Baptists and Religious Liberty: A Brief Introduction

One of the ways I learned about various Baptist distinctives came through the use of an acrostic. It used the word “BAPTIST” and looked like this:

B – Biblical Authority
A – Autonomy of the local church
P – Priesthood of believers
T – Two ordinances of the church
I – Individual Soul Liberty
S – Saved and baptized church membership
T – Two offices in the church
S – Separation of Church and State

It is the final “S” in that acrostic – designated as “Separation of Church and State” – that might surprise many of us. Is that a Baptist distinctive? Yes indeed, and it is no exaggeration to suggest that the American principle of religious liberty was largely secured through the influence of Baptist thought and practice.

Baptists were a persecuted people. The religious setting in America during the 17th and 18th centuries was not, as we might assume, a celebration of religious diversity. The established churches of the colonies would persecute Baptists for a variety of reasons, including the practice of believers baptism. Roger Williams, the founder of the First Baptist Church in America, famously fled Massachusetts and founded Rhode Island with a commitment to the individual “liberty of conscience.” The Puritan colony of Massachusetts banned Baptists in 1645 and called them “the incendiaries of commonwealths and the infectors of persons in main matters of religion, and the troublers of churches in all places.” The irony of this situation was revealed by one Baptist pastor named Ebenezer Smith who condemned the persecutors by proclaiming, “all they wanted was liberty from oppression that they might have liberty to oppress!

This persecution was even worse in Virginia, prompting Baptist leaders to threaten the removal of their support from the ensuing rebellion against Britain. It was also Baptists who were a significant influence in the passing of both Jefferson’s “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom” and the famous 1st Amendment to the US Constitution which provided protections for religious freedom.

This passion for religious liberty was not limited to the time of the American Revolution. Throughout their history, Baptists have been committed to religious freedom for all people, and this is beautifully reflected through the various Baptist confessions of faith. A few of the more prominent statements are provided below:

“And if God should provide such a mercy for us, as to incline the magistrates hearts so far to tender our consciences, as that we might be protected by them from wrong, injury, oppression and molestation…” The London Baptist Confession of 1644, Article 50.

“That it is the will, and mind of God (in these Gospel times) that all men should have the free liberty of their own consciences in matters of Religion, or Worship, without the least oppression, or persecution, as simply upon that account.” The Standard Confession of 1660, Article 24.

God alone is Lord of the Conscience, and hath left it free from the Doctrines and Commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or not contained in it.” Second London Baptist Confession of 1677 (1689), Article 21.

“That civil government is of divine appointment…and that the magistrates are to be prayed for, conscientiously honored, and obeyed, except [only] in things opposed to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only Lord of the conscience…” The New Hampshire Confession of 1833, Article 16.

Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends.” Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Article 17.

In addition to these Baptist confessions, there are additional Baptist writings that continue the strong theme of religious liberty. For example:

John Leland, the American Baptist minister and abolitionist, penned a powerful tract called “The Right of Conscience Unalienable” in 1790. He wrote, “Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile it to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise let men be free.

And, of course, it was in correspondence to the Danbury Baptists in 1802 that Thomas Jefferson wrote his now famous “separation of church and state” letter. Jefferson says, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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.

This brief introduction is but a taste of the long, faithful history of Baptists on the topic of religious liberty. But why bring this up now? Three reasons are on my mind.

First, it seems that some contemporary Baptists are forgetting, or even worse, repudiating our long historical commitment to religious liberty for all people. The work of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has come under intense scrutiny over the last few years due to activity that supported the rights of all people of faith, not just Baptists, to worship as they please. Some appear to be eager to affirm religious liberty when it protects our interests as Baptists, but oppose the concept if the protections are toward those who do not share our beliefs. This approach is contrary to 400 years of Baptist thought. A commitment to religious liberty for all people does not negate a passion for the Great Commission to all people.

Second, this past year the COVID pandemic has demonstrated that some Baptists are confusing religious liberty with a blanket rejection of civil authority in all circumstances at all times as it relates to the church, and have used religious liberty to quickly dismiss the weighty commands of Scripture as it pertains to obedience to the governing authorities. We have some work to due as it relates to parsing these delicate and important issues.

Third, religious liberty has been and continues to be an ongoing topic of concern that we must continue to labor toward. Now, more than ever, the work of the ERLC is critically important to Southern Baptists, and to people of all faith traditions. May we continue to be diligent in the work of our Lord Jesus Christ.