Introduction

Since their inception in the 1600’s, Baptists have stood for the religious liberty of not only themselves, but of all people.  In regards to religious liberty George Truett once said, “There is a vast difference between toleration and liberty. Toleration is a concession; liberty is a right; toleration is a matter of expediency; liberty is a matter of principle; toleration is a grant of man; liberty is a gift of God[1].”  Those of us who live in America often hear of the separation of church and state, and that idea is of Christian origin.  The first Baptists were English separatists who sought to worship their own way contrary to what the state church required[2].

They sought to live in peace with Christians who worshipped in a different manner.  They also fought for the rights of those who were of other religions.  In doing this they were being more than tolerant, but were advocating for the religious liberty of all people[3].  This paper will strive to summarize the struggle of Baptists for Religious liberty, the key players, and why the struggle is important today.

 

BAPTIST ORIGINS

To understand the Baptist struggle for religious freedom one must understand the origins of Baptists.  The Baptist denomination itself was born from the struggle for liberty in England.  In the 16th century England removed itself from Roman Catholicism and established the Church of England.  There were those in England who eventually sought to reform the Church of England and they eventually became known as Puritans[4].

There were those who thought that the Church of England either did not reform enough, or that it could not be reformed.  They then separated from the Church of England and became known as separatists[5].  The leaders of the separatists groups began to delve into scripture and came to some conclusions that were vastly different from the Church of England.  One such disagreement was in regards to infant baptism.  The separatists were influenced by the Anabaptist view of believer’s baptism.  As part of the Church of England members were born into the church, but under the separatists view one must make a personal decision to enter into it[6].  The idea that baptism came only after a public profession was considered heresy during this time, and it was very dangerous.  Laws were passed that made it illegal to worship contrary to what the state approved, and there were heavy fines on those who were caught.  A fine was a nice punishment compared to punishments being allowed when the Act of Uniformity was passed in 1662.  Church historian Philip Schaff writes, “like criminals over the mountains; their ears were torn from their roots; they were branded with hot irons; their fingers were wrenched asunder by the thumbkins; the bones of their legs were shattered in the boots; women were scourged publicly through the streets; multitudes were transported to the Barbadoes; an infuriated soldiery was let loose upon them, and encouraged to exercise all their ingenuity in torturing them[7].”

The separatists understood the importance of government as described in scripture in Romans chapter 13.  They also believed that for the government to act on the behalf of those whom it serves that it must be separated from the church.  That one cannot influence the other and give preferential treatment to one group over the other.  This did not mean that they were wanting to disobey governmental authorities, but that they wanted to promote what they saw as biblical values[8].

Throughout the periods of persecution the movement grew and many great men rose up and led the charge for religious liberty.  Men like John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, and later Roger Williams would lead the charge and take to fight to never before seen levels.  It was a difficult road, and one which would lead the fight for religious liberty to the New World.  It is in America where religious freedom was planted and bloomed to include every religious view in the world being given freedom to worship.

 

 

JOHN SMYTH

No discussion about the history of Baptists and their influence on religious liberty would be complete without discussing John Smyth.  Smyth was a very educated man who studied at Cambridge in preparation for entering the ministry.  In 1594 he was ordained as an Anglican priest in the Church of England.  H Leon McBeth describes John Smyth as “A capable theologian and writer, Smyth’s claim to remembrance is that he founded the first identifiable Baptist church of modern times, in Holland, about 1609[9].”

While serving as a priest he also served in a public capacity as a city lecturer.  During the period of 1602 to 1606 he published two works titled The Bright Morning Starre and A Paterne of True Prayer in which he called for greater purity within the church.  He was a very intelligent man and was insistent upon he and his followers worshipping as they pleased.  It has also been documented that he spent some time in prison for that very reason[10].  This did not seem like a possibility in England so he, and his followers, went to Amsterdam for religious freedom.

This is where the story of John Smyth starts to get somewhat controversial.  It has been said, and subsequently documented, that he baptized himself.  After doing this he then baptized his followers under the manner of believer’s baptism.  He often changed his views, and those changes eventually would lead to his associate, Thomas Helwys, heading back to England where he would establish the first Baptist church in England[11]

 

THOMAS HELWYS

After Helwys and Smyth parted ways Helwys returned to England and started a church on his own.  He took with him approximately twenty of John Smyth’s members, and it is believed that Helwys continued Baptist beginnings after the death of John Smyth[12].  In regards to Helwys F.L. Cross writes, “In 1612, feeling it his duty no longer to absent himself from the dangers of persecution, he returned to London, where he founded the first *General Baptist congregation in England at Pinners’ Hall, London, and met with remarkable success as a preacher[13].”

He knew he was headed back to a land that would be persecuting him and his people, but he went because he thought it was the will of God.  In 1612 he published Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity which was the first sustained effort to allow for religious toleration in England[14].  In this declaration Helwys writes to King James, “For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes. And if the king’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king, our lord the king can require no more. For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. This is made evident to our lord the king by the scriptures[15].”  Shortly after this publication Helwys was put into prison where he is said to have died in 1616[16].  The circumstances around his death or how he died are not known, but one thing is for certain.  Thomas Helwys took a risk by coming back to England to take a stand for religious liberty, and it is something that future Baptists would build upon.

 

ROGER WILLIAMS

From John Smyth to Thomas Helwys we now go to America and take a look at Roger Williams.  Roger Williams was born in England and was a member of the clergy of the Church of England.  He would eventually adopt puritan ideals and those ideals would often come out in his sermons.  These sermons would lead to his persecution in England by the State church.  Williams had a future of certain imprisonment, but a call to pastor a church in New England allowed him to flee.  On this event H. Leon McBeth writes, “A young clergyman of Separatist principles faced a bleak future in England, so Williams decided to accept the ‘late New England call’ from the church of Salem, near Boston[17].”  He was very influential in his new post and was offered a position as the teacher of Boston, but his separatist ideals shown forth and he forcefully declined the post.  In denying the position he stated, “Being unanimously chosen teacher at Boston, I conscientiously refused and withdrew to Plymouth, because I durst not officiate to an unseparated people, as upon examination and conference I found them to be[18].”  This withdrawal to Plymouth was monumental in that while there John Williams established the first Baptist church in the New World.

This drew the weary eyes of the state and he Williams was being threatened with deportation to England.  Williams had previously advocated for the separation of church and state while in England, but now he found himself doing so for the Indians.  He challenged the crown by saying that the Indians were rightful owners of the land.  He also challenged the Freeman’s oath which was taken out of obligation to all settlers in Massachusetts[19].  He was against it as it required non-Christians to pray to a God they did not worship.  This was truly a revolutionary concept among the settlers.  In England Baptists had fought for religious liberty from state churches, but now Baptists were fighting for the religious liberty of unbelievers.

Roger Williams would become the first President of the Rhode Island Colony and went to England seeking a charter[20].  He authored to books that spoke almost exclusively if religious liberty.  The books in question are The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution which was published in 1644, and was hastily written as he was travelling.  The other work is entitled The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy which was published in 1652.  The later created somewhat of an uproar in England and America.  Williams wrote in his 1644 work, “All civil states, with their officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations, are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual, or Christian, state and worship[21].”  Williams saw and taught that separation of church and state was expressly taught in scripture.  In advocating for separation he used the Ten Commandments.  He said that lawmakers can punish offenses that were listed on the second table, and that first table deals with duties to God.  This was his most popular expression of the separation of church and state[22].  So far we have looked at here early Baptists who fought for religious freedom.  Now we look to a new nation that was founded on this principle, but whose early history was not always as it seemed.

 

 

EXEMPTION LAWS AND ISAAC BACKUS

In Colonial America, specifically in New England, the Congregational church was the state established church.  Thought he persecution of the Church of England was no longer feared there was a new persecution.  The persecution came in the form of taxes on Baptists churches.  It was not unusual to come to church on a Sunday morning and see the doors nailed shut because the tax to the Congregational church had not been paid on time.  Baptists in New England were often financially exploited, and though there were exemptions in place they could easily be ignored.  Isaac Backus, who was a great Baptist spokesman for religious liberty, is quoted as saying “They were all again taxed to Mr. Caleb Rice[23].”  It was not unusual for late payments to be met with distress calls which were similar to calling a loan in today’s world.

Through exemption laws churches that were not Congregationalists could apply to have taxes refunded if they met the right conditions.  However the Baptists, such as Isaac Backus, had significant problems with these exemptions.  It still allowed the state to govern the affairs of religion, they were temporary as they only lasted for a year at a time, Baptist churches tended to be scattered so they could not get certified from other churches, and the law referred to Baptists as Anabaptists.  Dr. James Eckman writes, “Baptists stood for the separation of church and state; they resisted the traditional New England support of the churches by the government[24].”  Even if one met the requirements there was no guarantee that taxes would not be collected.

When the American Revolution broke out Isaac Backus saw religious liberty as a fundamental issue.  When Massachusetts was developing a state constitution there was no provision for religious liberty included.  Backus used the government’s own arguments against them.  In writing about one such argument H. Leon McBeth writes, “He quoted Charles Chauncy, Congregational minister of Boston, who opposes the idea of an Anglican bishop exercising control over others[25].”

This seemed to open the eyes of the legislators and they saw that Baptists were being taxed in much the same way that England was taxing the colonies.  Isaac Backus once again “strongly repudiated the idea that the civil authority had a right to interfere in matters purely religious; and maintained vigorously and earnestly that all connection between Church and State should be dissolved[26].”  His effort and argumentation led to the proposed constitution being defeated.  It was indeed a huge victory, not only for Baptists, but for all of those who were advocates for religious liberty.

Though the revision of the state constitution, specifically article III, had some religious overtones the efforts of Backus were considered a success.  The Bill of Rights and United States Constitution ensured religious freedom for all people.  From then on the church was to endure on its own and not with the assistance of the state, or as the Baptist faith and Message 2000 states, ““The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work[27].”

This is not to say that Baptists did not have concerns.  The concern was not over what the constitution said, but what it did not say.  That is because it says very little in regard to religion, and this was concerning to the Baptist coalition.  A letter was written to George Washington and he wrote back hoping to calm there concerns and said religious liberty is a given[28].

Virginia Baptists were in an uproar and threatened to remove support for the constitution.  There is much debate over what happened to get approval, and there is speculation about a meeting between James Madison and Baptist leaders.  It is certain that Baptists concerns were heard and this is seen in the first amendment of the United States Constitution.  The first amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or preventing the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to assemble, and to petition the government for the redress of grievances[29].”  There was a period of time where individual states still had established churches, but that was put to an end when the 14th amendment was ratified.  That amendment states that a state law cannot conflict with federal law.  It is because of this that freedom of religion is extended to all levels of government[30].

 

CONCLUSION

In the United States we are blessed with religious liberty, but here are many other countries in the world who do not have such a liberty.  IF we are to stay true to our history, and to scripture we must continue to advocate for the religious liberty of others.  There are some in our own homeland who seek to have some kind of theocratic utopia, but their efforts must also be combated.  These efforts are also being put at risk under the guise of tolerance.  Jerry Johnson puts in well when he writes, “In Western democracies, almost anything is acceptable in public under the Orwellian guise of tolerance, except mentioning the name of Jesus in a public statement or prayer. The government should protect the rights of citizens to talk about Christ or any other religious theme anywhere, anytime[31].”  We owe a debt of gratitude to our Baptist ancestors for the religious freedom that we enjoy today.  It was something they struggled for, and some even died for.  We must continue to protect it.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

“Bill Of Rights,” National Archives, accessed December 13, 2015, http:/​/​www.archives.gov/​exhibits/​charters/​bill_of_rights_transcript.html.

“Roger Williams, From The Bloody Tenent Of Persecution (1644),” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, accessed December 10, 2015, https:/​/​www.wwnorton.com/​college/​english/​nael/​17century/​topic_4/​williams.htm.

Brand, Chad, Charles Draper, and Archie England, eds. Holman Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.

Cross, F.l., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Eckman, James. Exploring Church History. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002.

Ernst, James. John Williams. New York, NY: The Macmillian Company, 1932.

Federer, William. Great Quotations. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2001.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010.

Helwys, Thomas. The Mystery of Iniquity. London, UK: Baptist Historical Society, 1935.

Hobbs, Herschel H. My Favorite Illustrations. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1990.

Johnson, Jerry. Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Edited by Douglas K. Blount and Joseph D Wooddell. Lanham, MD: Rowman &​ Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2007.

McBeth, H. Leon. History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987.

Murray, Bruce T.. Religious Liberty in America. Boston, MA: University Of Massachusetts Press, 2008.

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1910.

Sprague, William B. “Isaac Backus:  Baptist Pastor and Defender of Religious Freedom.” Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit. VI, (1860, January 01): 54-58.

White, B.r. The English Separatist Tradition from the Marian Martyrs to the Pilgrim Fathers. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1971.

Whitley, W.t. The Works of John Smyth. Cambridge, UK: University Press, 1915.

 

[1] Herschel H Hobbs, My Favorite Illustrations (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1990), 32.

[2] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 41.

[3] Bruce T. Murray, Religious Liberty in America (Boston, MA: University Of Massachusetts Press, 2008), 39.

[4] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 24.

[5] B.r. White,  The English Separatist Tradition from the Marian Martyrs to the Pilgrim Fathers (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1971), 36.

[6] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), 67.

[7] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1910), 80.

[8] Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England, eds., Holman Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 297.

[9] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 32.

[10] W.t. Whitley, The Works of John Smyth (Cambridge, UK: University Press, 1915), 42.

[11] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 38.

[12] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 41.

[13] F.l. Cross, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 753.

[14] Ibid, 753.

[15] Thomas Helwys, The Mystery of Iniquity (London, UK: Baptist Historical Society, 1935), 53.

[16] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 38.

[17] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 126.

[18] James Ernst, John Williams (New York, NY: The Macmillian Company, 1932), 63.

[19] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 128.

[20] William Federer, Great Quotations (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2001).

[21] “Roger Williams, From The Bloody Tenent Of Persecution (1644),” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, accessed December 10, 2015, https:/​/​www.wwnorton.com/​college/​english/​nael/​17century/​topic_4/​williams.htm.

[22] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 135.

[23] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 256.

[24] James Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 85.

[25] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 261.

[26] William B. Sprague, “Isaac Backus:  Baptist Pastor and Defender of Religious Freedom,” Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit VI, (1860, January 01): 55.

[27] Jerry Johnson, Baptist Faith and Message 2000, ed. Douglas K. Blount and Joseph D Wooddell (Lanham, MD: Rowman &​ Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2007), kindle location 3922.

[28] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 262.

[29] “Bill Of Rights,” National Archives, accessed December 13, 2015, http:/​/​www.archives.gov/​exhibits/​charters/​bill_of_rights_transcript.html.

[30] H. Leon McBeth, History of Baptists:  Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&​h Academic, 1987), 283.

[31] Jerry Johnson, Baptist Faith and Message 2000, ed. Douglas K. Blount and Joseph D Wooddell (Lanham, MD: Rowman &​ Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2007), kindle location 3963.

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