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Religious Freedom? This Baptist Says, “You’re Welcome!”

Weekend Fisher proposes the following topic for the upcoming Christian Reconciliation Carnival:

If you had to choose one thing that you believe your church or tradition does the best, or one contribution you believe your church body makes to Christendom as a whole, what would that be?

The Baptist heritage has always been a loose-leaf arrangement. We are all over the map in terms of theology, worship, and discipleship. There are Calvinist Baptists, anti-Calvinist Baptists, charismatic Baptists, liberal Baptists, and many more we don’t tend to talk about in polite company. Our worship styles range everywhere from Reformed orderliness to African American exuberance to rural Appalachian simplicity to seeker-driven multimedia theatrics. If you can name a trend in Protestant church life, you can find a Baptist congregation somewhere that has jumped in with both feet.

We Baptists are great borrowers. Armed with our Bibles and our determination to follow Christ as best we know how, we have left few rabbits unchased. But what do we have to show for it? What have we done that has made the church—and the world—a better place?

I would argue that Baptists’ greatest contribution to the church is our pioneering work in the cause of religious liberty for all. To be sure, other groups have also long been champions of this principle. In the United States Jews, Unitarians, Quakers, Freemasons, and many others argued for the separation of church and state. At the same time, the particular contribution of Baptists must not be overlooked.

In 1920, the Southern Baptist Convention met in Washington DC and George W. Truett, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas, preached on the subject of “Baptists and Religious Liberty” on the east steps of the US Capitol. He said that religious liberty

is the chiefest contribution that America has thus far made to civilization. And historic justice compels me to say that it was pre-eminently a Baptist contribution. The impartial historian, whether in the past, present or future, will ever agree with our American historian, Mr. Bancroft, when he says: “Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was from the first the trophy of the Baptists.” And such historians will concur with the noble John Locke who said: “The Baptists were the first propounders of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty.” Ringing testimonies like these might be multiplied indefinitely.

How did it come about that Baptists were such great defenders of religious liberty in the United States? It goes back to our earliest days in England as a misunderstood and often persecuted minority at odds with the established (Anglican) church. In short, we knew what it was like to be dissenters from the ecclesiastical status quo, and we bristled at the idea that any earthly magistrate should tell us what to believe or how to worship.

Thomas Helwys, pastor of the first Baptist church on English soil, wrote in an appeal to King James I titled “The Mystery of Iniquity,” in which he called on the king not to impose laws against the consciences of his subjects. He wrote,

“[T]he King is a mortal man and not God, therefore hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for then and to set spiritual Lords over them.”

For this, Helwys was thrown into Newgate prison, where he died around 1616.

When Baptists came to America, we found established religion in the English colonies as well, albeit with a bit more variety. There were Anglicans in the South, Congregationalists in New England, and various mainline Protestant groups in the Middle Colonies. Only in Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams—a Baptist at the time, although he soon left our number—was there the glimmer of genuine religious freedom in the New World.

And so it was that, after the Revolutionary war, Baptist notables like John Leland and Isaac Backus lobbied Congress for the inclusion of an amendment to the Bill of Rights guaranteeing religious liberty to all. We Americans have our First Amendment because a few Baptist preachers were such royal pains in the neck that James Madison had to give us one! In fact, the very term “separation of church and state” comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Baptists in 1802 seeking to allay their fears about his commitment to religious liberty:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

Baptists argued so forcefully not because they discounted the role of religion or spirituality in the wider world. In fact, it was the opposite: they prized their devotion to Christ so highly that they dared not turn it over to the government. And they had read enough of the Bible to understand that the church has always been at its strongest—and been most in a position genuinely to influence society as a whole—when it has been left free of church-state entanglements. Once again, in the words of George Truett:

In behalf of our Baptist people I am compelled to say that forgetfulness of the principles that I have just enumerated, in our judgment, explains many of the religious ills that now afflict the world. All went well with the early churches in their earlier days. They were incomparably triumphant days for the Christian faith. Those early disciples of Jesus, without prestige and worldly power, yet aflame with the love of God and the passion of Christ, went out and shook the pagan Roman Empire from center to circumference, even in one brief generation. Christ’s religion needs no prop of any kind from any worldly source, and to the degree that it is thus supported is a millstone hanged about its neck.

We Baptists undoubtedly get many things wrong. (Although, if you don’t like the way one Baptist church operates, you can always find the complete opposite in the Baptist church down the road.) I’ve been in a love-hate relationship with my denomination for many years now, and yet they still refuse to see things my way on any number of issues. 🙂 Even so, the principle of religious liberty is a “trophy of the Baptists” I’ll gladly claim.

technorati tags: baptists, first amendment, george w. truett, isaac backus, john leland, religious freedom, religious liberty, roger williams, separation of church and state


  1. PS says:

    Interesting! I don’t know anything about the history of the baptists, so I’m willing to learn.

    These days, there is a trend in “conservative” churches, to which description I’ve assumed that many Baptist churches belong, to have prayer in schools and other public places. I’ve always assumed that if we allow Christian prayer and symbols, we have to allow other types of religions as well. To me this at least muddies the waters of the separation of church and state. Or is this a different issue?


  2. D. P. says:

    PS, sadly many Baptist churches have come to disown this particular aspect of their history. I attribute this largely to the fact that, unlike past generations when we were a religious minority, now we have achieved a degree of numerical success. It is always easier to fight for the “little guy” when he’s you! And it’s always easier to appeal to “majority rule” when you’re in it.


  3. The story of Baptist (and Anabaptist) struggle for religious liberty is told most thoroughly in William R. Estep’s, Revolution within the Revolution. I have tried for some time to show that, unlike liberal and moderate Baptist recitations (including Truett’s speech here), it did not stand on its own–but was part of a larger Baptist struggle for human rights–of which religious liberty and church state separation was only a part. (For instance, the first charge that the Mass. Puritans registered against Roger Williams was that he insisted that the Native Americans owned the land, not the King of England, and that colonists ought to purchase the land fairly. The charge that the state had no authority over religious conscience came second!)


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