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Baptists and religious liberty

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” These words almost sound hostile to many conservative Christians today. Over the past 70 years, some judges have interpreted the “wall of separation” to mean that we should remove faith from American public life.

It may be perplexing, then, to realize that Jefferson was writing the wall of separation letter to evangelical Baptists in Connecticut. These Baptists totally agreed with the deistic Jefferson on church-state relations. They rejoiced in Jefferson’s election as president in 1800, telling him that “America’s God has raised you up” to lead the nation.

Were these Baptists deluded? Why would they support Jefferson and his “wall of separation”? The reason is that Jefferson and his Baptist allies had a different (and better) concept of church-state separation than many left- or right-wing Americans do today.

Although leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison derived religious freedom from Enlightenment principles of toleration, rank-and-file Baptists learned the value of religious liberty the hard way. They suffered persecution under the state-sponsored, “established” churches of the colonies.

Many other Protestants viewed believer’s baptism, the distinctive practice of the Baptists, as abhorrent, no matter how much the Baptists argued that believer’s baptism was the true biblical mode. (Catholics and most Protestants at the time practiced infant baptism.) Thus, Baptists endured harassment, fines, prohibition against meetings, and even jail time, right up to the eve of the American Revolution.

Massachusetts, a Puritan colony, set the pace in hostility toward the Baptists. The colony outlawed Baptists altogether in 1645, calling them “the troublers of churches in all places.” In Ashfield, Mass., town authorities in 1770 seized the land of Baptists who refused to pay religious taxes to support the local Congregationalist church. Talk about taxation without representation! The Ashfield Baptists actually appealed to King George III for relief, and the king annulled the confiscation of their land.

Is it any wonder, then, that many Baptists in America were not too keen about supporting the American Revolution? It was hard to support a rebellion led by Patriots who had refused to grant Baptists liberty of conscience. Ashfield’s Baptist minister proclaimed that Massachusetts Patriot leaders wanted “liberty from oppression that they might have liberty to oppress!”

Isaac Backus, the great Massachusetts Baptist leader, approached cousins John and Samuel Adams at the Continental Congress in 1774, appealing for relief from oppression. But Samuel scoffed at Backus, insinuating that the Baptists were just “enthusiasts who made a merit of suffering persecution.” John Adams told Backus that he might sooner expect a change in the solar system, than an end to the Massachusetts established church.   

The Baptists also endured terrible persecution in Virginia, with dozens of Baptist ministers put in jail during the decade before the Revolution. But in Jefferson and Madison, the Baptists found Patriot leaders who sympathized with their cause. Baptists suggested that if the persecution continued, Virginia’s leaders should not expect them to support the rebellion against George III. Jefferson and Madison loathed religious intolerance, anyway. They wanted to end the harassment of dissenters, and to stop Virginia’s financial support for the Church of England.

With massive Baptist support, Madison secured the passage of Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. That law enshrined the principle that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever. . . nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.”

Jefferson’s Bill was a critical precedent for the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution. In light of the persecution of Baptists, it is easier to understand the First Amendment’s prohibition of laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” To the Founders, this clause simply meant that there would be no national established church. Baptists backed the First Amendment’s adoption, since they associated established churches with the denial of religious liberty.

The First Amendment did not originally prohibit state-level establishments of religion. (That interpretation of the amendment did not come until the mid 20th century.) So the New England states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, kept giving direct support to the Congregationalist Church well into the 1800s. That explains Jefferson’s correspondence with Connecticut’s Danbury Baptist Association in the wall of separation letter. Like the Baptists, Jefferson wished that Connecticut would drop its establishment. But Jefferson took comfort that, at least at the national level, the distinction between denomination and government was clear.

Did this mean that Jefferson wanted a secular public sphere? No, it did not. None of the Founders could have fathomed today’s advocates for rigid secularism. To show that he was not hostile to public displays of religion, Jefferson even hosted a religious service in Congress the Sunday after he sent the “wall of separation” letter. New England Baptist minister John Leland gave the sermon at the service. Secularists today would be dismayed to realize how willing Jefferson was to permit public religious expression, in spite of his personal skepticism about Christianity.

But the Founding era’s Baptists might warn conservative Christians today, too, about the perils of cozy relationships between the government and churches. Historically, close ties between the state and a particular religion have led to persecution of dissenters. The early Baptists might also wince at the way some Republicans today speak as if electing “godly” politicians will result in spiritual revival.

Early America’s Baptists did not expect politicians to do heavy lifting for the church. They just wanted the government to protect religious liberty, so the church could be the church. That is why the Baptists were comfortable working even with deists such as Thomas Jefferson. They were not looking for a national pastor. They did not want government hostility toward churches, but they were also not angling for government favors. Civil authorities, they believed, should simply protect “free exercise of religion” for all. They preferred to depend upon the power of God, rather than government, to accomplish the purposes of the Kingdom.

This was originally published in Light Magazine.

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