs of the Times controversy.  Perhaps there is someone who can corroborate or refute my recollections.  History judges the present and  the future  by the past.


      To what should we attribute the Kehukee Association’s decline and ignominious end?  We would be negligent and dishonest to speak of an unlearned clergy without supporting the assertion with specific examples. I shall refer to only one.  A minister of the Kehukee Association used this text more than once in my hearing. Isaiah 6:1  “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”  The Elder used the comparison of a railroad train leaving a station on earth and ending up in the heavenly temple. He used the illustration of free tickets on this train, as free grace and emphasized the importance of  getting aboard  the train.

     The practice of giving no prior thought or study to what a minister would speak on was based on Matt 10:19:  “But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak.”  Many times I have watched an elder clean his glasses, blow his nose and with feigned humility begin his discourse.  “Brethren, if the preacher don’t come, then there won’t be no preaching here today. I don’t know what I’m going to preach on. The Lord will have to give me what he has purposed to give me.”  The Elder would make excuses, use Matt. 10:19 and ramble until he worked himself into a chanting and raving frenzy. This common practice, in my opinion, is an example of an unlearned clergy. Education was scorned as showy and a sign of little trust that the Spirit would provide. Chanting, often was viewed as evidence of the presence of the Spirit. Baptism was discouraged by insisting that  only a supernatural event lead one to the Church.

     Constant preaching of predestination, with no mention of human responsibility was commonplace.  “What is to be, will be,” was the hallmark of sermons of the day. I recall being told by a female member:  “Don’t tell me about my duty,  I don’t want to hear it.”  

     To  say that the leaders of the association were wedded to their remembered customs would be an understatement. It was fruitless to point out, from that body of historical evidence Hassell’s History, what the association was then doing was of recent origin. The association regularly usurped the authority of the local churches. The leaders were intolerant of any customs not of their personal recollections. Scriptural counsel and recorded history was  not tolerated or considered.

      Neglect of the meeting houses was an obvious example of indifference and contributed to the decline of the association. Members’ homes were modernized with conveniences while their meeting houses remained neglected. Disrespect of a worship service by lighting of cigarettes and use of chewing tobacco, following a service was commonplace. I recall chiding a brother for not waiting until he was outside to smoke and his response was,  “What does it matter? It’s just another building.”

     Have we respected the time of other people? Have we been excessive in our use of time? An incident is with me today, of the time I was invited to dinner at a home where a death had occurred. A minister of the Kehukee Association was asked to return thanks, and he consumed 35 minutes in the effort. The practice of protracted prayers and sermons was typical, and generally resented.

   The use of a common communion cup was uniformly practiced. The  unused wine from the common cup was poured back into the original container and reused another time.

    It would not be totally objective to attribute the decline of the Kehukee Association to any one condition. Even the time in which the association flourished is responsible. The geographical region of the association was then, and remains predominantly agriculture oriented. A recent newspaper article about election of N.C. lawmakers stated:  “With each census, the number of seats held by rural lawmakers declines, while the number of seats in the fast-growing metropolitan areas grows.”   The youth of the eastern section of N.C. left to seek opportunities in the urban portions of the state. Agriculture and the supporting population is constantly declining.


Gal 5:15 --But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. KJV


     It should be noted that Primitive Baptists have unjustly borne the reproach of being labeled anti-missionary. Historical documents relating to the Baptist division of 1832 clearly indicate it was mission societies and their possible unscriptural influence on individual churches which were objectionable. It was not missionaries, nor their freedom to exercise Biblical evangelism.

Hassell’s History lists 41 active churches in the Kehukee Association in 1885; only four remain with less than 20 members in 2007. Is this a model to be imitated?

 

*Predestination is the belief that all events, human actions and natural happenings are directly and absolutely decreed by God. Divine blessings in this scheme are apportioned as determined beforehand, and not conditioned on actions or deeds.


*Conditionalism is the belief that some events, human actions and happenings are conditioned on the actions of the creature. Divine spiritual blessings in this system are conditioned on the obedience of the creature.

 

Purpose

The Primitive or Old School Baptists cling to the doctrines and practices held by Baptist Churches throughout America at the close of the Revolutionary War. This site is dedicated to providing access to our rich heritage, with both historic and contemporary writings.