In the years prior to the American Revolution, Baptists endured severe religious persecution -- particularly in Virginia. When the Continental Congress declared independence from England, Baptists swelled the ranks of the revolutionary army. In their mind, the fight for independence and the struggle for religious liberty were one and the same. That is why, after the war, Baptists refused to approve the Constitution until the first amendment was added to separate church and state and guarantee religious liberty for all persons.
Isaac Backus was "born again" during the Great Awakening in 1742. He was an independent evangelist identified with Separatists or strict Congregationalists until 1756 when he became a Baptist and organized and took the pastorate of the Baptist church at Middleborough.
In 1767, When New England Baptists formed an Association at Warren, Rhode Island, they made Backus their clerk. In 1769 the association formed a "Grievance Committee" to collect "well attested" evidence of persecution against Baptists (like that of Esther White and the Ashfield Baptists) and seek redress at court and in the legislature. In 1773, a year after Backus became chair of the grievance committee, he published the evidence in a forceful appeal for separation of church and state entitled, "An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppression of the Present Day."
Soon Backus and others began to realize that the Baptist search for religious liberty could be tied to the colonial search for political liberty. In 1774 Backus, Chileab Smith and James Manning went to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia to try to win support from the other colonies for their fight for religious liberty in New England. They were not well received. John Adams, Sam Adams and Robert Treat Paine accused them of trying to use a minor issue to divide the colonies as they were preparing a defense for political liberty.
When the revolution began Baptists joined the cause for political liberty still hoping that it would lead to religious liberty. In 1776, James Manning read the declaration of Independence from the steps of his church, Backus preached a sermon encouraging active resistance to the king on the Sunday following the Battle of Lexington, and Baptists readily enlisted in the revolutionary army.
John Leland led Baptists in Virginia in the struggle for religious freedom. He ardently opposed the idea that the United States was a Christian commonwealth and fervently championed separating church and state. He wrote:
"No national church can in its organization, be the Gospel Church. A National church takes in the whole Nation, and no more; whereas, the Gospel Church, takes in no Nation, but those who fear God, and work righteousness in every Nation. The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. . . . If all the souls in a government were saints of God, should they be formed into a society by law, that society could not be a Gospel Church, but a creature of state." (The Writings of John Leland, ed. L.F. Greene. New York: Arno Press, 1969, p. 107)
At the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1776, Thomas Jefferson opposed general assessment taxes to support religion and proposed that dissenters be exempted from such taxes. When his proposal was blocked, Leland and the Baptists of Virginia felt that support of Jefferson's proposal was so urgent that they held a meeting on Christmas day of "an Association of Ministers and Delegates" and wrote a paper giving reasons for supporting Jefferson's proposal. It said:
"No man or set of Men are entitled to exclusive or separate Emoluments or Privileges from the Community but in consideration of Public Services. If, therefore, the State provides a Support for Preachers of the Gospel, and they receive it in Consideration of their Services, they must certainly when they preach, act as Officers of the State and ought to be accountable thereto for their Conduct. . . . the Consequence of this is, that those whom the state employs in its Service, it has a right to regulate and dictate to; it may judge and determine who shall preach; when and where they shall preach. The mutual obligations between Preachers and Societies they belong to . . . must evidently be weakened -- Yea, farewell to the last Article of the Bill of Rights! [The fourth article of the Virginia Declaration of Rights adopted in 1776]. Farewel (sic) to "the free exercise of Religion!"
Some think that this kind of support from Baptists prompted Jefferson to write his "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom." When it was first introduced in 1779, Baptists were virtually alone in supporting it. The bill was reintroduced and passed in 1786 after James Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance" opposing Patrick Henry's general assessment bill to provide for "Teachers of the Christian Religion" received wide circulation and acceptance throughout Virginia. Silas Hart, John Young and others circulated petitions opposing Henry's bill in Baptist associations and the evangelist Leland preached against it in churches throughout the state. On August 13, 1785 the Baptist General Committee of Virginia approved the following resolution:
That it be recommended to those counties, which have not yet prepared petitions to be presented to the General Assembly against the engrossed bill for a general assessment for the support of the teachers of the Christian Religion, to proceed thereon as soon as possible: That it is believed to be repugnant to the spirit of the gospel for the legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion; that the holy author of our religion needs no such compulsive measures for the promotion of his cause; that the gospel wants not the feeble arm of man for its support; that it has made and will again through divine power make its way against all opposition; and that should the legislature assume the right of taxing the people for the support of the gospel it will be destructive to religious liberty.
Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance" circulated in 13 petitions and garnered 1,552 signatures. The General Committee's resolution circulated in 29 petitions and garnered 4,899 signatures. The original petitions are in the Virginia State Library.
Madison's understanding of the Baptist position regarding church and state is recorded in a letter he wrote to James Monroe in the midst of the fight against Henry's bill. Concerning support and opposition to the bill he wrote:
"The Episcopal clergy are generally for it. . . . The Presbyterians seem as ready to set up an establishment which would take them in as they were to pull one down which shut them out. The Baptists, however, standing firm by their avowed principle of the complete separation of church and state, declared it to be "repugnant to the spirit of the Gospel for the Legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion, that no human laws ought to be established for the purpose." (James Madison, Writings, II, 183-191.) [For a note concerning this quote see Fact Check on J.M. Dawson on the Mainstream Baptist blog on March 5, 2005]
Shortly after Leland and Baptists helped Madison secure religious liberty for everyone in Virginia, tension developed between Baptists and James Madison over the inadequate provision for religious liberty in the U.S. Constitution that Madison was so instrumental in writing. Madison wrote a document that could unite a country where some of the states had established churches of different sects and denominations. He felt that Clause 3 of Article VI was provision enough for religious liberty. That provision assured that "No religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public trust under the United States." Whether for political or for philosophical reasons, Madison initially opposed adding a bill of rights to the U.S. Constitution. Baptists felt betrayed. John Leland sent a letter to Madison on February 28, 1788 giving ten reasons why he objected to the Constitution without a bill of rights. His strongest objection has to do with religious liberty:
"What is clearest of all -- Religious Liberty, is not sufficiently secured, No Religious test is Required as a qualification to fill any office under the United States, but if a Majority of Congress with the President favour one System more then another, they may oblige all others to pay to the support of their System as much as they please, and if Oppression does not ensue, it will be owing to the Mildness of Administration and not to any Constitutional defence, and of the Manners of People are so far Corrupted, that they cannot live by Republican principles, it is Very Dangerous leaving Religious Liberty at their Mercy."
On March 7, 1788 the Baptist General Committee of Virginia met to discuss the question,
"Whether the new Federal Constitution, which had now lately made its appearance in public, made sufficient provision for the secure enjoyment of religious liberty; on which it was agreed unanimously that, in the opinion of the General Committee, it did not."
Baptists apparently determined to nominate Leland, and oppose Madison, as the delegate from Orange County at Virginia's convention to ratify the Constitution. A defeat for that seat would have embarrassed the "Father of the Constitution" and might have imperiled adoption of the Constitution. On the eve of the election, Madison visited Leland at his farm on the Fredericksburg road outside Orange. Eugene Bucklin Bowen of Cheshire, Massachusetts documented the traditional Baptist account of their meeting:
"Both Madison and Leland were candidates for the Virginia Convention on ratifying the Constitution. It was evident, however, that Leland had more votes than had Madison. Madison though having practically written the Constitution couldn't get an election from his own state for its adoption. They finally met under a certain oak tree near Orange which has been carefully preserved to this day, and fought it out. It was a battle royal with Leland insisting that there should be an article in the Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty. Madison, however, was afraid to put it in on account of the opposition of some of the colonies, Massachusetts in particular. A compromise was agreed upon. This was that Leland should withdraw and advocate the election of Madison. This, they thought, would ensure the adoption by Virginia. It was a tough battle but on the vote of 168 they won out by a margin of 10 over Madison's remaining opponents. . . . This agreement between Madison and Leland was conditioned upon Madison's joining Leland in a crusade for an amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty, free speech and a free press." (J.M. Dawson, Baptists and the American Republic, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1956, p. 108-109 says the original manuscript of Bowen's account is in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress.)
After the Constitution was adopted, Leland rejoiced that it would be possible for a "Pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian" to be eligible for any post or office in the government. (The Writings of John Leland, ed. L.F. Greene. New York: Arno Press, 1969, p. 191.)
If Leland and Madison made a bargain, then Madison kept his part. On June 7, 1789 Madison submitted the first version of the amendment that became the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
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