Throughout its history, the Baptist commitment to religious liberty coalesced with an abiding and deep care for the broader political society. In other words, freedom of conscience as a core tenet of Baptist belief in no way diminished the importance of Baptists also advocating for laws rooted in biblical precepts and creation order.
Indeed, during the 17th and 18th centuries, Baptist support for religious liberty had far more to do with promoting the public good than it did with merely easing persecutory policies against religious dissenters. Baptists viewed their disestablishmentarian beliefs as connected to a more comprehensive public theology that promised peace and societal stability. Ultimately, early Baptists linked religious liberty to essential convictions over soteriology, ecclesiology, and the preservation of the church’s purity—all of which a religious establishment threatened. Still, the pursuit of a purer Christianity marked by voluntarism rather than religious establishment assumed with it a Baptist vision for a public square.
In fact, as I argued for the ERLC, figures like Roger Williams in the 17th century understood that religious liberty engendered a societal responsibility rather than creating zones of retreat where folks could be left alone. Religious liberty was about the good of others.
Thus, while disestablishment and religious liberty certainly arose as primary contours of the Baptist political-theological tradition, a concern for the public good equally redounded as a hallmark and has throughout the centuries.
Religious liberty and the common good
Baptists in the early American republic, for example, shared a zeal for seeking the welfare of the new nation, believing that a robust, vibrant, and active Christianity was needed in the public square if the republic hoped to survive. Samuel Stillman, pastor of First Baptist Church of Boston, preached in 1779 that “religion is of importance to the good of civil society; therefore, the magistrate ought to encourage it under this idea.” Isaac Backus imbibed similar beliefs in his Fish Caught in His Own Net, arguing that civil rulers must fear God and had a duty to promote Christianity. Backus described this relationship as a “sweet harmony.”
To be clear, both Backus and Stillman believed in religious liberty and contended throughout their lives for religious disestablishment. That conviction, however, merged with an understanding that the civil rulers, in the words of Stillman, must be “a nursing father to the Church, by protecting all the peaceable members of it from injury on account of religion; and by securing to them the uninterrupted enjoyment of equal religious liberty.” Religion—specifically Christianity—was necessary for the nation and the society; as such, the civil rulers were to ensure the passage of laws that helped churches fulfill their mission and provide the moral foundation for the republic.
For many Baptists during this time, therefore, advocating for religious liberty—though certainly motivated by a desire to ease persecutory policies against religious dissenters—included a commitment to the common good. By securing religious liberty, Christians and churches enjoyed the freedom to proclaim the gospel, form voluntary organizations that met a variety of social needs, and to help inculcate the kind of virtue that formed the basis of a strong society. As Backus proclaimed, “Religion is necessary for the well-being of human society, as salt is to preserve from putrification, or as light is to direct our way and to guard against enemies, confusion, and misery.”
Caleb Blood, a Baptist minister from Vermont, similarly argued that as the gospel of Christ spread, it nourished mores and communal practices “essential to the good of society.” Georgia pastor Henry Holcombe, moreover, preached that true morality could not exist in society if it was unmoored from revealed truth and God’s created order. “Reason and experience,” he concluded, “both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.” Similar arguments existed amongst many of the leading Baptist figures in the new nation, including Richard Furman, Jonathan Maxcy, as well as from the minutes of various Baptist associations across the states.
Over the course of American history, Baptists continued to juxtapose their dogmatism on religious liberty as a means to address cultural issues—it was a liberty to proclaim the full counsel of God to the conscience of the nation. In his famed 1920 address on religious liberty, George Truett asserted the fundamental necessity of freedom of conscience as a core Baptist distinctive.
Yet, liberty carried with it a responsibility for Baptists: “It behooves us now and ever,” Truett declared, “to see to it that liberty is not abused.” Relying on Paul’s instructions in Galatians 5:13 to “not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh,” Truett argued that “this ringing declaration should be heard and heeded by every class and condition of people throughout all our wide stretching nation. . . . we are to set ourselves with all diligence not to use these great privileges in the shaming of liberty.” Indeed, Truett went on to summon Baptists to recognize their responsibility to inculcate through public advocacy laws, ideals, and a biblically rooted spirit, all of which was necessary for “the making of a great and enduring civilization.”
A theology to prick the nation’s conscience
Regrettably, Baptists in the 20th century, including the Southern Baptist Convention, lost their way on the issue of religious liberty and the common good. This was most notable during the 60s and 70s on the issue of abortion. Baptists wielded their theological heritage on religious liberty not as a means to proclaim the need for pro-life policies; on the contrary, they abused Baptist beliefs on freedom of conscience, applying it to a pro-abortion ethic. As I argued elsewhere, liberal Baptists transformed the ideas of figures like Roger Williams, Thomas Helwys, John Murton, Obidiah Holmes, Isaac Backus, and John Leeland into an amalgam of moral madness. “Religious liberty” became a pretense for defending laws that promoted moral subjectivism.
The Baptist tradition on religious liberty never anticipated its precepts to be used as a means to corrode transcendence and moral responsibility in the public square. Indeed, Carl F.H. Henry, one of the most prominent Baptist theologians of the 20th century, spent much of his career trying to awaken Christians to their obligations and responsibilities in political society. “The church of Jesus Christ is here,” Henry asserted. “We must march and sing our faith again in the public arena.” Henry called upon believers of Jesus Christ to recapture a profound public theology that pricked and convicted the nation’s conscience. He asserted, “God’s commands need once again to become an issue in national life, the truth of revelation a matter of contention in every sphere of modern culture, the call for social righteousness a cause of trembling in every vale of injustice and indecency in the land.”
Without the ontological, moral transcendence that only Christianity offered, the culture bobbed around in tempestuous waters without an anchor. As Henry wrote, “Deprived of vital faith in the transcendent God, the very priorities on which liberal society prides itself today—its emphasis on law, on freedom, on pluralistic tolerance—are powerless to withstand deterioration into the very social alternatives that they were intended to prevent.” He warned Christians and the entire nation that without the “one transcendent source” of law and morality, the civilizational crisis would only grow wider and deeper, opening the American community to an unstoppable chasm of ethical chaos that would eventually consume the society. “Either we return to the God of the Bible,” Henry opined, “or we perish in the pit of lawlessness.”
Baptists possess a profound heritage of public theology—a comprehensive understanding of our social and ethical responsibilities to seek the welfare of our city and the good of our neighbors. The commitment to religious liberty throughout the Baptist tradition coincided with a fundamental concern over the moral strength of the nation. The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 affirms, “Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love.”
Yet, at times, Baptists have failed to uphold and publicly promote a Christian ethical paradigm that thoroughly addressed laws and social customs that violated God’s created order. This happened during slavery. It happened on the issue of abortion, with Baptists relegating the murder of the unborn to the auspices and caprice of conscientious freedom.
Our tradition, however, which was situated within the scriptures and God’s revealed will to his people, demands otherwise. We must resist the temptation to retreat—to abandon the public square to the pagans. Baptists, rooted in the revealed and infallible Word of God, and standing upon our rich theological tradition, have a glorious message to proclaim.
As Carl Henry concluded, “‘Thus saith the Lord!’ is the only barricade that can save our unheeding generation from inevitable calamity.” Let us, therefore, contend for religious liberty while understanding that our advocacy for freedom necessarily encompasses a responsibility to restrain wickedness, promote peace, and to show a lost and dying world the glories of the redemption secured only by faith in Jesus Christ.