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.
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.
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