By / Mar 13

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. 

By / Jan 13

Saturday marks the 182nd anniversary of the death of John Leland, the most influential Baptist preacher of America’s Founding era.

Here are five facts you should know about this champion of religious liberty.

1. Leland was an active and productive pastor. From the age of 18 until his death at 86, he preached approximately 8,000 sermons, wrote numerous hymns, published about 30 pamphlets, and baptized 1,524 people. He also personally knew 962 pastors, out of which 303 he heard preach and 207 who visited him at his home.

2. Leland had an outsized influence on the establishment of religious liberty in America through his relationship with James Madison, the primary author of the U.S. Constitution. Leland, who was considered the “leader of the Virginia Baptists,” helped Madison get elected both as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and to the first Congress. Madison repaid Leland and the other Baptists by keeping his campaign promise to support a Bill of Rights that included the Establishment Clause.

3. For much of his early career Leland rarely spoke publicly about one of the key issues of his day—slavery. However, on returning to his home state of Massachusetts in 1791, he began to forcefully champion the emancipation of slaves. Leland thought the cause of freedom for Black Americans would be an opportunity for Christian youth:

If any of the slave-holders will neither give nor sell their slaves, here will be a great door opened for missionary labors. The pious youth, who are waiting for a gap, will now have a loud call to go and preach to the hard-hearted masters, and flatter them to give, and threaten them if they will not.

Although he continued to oppose slavery, Leland later in life began to denounce abolitionists as troublemakers. Many slaveholders, he said, “in heart are opposed to slavery, and would gladly set their slaves free, if they could be provided for.”

4. Leland once used a 1,234-pound block of cheese to spread the gospel. After helping Thomas Jefferson win the presidency, Leland decided to give the new chief executive a gift of cheese. According to Elihu Burritt, Leland asked everyone in his Cheshire, Massachusetts, congregation who owned a cow to donate a quart of milk (unless it was from a “Federalist cow”—a cow owned by a Federalist farmer—since that would “leaven the whole lump with a distasteful savour”). The milk was curded and molded using a large cider press. This Cheshire Mammoth Cheese—which measured four feet wide, and 15 inches thick—was too heavy to transport by wagon, so it had to be delivered by sleigh during winter.

As Leland wrote, “In November, 1801 I journeyed to the south, as far as Washington, in charge of a cheese, sent to President Jefferson. Notwithstanding my trust, I preached all the way there and on my return. I had large congregations; let in part by curiosity to hear the Mammoth Priest, as I was called.”

When he arrived in the capitol, Leland was invited to preach a message of religious liberty before Congress.

5. According to L. H. Butterfield, Leland was “dubious about seminaries and campaigns for [missionary] funds.” Although Leland, who was self-educated, was not opposed to secular education, he purportedly stuck “to the primitive Baptist principle that the power to evangelize is bestowed by divine rather than human means.” 

“In these things, however, I may be wrong,” Leland told a friend, “for I claim neither infallibility nor the spirit of prophecy. — May I, may you, may every one pray and search for himself, and believe, and act, and follow the clearest light.”

By / Jun 30

In recent days, a growing number of Christians are pushing back against the Baptist principle of religious liberty of all people. Some of these believers are themselves Baptists with honest concerns. There are two common, sometimes overlapping reasons for this discomfort with religious freedom. 

Some argue that to defend the freedom of those who embrace false religions is to inadvertently endorse those religions. Baptists should not be allied, for example, with Muslims who wish to build a mosque in a new community and spread their false beliefs. Others suggest that America is, or ought to be, a Christian nation. Therefore, to embrace full religious liberty and its close cousin, the separation of church and state, is tantamount to endorsing secularism. 

Despite these concerns, religious liberty is not a new idea that is the result of progressive theological drift, the Trojan horse of religious pluralism, or the leavening effect of secularism. Defending religious freedom is part of the “DNA” of what it means to be a Baptist.

Religious liberty is a historical principle

Religious liberty is sometimes discussed solely as a product of the Enlightenment. Sometimes, state churches gradually embraced religious toleration. Other times, state churches were dissolved, and no form of Christianity was privileged. The modern secular state, with its commitment to religious freedom, represents a more advanced arrangement than backward cultures that continue to closely entangle religion and politics. 

The heroes of this tendentious (and ethnocentric) narrative are philosophers like John Locke and Voltaire, politicians such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and documents such as the Act of Toleration (1689) and the First Amendment to U.S. Constitution (1791). The villains include the Catholic Church at all times and in all places, politically engaged evangelicals in the U.S., and many Jews, Muslims, and Hindus in non-western nations.

For Baptists, religious liberty is a historical principle that predates the Enlightenment. Our theological cousins, the Continental Anabaptists, and our ecclesial forefathers, the English Separatists, both championed this principle and influenced early Baptists. The oldest Baptist confessions affirm religious freedom, though they often focus more on freedom for Christians who did not belong to state churches. Later confessions written in contexts without a state church, including the Baptist Faith and Message (2000), applied the principle more broadly.

Even from our earliest days, Baptist thinkers applied the principle of religious liberty to members of other religions and no religion. Non-Christians should be free to believe whatever they wish about ultimate matters without their consciences being coerced by any human authority. There is a veritable Baptist “cloud of witnesses” that has written in defense of religious liberty for all from the 17th century to the present. Helwys. Murton. Williams. Backus. Leland. Truett. Mullins. Dawson. Land. These men and others have defended religious freedom for all, sometimes at great personal cost to themselves.

Religious liberty is a theological principle

Baptists have always tied religious liberty to a closely related idea: liberty of conscience. For example, the Second London Confession famously says,

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or not contained in it. So that to believe such doctrines, or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also.

The Baptist Faith and Message (2000) echoes this language when it claims, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it.”

Baptists sometimes call liberty of conscience soul liberty, soul freedom, or soul competency. Whatever term is used, the idea is the same. Every individual is accountable to the Lord alone for his or her convictions about ultimate matters. Each of us will give an account before God (Rom. 14:10-12; 2 Cor. 5:10) for our beliefs and actions. Religion is not a matter of proxy. No other individual can answer on our behalf.

Baptists talk a lot about following Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We emphasize having a personal relationship with Christ by grace through faith. We affirm that Jesus is not only the King of all, but he is also our King when we bow the knee to him in repentance and faith. For Baptists, religious liberty is a theological principle rooted in the Kingship of Jesus.

What a man believes about Jesus is the most important thing about him. One’s faith is not intended to be private, but it is always personal. Religious liberty for all protects the freedom for believers to follow King Jesus, without our consciences being coerced by a lesser authority. Religious liberty also protects the freedom of non-Christians to not have their consciences coerced in religious matters.

Religious liberty is a missional principle

The Great Commission is God’s command that his followers make disciples from among the nations. It is a thread that runs from Genesis to Revelation, though we often identify it with Matthew 28:18-20.

Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

For Baptists, religious liberty is a missional principle rooted in God’s character and his command to make disciples from among all peoples. When we defend the soul freedom of unbelievers to hold incorrect or irreligious views, we are not affirming their false beliefs. Rather, we are defending their right to be wrong, their freedom to be corrected through the preaching of the gospel, and our right and responsibility to proclaim the gospel to them.

To be clear, Baptists should be committed to the Great Commission even if religious liberty was outlawed tomorrow. In fact, Baptists in many other parts of the world are deeply committed to evangelism, discipleship, and church planting, despite living under oppressive regimes that do not protect religious freedom. But even in those contexts, they advocate for religious freedom for all, so that they might be unhindered in their worship and witness, and so that unbelievers might be free to hear and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.


Now is not the time for Baptists to abandon our commitment to religious liberty for all. Rather, it is a time to patiently correct misunderstandings, answer honest questions, and make a renewed case for soul freedom. Religious liberty is a historic Baptist principle that is rooted in our theological commitments and helps animate our obedience to the Great Commission. May we continue to stand with those who have gone before us in defending religious liberty for the glory of God, the advance of the gospel, and the sake of human flourishing.

By / Jun 30

Bart Barber has only been the Southern Baptist Convention president for a few weeks, but already he has seen and commented on the historic Supreme Court ruling about abortion and fielded various questions about SBC life. An important topic he recently took on, especially in light of controversies among Southern Baptists, was religious liberty. Below, he expands on this important freedom, explaining why it’s so important to Baptists, how we can grow in our understanding of it, and why Christians should be encouraged. 

Lindsay Nicolet: Will you explain what religious liberty is? And why is it a Baptist distinctive?

Bart Barber: A person enjoys religious liberty if he may change his religious beliefs or religious affiliation without changing his relationship with the governing authorities over him. Religious liberty is a Baptist distinctive for several reasons:

First, together with the earliest Anabaptists, the 17th-century Baptists and their successors found religious liberty in the text of the Bible, demonstrating it from passages like the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and Jesus’ statement that his kingdom is not of this world. 

Second, Baptists have found religious liberty to be a correlate of our basic evangelical belief in conversionism—the idea that no one can enter the kingdom of God except by way of voluntary, uncoerced conversion suggests that there is no value in having the state attempt to coerce religious affiliation. 

Third, the beleaguered Baptists of the 1600s and 1700s were well acquainted with the fact that governments empowered to protect or privilege Christianity always wind up being governments who persecute true Christians. 

Fourth, historically speaking, we find religious liberty affirmed throughout the various Baptist confessions of faith that our family of churches has drafted from time to time down through the centuries.

LN: There has been outrage in recent years among Southern Baptists because of advocacy work on behalf of people of other faiths. Can you explain why this outrage is unnecessary?

BB: Supreme Court cases are not about the individuals involved; they are about the ideas involved. Pro-life Americans rejoice over the recent ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization even if they have never lived in Jackson, Mississippi, and have never known anyone who lived there. The importance of the case is found not in the individual organizations involved but in the fact that Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey are no longer the law of the land. I am thankful that people who had no connection to Jackson submitted amici curiae briefs to help bring about the end of the Roe/Casey regime.

The same thing is true about religious liberty cases. Do you cherish the right to go door-to-door to share the gospel? That idea was secured in American law because of a case involving Jehovah’s Witnesses. Were you thankful when the Supreme Court ruled in Tandon v. Newsom to permit California churches to gather for indoor worship? Look at the cases that the court cited as their reasoning behind that ruling. They include everything across the spectrum from Roman Catholics to practitioners of the voodoo-like religion Santeria. To a California church who is frustrated because restaurants and movie theaters are open but the state keeps their buildings padlocked, they don’t care that the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah case involved pagan chicken sacrifices; they just care that the ideas of religious liberty won the day back then and that the success of those ideas means that they get to gather for church.

LN: How can Southern Baptists grow in their understanding of religious liberty? What are some core texts or resources that you think Baptists could read to gain a better understanding of religious liberty?

BB: Roger WilliamsThe Bloudy Tenant of Persecution is just what we need today, but it unfortunately is quite a difficult book to read. I say that it is just what we need because it lays out the biblical case for religious liberty, and in my experience, we have more people who know the philosophical theory of religious liberty and the historical tradition of Baptist belief in religious liberty than we have people who understand the case that early American Baptists like Williams made from the Bible for religious liberty.

A more recent and more accessible book-sized work I would recommend would be The First Freedom: The Beginning and End of Religious Liberty by Duesing, White, and Yarnell. The recent volume Islam and North America: Loving Our Muslim Neighbors by Micah Fries and Keith Whitfield contains a chapter I contributed on the question of religious liberty.

For shorter resources, the ERLC’s website contains a number of very helpful articles addressing various aspects of religious liberty.

LN: As we live and witness in an increasingly pluralistic society, why can we be joyful and filled with peace instead of fearful and angry?

BB: Apart from coercion and without any help from the state, people are accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ. He has overcome the world. He is preparing us a place. We are the spiritual descendants of martyrs, and look how they have overcome those who went to war against them! Have faith that, as he did with Gideon’s army, God will have his victory in ways that make it absolutely clear that he had no need of governments or the schemes of men.

LN: Have Baptists understood religious liberty to be a right which has no limits? If there are limits, what are they?

BB: Roger Williams used the image of Moses holding the two tablets of the Ten Commandments as an illustration of this. For the “first table of the law,” which addressed questions about people’s relationships with God, the government has no authority to govern. For the “second table of the law,” which addressed questions about people’s relationships with one another, Williams believed that the government does have the authority to govern. Sharing the gospel in Africa, I’ve met people who have performed religious rituals involving human sacrifice. Is that a religious practice? To be sure, it is. But it involves taking the life of another person. Baptists would say that the government has the right to limit religious liberty in a case like this one.

When the Supreme Court applies “strict scrutiny” to law that limit people’s free exercise of their faith, they usually come up with rulings that are comfortably compatible with the Baptist view of religious liberty.

LN: As you look at the state of religious liberty in the U.S., what do you see as the largest cultural or legal threats? Are there places that are going to be clear points of conflict in the coming years?

BB: I once said that the points of tension in American law regarding religious liberty have been soldiers, schools, solicitation, sister-wives, sabbaths, sacrifices, surgeries, sex, and ’shrooms. I could go into detail about each one, but instead I’ll just mention the ones that I believe present the greatest likelihood of future conflict.

Schools have been the major locus of conflict about religious liberty since Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963. I think that contest is waning. Culminating in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, there may be a workable solution coming into place in which students and teachers are free to exercise their faith while the official educational program of public schools must avoid scholastic content or policies that favor any system of religious belief over another.

What is displacing the topic of religion in the public schools as the major area of unrest is the burgeoning conflict between the sexual revolution and the exercise of religious faith in the workplace and in the public sphere. Whether we are talking about the baker Jack Phillips in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission or the Catholic Social Services organization in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, cases are on the rise pitting the new laws about sexual orientation and gender identity against people trying to exercise their faith.

LN: July 4th is coming up. How can Christians rightly celebrate this holiday, understanding the importance of religious liberty at the heart of it?

BB: I understand people’s concerns about the danger of letting patriotic elements get out of hand in a worship service. Any worship service in which Jesus is not the hero of the service is a false worship service. And yet, with that having been said, if Jesus can be the hero of a story in which someone’s cancer goes into remission, someone’s slavery to an addiction is broken, or someone’s sacrificial giving is given back them them by the Lord’s hand—if testimonies or sermon illustrations about any of those things would be welcome in a worship service, I think Jesus can be the hero of a story in which believers in this country are enabled by our constitutional liberties to gather for worship and to send missionaries around the world proclaiming the gospel. 

Our Constitution does not confer upon us the right to serve God. We would do that even if it were illegal to do so. Rather, our Constitution means that we need not hide while we worship, plant churches, and train and send missionaries. That freedom not to hide has meant much greater effectiveness for American churches. That’s something worth celebrating.

LN: What words of encouragement and advice do you have for us as we seek to follow Christ faithfully?

BB: We have religious liberty not because governments encountered the dormant compassion in their hearts but because they confronted the weakness in their arms. They put true followers of Jesus Christ to the rack, burned them at the stake, drowned them in the Limmat River, and fed them to the lions. Still, they were never able to prevail against Jesus’ Church. The power of the gospel has vanquished every petty tyrant who has come up against it. Be strong and take courage.

By / Jun 14

Baptists have, historically, partnered for the sake of mission and the Great Commission. They do so out of a zeal to see people reached for the gospel, recognizing that local churches can do more by cooperating together than any one church can do on its own. The North American Mission Board (NAMB) is the fruit of a generations-long commitment on the part of Southern Baptists to reach North America with the gospel of Jesus Christ. As currently comprised, NAMB centers everything it does around the gospel through three primary strategic emphases: church planting, compassion ministry, and evangelism.

Send Network serves Southern Baptist churches by assisting them in the process of planting healthy, multiplying churches everywhere for everyone. Send Relief provides resources and creates mission opportunities for churches to meet tangible needs and see lives changed through the power of the gospel. Then, NAMB resources and provides evangelism training for churches and leaders as they share the gospel in their communities. As the endorsing agency for Southern Baptist chaplains, NAMB also trains, equips, and encourages chaplains who serve members of the Armed Services, in correctional facilities, and in other institutions.

Roots of NAMB

NAMB traces its historic roots back to 1845 and the creation of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) after Baptists in the South sought to organize their own convention following disagreements with Northern Baptists over issues related to slavery. When Southern Baptists met in Augusta, Georgia, in 1845 to constitute the SBC, one of their first decisions was to establish two missions agencies: the Foreign Mission Board and the Board of Domestic Missions.

In its earliest days from its headquarters in Marion, Alabama, the new board struggled to craft a compelling vision and develop an effective strategy that encouraged Southern Baptists to fund and engage with the new board. Most preferred working through already established local associations and state conventions.

A lack of consistent, tenured leadership was initially a major hurdle before Russell Holman, the first pastor of First Baptist Church New Orleans, took the reins and focused the Board’s strategy. Leading up to the Civil War, the Board began directing most of its efforts to areas of ministry where Southern Baptists were weakest, serving Native American populations and ministering in cities and in newly settled regions on the continent. The strategy allowed the Board to become more financially and missionally stable.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, however, Southern Baptist mission efforts were severely disrupted with the conflict making it practically impossible to raise funds since attention had turned to the war. By the close of the war in 1865, the Domestic Mission Board was destitute.

Under the direction of Martin T. Sumner, who led the organization for 13 years, the Board continuously expanded and contracted its missionary force as it navigated the financial balancing act of funding missionaries and avoiding significant debt.

The Board adopted a new name in 1874, the Home Mission Board (HMB), which it retained for more than a century. By 1882, the SBC decided to move the HMB to a more well-known city, Atlanta, Georgia, in attempt to reenergize support for the entity. The move, along with the election of influential Southern Baptist Isaac Tichenor, generated significant momentum for the HMB. The number of missionaries increased rapidly over the course of the next decade.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a significant lay missionary movement spurred Southern Baptists’ missionary efforts. The Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU), led by Annie Armstrong, rallied churches to support mission work and collected the first offering for home missions in 1895. A similar men’s movement sought to galvanize more men into supporting and participating in missions work as well.

By the 1900s, cooperation within the Southern Baptist Convention hit new levels of confidence, and the SBC initiated a significant fundraising campaign in 1919—the 75 Million Campaign—and several SBC entities drafted grand plans based on the incredible response from Southern Baptists. The HMB, authorized by the SBC to increase its programs, incurred debt in anticipation of the fundraising campaign.

Growth after the Depression 

But the funding boon was short-lived. Economic hardship in the South followed by the onset of the Great Depression forced the HMB to shift much of its focus toward paying off debt. Southern Baptists continued their support, however, and the HMB weathered the financial storm in large part due to the development of the SBC’s Cooperative Program in 1925 and the WMU’s collection of the home missions offering, which was named in honor of Annie Armstrong in 1934.

As the nation transitioned in the 1940s from a depressed economy to a booming one, Southern Baptists began to see rapidly increasing growth, and the HMB expanded its ministry efforts. While the predominant majority of Southern Baptists remained in the South, the SBC developed a nationwide presence, engaging in church planting, (what is now called) compassion ministry and chaplaincy. The HMB played a key role in each of those efforts.

The SBC also created new agencies over the next decade, launching the Radio Commission as an official entity of the SBC in 1946, and the men’s missionary movement became an official entity of the SBC, becoming the Brotherhood Commission of the SBC in 1950 with headquarters in Memphis, Tenn.

In 1953, the first Canadian church affiliated with Southern Baptists, and the seeds were sown for what eventually became the Canadian National Baptist Convention as Baptists in Canada strove to share the gospel across their nation.

Over the next several decades, Southern Baptist mission work persisted as the HMB worked with various ethnic and other language groups, expanding its missionary force and enlarging its evangelism efforts. In the late 1960s, a grassroots effort fueled the creation of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, which grew into a national cooperative effort by the 1980s.

As the 20th century concluded, Southern Baptists determined to restructure and consolidate several existing entities by adopting the Covenant for a New Century in 1995. The move included bringing together the HMB, Brotherhood Commission and the Radio and Television Commission into a single Southern Baptist entity: the North American Mission Board. The transition was finalized in 1997.

Thirteen years later, messengers to the 2010 Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando, Florida, asked NAMB to focus more of its efforts on church planting as one aspect of the Great Commission Resurgence, which was approved by a wide margin of messengers. That same year, trustees elected current president, Kevin Ezell.

Under Ezell’s leadership, NAMB developed its church planting arm, Send Network, and launched Send Relief, its compassion ministry arm in 2016. In 2020, NAMB joined the SBC’s International Mission Board to cooperate under the banner of Send Relief to provide a single organization for Southern Baptists to work through in their compassion ministry efforts both in North America and around the world.

The United States and Canada have, in recent decades, been undergoing significant demographic shifts, and the future of missions in North America requires Great Commission intentionality on the part of Southern Baptist churches. NAMB’s vision is to boost the efforts of local churches as they reach those who desperately need to hear the gospel of Jesus.


Arthur B. Rutledge and William G. Tanner. Mission to America: A History of Southern Baptist Home Missions. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1983.

Implementation Task Force: Covenant for a New Century. Baptist Press.

SBC messengers adopt GCR report by wide margin.” Baptist Press.

Big Changes for NAMB and State Conventions Under GCR Proposal.” Baptist Press.
Canadian National Baptist Convention TimeLine.” Canadian National Baptist Convention.

By / Mar 7

Isaac Backus (1724–1806) has been described as the preeminent champion of religious liberty in America since Roger Williams. As a Baptist in New England, it is not surprising that Backus drew upon the tradition of Williams in formulating his views on religious liberty and how the church and state relate to one another. Yet, for Backus and early Baptists, these ideas were not detached from their views on the church. Baptists viewed subjects such as liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state as much a part of church polity (governance) as regenerate membership and believers’ baptism. 

Backus published many writings on the church and models for contemporary Baptists how to think about polity, biblically and consistently. He wrote on these issues as a minister in Massachusetts where the Congregationalist Church enforced strict order. Backus’ faithful ministry in a hostile environment provides modern Baptists with a model to follow in how to be faithful to our Baptist distinctives while being good citizens. Backus shows us three areas in ecclesiology where Baptists need retrieval.

Covenant Theology

Isaac Backus grew up in a nominal Congregationalist home. He and his family were brought to faith in Christ due to the first Great Awakening and the preaching of men like George Whitefield. Later, Backus and others withdrew from the Congregationalist church to form a Separatist church. Though he was baptized by immersion in 1751 due to biblical conviction, his church was still practicing paedobaptism. The deeper that he studied Scripture and wrestled with the biblical teaching on the covenants, the more he realized that the sprinkling of infants could not be biblically supported. 

In January 1756, Backus and five others signed a church covenant constituting as a Baptist church in Middleborough, Massachusetts. Backus wrote a pamphlet later that year defending his Baptist views. His defense of the Baptist way arose out of an exposition of Galatians 4:22-31 regarding the bond woman and the free woman. Backus distinguished the Jewish church (Old Testament Israel) and the Christian church (New Testament assembly) based upon the covenants of Scripture. In his exposition of the text, Backus demonstrated how infant baptism arose from a blurring of the distinction between the Jewish church and the Christian church. 

Baptist ecclesiology is historically rooted in covenant theology which guides believers in how to read the Scriptures and put the redemptive story together in light of the covenants. It also forms a key component in understanding the nature of church. Backus demonstrated that membership in the covenant community in OT Israel does not transfer over to the NT church. The new covenant community contains many differences (though some similarities) with the old covenant community. Covenant theology protects us from equating nations as modern Israel by showing that the covenant community now is the NT church, not a political nation. Baptist covenant theology framed the new covenant of the church which requires that the covenant community consist only of the regenerate.

Regenerate membership

Flowing out of Baptist covenant theology is the Baptist distinctive known as regenerate church membership. From the beginning of the Baptist movement in 17th-century England, Baptists championed that the church is made up of believers only, not believers and their children. A person entered the covenant community based upon being born again, professing faith in Christ, and then being baptized upon their profession of faith. For Backus and other Baptists living in areas that were under the jurisdiction of establishment paedobaptist churches, their insistence on regenerate membership was linked with church autonomy. Since each church was composed of true believers, they could determine who was a member of the covenant community, ordain their ministers, and discipline any church member who walked waywardly. 

The first pamphlet Backus published argued that the same God who calls sinners unto salvation also calls ministers to gospel ministry, not the establishment church. Launching from that point, Backus noted how each church possessed a right to call men and govern their own affairs. A church composed of a mixed multitude could not do this properly. However, a covenant community that based membership on regeneration and then baptism would be guided by the Holy Spirit and could make biblically wise decisions. 

Baptists today need a real recovery of regenerate membership. Baptist polity is unsustainable if churches do not insist on the reality of the new birth as a prerequisite to baptism and admittance into a local church. Baptist churches do not proclaim to be infallible in their admittance of members. Hence, churches practice church discipline and are forced at times to remove fellowship from members. This commitment to Baptist polity fueled evangelism and church planting as exemplified by Backus traveling to the South to preach the gospel in Virginia and North Carolina in 1789. A recovery of healthy Baptist churches will include a recovery of regenerate church membership.

Religious liberty

Backus’ greatest legacy is one of fighting tirelessly for religious liberty. Even before becoming a convictional Baptist, Backus spoke against the abuses of the establishment church in Massachusetts. In 1749, Backus was thrown in prison for refusing to pay the state church tax, and his widowed mother would be imprisoned for a similar reason in 1754. This did not stop him from arguing the case that there should not be a state supported church maintained by the taxes of the local citizens. Backus did not believe that Baptists should retreat and live as hermits. On the contrary, the push for religious liberty deepened the bonds between Baptist churches in New England. Backus led his church to join the Warren Association of Baptist Churches. 

Out of this association, he would be elected as a representative to argue for religious liberty before the Continental Congress that met in 1774. Backus would also petition and press for religious liberty to the Massachusetts General Assembly in 1775 and 1778, and he wrote out a proposed Bill of Rights in 1779 for a new Massachusetts state constitution. Finally, in 1788, Backus would be elected as a delegate to the state convention that adopted the Federal Constitution. In all these activities, Backus was a constant champion for the cause of religious liberty and that the church and state were separate entities. As his own life showed, this did not mean that Backus believed believers should retreat from the religious square. Backus believed that a society should be governed by virtue and morality that flowed from God’s standard. 

Baptists need to recover this spirit that speaks out as good citizens for what is morally good and promote the common good. Backus did not envision a nation that was governed by a pagan mindset. However, Backus also was not seeking to create a Baptist nation either. In his speech before the Massachusetts Convention that debated the proposed Federal Constitution, Backus supported the prohibition of religious tests for federal officeholders. Backus stated, “that religion is ever a matter between God and individuals” and the state should not be governed as if it were the church. In that moment, Backus championed separation of church and state and religious liberty for all. 

Baptist polity is rooted in understanding the difference between the state and the church. The church is the new covenant community made up of the regenerate who are then immersed and admitted into membership. A commitment to regenerate membership ensures robust evangelism and a desire for the purity of the church. Backus exemplified Baptist polity by arguing for the church’s freedom from state control while maintaining a godly witness in the public square. In the 21st century, Baptists need their 18th-century forebears to remind us of the Baptist way.

By / Aug 12

Though Baptists love to claim him, Roger Williams was a Baptist for about 12 minutes. 

Hyperbole aside, the founder of Rhode Island and the ardent advocate for religious freedom did in fact live out his days as a “seeker” — he did not believe any church, this side of Christ’s return, was pure. He rejected, therefore, the formation of any church and did not attend church himself in his latter years. His views on both theological and political matters made him a constant target of civil authorities in the 1600s — a time where church and state, though distinct threads, were nevertheless intertwined in a mutual pursuit to fashion a godly community. 

Why, then, should Roger Williams hold such a special place in the hearts and minds of modern Baptists? It comes down to his pre-Enlightenment support of total religious freedom. By total, I mean a comprehensive freedom that encompassed not only orthodox Protestants, but Catholics, Muslims, and even atheists. He wrote in his 1652 work The Bloody Tenet Yet More Bloody that “Jews, Turks, Antichristians, and Pagans,” were “peaceable and just . . . notwithstanding their spiritual whoredoms.” In the mid-17th century, Williams’ views scandalized his readers. Parliament ordered his books burned, and theological leaders in England like Thomas Edwards, took direct aim at Williams’ views, calling them blasphemous and pernicious. Indeed, Williams’ most famous interlocular, John Cotton, wrote a letter from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to a minister back in England, decrying Williams as an obstinate rabble rouser — a “Sheba of Bickry,” who “blew a Trumpet” of sedition and separation.

Religious liberty as a means for evangelism

Williams blew the trumpet of soul liberty. He crafted a theological and natural law defense of religious freedom with which Baptists can and should resonate. Indeed, Williams, though not a Baptist himself, stood in a stream of Baptists who defended the rights of conscience. Williams’ ideas imbibed those persecuted Baptists who came before him — figures like Thomas Helwys and John Murton, whose works on religious freedom in the early 1600s proved formative on Williams in the 1640s and 50s. Williams, furthermore, was a source for Baptists who came after him. Most notably, Isaac Backus and John Leeland frequently mentioned Williams as an important voice in their own ideological commitment to religious liberty — Backus himself cited Williams at length in his campaign to disestablish the state church in Massachusetts.   

The cornerstone of Williams’ support for religious freedom, however, came down to an issue of salvation. That is to say, Williams framed the question of whether or not there should be religious freedom around how one came to saving faith. Williams believed that true conversion necessitated the volitional choice to confess one’s sins, repent, and believe in the gospel. Only adults, or at least those who could provide evidence of their regeneration, were candidates for baptism — another controversial view during Williams’ day. Given these soteriological convictions, Williams found it utterly horrific that any civil society would attempt to enact an enforced religious orthodoxy. God, by Williams’ contention, never endowed any magistrate or government an authority over the conscience. Throughout his works, Williams pointed to the natural product of established religion. He wrote during the Thirty Years War, a religious conflict that claimed the lives of nearly 8,000,000 people. He also wrote during the English Civil War, another religious war that killed a higher percentage of the English population than World War I and World War II.

Citing these conflicts, Williams argued that coerced religion, at best, created a church of hypocrites. At worst, it ended in violent revolution. 

Instead, Williams argued that religious freedom was not only biblical, but part of God’s creational design. Men and women were to respond to the gospel summons of their own accord through the process of sharing the gospel. People did not truly repent of their sins when coerced by the civil sword of the magistrate — that, according to Williams, stifled the work of the Spirit. Instead, persuasion, reasoning with the unconverted, and an open dialogue without the fear of retribution were not only the surest means to procure societal peace, but also the means through which people could come to a saving knowledge of the Savior. 

Williams disclosed in his 1644 work, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, that the concern for evangelism nourished his belief in soul freedom. Indeed, Williams wrote, “He that is a briar, that is a Jew, a Turk, a Pagan, an Antichristian today, may be, when the Word of the Lord runs freely, a member of Jesus Christ tomorrow, cut out of the wild olive, and planted into the tree.” This was his hope and aspiration — that God’s Word be liberated from the fetters of coerced religion so that men and women, likewise freed from establishment, could respond in true faith to the gospel summons. 

In other words, religious freedom was, for Williams, a means to a greater end. He did not contend for soul liberty so that he could be left alone to his own devices or to never face the realities of religious persecution. Instead, he fought for religious liberty because of a soteriological conviction — because of a gospel conviction. 

Modern Baptists and the public square

Williams had a lot more to say about religious freedom, but this concern for evangelism that undergirded his advocacy is especially important for Baptists today. In a recent article I wrote for Public Discourse, I argued that conservatives must resist the temptation to foreclose on the public square and political engagement. Conservatives seem weary of engaging with liberals, arguing that liberals are no longer concerned about seeking the truth or engaging in meaningful dialogue. Our hyper-partisanship seems to tribalize us, entrenching us in unreasoned allegiances and an unwillingness to engage with our political rivals. A large majority of Americans are now dissatisfied with democracy altogether, and a sizeable minority of Americans — 1 in 6 — now favor military rule

My points in the Public Discourse piece were directed at political issues — but I sense that significant similarities exist between disgruntled conservatives who no longer wish to engage with liberals and evangelical Christians, who, similarly, have retreated into the comforts of our own tribes. Thus, our advocacy, as Baptists, for religious freedom, has less to do with the common good and evangelism and more to do with our desire to be left alone. 

Roger Williams has much to teach us here. 

We are in an evangelistic emergency, and I fear that Christians — Baptists included — have surveyed the public square and our political moment and surrendered our core commitment to evangelism and preaching the gospel. Like conservatives, we are ready to wash our hands of those on the left — or those we wrongfully deem unsavable. We contend for liberty, but only so that we can just be left alone. When Williams, however, staked his life on religious freedom, he did so with the expressed intent of evangelism. By setting up Rhode Island as a place for people distressed of conscience, Williams pursued those whom he thought had deviated from the truth. Rather than hanging Quakers, he engaged them, toward the end of his life, in theological dialogue. He wanted to convince them of the truth — and he was able to do so because in Rhode Island, the Word of the Lord ran freely. 

This did not mean that Rhode Island was a conflict free, perennially happy place. Williams noted the frequent and bitter disputes between the various religious groups that took up residence in the colony. William Arnold, one of the colony’s leading figures, deplored the civil calamites that besieged his community, stating that liberty of conscience served as a “pretense,” which invited “all the scum” to come and take up residence. Liberty, as it turns out, is messy. 

But religious freedom was, indeed, remains worthy of our defense, and not so that we can just retreat to a quiet and private life. We strive for this freedom for the common good, so that places like Sunrise Children’s Services (a Kentucky Baptist Convention foster care ministry) can continue to be there for the orphan and the abused child without sacrificing religious convictions. 

More than the common good, we contend for this first freedom — this soul liberty — for the reasons Williams did. When the Word of the Lord runs freely, and when we preach that Word, those who today are lost, might tomorrow be saved. 

By / Aug 5

Baptists have been committed to religious liberty since their earliest days. This was both a pragmatic and theological position. As Dissenters from the Church of England and its state religion, they faced persecution and imprisonment. At the same time, because of their commitments to believer’s baptism (rather than infant baptism) and congregational autonomy, they were theologically opposed to a link between the state and the church. This was especially true for Thomas Helwys (c.1575 – c.1616), who was one of the early General Baptists (those who accepted a belief in general redemption rather than the Reformed doctrine of particular redemption) in England. 

Helwys would eventually die in prison for his writings arguing that King James I was limited in his authority over the religious affairs of individuals. Helwys holds the distinction of being the first person to call for universal liberty in English, writing that “If the Kings people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane lawes made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more . . . Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” For modern Baptists, Helwys is an exemplar of the tradition’s commitment to religious liberty for all, not just Baptists, as well as the importance of calling the state to account when it transgresses its authority. 

Thomas Helwys’ context

The period of Helwys’ birth and early life was one of transition for England. With the death of Elizabeth in his teen years, and the assumption of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England (becoming King James I), the country was faced with a question of how it would deal with the religious divisions within the kingdom. James was not in favor of returning the country to Catholicism (as Queen Mary had done prior to Queen Elizabeth), but he also was not in favor of allowing Dissenters to worship freely, believing that the church and state should support one another (summarized in his statement that “No bishop, no king.”). As such, many groups were forced to meet and worship in secret, Separatists and Congregationalists — the forerunners of Baptists who were committed to congregational autonomy but practiced infant baptism — among them. 

However, Helwys was committed to his faith and was one of the most economically well-off members of the early movement. He helped finance the move from England to Denmark of the congregation led by John Smythe who were fleeing persecution. When they arrived, he and Smythe were convinced of the doctrine of believer’s baptism and after Smythe baptized himself, Helwys became the first person to be baptized in the congregation. Helwys would eventually separate from Smythe when the latter joined the Mennonite tradition. 

Instead, Helwys, believing that it was wrong for the group to escape persecution, returned to England with a small contingent and founded the first General Baptist church in the country. He would also publish his work A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity that led to his eventual imprisonment in Newgate Prison for treason. He died in prison in 1616, still fervently defending the principles of religious liberty and suffering the consequences of his radical beliefs. 

Thomas Helwys’ A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity

Thomas Helwys’s most famous work, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, is a defense of the nascent Baptist movement’s separation and difference from the Anglican church and the other Separatist movements of the period. The book uses apocalyptic language and parallels the papacy with the first beast of John’s Revelation, the Anglican church with the second, and then ends with condemnations of the Puritans for their clinging to the second beast as well as other Separatist groups for their practice of infant baptism. 

The work’s importance is derived not from its use of apocalyptic imagery, but rather its willingness to extend religious liberty to all individuals, a controversial concept at the time. The Short Declaration is the writing of an individual convinced that the eschaton is imminent because of the moral decay which he sees around him. As such, it is an attempt to call both the people of England and the leaders specifically, to distance themselves from these institutions which were antithetical to Helwys’ interpretation of Christianity.

While the extent to which Helwys reasonably expected a positive response to this work is not clear, it is no surprise that it was not received favorably. The section addressed to the king in which Helwys’s most memorable line calling for total religious liberty is found is a strict reminder to King James I of England that he can only justly wield the power of the temporal sword. Any exercise of the spiritual — which as head of the Anglican Church he also wielded — is an overreach of authority. Further, Helwys’ writing is not at any time hesitant to name the faults that he perceives in the hierarchy of either the papacy or that of the archbishops and bishops of the Anglican Church. Further, its condemnation of the Puritans for their refusal to reject this second beast would have negated any hope of reforming the Anglican Church. Helwys argues not for reform, but rather radical separation. 

The tension between these two positions of upholding the ability of an individual to exercise their freedom of conscience while simultaneously denying that any good can come from participation in the Anglican Church illustrates the tensions that were present in this non-creedal movement. With only appeals to Scripture and a belief in the ability of the individual to understand Scripture without an ecclesiastical hierarchy for interpretation, Helwys also feels compelled to denounce those who would remain within that same structure because of a belief that it might be reformed.

Implications for modern Baptists

For those looking back to Thomas Helwys, there are two ways that we can find models for our own lives and practices. The first is in his fervent commitment to universal religious liberty. As Josh Wester has written, Baptists were committed to the doctrine because of theological conviction and practical necessity. Helwys was no different. His writings continue to emphasize that the state (and in particular the king) is limited in its authority over religious affairs. However, it is not mere toleration that he seeks, but actual liberty. And not only for his small congregation, but for all peoples, whether “heretics [atheists], Turks, Jews or whatsoever . . .” 

The work of individuals such as Helwys, and those who came after him, laid a foundation for the American principles of religious liberty enshrined in the First Amendment. This theological conviction that the state could not interfere because it would not answer for the souls of men and women was born out of a theological conviction that each individual must give their own account for their works before God at judgment.

The commitment to universal religious liberty from Helwys, and the radical political implications of his writing, led to his imprisonment and eventual death. It is in this that modern Baptists can see the second truth to be gleaned from his life: perseverance through unjust punishment for theological convictions. As the Baptists grew in number, both in America and abroad, they faced persecution for their rejection of the state church and their refusal to practice infant baptism. Helwys, along with names in America such as Clarke and Williams, set a pattern for how Baptists have responded to these unjust persecutions. They did not bend their convictions or accommodate to what their consciences knew to be false. Rather, they held fast to the convictions of conscience and in so doing called out the unjust actions of those in power with their lives, not only their words and writings. 

Modern American Baptists can take solace in the fact that we do not face persecution like our forbearers, and are unlikely to in the near future. At the same time, we are provided with models of how Baptists have responded historically in the face of injustice. 

By / Jul 19

One of the values of Christian history is learning from past role models for the sake of present-day faithfulness. Baptist history is filled with such role models. Though none of them is perfect — who is except King Jesus? — they nevertheless offer a wealth of wisdom for those who are willing to learn from our history.

In recent days, I’ve become convinced that John Leland (1754–1841) is among the most important role models from Baptist history. Leland was a native of Massachusetts, though he spent many of his most fruitful years of ministry in Virginia. He became one of the most important Baptist leaders of his era, a time that coincided with the emergence of Baptists from their persecuted sectarian roots into a national denomination.

Three reasons to look to Leland

There are three reasons I believe contemporary Southern Baptists should look to John Leland as a key role model. 

Religious liberty: First, and most famously, Leland was unwavering in his commitment to what Baptists have often called the “First Freedom” of religious liberty for all people. This principle is a cherished Baptist distinctive that is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In God’s providence, Leland played a significant role in that signal moment in American history.

In 1788, James Madison of Virginia was running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Madison met with Leland in the hopes of garnering support from the Baptists in his district. The two men came to an agreement. Leland would encourage Baptists to vote for Madison. In return, Madison would advocate for full religious freedom. Madison won the election and subsequently authored the First Amendment that guaranteed religious freedom for all by rejecting the idea of an established state church. Leland was also a strong supporter of Thomas Jefferson, in part because of the latter’s commitment to church-state separation. In 1801, Leland famously gifted President Jefferson with a 1235-pound block of cheese from Massachusetts Baptists. In response, Jefferson invited Leland to preach at a Sunday worship service in the House of Representatives. Jefferson attended the service.

Personal evangelism: The second reason we should look to Leland is because of his zeal for personal evangelism. While Leland is best remembered for his tireless advocacy for religious liberty, he would have identified himself first and foremost as an evangelist. Leland preached over 8,000 sermons and baptized approximately 2,000 converts during the course of his ministry. In fact, one of the reasons Leland was such a strong advocate for religious liberty is because he wanted every individual to have the freedom to believe the gospel without confusion or compulsion. For Leland, defending religious liberty was not about commending an Enlightenment principle but rather was about advancing the Great Commission.

Biblical justice: A final reason Leland is an important role model for contemporary Baptists is because of his advocacy of biblical justice, which he understood to be compatible with his commitment to personal evangelism. In Leland’s day, the greatest public injustice was the system of race-based chattel slavery in the American South. Leland was arguably the most famous Baptist to argue against human enslavement. In 1791, he chose to leave Virginia and return to Massachusetts following the controversy that resulted from a strongly worded anti-slavery sermon. Though his views on how best to end the evil of slavery legally evolved over time, Leland maintained his belief that slavery was incompatible with Christianity and that Christian slaveowners should emancipate their slaves.

Leaning in to Leland’s legacy

Though times have changed, our world is not so different from that of Leland. Religious liberty is under fire in our own day, not so much from the specter of state-imposed religion but rather primarily from the threat of state-imposed secularism and culturally endorsed revisionist morality. The religious freedom of Christian bakers and florists is denigrated as hateful bigotry. Churches are coerced into closing their doors because of government overreach during a pandemic. Roman Catholics are forced to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives or medical procedures that violate their religious convictions. The list could go on. Baptists must remain firmly committed to our historic principle of religious liberty for all people.

Leland lived during the period when the irreligious South was finally becoming the Bible Belt because of the influence of the First and Second Great Awakenings. Today, what was once the Bible Belt may well remain overchurched in some places but it is increasingly underreached. This is even more the case in other parts of our nation. Research shows that across the USA, the share of citizens who claim to be Christian is shrinking while the percentage of “nones” is increasing at a rapid rate. Leland stands out as an evangelistic role model at a time when Southern Baptists are recommitting ourselves to sharing the gospel with all people and planting churches where there is minimal gospel witness.

Finally, our own day is threatened by culturally sanctioned injustice. While race-based slavery is outlawed in the United States and most other nations, various forms of both personal and corporate racism persist. The modern slavery of human sex trafficking harms women all over the world, often in our own communities. Millions of unborn image-bearers are legally murdered because of the tragedy of abortion-on-demand. Too many women are abused by powerful men, far too often in religious contexts by those in positions of spiritual authority. Minority groups are the victims of state-sanctioned genocide in other nations. Countless children are exploited by pornographers. This is just scratching the surface. Leland reminds us that evangelistic proclamation and the advocacy of public justice are complementary ministries.

There is no better time than now for Baptists to become reacquainted with the life and legacy of John Leland. May his holistic commitment to defending religious liberty, spreading the gospel, and advocating for justice encourage us to do likewise.

By / Jul 11

In 1612, the proto-Baptist Thomas Helwys published a book entitled A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity. In an original edition of the work preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, there is a handwritten note on the flyleaf of the work addressed to King James I from Thomas Helwys. This volume was apparently a dedication copy to be presented to the King of England. Helwys, who had just returned to England from the Netherlands with a band of baptized believers,* intended to make a statement to the King regarding religious liberty. Apparently, the King received the message as Helwys was unsurprisingly arrested shortly thereafter and languished in the infamous Newgate Prison until he died four years later in 1616. Helwys’ courageous address to the King of England deserves to be read and remembered as we consider the Baptist contribution to religious liberty. Baptists have a rich heritage of speaking truth to power, often at great risk.

Below is a transcription of the text of Helwys handwritten note to King James I: 

Heare, O King, and dispise not ye counsell of ye poore and let their complaints come before thee.

The King is a mortall man and not God, therefore hath no power over ye immortall soules of his subiects, to make lawes & ordinances for them, and to set spirituall Lords over them.

If the King have authority to make spirituall Lords & lawes, then he is an immortall God and not a mortall man.

O King be not seduced by deceivers to sine so against God whome thou oughtest to obey, nor against thy poore subiects who ought and will obey thee in all thinges with body life and goods or els let their lives be taken from ye earth.

God save ye Kinge

Tho: Helwys.

neare London.

This article was originally published here.