I have just read through The “Gold Standard” of the Wiregrass Primitive Baptists of Georgia: A History of the Crawford Faction of the Alabaha River Primitive Baptist Association, A Thesis submitted to the Graduate School Valdosta State University (see here). The author has done research into the history of the "Primitive Baptist" denomination. In this writing the author focuses on the Alabaha Association of Georgia and shows that, unlike other "Primitive Baptist" associations, the Alabaha has not changed her doctrine. He shows that the controversy and division over the "means" doctrine did not cause the Alabaha association to change in doctrine as did other Hardshell churches and associations. Here are some of the citations on this point.
"A particularly interesting theological point that the Alabaha Association defended during this period, and continues to defend until the present day is the means doctrine. This principle considered the gospel as the “means” by which God regenerated the elect and suggested that preachers address both saint and sinner. This doctrine was in circulation among the Baptists long before they arrived in Georgia. The London Confession of 1689, an influential document for Primitive Baptist theology, taught that the, “word and Spirit of God” could raise sinners, but only at God’s appointed time." (pg. 29)
"The means doctrine appeared to be favored by early antimissionary associations in southeastern Georgia. The 1833 Ochlocknee Association noted that the ministers appointed to preach the Sunday services delivered sermons, “to the consolation of mourners, the establishment of saints, and the alarming of sinners.” Isham Peacock’s preaching during this time was said to have, “alarmed sinners into convulsions.” The minutes of the influential Union Church also mention sermons that were, “alarming to poor careless sinners.” Even after the initial split with the missionaries, the Suwannee Association still asked ministers to “preach the word wherever you go, and whenever you can go; it is …for the consolation of his children, for the comforting of mourners and the alarming of sinners.” (pg. 29)
"However, support for the instrumentality of the gospel soon faded among the Primitive Baptists in the region. According to Crowley, “With the missions disputes raging, many Primitives adopted the opinion that regeneration is always the direct act of the Holy Spirit, independent of any instrumentality.” In 1855, the circular letter of the Pulaski Association’s made clear their position on the means doctrine:
The savior was far from teaching that the preaching of the gospel or any other labor of man was for the awakening of dead sinners…the Life giving power is of God and of God alone…How absurd then the idea of the preaching of the gospel being the ordinary and extraordinary means in the hands of God of giving life to sinners, it is closely allied to the great mammoth principle of missionism." (pg. 29-30)
"The antimeans position was soon adopted by the majority of Primitive Baptists in the nation. However, the change was not universal. The Alabaha disliked the antimeans position from its inception among the Primitives in the area. In the early 1850s, the association proclaimed the gospel as “the means of salvation” and lamented the dissension “respecting the preaching of the gospel” and “falling out about the way and plan of salvation.” Tensions would only increase as the decade went on." (pg. 30)
"During this time, a major dispute erupted between the Alabaha and its parent organization, the Suwannee River Association. In 1860, Job E. W. Smith, moderator of the Suwannee River Association, preached at the Alabaha River Association’s annual meeting. During his sermon, Smith unequivocally advocated for the antimeans position when he held up the Bible and told the congregation, “You have been told that this is the word of God; do you believe it? I say it is not, it is ink and paper.” Smith also stated “the Gospel had no saving efficacy in it to the awakening of sinners; it was only for the feeding of the flock.” The Alabaha, who had long advocated the instrumentality of the Gospel, declared that Smith’s words were “a departure from the faith” and recommended “that this body withdraw her correspondence from the Suwannee Association until she becomes reclaimed.” (pg. 34)
"The Suwannee Association responded quickly. The association’s minutes from 1861 claimed that the “whole ministry stands impeached by the Alabaha River. Their circular letter warned of characters that had, “a great zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” The letter also noted that you could tell preaching was “not of God” if it was, “generally engaged to alarm sinners.” The next year, the Suwannee declared salvation through the means doctrine, an “uncertain sound.” In 1869, the association declared baptisms performed by the Alabaha to be invalid, because of differing faith. In that year’s circular letter, Issac Coon stated that the purpose of the gospel was for saving “a believer from all the bogs, dens, swamps, breakers, quicksands and damnable delusions of false teachers.” (pg. 34-35)
"As the Civil War was ending, the Alabaha was beginning its move into an isolation brought about by its rigid adherence to the association’s founding principles." (pg.
"In 1881, the association responded to other Primitive Baptists who declared the Bennett faction to be the “true” Alabaha River Association by rechristening themselves as the “Original Constitution Alabaha River Association.” The association’s 1884 circular letter provides important information on the deeper reasons for the split. It seems the means doctrine was still an important issue when the split occurred, for the Bennettites were accused of taking the antimeans position in this letter. Perhaps those who split with Bennett in 1871, dissatisfied with the association’s stance on gospel instrumentality, used the homestead controversy to separate themselves from the association. The circular address does not mention the homestead controversy and instead emphasizes the debate over instrumentality. A typical passage from the letter reads:
The Assyrians cried with a loud voice in the Jew’s language, just as a great many are trying to do today, using the Jew’s language and carrying a form of Godliness, but denying the power thereof saying, that the gospel of our Christ, the right arm of God has no power in it to raise the dead, it can only feed the living after they have been raised by some other power." (pg. 45)
"Though the debate raged on outside of the Alabaha Association, existing records from the latter half of the 1880s do not mention the split or the debate over the means doctrine." (pg. 47)
"As the 1890s approached, the Crawfordite (Original Constitution) Alabaha River Association had been completely cut off from the rest of the Primitive Baptist community in the region." (pg. 47)
"Because the Crawfordites remained unchanged throughout the Progressive Era they emerged on the other side as the only association in the region that still rigidly adhered to the principles of the Primitive Baptists at the time of their split with the missionaries." (pg. 50)
"During the late nineteenth century, some Primitive preachers began to fear the moral apathy the doctrine of absolute predestination could inculcate among their believers. The preachers’ fears may not have been unfounded, as a genuine decline in morality during the postWar years seems to have been a reality in South Georgia and the early circular letters of the Union Association frequently bemoaned the moral state of the region. This led some Primitive preachers to speak against the doctrine of absolute predestination during the last years of the nineteenth century, in the form of the “conditional time salvation” doctrine. This “timely salvation” included a sense of communion with God and a respite from the guilt of neglected duties to God. Some Primitive Baptist ministers referred to it as “working out your own salvation.” (pg. 51-52)
"The idea of “time salvation” caught on quickly among Primitive Baptists in South Georgia...The introduction of “conditional time salvation” was responsible for a number of splits across the country, though one split directly related to the doctrine in South Georgia." (pg. 52)
These citations give further evidence that the original position of the Hardshells was that the Gospel was the means God used in the regeneration of sinners, the teaching of the Old Baptists who adopted the 1689 London Confession and the Philadelphia Confession. It also shows that the rejection of the doctrine of the absolute predestination of all things and the teaching of "time salvation" showed a change in doctrine. All this proves that today's Hardshells are not "primitive" but a new sect.