Baptists Against Religious Liberty?

On “The Glory of the Baptist Heritage”

On April 22, 1922, a crowd gathered in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone for the National Baptist Memorial. The Secretary of State Charles E. Hughes delivered an address at the service wherein Hughes praised the work of Baptists—especially Roger Williams—for their unwavering commitment to liberty of conscience. Religious liberty, he declared, remained a “distinctive tenet which was to become the vital principle of our free institutions.” It was in this address that Hughes, himself a Baptist, contended:

This contribution is the glory of the Baptist heritage, more distinctive than any other characteristic of belief or practice… Let this memorial proclaim the indebtedness in the capital of the Republic where the once despised dogma has become the foundation of the civic structure.

Hughes’s veneration of Baptists stood in an already well-established stream of historians and theologians who, like Hughes, believed that Baptists had bequeathed to the United States the principle of religious liberty. George Bancroft’s 1834 History of the United States credited the Baptists with the flourishing of this prized freedom, and others throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries placed religious liberty as a core precept of the Baptist historical tradition. George Truett, pastor of First Baptist Dallas and president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1927–1929, stated, “It is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be forever voluntary and uncoerced.”

These claims were rooted in a historical well-spring of early Baptist figures from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who all asserted—some to the point of death—the need for religious disestablishment and liberty of conscience. Baptist dissenters such as Thomas Helwys, John Murton, Roger Williams (a brief Baptist), John Clarke, and Obadiah Holmes, represented but a few of a growing throng of Baptists who believed that religious establishment inhibited true faith, produced societal discord, and corrupted the church of Jesus Christ. Their arguments were theological and moral in nature. Murton and Williams, for example, spent dozens of pages between them exegeting the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 in order to establish religious liberty as a scriptural precept. Other themes regarding typology of Old Testament laws and the institution of Israel’s kings garnered dozens of more pages between liberty’s advocates. Ecclesiological arguments about who could rightly join a church joined soteriological claims about the God-ordained means to spread the gospel. If true churches were made up of only regenerate believers who were baptized after their profession of faith, then the surest means to secure converts was not coerced religious orthodoxy but, as Williams wrote, letting the “Word of the Lord run freely.”

John Clarke, a key Baptist figure in colonial New England, added to these theological arguments a martyrdom account of Baptist preachers who suffered religious persecution in Massachusetts during the 1630s and 1640s. Ill News from New England appealed to its readers and the members of the English Parliament to intervene in what was transpiring in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By compiling these martyrdom stories, Clarke intended to pit coerced religious establishment as antithetical to the ethics of Christians and the New Testament church.

These early Baptists and their works testified to why Bancroft, Hughes, Truett, or any present-day onlooker could conclude that religious liberty and freedom of conscience emerged as a core distinctive of the Baptist tradition. Williams’s Bloody Tenet of Persecution, Murton’s A Most Humble Supplication, or the 1644 and 1689 London Baptist Confessions, to name only a few, all connected soul freedom to core Baptist ecclesiological and soteriological concerns. Williams and Murton, moreover, placed liberty of conscience under the umbrella of the natural law, making it an a priori, or, pre-political freedom granted to men by God.

Despite this record, Baptists in the twenty-first century found themselves debating this pillar of the Baptist theological tradition. At the 2016 Southern Baptist Convention, then president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, received a question about why the ERLC joined an amicus brief in support of an Islamic community organization that was denied a permit to build a mosque. “If Jesus Christ were here today,” the questioner posed, “would he stand up and say, ‘Let us protect the right of Baal worshipers to erect temples to Baal’?” Moore dismissed the question and, relying on the Baptist tradition, declared, “What it means to be a Baptist is to support soul freedom for everyone.”

The 2016 episode, however, proliferated in the subsequent years, with Baptists splitting over the centrality of religious freedom and its place in American liberal democracy. The question “how much pluralism can the United States sustain before it crumbles?” led some Baptists not to jettison liberty of conscience, per se, but question its limits in an increasingly polarized and secularized public square. An example of this occurred in the 2019 French-Ahmari debate that took up, as one issue, “Drag Queen Story Hour.” Was DQSH a necessary by-product of the American constitutional order or must conservatives—and especially Christian conservatives—seek to use the mechanisms of the state to prohibit DQSH in public spaces?

This is not an article about the debates over DQSH. A host of Constitutional and legal quagmires engulf that discussion. Instead, that particular debate served as a touchstone to a larger issue amongst Baptists regarding their historic commitment to liberty of conscience. In fact, the issue of DQSH related to a constellation of other matters that arguably arose in the aftermath of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. Christian business owners were sued for not making wedding cakes or creating floral arrangements for same-sex marriages. The ascendency of transgenderism has led to biological men who identify as women competing in some of the highest levels of sports. As I wrote in a piece for American Reformer, the sustainability of American pluralism seems, on the surface, rightly questioned considering the significant divide over fundamental issues of worldview. The Dobbs decision, moreover, exacerbated the comprehensive fissures erupting across the American political landscape, with neither the political right nor left ceding any ground. For a society that guarantees liberty of conscience—an idea cherished in the Baptist tradition—how much pluralism can the United States sustain before rupturing?

This is what Baptists, I believe, are trying to assess and wrestle with. It’s not a matter of rejecting the tradition or distinctives but placing them within the kind of political context in which we find ourselves.

And, to no surprise, Baptists have again turned to their history and heritage. Matt Emerson of Oklahoma Baptist University argued that the Baptist tradition was built upon three, interconnected distinctives, namely, credobaptism, congregationalism, and liberty of conscience. “They do not stand alone,” he wrote. “To remove one of these distinctives is to cease to be Baptist.”

As seen in the historical survey I briefly surveyed above, Emerson is correct: Thomas Helwys, John Murton, Roger Williams, and many others tethered these three theological claims together—they were inseparable in their minds.

Still, as I asked in my American Reformer article and elsewhere, does a theological and political commitment to liberty of conscience necessarily encompass unlimited pluralism?  Obviously, no serious thinker would argue for the expression of unrestrained conscientious freedom. Limits clearly exist, which leads to the next question: could a Baptist remain a Baptist while contending that the state should favor a religious framework while abstaining from laws designed to coerce religious belief?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers—but the historical evidence suggests that Baptists, even the earliest heroes, wrestled with the inevitable consequences that befell a community committed to liberty of conscience.

One of the earliest figures who became acquainted with the perils and promises of liberty was Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. Williams’s works on religious liberty became emblematic of the Baptist commitment to soul freedom, with Baptist figures throughout history citing his defense of disestablishment. Often neglected, however, were Williams’s thoughts regarding the limits of liberty, which he began to espouse later in his life. The Providence Plantations—later renamed Rhode Island—were anything but peaceful in its earliest decades. The residents attributed their constant discord to the lack of religious establishment. In fact, a letter drafted by Providence’s town council stated that the “sweet cup of liberty” had been too much for the colony. Liberty, as it turned out, was an arduous business.

The constant infighting amongst Rhode Island’s residents forced Williams to go to England in the early 1650s to try and keep the colony together with a new charter. In 1652, a controversy began in England—what Crawford Gribben called a “theological panic.” An English translation of the Racovian Catechism began circulating, which articulated anti-Trinitarian doctrines associated with the sixteenth century Italian figure Faustus Socinus. As a response, John Owen launched a campaign to establish a new Protestant orthodoxy in England, which had been disrupted by the English Civil War. Owen contended for a loosely defined religious establishment that outlined minimum theological commitments that qualified persons for civil toleration. Roger Williams orchestrated the resistance to this effort, publishing several pamphlets in 1652 labeling any form of religious establishment as theologically spurious and politically dangerous.

In two of these tracts, however, Williams left the door open for magistrates and civil rulers to take some responsibility in the nourishment of Christian communities. Williams favorably applied Isaiah 49:23—“And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers”—to the responsibilities of England’s magistrates and civil rulers. Williams made clear that this service was not spiritual in nature; that responsibility belonged to the church. Civil rulers, however, ought to fashion peaceful societies advantageous to Christian ministry. As rulers who received their authority from God, good magistrates were those who ensured churches and Christians could live peaceably and that the laws did not hinder the ministry of the gospel. 

Upon his return to Rhode Island in 1654, Williams tried to restore order to a fractured colony, which included his mitigating a controversy about conscientious objection to serving in the militia. Williams placed such objections beyond the pale of toleration, labeling it an example of “unlimited liberty of conscience.”

Towards the end of his life, Williams expressed doubts about the sustainability of a society that tolerated Quakers. In his polemical work, George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrows, Williams charged that Quaker ethics reduced “Persons from civility to barbarism.” Indeed, throughout the work, Williams targeted Quaker spirituality because of its destructive impact on the broader society. Quakerism, he believed, emphasized an individualistic spiritualism to the extent that it eroded necessary mores for any functioning society.

John Clarke, a contemporary of Williams and another early Baptist figure, also wrote about the need for religious liberty in his work Ill News from New England. While Ill News was primarily a martyrdom account of Baptists who had suffered under religious laws in New England, his dedicatory distilled key aspects of his political theology. Clarke’s belief in soul freedom coincided with his assertion about the positive role of magistrates in maintaining a healthy Christianity. Governments were to “countenance and encourage . . . such as are faithful, and upright in the land.” By this, Clarke meant true Christians who proclaimed the true gospel of Jesus Christ. In Clarke’s estimation, Christianity ought to have a positive influence on the society and the civil government, which in turn, as “Christ’s Sword-bearers,” must create conditions conducive to authentic belief. Though he did not outline specifics, Clarke seemed to suggest that magistrates had a duty to promote Christianity, though without using coercive means.

Other similar examples throughout the Baptist tradition exist wherein theologians and preachers upheld liberty of conscience as not mutually exclusive of a society that favored Christianity generally. Isaac Backus, a stalwart defender of religious liberty in Massachusetts, wrote the following about the Massachusetts Constitution in 1783: “For the following reasons convince me, that God has now set before us an open door for equal Christian liberty, which no man can shut: No man can take a seat in our legislature, till him solemnly declares, ‘I believe the Christian religion, and have a firm persuasion of its truth.’” Backus, therefore, supported a minimally defined religious test for office holders in Massachusetts—they must affirm the Christian religion. In A Fish Caught in His Own Net, Backus wrote about the “sweet harmony” between church and state, contending that civil rulers “ought to be men fearing God.”

The list could go on and on of Baptists who preserved soul freedom, on the one hand, while also suggesting that the state has a compelling interest in outwardly favoring a broadly understood Christian ethic. George Truett declared in his 1920 speech on the steps of the US Capitol Building that “liberty has both its perils and its obligations.” The peril of liberty was a society that viewed freedom of conscience as a liberty towards licentiousness. “It behooves us now and ever,” Truett proclaimed, “to see to it that liberty is not abused… We will take free speech and a free press, with all their excesses and perils… but we are to set ourselves with all diligence not to use these great privileges in the shaming of liberty.” He then applied Proverbs 29:2 to his argument about liberty rightly understood: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked bear rule, the people mourn.” Truett summoned his fellow Baptists to bear responsibility “for the laws, the ideals, and the spirit that are necessary for the making of a great enduring civilization.”

Space does not permit for a plethora of other Baptists who weighed the promises of liberty along with its perils. What ought to be clear, however, is that the Baptist tradition, while unwavering in its commitment to religious liberty, has also wrestled with the limits of liberty for the sake of a well-ordered society.

As one final and contemporary example, consider this article by Dr. Ibrahim, a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor. The article chronicled how Muslim immigrants to Sweden had failed to assimilate to the Swedish culture. This led the prime minister of Sweden to admit, according to Ibrahim, “that her country has a crisis, as the integration of immigrants has failed.” Ibrahim contended that this crisis stemmed from Western nations, “locked in their secular mindset,” that failed “to recognize the conflict between secularism and the Islamic worldview.” Ibrahim’s article raised the issue about the sustainability of pluralism, especially when Muslim immigrants “come with a distinct Islamic worldview that often despise[s] specific Western elements and clashes with secular agendas.” He also noted that “these Muslims do not seek freedom from religion. On the contrary, they treasure Islam and want to apply its theological commands and preserve its cultural aspects.” He concluded his article, writing, “By and large, Muslims intend to retain their commitment to Islam and Islamic law. They refuse to assimilate or integrate into societies they deem religiously lost.”

Here then is a hypothetical scenario for Baptists: If we were living in Sweden, what would be our response? Even the prime minister concedes that the nation is facing a cultural crisis. Must the Baptist answer merely be, “this is an issue of liberty of conscience?” Perhaps—but as I’ve tried to raise here, the Baptist theological and historical tradition is more complex.

My intent here is not to answer definitively how Baptists are to wield our distinctives in our present context. Instead, I suggest that as Baptists consider what makes us “Baptist”—especially with regard to religious liberty—we recognize the difficulties our tradition has faced throughout history. Neither Williams, nor Clarke, nor Backus believed in an unlimited liberty of conscience. If, then, there are limits, what are those limits? How do we determine them? In the example from Sweden, what would our answer be?

I, for one, know I don’t have all the answers. Which is why I stress the two following imperatives for Baptists:

First, read widely from the Baptist theological tradition. Read not only the major works but read the letters and small pamphlets to see how our forebears weighed the claims of conscience with societal order.

Secondly, we need to ask these questions and weigh these issues together, in the spirit of cooperation and humility. We live in difficult times with pressing societal issues that demand a Christian response. We will need to hear from each other if we are to ensure that we progress in faithfulness. As Carl Henry wrote, “The modern crisis is not basically political, economic, or social—fundamentally it is religious.” Yet, he concluded that Christians “must be armed to declare the implications of its proposed religious solution for the politico-economic and sociological context for modern life.” For us to meet this task, we will need each other.

I think Charles Hughes was right: religious liberty is indeed the “glory of the Baptist heritage.” But how that heritage was applied and how it has changed over time is the topic of important debate.

And, given the state of our American public square, it’s a discussion that will only continue to intensify in its significance.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Cory Higdon

Cory Higdon (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an adjunct professor of history and humanities at Boyce College. His research focuses on the history of religious liberty in colonial America and has been featured in the Journal of Church and State, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Public Discourse, and Providence Magazine. He has presented at numerous scholarly meetings including the American Society of Church History and the Evangelical Theological Society. He and his family reside in Louisville, Ky.