Of the many things that make this nation exceptional, loyalty to liberty is high on the list. Freedom is something that seems part of the American soul. It would be an easier task to separate a Frenchman from his baguette or an Englishman from his tea than to take the innate desire for freedom out of the heart of an American.
One of the great liberties that we have been afforded as Americans is that of Religious Freedom. In seventeenth century Europe, the idea of religious liberty was preposterous. Your religion, even your denomination, would be determined by the government officials you never elected. If you lived in Scotland then you would be Presbyterian, in England then Anglican, in France then Roman Catholic, in parts of Germany then Lutheran. It was under these freedom-stifling conditions that Christians began the pilgrimage to America in search of Religious Freedom.
I. The Persecution of Baptists in Colonial America
Men, like Roger Williams who was born an Anglican became a Separatist and eventually established the First Baptist Church in America, were persecuted for their faith. The perspectives of the old country began to creep into the American colonies. There were many who desired to stay true to their European, state-sanctioned churches. Even during the revolutionary period, there were those who desired that individual states establish their own state religions. Baptists stood firmly against this encroachment upon their freedom and were persecuted for doing so. For refusing to attend state-sanctioned churches, choosing rather to establish their own churches, they were physically whipped, property was confiscated, they were forced to pay higher taxes, and they suffered imprisonment.
II. The Contribution of Baptists in Relation to Religious Freedom
In Roger William’s The Bloudy Tenent, he stood for complete religious freedom that would include Roman Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Atheists. Williams is credited for making popular the very idea of Separation of Church and State. He was frustrated that the State would meddle in churches affairs when he wrote, “This scripture held forth a two-fold state, a civil state and a spiritual, civil officers and spiritual, civil weapons and spiritual.” These beliefs began to be ingrained into the hearts of Baptist congregants as Baptist churches began to flourish throughout the colonies over the next hundred years, preparing founding of the United States. By the time Thomas Jefferson got into office, the stage was set for the American ideal of religious liberty for all. Concerned that the current President didn’t understand the full implications of religious liberty, the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut wrote to Jefferson desiring his beliefs on the matter. He replied, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which list solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith of his worship…that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
III. The Continued Legacy of Religious Freedom
As a Baptist, I am proud of my heritage. Baptists have paved the way for not only a multitude of religious thought and expression, but more importantly, the opportunity at seeing true conversions. How true is a conversion made at the tip of a sword? How real is a religious belief that is mandated under penalty of fines and imprisonment? Today, in the United States of America, when someone decides to become a Christian or move their membership to another church that more clearly aligns with their beliefs, they have the freedom to do so. For this, in part, you can thank the Baptists.
For more information on this fascinating subject read: The Baptist Heritage by McBeth
What do you believe about Religious Liberty? Is it beneficial? Do you see any negative side effects to this kind of freedom? Has your perspective of Baptists changed in any way?