Thursday, January 24, 2013

Baptists and the Constitution

The best travel leads you down unexpected paths.  Such is the case with my trip to North Carolina.  In New Bern, there are churches everywhere.  I saw so many Jesus Loves You signs, I almost started to believe it myself.  I am drawn into churches, not by an imaginary spirit, but because of the architecture.  This red brick First Baptist Church on Middle Street is a Gothic Revival beauty.  It has the castle-like tower and pointed arched windows, which are classic features of this style of architecture.  The original wooden church was replaced by this brick one in 1848.  It is on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
But there is so much more to this church than its structure.  It symbolizes the very reason early Americans went to war against England:  To end oppression.  Baptists had been in the area since the early 1700's.  When they asked permission to build a church in New Bern in 1741, not only were they denied, but they were publicly whipped and imprisoned.  This happened to the Lutherans, Quakers and Baptists in other places, as well.  People fled England to avoid religious persecution, but the colonies remained tied to the Anglican Church.  Nine of the thirteen colonies developed state churches, all financed by local governments.

In 1638, Roger Williams established the first Baptist Church in Rhode Island .  Williams, a former member of the Church of England, became upset with government intrusion and corruption.  He is credited for writing "a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world", a metaphor for separation of church and state.  Williams actually secured a charter from King Charles II guaranteeing civil and religious freedom, making Rhode Island the first government in American history to be founded on the premise of absolute religious freedom.  It would take much longer before other American colonies followed suit.

When the Continental Congress declared independence from England, Baptists from all over the country, signed up to fight.  Independent rule meant religious freedom.  Or so they thought.  After the war, when delegates met in the summer of 1787 to draft the first Constitution of the United States, there was no mention of religious liberty.  It was still too explosive a subject to tackle.  In order to get all thirteen states to ratify the constitution, compromises were made.  The Baptists were furious.  They then threw their support behind James Madison and Thomas Jefferson who recognized the need for a Bill of Rights.  It would take another four years before it became law and the First Amendment would finally guarantee religious freedom.

It is interesting to note that Thomas Jefferson borrows Roger William's beautiful metaphor in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut.  He 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 and state."  Jefferson's words have been quoted in many court decisions, but it is the Baptists who coined the phrase, and it is the Baptists who fought so hard to make sure all the states finally agreed to this separation.  It took until 1833 before all states ratified their own constitutions to include this principle.

I want to leave you with a remarkable quote from John Leland, one of the early American Baptist patriots, who hounded James Madison until the deed was done.

The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever . . . Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another.  The liberty I contend for is more than toleration.  The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, where all should be equally free--Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.


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