BAPTISTS AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
In his book, Baptists and Religious Liberty, Bill Pinson states, “Baptists have advocated religious freedom for all people – not freedom for some or toleration for many, but complete religious liberty for all.” I have summarized some of his material from his chapter, “The Role of Baptists in Bringing Religious Freedom.”
During the colonial period of our history, there was little religious freedom. The Jamestown settlement (1607) could punish and imprison those who did not attend religious services. The Pilgrims at Plymouth (1620) came to America “for religious freedom, but only for themselves.” There was not freedom or tolerance for those of different religious views. Governor Winthrop of The Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630) opposed religious freedom and a union of church and state existed.
Roger Williams (1603-1683) disagreed and taught religious freedom for all. Consequently, he had to leave the colony in the winter of 1635-36. He purchased land from the Indians and established the city of Providence. He became a Baptist and established the First Baptist Church in America in 1638. He was joined by John Clarke (also a Baptist pastor) who helped establish the city of Newport, Rhode Island. Williams and Clarke worked to secure a charter from England to guarantee religious freedom. Finally in 1663, Clarke received the charter from Charles II of England. It is the first legal document in America granting religious freedom.
Isaac Backus (1724-1806) was a Baptist pastor in Middlebrook, Massachusetts and a chief spokesman for religious freedom. He documented the persecution of Baptists for refusing to pay the church tax by the government to support the Congregational churches. He presented an appeal from Baptists for religious freedom to the Massachusetts delegation of the First Continental Congress in 1774.
John Leland (1754-1841), Baptist preacher and writer, worked effectively for religious freedom in Virginia. His friendship with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison was instrumental in progress toward religious freedom. On his grave marker, you find this summary of his life, “Here lies the body of John Leland, who labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men.”
During the process of ratification, the Constitution did not include a guarantee of religious freedom. John Leland and other Baptists opposed ratification until he met with James Madison and received a pledge that Madison would publicly support an amendment for religious freedom. When the Constitution was approved, Madison led the effort to amend the Constitution with the Bill of Rights which included freedom of religion.
Pinson wrote, “Baptists have endured harassment, public ridicule, economic loss, political discrimination, arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death because of their commitment to religious freedom.” These Baptists along with many others have paid a high price so we can enjoy the blessing of religious liberty. Let’s use this freedom to bring glory to our Lord!