Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mike Williams: What do these stones mean? (Joshua 4:17-24)

(Presented by Mike Williams, professor of history, Dallas Baptist University, June 8, during the annual meeting of the Baptist History & Heritage Society in Raleigh, North Carolina. I've published it here with his permission.)
17So Joshua commanded the priests, saying, "Come up from the Jordan." 18It came about when the priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD had come up from the middle of the Jordan, and the soles of the priests' feet were lifted up to the dry ground, that the waters of the Jordan returned to their place, and went over all its banks as before. 19Now the people came up from the Jordan on the tenth of the first month and camped at Gilgal on the eastern edge of Jericho. 20Those twelve stones which they had taken from the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. 21He said to the sons of Israel, "When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, 'What are these stones?’ 22then you shall inform your children, saying, 'Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.'” 23"For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as the LORD your God had done to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed; 24that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, so that you may fear the LORD your God forever."
Throughout history, people have been monument builders. Before even writing, building memorials, monuments, and sacred sites were ways to both preserve history and remind the generations that followed of what had happened in the past. Indeed, even cave paintings, story-telling, and those first writings that became Holy Scripture were monuments in their own ways. Before this story that I just read unfolded, Israel already had its own monuments in the Passover celebration and other festivals instituted as part of the Law of Moses.

In the passage that I just read, Joshua raised this monument to remind the people of Israel of what God had done in their midst and to affirm God’s promise to that generation, reminding them that God was with them in the same way that God had been with their forebears. It was more than a simple reminder of a single event. It was a signature moment in Israel’s history to remind them of God’s care and guidance. We do not know how long that monument lasted, but we do know that the Israelites remembered to tell the story, because it is recorded in Joshua.

As Baptist historians, we are monument builders. We stop along the way to raise markers to remind the generations that follow who Baptists have been but also who Baptists are and who Baptists can be and how God, through good times and bad, has been present with the Baptist branch of God’s family. When we teach, preach, write, preserve, and tell the stories, we are telling the generations that follow our story and their story. We are reminding them that, despite the wilderness wanderings and poor choices that have come along the way, Baptists have a rich heritage that demands that the story be told. Without us, professional and lay historians, librarians, archivists, the story will be lost.

A few weeks ago, in a symposium at DBU, one of our English professors presented her dissertation research on Toni Morrison, the great African-American author. In her presentation, she quoted Morrison’s essay, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” In this essay, Morrison writes, “If you kill the ancestor, you kill yourself.”1

Those words have haunted and continue to haunt me. Our role as historians is to ensure that our ancestors do not die and, therefore, that we continue to live. So, as we continue to do the work of Baptist history, let us remember to raise stones over and over again so that the generations that follow will be reminded of how God has worked in and through these genuine, devout, cranky, ornery, sometimes humble, oft times arrogant, fiercely independent Christians called Baptists and can continue to work through these same people in the present and in the future.

1 Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 64.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Milestones: Whether baseball or Glorieta, they're really about people

Fifty years ago this week, Daddy took me to my first major league baseball game.

It seems a little strange, I must admit, to write the words "fifty years ago." A half-century! It doesn't seem so long ago that the phrase "fifty years ago" would bring to my mind an image akin to the phrase "back in Bible times." You know, ancient history . . . chariot races . . . people dressed in fig leaves, loincloths, or togas . . . and so on.

But no longer. Now 50 years ago is well within my memory, and I tend to remember dates that are significant to me, though obscure to those around me. Twenty-some years ago, I heard a sermon preached at Glorieta Baptist Assembly/Conference Center on the importance of marking milestones in our lives. How appropriate - Glorieta has been significant in the lives of thousands of Baptists through the years, the site of critical milestones for many.

But back to the events of 50 years ago. In April 1962, Daddy had moved from Dallas Baptist Association to Kansas City, Missouri, Baptist Association, and Mother and I followed in July, after school was out.

Baseball wasn't yet on my radar screen. Oh, Daddy had taken me to a minor league game or two in Dallas - I think it was the Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs back then, if memory serves, and I had watched an occasional Saturday afternoon Game of the Week on our black-and-white Westinghouse, with play-by-play from Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean (I still remember Ol' Diz occasionally belting out a chorus of "The Wabash Cannonball"), but baseball had yet to really capture my imagination.

Then we moved to Kansas City, which had major league baseball. In reality, the old Kansas City A's were a poor imitation of a big league team, but at least you could go see some real-live big league players come to town with the visiting team. On July 16, the Yankees came to town, and Daddy took me to see Whitey Ford pitch.

One result was predictable: Whitey Ford mowed down the hapless A's; and the Yankees - with Mantle, Maris, Richardson, Boyer, and company - beat the A's, 3-1. But the other result, if you will, came straight out of left field - for it was that day, as an 11-year-old boy getting his first taste of major league baseball, that I fell in love with the game.

I don't remember a lot about that day, other than how much bigger the baseball field looked in person and Daddy occasionally expressing his disgust with the prices the A's charged for their concessions. It was "highway robbery," he complained, to charge 25 cents for a bag of peanuts and another 25 cents for a Coke. (After all, those were the days when you could get a bottle of Coke from a machine at the "filling station" for a nickel or, at most, a dime.) In years to come, Daddy and I shared many a laugh over his outrage over those 25-cent prices in 1962, which inflation ultimately made seem like a bargain.

That was just the first of many games to come. Daddy and I went to quite a few A's games over the next few years, until Oakland stole the A's from us following the 1967 season. Sorry, 45 years later and I still haven't gotten over it. The A's might have given us a lot of bad baseball, but a bad day at the ballpark beats a good day just about anywhere else.

So those remain special memories, Daddy and me at the ballgame, and occasionally Mother went with us as well. There was one night that I'll always remember. Municipal Stadium, where the A's played, was a converted minor league ballpark in the middle of a low-income inner-city neighborhood. The parking lot was small, so many people parked in the backyards of the folks who lived around there, most of whom charged $2 to $3 a car. An alley backed up to these houses, so after the game you would often have to wait for traffic to clear before you could get into the alley and on your way home.

One night, as we were waiting in our car, a man - having obviously made a trip to a nearby liquor store and become fully "lubricated" - was stumbling around the yard. He looked at Daddy sitting behind the wheel and said, "You folks wanta get outta here?" Daddy replied, "Sure." Our friendly neighborhood drunk then staggered into the alley, put his hand up, pointed to Mother in the front passenger seat, and said, "Everybody stop and let these folks out. This woman is havin' a baby!" All the folks in those cars turned and looked at Mother, who was well beyond normal childbearing age, and started laughing. So did we. And they stopped and let us go!

Through the years, Daddy and I would reminisce about all of the great times we had at the ballpark and all the great players we saw. The time we saw Mickey Mantle up close - no kidding! In 50 years of going to baseball games, it's the only time I ever saw a player, in uniform, go into the stands, and it's still hard to believe it happened, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

It was another Whitey Ford start - this one in 1964. This time, the Yankees pummeled the A's, 9-1. Mantle wasn't in the lineup and, by the 7th inning, the Yankees' 5-l lead with Ford on the mound made it obvious that he wouldn't be needed. Mantle's knees had been a problem ever since he had tripped over a drainpipe and wrenched a knee early in his career, so managers took every opportunity to give the Mick a rest. We were seated down the 3rd base/leftfield line, near the Yankees' bullpen, and there was a gate in the chain-link fence, opening up to the aisle just next to us.

So, late in the game, here came Mickey Mantle, big as life, opening that gate and walking up the steps. Everyone around us was waving at him and yelling for his attention, but he kept walking, looking straight ahead. Just before Mantle passed our row, 7 or 8 rows up, one of the pitchers in the bullpen yelled, "Hey, Mick, where you goin'?" Mantle yelled back, "To get the beer and pretzels," then turned around and continued to the concession stand. Unbelievable that they wouldn't have everything they needed in the Yankees' clubhouse, but this was 1964, and that's what happened. I've never - before or since - seen anything like that.

Lots of good memories. I was away from major league baseball for a few years, as Joanna and I lived in Denver through the late '70s and most of the '80s. But we moved to the Dallas area in August 1987. By that time, the Spurs were long gone, and the Texas Rangers - such as they were - had brought major league baseball to Arlington. Our family had grown to four, with Alison, 5-1/2, and Travis 1-1/2. Mother and Daddy were living in Austin by this time.

So the next year, we started a new family baseball tradition. For the next few years, Daddy came up once a year to go with Travis and me to see the Rangers play his beloved Kansas City Royals. We called ourselves - and our new tradition - "the three Jasons," because all three of us have Jason as our middle name. Travis and I still treasure those memories of going to the ballpark with Daddy.

Of course, Travis and I have gone to many games through the years, repeating the experiences I had with Daddy when I was growing up - even to the point of seeing a lot of REALLY BAD baseball, because the Rangers for many of those years weren't a whole lot better than the A's of my youth. (I've probably watched more bad baseball than any fan in history.)

So now it's 50 years since that first game. Mantle, Maris, and Boyer have been gone for many years, and Ford, Richardson, and Berra long-since retired. But the memory lingers.

This week, I commemorated that memory by taking my son-in-law, Adam, to see the Frisco Rough Riders, because the Rangers weren't in town. True to tradition, the home team lost, 7-4 (our God is gracious, but the "baseball gods" can be cruel). Travis would have gone with us but for one complication - he's a little preoccupied awaiting the birth of his first child, a daughter - who was due that same day - and decided he'd better stay home and wait with Christy.

You see, baseball is important to us guys, but we do know what's most important. (most of the time, anyway)

Well, this has been about baseball, but it's really about more than that. It's about marking milestones in our lives, and it's about what makes those milestones special, and that's people. Whether it's family or friends, it's the people in our lives who make for special memories.

I fell in love with baseball on that day in July 1962, but baseball wouldn't have been nearly as much fun over the years if it didn't mean going to games with my family and friends; calling Daddy up to talk about the players we used to see; taking Travis, when he was a kid, to baseball card shows; or arguing with my best friend, Bob, over the years over which league is the best, American or National (Bob's a Cardinals fan, you see).

Well, here it is Thursday already and we're still waiting for that new granddaughter to make her first appearance, and that brings a passel of other memories and milestones to mind, which will have to wait for another day (maybe next week).

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.