Baptists in America
In 1771, “America” was a much different place spiritually. Most of the first colonies subsidized their “chosen” ministers’ salaries with tax revenue. Separate Baptists like Isaac Backus in Massachusetts were arrested and John Leland, John Weatherford, and David Barrow were assaulted by mobs and beaten with whips. In Caroline County, Virginia, 6 Baptists were arrested for the “immorality” of adult baptism. At that time, most people thought adult baptism was like a “get out of jail free card” in regards to sin. We were not alone. New York celebrated the anti-Catholic “Pope Day.” Only 3 of the thirteen colonies allowed Catholics to vote. Most settlers had come to worship separately from other forms of religions. And Baptists, Catholics, and everything else besides the state’s chosen (usually Puritan) religions were that other way. They wanted to worship in the way they chose and to still kick out those who did not.
Obviously, we are at a much different place today. What caused such change that brought not only a spiritual change called “religious liberty” but its political equivalent termed by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury, Virginia Baptists, “a wall of separation between church and state”? Two things among others made it possible, according to Steve Waldman, author of the book Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the birth of Religious Freedom in America.
The first was the persecution of Baptists in the state of Virginia. Baptists did not want the state governments to use tax dollars to pay the salaries of clergy or to force them to baptize their children until they could speak for themselves. Separate Baptists could be exempted from the taxes in Virginia; they had to verify their Baptist heritage, be certified, and prove they still attended church. How times have changed. Roger Williams started the first Baptist church in a free state called Rhode Island, but it took John Leland’s problems with the magistrates of Virginia to awaken the concerns of James Madison.
The second was a good old fashioned revival. In 1739, the fiery, cross-eyed preacher George Whitfield spread a message that ignited the flames of spiritual fervor so great in early America that more people started attending church, and more churches were started. There were so many different kinds of beliefs; religious liberty as expressed in the first amendment to the constitution provided freedom to all the new growing movements (like ours) but made sure that churches did not try to meddle in the business of partisanship. Thanks to James Madison, the first amendment became the way to hold the churches accountable to each other. Competition was good for religion. The founders, many of whom were godly people and even “Christians,” eventually realized that faith coerced, compelled, or even funded was not true faith. It was neither good for the kingdom of God or for the new nation. When states stopped subsidizing salaries, America became more spiritual and more dedicated to God.
In this part of the world, Baptists enjoy the blessing, grace, and responsibility of these freedoms. We should never forget the liberty forged through conflict, and for which many brave men and women still serve so that others can enjoy this blessing. We should share our views following Jesus’ model: as servants. Others think and worship differently than we. If memory serves right, many people we call “Christians” today imprisoned us for our views about Jesus. To preserve the goodness of government and the godliness of society, we should take a page from the founders. We uphold religious liberty for all people and pray for revival. That would be a blessing to all on this week when we as Baptists are so grateful to be independent.