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Living the Christian Life – Celebrating the Baptist Contribution to our Founding

July 31st, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Each July we celebrate the founding of our country and our bold fight for independence. As a nation we honor those who have fought for our freedom time and time again. We also honor the triumph of the radical ideals that became not only the foundation of our country but also the challenge of each age as we struggle to live up to those principles. As Baptists, it is an appropriate time to look back on our own history and that moment in time where the deep-rooted convictions of our faith converged with the birth of a new country.

It is hard to argue that a dedication to religious liberty and freedom of conscience are not at the very heart of the Baptist expression of Christianity. These core beliefs are a consistent thread through our heritage as acknowledged by Baptist historians such as Buddy Shurden, William Estep and Leon McBeth. How that belief intersected and influenced the story of America is acknowledged by secular historians such as Edwin Gaustad and others. President Barack Obama has publicly stated his appreciation (pdf) for the role of Baptists in US history even citing John Leland by name. We should be concerned that our non-Baptist president knows our history, yet many Texas Baptists do not.

We didn’t spring up out of a vacuum and we can’t disregard the experience of past generations. Dr. Bill Pinson, former Executive Director of the BGCT, has recently written a wonderful, accessible book published by BaptistWay Press called Baptists and Religious Liberty: The Freedom Road, that compiles much of the history we should all know.

John Smyth and Thomas Helwys who in the early 1600’s were the first to speak out against the established church in England at great personal cost including imprisonment.  In our churches we should tell the story of Roger Williams who was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, founded Rhode Island after purchasing the land from an Indian tribe, where he established the first Baptist church in America in 1638. It is Williams who first advocated for a “hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.” The names of John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes and John Crandall should be known to all Texas Baptist as men who in 1651 were jailed in Massachusetts for the crime of conducting an unlawful worship service – Holmes was then brutally whipped on the street in Boston.

When we celebrate our independence and the founding of our nation think back to Isaac Backus who in 1774 took his plea for religious liberty to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia and then to the delegates from Massachusetts arguing that tax dollars should not go to support the established Congregationalist church. Virginia Baptist Pastor John Leland was a vocal supporter of Thomas Jefferson and his effort to disestablish the Episcopal Church by passage of the “Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Freedom” in 1886. It was Leland who later met with James Madison and urged him to support an amendment to the newly ratified constitution that would guarantee religious liberty.

As Texans recall with pride that in 1920, George W. Truett pastor of First Baptist Dallas, stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, proclaimed religious liberty for all and recited this history praising our forbearers.

They dared to be odd, to stand alone, to refuse to conform, though it cost them suffering and even life itself. They dared to defy traditions and customs, and deliberately chose the day of non conformity, even though in many a case it meant a cross. They pleaded and suffered, they offered their protests and remonstrances and memorials, and, thank God, mighty statesmen were won to their contention. Washington and Jefferson and Madison and Patrick Henry, and many others, until at last it was written into our country’s Constitution that church and state must in this land be forever separate and free, that neither must ever trespass upon the distinctive functions of the other. It was pre-eminently a Baptist achievement.

We would also be wise to head the word of our fellow Baptist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who warned that “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”

Finally, we must give thanks and our support to modern day Baptists like J.M. Dawson, James Wood, James Dunn, Brent Walker, Melissa Rogers, and Holly Hollman who, through the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, have resolutely and vigilantly upheld the Baptist ideal of religious liberty and church state separation for over 70 years.

Our commitment to the separation of church and state is not only based on theology, but also on our experience as a persecuted religious minority. Such conviction should not be compromised now that we are part of the majority religious culture. Indeed to allow our government to favor any faith sets a potentially disastrous precedent should the day come when we are no longer in the majority.

While Baptists may disagree on individual cases or controversies we should agree that stepping back into the role of a religious minority would give us better insight to the type of protections we should seek for all faiths. The ability to walk a mile in another’s shoes is critical to upholding the basic rights granted under the Bill of Rights and the first amendment. As former justice Sandra Day O’Connor said so eloquently in McCreary County v. ACLU “we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.”

We must be careful not to be tempted by the “Christian Nation” rhetoric that is now so often espoused. Our history tells us better, we helped make sure that this nation was for all people, not founded for and operated only by Christians. We must be ready to strongly push back against those, armed with only a speck of truth, promote a distorted view of history.

Above all, remember that our commitment to religious liberty is grounded in the core of our faith. Our faith, in response to our interpretation of scripture, proclaims that God made us all free, responsible and competent to respond to the gospel as we feel led, voluntarily and individually any action by another that attempts to compel belief is worthless. As George Truett said in 1920 “God wants free worshipers and no other kind.”

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