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The Contribution of Baptists in the Struggle for Religious Freedom

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Liberty University

The Contribution of Baptists in the Struggle for Religious Freedom

A Research Paper Submitted to Dr. Jason J. Graffagnino in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for
The Course CHHI 665

Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary

Brian M. Hyde

Lynchburg, Virginia
Saturday, December 6, 2014

In this nation, and in much of the Western world, the right of each individual to worship as his or her own conscience dictates, or not to worship at all, is one that is all too often taken for granted. Few consider the tremendous lengths gone to and the enormous price paid by so many to obtain and preserve this right. In the United States when one does reflect on this matter his or her thoughts rightfully focus on the many men and women of the armed forces who fought to gain and keep the freedoms the citizens of this nation enjoy.
What is often overlooked is the contributions of Baptists in the centuries long struggle to obtain religious freedom. Their struggle began not in the American colonies but rather in England a century earlier. “The freedom of religious belief and behavior which modern Baptists and others take for granted was forged in the crucible of persecution in seventeenth-century England” McBeth adds that, “No group can claim more credit for the Act of Toleration, passed by Parliament in 1689.”
The struggle that began in England would later be waged again in America. Few people today realize that it is largely through the efforts of Baptists that religious freedom was granted in the Bill of Rights. The simple fact is that the religious freedom enjoyed by much of the world today could not have been achieved without the contributions of courageous Baptist leaders such as Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, John Leland, and a host of others.
The quest for religious freedom was an essential element of the Baptist witness right from the start. Historians often attribute this fact to the persecution experienced by the earliest Baptists. According to McBeth, “Early Baptists faced severe opposition for most of the seventeenth century from a hostile governments and from religious opponents as well.” This observation is followed by the assertion that, “Baptists developed and articulated a doctrine of complete religious liberty for themselves and for all others,” and is presented in a way that seems to link the two as cause and effect.
It is true that the first Baptists faced severe persecution. Those largely credited with launching the Baptist movement began as proponents of English Separatism before embracing believer’s baptism. As such they were directly opposed by the crown. “Numbers of early Baptists suffered loss of goods, whippings, and imprisonments for their faith. Some were physically maimed; cutting off ears and slitting the nose were favorite ways to impress upon Baptists the disfavor authorities felt for their views.”
“Persecution was a constant threat for such Separatists, for King James I had threatened to ‘harrie them out of the land’ unless they conformed to the state church.” John Smyth, the man credited with founding the first Baptist church in modern times, was imprisoned for time in a well-known English prison for refusing to conform to the teaching and practices of the Church of England. Smyth and his followers would later flee to Holland to escape persecution. It was there in 1609 that he and forty followers would establish the first English Baptist church.
Despite the facts noted above, it would be a mistake to think of the Baptist doctrine of religious liberty for all solely as a byproduct of early persecution. McBeth notes that, “The Baptists regarded their views as drawn directly from the Bible and the nature of Christian experience.” Roger Williams drew upon Romans 13 to support the idea of separation of church and state 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 weapons.” John Murton applied the parable of the tares in Matthew 13:24-40 to the issue of religious freedom. “According to Murton, this passage teaches that those who follow true religion and those who follow the false ‘should be let alone in the world, and not plucked up until the harvest, which is the end of the world.’”
While the original reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, and the English Separatists sought freedom for their views, their idea of religious liberty did not extend to other groups. Baptists, on the other hand, “scandalized some and frightened others by advocating liberty even for unpopular groups, such as Roman Catholics, Jews, Moslems, and even atheists.” While the Baptists also culled arguments in favor of religious liberty from logic and history, there can be no doubt that their major arguments used to support their cause were drawn directly from Scripture. Additionally, “They argued that the nature of the Christian experience is such that it cannot be compelled or coerced; to be authentic, religion must be voluntary.”

The aforementioned John Smyth was one of the earliest champions for the cause of religious freedom for all persons. Originally a member of the English Separatist movement Smyth at first favored freedom only for those holding separatist views. However, by 1610 he had embraced the Baptist idea of religious liberty and firmly asserted that the civil government had no authority over the church.
Smyth is credited for penning one of the earliest and most definitive statements regarding the Baptist position on Religious freedom. “That the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form or religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions.” Found in this one statement are the building blocks that would become the foundation for the modern idea of separation of church and state.
Although Smyth is recognized as founding the first modern Baptist church it was his partner in that endeavor, Thomas Helwys, who is credited with establishing the earliest Baptist church on English soil in 16011. Like his onetime associate, John Smyth, Helwys also championed the cause of religious liberty. This was the focal point of his 1612 work, A Short Declaration of the Misery of Iniquity. According to McBeth, “the book’s major thrust was its consistent, courageous, and at times, quite eloquent plea for full religious liberty for all, perhaps the first such plea in the English language.” Helwys was imprisoned in 1612 and apparently died there sometime between 1614 and 1616.
Leonard Busher was another early English Baptist who made a significant contribution to the cause of religious freedom. He is credited penning the first work devoted solely to the cause of religious liberty. Busher likened forced worship to rape and in Religion’s Peace: A Plea for Liberty of Conscience suggested that it was worse “than if they force the bodies of women and maids against their wills.” In evaluating his contribution Jordan wrote, “Here we have no abject pleading by a sectary for the bare toleration of his own group, but a thoughtful and noble demand for religious liberty for all.”
In the aftermath of the English Civil War the victorious Parliament established Presbyterianism as the official state church. Unfortunately for the Baptists the new regime was as intolerant, if not more so, than the monarchy had been. Of the Baptists during this period McBeth wrote, “they suffered more severely under the new regime than the old…” Champions for the cause of religious freedom during this period included Edward Barber, Christopher Blackwood, and John Tombes.
After a period of relative peace between the years 1648 and 1660 the Baptists again faced sever persecution after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. It was during this period that Parliament enacted the Clarendon Code. Collectively this set of measures prevented anyone who did not conform to the state church from holding public office, required all ministers to accept the same doctrines and use the same liturgy, and established severe penalties for unauthorized worship services attended by more than five people. Those who championed the cause of religious liberty during this period include Thomas Grantham, Benjamin Keach, and Thomas Delaune.
The toil of so many finally began to pay dividends when Parliament, in 1689, passed the Act of Toleration. Although this measure fell short of full religious liberty its importance cannot be overemphasized. McBeth noted that it, “Allowed English dissenters, including Baptists, to face the future with confidence, knowing that their basic rights to worship, preach, and print would be secure.”
Despite the prevalent perception that the American colonies were founded by those seeking religious freedom, Baptists in the colonies faced varying levels of opposition and persecution. In the New England colonies the persecutions tended to be less physical in nature and consisted of taxing Baptist citizens to support the Congregational Church and then seized their property when they either could not or would not pay. The situation was vastly different for those in the southern colonies. The Anglican Church established in these colonies from the very outset and harsh laws were enacted to reinforce and support it. Persecution escalated in the 1760s. “Beginning in the 1760s, Baptists in Virginia were whipped, fined, beaten by mobs, jailed and/or exiled in an attempt to control them.”
Roger Williams was the preeminent contributor to the cause of religious freedom in the early days of colonial America. A rigid Separatists when he left England for the colonies in 1630, Williams, by 1639 had adopted Baptist views and in March of that year established the first Baptist church in the colonies. Even before embracing Baptist beliefs Williams asserted that civil authorities had no power when it came to maters of religion.
Perhaps Williams’ greatest contribution to the cause of religious freedom was the introduction of the idea of separation of church and state. He split the Ten Commandments into two tables. The commandments in the first table addressed one’s duty to God while those in the second addressed one’s duty to fellow man. Williams steadfastly maintained that the civil authorities held jurisdiction only in matters pertaining to the second table. “Church and state should be separate; above all, the state should not be able to enforce the first four of the Ten Commandments.” Williams himself wrote, “All the power the magistrate hath over the church is temporal, not spiritual; and all power the church hath over the magistrate is spiritual, not temporal.”
Williams’ second great contribution was the introduction of political democracy when he established the settlement at Providence Plantations. “From the first, Providence Plantations was governed by majority vote of the citizens…” Although the concept proved too radical for Williams’ contemporaries the leaders of subsequent generations would embrace it.
Just as radical for the times was Williams regard for the Native Americans. Williams deeply respected them and took time to learn their languages and culture. Williams lost even more favor with the colonial authorities when “declared that the land the colonies occupied belonged to the Indians, and that the entire colonial enterprise was unjust and illegal.”
Williams’ contemporary, John Clarke is another pioneer of religious liberty worth of mention. Clarke’s greatest contribution came in the form of Ill Newes from New-England in which he recounted his personal experience with religious persecution in Boston. According to McBeth, “The book deserves a place beside Williams’s Bloudy Tenent as a courageous statement for religious liberty, and had a similar profound impact in both countries.”
The two most significant Baptist contributors to the cause of religious freedom in the latter days of the colonies and the beginning of the new nation of America were Isaac Backus and John Leland. Backus was active primarily in New England and is regarded by some as “the greatest Baptist spokesman for religious liberty in America.” “John Leland ranks as the primary Baptist spokesman in the South for religious liberty.”
Backus’s achievements and contributions are many and can only be briefly summarized within the scope of this work. In 1772 Backus became head of the Warren Association’s Grievance Committee. “The Grievance Committee gathered data on Baptist sufferings, presented petitions for redress to various courts and legislatures, and pushed for legislation to alleviate religious discrimination.”
In 1773 Backus lead Baptists in New England to stop paying church takes and applying for exemption certificates. McBeth reports that, “The record shows that, by that policy of civil disobedience, Baptists made more progress toward religious liberty in a year than they had made in the previous decade.” In 1774 Backus lead a delegation that appeared before a subcommittee of the Continental Congress to plead the Baptist case for religious liberty. In 1778 Backus proved crucial in the defeat of a proposed state constitution of Massachusetts that included state control of religion. He is also considered to have exercised considerable influence in the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Leland is best known for writing The Rights of Conscience Inalienable. In this work Leland laid out three basic points. The first was that the rights of one’s conscience are not subject to government approval or restriction. The second was that religion is damaged when established by law. The third was the motivation behind such establishment was to bolster the power of the civic leaders rather than to benefit religion.
Perhaps his greatest contribution is the role he allegedly played in the creation of the Bill of Rights. According to some sources Leland and James Madison who were both running in the election to the ratifying committee, held a secret meeting at which Leland agreed to withdraw from the race and throw Baptist support behind Madison. “In return, Madison agreed to introduce amendments to the constitution, spelling out the freedoms which Baptists desired.” Madison would go on to uphold his end of the bargain and those proposed amendments would eventually become the Bill of Rights.
The Baptist movement was born into a world in which the concept of religious liberty was unheard of. While the Baptist pursuit of religious freedom was born in response to opposition and persecution the arguments used were based on Scripture and the lived Christian experience.
Throughout the centuries between the birth of the Baptist movement and the attainment of religious freedom Baptist leaders made contributions of incalculable value. First John Smyth, and later, Roger Williams wrote treatises that would become the basis for the modern idea of separation of church and state. Edward Barber, Christopher Blackwood, John Tombes, Thomas Grantham, Benjamin Keach, and Thomas Delaune all contributed greatly to the cause of religious freedom in England. There efforts were rewarded by the passage of the Act of Toleration in 1689.
Roger Williams and John Clarke were early contributors to the cause of religious freedom in the New World. Williams argued most effectively for the separation of church and state based upon Romans 13. Isaac Backus championed the cause of religious liberty in New England. He served as head of the Grievance Committee, pleaded the case for religious freedom before a subcommittee of the Continental Congress, fought to prevent Massachusetts from adopting a state constitution that included a state run church, and was instrumental in the ratification of the US Constitution by the New England colonies. John Leland, through a secret deal with James Madison helped bring about the amendments to the US Constitution that are now called the Bill of Rights and guaranteed religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
Clearly the contributions of Baptists to the cause of religious liberty are many. While men like Jefferson, Washington, and Madison deserve the credit they receive so too do the many Baptists who struggled under sometimes fierce and brutal persecution and refused to abandon the dream of a world in which each person is free to worship as his or her own conscience dictates. Without a doubt, the religious freedom enjoyed by much of the world today could not have been achieved without the contributions of courageous Baptist leaders such as Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, John Leland, and a host of others.

American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature. Critical Review of Books in Religion: 1993. Atlanta, GA: Journal of the American Academy of Religion; Journal of Biblical Literature, 1993.
Christian History Magazine-Issue 6: The Baptists. Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1985.
Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University, 2005.
Gonzalez, Justo L.. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day. Rev. ed. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.
Jordan, Wilbur K.. The Development of Religious Toleration in England. London: George Allen And Unwin, n.d.
Larsen, Timothy, D. W. Bebbington, and Mark A. Noll. Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Lumpkin, William L., ed. Baptist Confessions of Faith. Valley Forge: Judson, 1959.
McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987.
McGrath, Alister. Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution - A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.
Reid, Daniel G., Robert Dean Linder, Bruce L. Shelley, and Harry S. Stout. Dictionary of Christianity in America. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.
Schaff, Philip, and David Schley Schaff. History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910.
Shelley, Bruce L.. Church History in Plain Language. 3rd ed. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008.
Underhill, Edward Bean, ed. Tracts on Liberty of Conscience and Persecution, 1614-1661. London: J. Haddon, 1846.
Williams, Roger. The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience discussed in a Conference Between Peace and Truth. Edited and reprinted by Edward Bean Underhill. Edited by Edward Bean Underhill. London: J. Haddon, 1848.

[ 1 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 99.
[ 2 ]. Ibid.
[ 3 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 85.
[ 4 ]. Ibid.
[ 5 ]. Ibid., 101.
[ 6 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 33.
[ 7 ]. Ibid., 32.
[ 8 ]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 3rd ed (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008).
[ 9 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 85.
[ 10 ]. Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience discussed in a Conference Between Peace and Truth, edited and reprinted by Edward Bean Underhill, ed. Edward Bean Underhill (London: J. Haddon, 1848), 118.
[ 11 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 86.
[ 12 ]. Ibid.
[ 13 ]. Ibid., 102.
[ 14 ]. William L. Lumpkin, ed., Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge: Judson, 1959), 140.
[ 15 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 102.
[ 16 ]. Ibid., 103.
[ 17 ]. Ibid., 104.
[ 18 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 104.
[ 19 ]. Edward Bean Underhill, ed., Tracts on Liberty of Conscience and Persecution, 1614-1661 (London: J. Haddon, 1846), 34.
[ 20 ]. Wilbur K. Jordan, The Development of Religious Toleration in England (London: George Allen And Unwin, n.d), 298.
[ 21 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 109.
[ 22 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 115.
[ 23 ]. Ibid., 121.
[ 24 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 270.
[ 25 ]. Ibid., 130.
[ 26 ]. Ibid., 129.
[ 27 ]. Alister McGrath, Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution - A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 154.
[ 28 ]. Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience discussed in a Conference Between Peace and Truth, edited and reprinted by Edward Bean Underhill, ed. Edward Bean Underhill (London: J. Haddon, 1848), 118.
[ 29 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 135.
[ 30 ]. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, rev. ed (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), 284.
[ 31 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 139.
[ 32 ]. Ibid., 259.
[ 33 ]. Ibid., 273.
[ 34 ]. Ibid., 262.
[ 35 ]. Ibid., 263.
[ 36 ]. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B& h Academic, 1987), 274.
[ 37 ]. Ibid.,282.

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...Christianity Christianity (from the Ancient Greek word Χριστός, Christos, a translation of the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ, Māšîăḥ, meaning "the anointed one",together with the Latin suffixes -ian and -itas) is an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and oral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as presented in the New Testament. Christianity is the world's largest religion, with approximately 2.2 billion adherents, known as Christians. Most Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, fully divine and fully human, and the saviour of humanity whose coming was prophesied in the Old Testament. Consequently, Christians refer to Jesus as Christ or the Messiah. The foundations of Christian theology are expressed in ecumenical creeds. These professions of faith state that Jesus suffered, died, was buried, and was resurrected from the dead in order to grant eternal life to those who believe in him and trust in him for the remission of their sins. The creeds further maintain that Jesus bodily ascended into heaven, where he reigns with God the Father. Most Christian denominations teach that Jesus will return to judge everybody, living and dead, and to grant eternal life to his followers. He is considered the model of a virtuous life. His ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection are often referred to as "the gospel", meaning "good news" (a loan translation of the Greek: εὐαγγέλιον euangélion). The term gospel also refers to written accounts of Jesus's life and teaching, four of......

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