Thursday, July 5, 2012

How Baptists helped to secure religious liberty in America

(Adapted from the TBC Baptist Briefs video series, First Baptists in America: 17th Century; and Baptists Fight for Religious Liberty in the New United States)

In his classic history The Baptist Heritage, Leon McBeth writes that it was in 1639 that Roger Williams founded the first organized Baptist church in America in Providence, Rhode Island. However, only a few months later Williams left the Baptist movement after concluding that his Baptist baptism was not a true baptism because it had not been performed by someone having the proper authority.

But even after Williams broke with Baptists, he continued to take up the cause of religious liberty for all, for which Baptists had vigorously fought ever since the challenge made to King James by Thomas Helwys in 1612 with the publication of his treatise, A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity.

Faith: Free or forced?
The concept of religious liberty for all people – and its corollary, separation of church and state – was neither common nor popular in Williams’ day. Yet he began preaching this doctrine by the early 1630s, based his new colony on it, and made it a foundational principle of the Baptist church that he founded at Providence.

Williams wrote his earthshaking treatise, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, in 1644. McBeth writes that Williams argued that Scripture and history both prove that the powers of civil officials pertain to civil affairs only and that persecution on religious grounds is a sin. As Thomas Helwys before him, Williams advocated unbridled religious liberty for all people, including "Papists, Turks, Jews, and atheists."

In 1652, Williams responded to an attack by one of his most ardent critics, John Cotton, by writing a second treatise, entitled The Bloudy Tenent Yet More Bloudy: By Mr Cottons endevour to wash it white in the Bloud of the Lambe. In it, McBeth tells us, Williams refuted Cotton’s arguments and cited recent cases of religious persecution in the American colonies. In both of his treatises, Williams emphasized the freedom of the soul before God and insisted that this freedom was denied by the uniting of church and state. “All the power the magistrate hath over the church,” Williams wrote, “is temporal, not spiritual; and all power the church hath over the magistrate is spiritual, not temporal.”

In the church, Williams contended, the magistrate had no authority but was simply another layperson. By the same token, in relation to the state, the preacher was simply another citizen. Williams used the two tables of the Ten Commandments to illustrate the separation of church and state. The magistrate, he wrote, may regulate and punish offenses against the second table, those commandments dealing with our relationships with other persons, but not infractions against the first table, those dealing with our relationship with God.

Baptists’ debt to Roger Williams – though he was one of us for only a short time – is incalculable.

Lobbying for liberty
But the battle for religious liberty is fought on every front and in every generation. Over a century later, religious liberty was still at stake as a new nation was being formed. Ironically, Americans who had protested religious persecution in England by fleeing to the New World wound up setting up their own state churches in the American colonies and punishing those who refused to conform. McBeth writes that there were many instances of Baptists being severely whipped; being forced to pay taxes to support the state church; being forcibly deprived of their property; and suffering long stretches in prison – all on account of their Baptist convictions.

But the heart of Roger Williams’ legacy of religious liberty for all people was still beating in Americans – including Baptists such as Isaac Backus and John Leland; as well as nonBaptists such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In 1769, the Warren Baptist Association in Massachusetts created the Grievance Committee, New England’s first formal organization aimed at defending religious liberty in the colonies – or, as McBeth calls it, "the first organized religious lobby in America."

The Grievance Committee’s job was to:
  • gather data on the persecution of Baptists
  • petition courts and legislatures for relief from their judgments
  • push for legislation that would eliminate religious discrimination
In 1772, Isaac Backus – a Massachusetts pastor who became perhaps the greatest Baptist spokesman for religious liberty in America – was named to lead the Committee. From that position, he both spoke and wrote extensively to advance, defend, and publicize Baptist views on religious liberty.

In 1773, under Backus’ leadership, Massachusetts Baptists even practiced civil disobedience by refusing to comply with laws that they perceived as discriminating against them because of their faith. They stopped paying taxes to support the state church and even stopped applying for exemption certificates – which exempted applicants from paying the church taxes but required them to prove that:
  • they regularly attended and supported their own church
  • they lived within 5 miles of their church
  • their church was in good standing with its denomination
McBeth tells us that this strategy of civil disobedience resulted in more progress toward religious liberty in a year than Baptists had made in the previous decade. At the same time that the cry against England of “taxation without representation”  was beginning to gain traction in the colonies, Baptists’ battle cry was a similar one – they were being taxed to support churches they didn’t attend and whose doctrines and practices they didn’t accept.

Colonial legislators – some persuaded that Baptists’ arguments were legitimate and some fearing that Baptists would send representatives to London to argue against the colonial governments – began to acquiesce to some of the Baptists’ demands. McBeth tells us that Backus lived to see Baptists achieve some measure of religious liberty in practice, if not always in law. He struggled unsuccessfully to defeat Article III in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which gave the government some jurisdiction over religious affiliation and practice. However, he deserves credit for helping to achieve ratification – by the Massachusetts legislature – of the federal Constitution in 1789 and, in 1791, the Bill of Rights – including the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.

Preaching and agitating
But the First Amendment is a story in itself – really many stories. The path to securing religious liberty in the new nation was anything but smooth. One who played a key role in pushing us down that path was John Leland. McBeth writes that Leland, a Virginia Baptist minister originally from Massachusetts, became the primary Baptist spokesman in the South for religious liberty. Leland read widely and was one of the best-informed Baptist ministers of his time. Though he served briefly as a pastor, he spent most of his ministry traveling as an evangelist but also as an agitator against state-supported religion and for religious liberty. During Leland’s years in Virginia, McBeth tells us, he preached over 3,000 sermons and baptized over 1,250 people.

Baptists also received support, in their fight for religious liberty, from some outside the Baptist fold, including James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. In 1784, the Virginia legislature was seriously considering a “general assessment” tax to be imposed on all citizens for the support of religion. A provision permitted citizens to choose the religious group that would receive their funds. However, any tax assessed to support religion – no matter the conditions – violated Baptists’ conviction that church and state must be separate. So Baptists worked to defeat this assessment, even though its passage would have helped them financially.

As the legislature was considering the general assessment bill, James Madison published a statement entitled A Memorial and Remonstrance on the Religious Rights of Man. In it, Madison outlined 15 arguments opposing general assessment and favoring full religious liberty. He insisted that religious matters were properly left solely to the “reason and conviction and conscience of every man”  and that religion should be “wholly exempt”  from the realm of government.

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson introduced, into the Virginia legislature, his “bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.” It included a passage stating that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever . . . nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs.”

Jefferson later cited this bill as one of the three accomplishments for which he most wished to be remembered.

The dissent of the governed
Yet, despite the hearty debates in the colonial legislatures, the new U.S. Constitution – presented to the states for ratification in 1787 – said nothing about religious liberty, which stunned Baptists. Oh, Article VI prohibited the establishment of any religious test for attaining public office, but that was all. In The Baptist Heritage, Leon McBeth writes that this relative silence about religion was apparently intentional, as John Adams had expressed the hope that Congress would stay out of religious matters altogether.

Virginia Baptists’ General Committee unanimously agreed that the Constitution’s failure to guarantee religious liberty was unacceptable. However, a letter written by John Leland on the Committee’s behalf, in 1789, failed to persuade President Washington that explicit guarantees of religious liberty should be added to the Constitution.

At this point, even James Madison was unmoved by the Committee’s concerns. However, Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris that the people of the United States were entitled to a bill enumerating their rights clearly and, he added, “without the aid of sophisms.”  Among the rights he specified were freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

McBeth tells us that Virginia Baptists’ objection to the omission of overt guarantees of religious liberty was so strong that they mounted a campaign to prevent ratification of the Constitution.

Had their flight from England to the New World been for nothing? Had they simply exchanged one government’s tyranny for another’s? They wouldn’t stand for that!

John Leland wrote a list of ten Baptist objections to the Constitution, centered around the absence of a bill of rights and explicit guarantees of religious liberty, and sent a copy to James Madison. According to Reuben E. Alley’s A History of Baptists in Virginia, Leland initially ran against Madison for Virginia representative to the ratifying convention.

Baptist bargaining
In March 1788, however, Madison paid Leland a visit at his home. For several hours, the two men discussed the Constitution and Baptists' objections to it. By the end of their meeting, they had struck a deal:
Leland would withdraw from the race and throw Baptist support to Madison. In return, Madison promised to introduce a Constitutional amendment to guarantee full religious liberty for everyone.
Upon his election, Madison led Virginia to vote for ratification. In the spring of 1789, shortly after the inauguration of President Washington, Madison introduced, in the U.S. House of Representatives, ten proposed amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, as Thomas Jefferson had initially proposed in his letter from Paris.

After numerous revisions, the First Amendment that we have today was adopted. It begins with two clauses that guarantee religious liberty – the No Establishment clause and the Free Exercise clause. These two clauses total sixteen words:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 
James Madison had proven to be as good as his word. The new nation was now guaranteed religious liberty, and it almost certainly wouldn’t have come about if not for the convictions and determination of Virginia Baptists.

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