Hellers or No-Hellers?

Posted by | June 1, 2011

Nestled within a cluster of oaks and maples in Shady Valley, TN, the Stoney Creek Primitive Baptist Church meeting house is one of those traditional wood-framed worship structures that ole’ Baptists love so dearly—starkly simple, lap-joint sided, white, unadorned by steeples or Gothic-arched stained glass windows. Noticeably absent are any self-proclaiming billboard, marquee, or other bold advertisement of its denominational character, meeting times, and/or clerical personnel.

Stoney Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Carter County, Tennessee.

Stoney Creek Primitive Baptist Church in Carter County, Tennessee.

The association to which Stoney Creek belongs is the Regular Baptist Washington District Association, the No-Heller side of an older alliance of Baptist congregations that was established in 1811.

After 113 years of relative peace, this older Washington District family of churches fell into bitter doctrinal discord, which in 1924 split the No-Heller side from the Heller side, the latter also still extant and now proclaiming itself The Original Washington District Primitive Baptist Association.

The Heller side of this dispute was reported by Elihu J. Sutherland in his ‘Regular Primitive Baptist Washington District Association: A Short History,’ published in 1952 by that division of the association.

The arguments, as seen by the No-Heller side, must be pieced together from a number of hard-to-assemble sources, including annual association minutes; nevertheless, a reasonably complete view of No-Heller doctrine can be gained by reading Charles F. Nickels’ “Salvation of All Mankind; and Treatise on Predestination, the Resurrection of the Dead, and a Bequest,” published by its author in Nickelsville, VA, apparently in 1937.

The proper appellation for this No-Heller group is Primitive [also Primite] Baptist Universalism, PBU for short.

The central tenets of PBU theology can be compressed into the following doctrinal statements: (1) Christ’s atonement was for the sins of ALL humankind, past, present, and future, thus becoming just as unavoidable as were the stains of Adam’s original transgression; (2) hell does exist, but solely as a factor of the temporal world, with ALL sin being punished in this temporal world; (3) “Christ’s Church” was “elected” before the beginning of time, but the members of that “Church:”—the Primitive Baptist Universalists—possess no final advantage over the non-elect, since heaven will be for ALL and will be experienced in a totally egalitarian eternity; however, (4) throughout the temporal existence the “Elect” will serve as God’s witnesses and as the preservers of His earthly righteousness; (5) sin, punishment, death, and “Satan” are only present-world entities, ceasing to exist after temporal termination and the “Resurrection”; therefore, (6) there will be no hell in the afterlife.

Because Primite Baptist Universalists do believe in hell in the temporal world, they strongly reject the No-Heller label that others have given them. Nevertheless, it must be recognized immediately that all other Primitive Baptist groups simply do not accept the PBU faith as being Primitive, arguing that one essential feature of Primitive Baptist theology is some version of John Calvin’s limited atonement doctrine.

In Central Appalachia, there are four small associations of Primite Baptist Universalist: the Regular Primite Baptist Washington District Association, The Three Forks of Powell’s River Regular Primitive Baptist Association, and two Elkhorn Primitive Baptist Associations, this duplication in the latter being the consequence of an early 1980s split.

All told, there are only thirty-three PBU fellowships; and they are found primarily in a limited area of northeastern Tennessee, a six-county region of southwestern Virginia, the Colley (or Colly) Creed sector of Letcher County, Kentucky, and the McDowell County locale of southern West Virginia. Appalachian migrations into the Midwest have established three PBU fellowships in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania, but these are small struggling congregations that depend heavily upon support from PBU congregations in Central Appalachia.

Elder Jennings Short participating in Stoney Creek's footwashing service.

Elder Jennings Short participating in Stoney Creek's footwashing service.

Stoney Creek is one of three Tennessee PBU churches. Holston Primite Baptist Church, an affiliate of the Three Forks Association, lies on the west side of Cherokee Lake in Grainger County; Hope Church, a member of the previously mentioned PBU Washington District Association, can be found in Washington County, just on the west side of Interstate 181 near Gray; and Stoney Creek Church is in Carter County.

Southwestern Virginia contains the heaviest concentration of PBU churches, with one or more fellowships existing in each of the following counties: Lee, Scott, Wise, Dickenson, Russell, Buchanan, and Tazewell. West Virginia has only two counties that contain a PBU church: McDowell and Greenbrier. Then, as previously mentioned, Letcher County, Kentucky, shelters only one such fellowship.

Stoney Creek Church in Carter County, TN, is often confused with the now defunct PBU Stony Creek (without the “e”) Church of Scott County, VA. Prior to 1949, this latter fellowship was affiliated with its namesake association, the Stony Creek Association, another small cluster of Primite Baptist congregations that joined the PBU movement after the 1924 split.

However, Stony Creek Association lasted only until the late 1940s before disintegrating over a dispute concerning natural-body versus spiritual-body resurrection. That shattered PBU association is now represented by only one church that lies near Bean Station in Grainger County, Tennessee.

Like Old Regular Baptist, Regular Baptist, Separate Baptist, United Baptist, and a host of even smaller Appalachian sub-denominations of this faith, Primitive Baptist Universalism is largely a Central Appalachian phenomenon, seldom found anywhere else, except as a consequence of the region’s various out migrations.

The PBU movement contributes yet another colorful square in the diverse patchwork quilt that Appalachian religion has become.

Condensed & edited from “Stoney Creek Primitive Baptist Church, Carter County, Tennessee: A ‘No-Heller’ Meetinghouse,” by Howard Dorgan, 1996
Online at www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~tnhawkin/Stoneycr.html

5 Responses

  • Hi,
    My family help start that church! it was also a stone church in the 1700s its been there longer than reported and is the second oldest church in Tennessee next to sinking creek baptist. I have the original church records were my 3rd Great grand parents Looney Blevins & Martha Garland signed over the land for the Church that was handed down from Samuel Garland my 6th great grand father you obtained the land from a revolutionary war grant. Looney and Martha helped swear the church into business the second time the doors were open in the 1800s.

    If you do a search on Primitive Baptist & Crypt-o Jews you will see where the church started. basically the Jewish people married into the Cherokee in the Appalachian mountains and used the Term “primitive Baptist ” to hide under. Those people later became know as the melungeons the primitive baptist church is the first place the word was uttered. This church may be found in the buludeen community on carter branch road basically Holston Mountain. I have deep roots surrounding the history of this church. The blevins men who married the garland women were from The Holston Long-hunters that were with Daniel Boone that discovered Tennessee in 1761 before the Wautaga settlement and William bean family. Hit me up on facebook and I will give you some info on this family line.
    Steve

  • Lucas Shortt says:

    Jennings Shortt is my grandfather. He was one of the best men I knew and did his preaching not only in the stand but by the way he lived his life. I’m proud to say we are still singing old time hymns here in southwest VA and sticking to the old traditions. I learned a little history here. Thanks for the article.

  • Jeff Williams says:

    I am interested in learning more about the history of this area. My grandfather was Carlos Williams, his son Wendell, & his son Aaron were all preachers. I remember the name Jennings Short from my childhood too.

  • Janet Crain says:

    There are many references in the Bible about punishment in the after life.

    http://web.ccbce.com/multimedia/BLB/faq/nbi/161.html

  • Austin Greer says:

    Hi my name is Austin Greer. I’m from Chilhowie, Virginia, which is a small town in Smyth County. I am a Primitive Baptist but not a Primitive Baptist Universalist. I think it’s crazy that they think there’s no hell—it plainly tells us that there is a hell in the King James Bible.

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