Part I: Why Do Baptists Care About Religious Liberty?

June 26, 2018 leanna_barcelona

by Thomas DeShong, Project Archivist

This blog is the first of two that highlights a recently processed collection, the Baptist Joint Committee records, and its place in history.

Of all the rights and freedoms guaranteed to American citizens by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, freedom of religion has proven to be one of the mostly hotly contested.  Throughout the history of the United States, stretching back to the early years of British colonization in the seventeenth century, religious liberty has been at times both staunchly protected and unequivocally denied.  Baptists, due in part to the histories of their denominations, have often stood as key proponents of religious liberty for all.

Established in 1638 by Roger Williams, the First Baptist Church of Providence is the oldest Baptist congregation in the United States. The current meeting house, pictured here, was built in 1774-1775. Found in: Kidd, Thomas S., and Barry Hankins. Baptists in America: A History. New York City: Oxford University Press, 2015. (Page 140)

For hundreds of years, the kingdoms of early modern Europe were plagued by brutal religious warfare.  The conflict took many forms with “Catholics versus Protestants” being the most prominent.  Many nations, including Great Britain, endorsed a particular branch or denomination of Christianity.  To challenge the beliefs of the state church–in this case the Church of England–was to subvert the authority of the Crown itself.  Baptists, as religious dissidents, rejected the Anglican Church’s beliefs surrounding infant baptism and instead supported believer’s baptism.  Many Baptists, facing persecution at the hands of governments and churches alike, fled to Britain’s North American colonies for the prospect of religious freedom.

While Baptists were able to spread in pockets along the Atlantic seaboard, persecution still existed, particularly in those colonies that strictly adhered to a state church.  Separatist Roger Williams, who was exiled from the Puritan-led Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded the colony of Rhode Island on the principles of religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  In 1638, Williams established the First Baptist Church in America in the town of Providence.  Only in Rhode Island, and later Quaker-owned Pennsylvania, did American colonists experience a semblance of religious liberty as we know it.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Baptists remained on the periphery of the American colonies’ religious landscape.  Baptist preachers, particularly in Virginia, faced imprisonment and the threat of physical violence.  Baptist parents were often accused of child abuse when refusing to baptize their infants.  But, with the onset of the Great Awakening and the influences of the Enlightenment, authority was challenged, and individuality, the right of conscience, and personal beliefs were championed.

George Whitefield was one of the key figures in the First Great Awakening. An itinerant preacher, Whitefield preached to thousands in the British North American colonies, challenging them to a personal faith. Found in: Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. (Front cover)

When the United States declared independence from Great Britain and subsequently won the Revolutionary War, Baptists stood at the forefront of securing basic rights and freedoms that their followers had so often been denied.  Baptists, including John Leland and the Danbury Baptists, allied with Enlightenment thinkers and Deists in their pursuit of legal protection.  Appealing to powerful statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Baptists helped to ensure that the freedom of religion clause was added to the Bill of Rights.  The First Amendment guarantees that Congress will not attempt to establish a state-sponsored religion nor prohibit an individual’s right to practice their faith or lack thereof.

It is out of this established, historical tradition of persecution that Baptists became champions of religious liberty for all Americans.  This ideal remains essential in most Baptist churches today despite the denomination’s ascent to the American religious mainstream.  The Baptist Joint Committee, whose archives are housed at The Texas Collection, is an organization that monitors social, legal, and political developments concerning religious liberty today.  Stay tuned for Part II of this blog series to learn more about the significance of the Baptist Joint Committee and how the organization has fought to protect the tradition and right of religious liberty.

Bibliography

Gourley, Bruce.  “The Baptist Index: Outline of Baptist Persecution in Colonial America.” Web. Accessed April 25, 2018.  Available at http://www.brucegourley.com/baptists/persecutionoutline.htm.

Kidd, Thomas S.  The Great Awakening: A Brief History with Documents.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.

Kidd, Thomas S., and Barry Hankins.  Baptists in America: A History.  New York City: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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