I have appreciated Stephen’s sermons on our Baptist freedoms. Since we have a tendency at times to take freedoms for granted (until we lose them!), it has been a wonderful opportunity to be reminded of these tenets which have been foundational to our distinctive Baptist denomination. There are four freedoms, in the areas of the Bible, the soul, the church and religion. Here I want to talk in general about these freedoms, and in future blogs I will delve into each one separately. I believe that we can’t talk about these too much!
Baptists may be the most independent of the Protestant denominations. Our history of churches splitting, sometimes multiple times, attests to that proclivity! We can be fierce in our determination to walk our own paths, and this has made our history one of the most out-spoken for religious liberty. In case you are unaware, Baptists were some of the most persecuted Christians in early American history. The early churches in the colonies were mostly Anglican or Puritan in practice. People were expected, by law, to attend and to pay taxes to the church, regardless of whether or not they believed in Christianity. The power of the church was really just an extension of the government and its dictates. Wealthy men would be in control of the parishes and use their influence for their own gain. When there were protests against certain tenets of the “official” church, those who protested were jailed, persecuted and sometimes killed.
Birth of Religious Freedom
We know that Roger Williams became the most well-known advocate for religious liberty in America. Due to his belief in believer’s baptism, he had been banned from Massachusetts. The Anglican church taught that babies were to be baptized, but William’s teaching that a person should knowingly accept Christ and be baptized of his own volition was considered heresy. Dr. John Clarke, who was the pastor of the Baptist Church in Newport, RI, was able to obtain a charter from Charles 1 in 1663 giving that church its freedom by royal decree. By the efforts of these two men Rhode Island became a haven for free Baptists. Persecution continued in the Colonies, though, with forty-two pastors jailed in Virginia between 1767 and 1778 for preaching religious freedom. John Leland, who had preached in Massachusetts and then moved to Virginia, convinced Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others to ensure religious freedom through the passage of the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” You can see that as our newly formed nation was struggling to determine its course, our exercise of religion was a large part of that effort.
Freedom of and from Religion
We know from our history that churches and denominations grew from that period of trial and persecution to gain acceptance everywhere in America. That has made our country a bastion for religious liberty for which we are all thankful! Baptists have traditionally been the advocates for religious freedom for all. We have always believed that our relationship to God is a deeply personal one. As such, there is no room for any organization or individual to impose religious beliefs on anyone. I think that this is one of the most important lessons that we can learn from our denomination’s history. I have spent time in countries such as Vietnam where there is no freedom of religion, and you are quickly reminded of the importance of religious liberty!
What we can never take for granted, however, is that the freedom of religion in this country means that everyone has the right to worship as they feel led, and conversely, folks have the right not to worship. We can’t have our freedom but then deny it to someone who worships differently or not at all. Fear of nonconformity can be dangerous. That particular fear says much about our inability to truly trust in the power of God to work in our world. So when that fear takes hold, we are no longer showing the world a deep love and devotion to God. When we’re afraid, that can lead us to withhold from others the same rights we claim for ourselves. We must always remember that we’re either all free or none of us is free.