To Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Spoken at Christ’s Church Cathedral  Houston, TX  on April 25, 1996

by Dr. Bruce Prescott


            I am here to speak for Baptists this evening.  It is not surprising that a Baptist would be asked to speak on behalf of religious liberty.  By many accounts the greatest contribution that Baptists have made toward the progress of civilization is to insist that church and state be separated. 


            Many of the most courageous and eloquent advocates for religious liberty were Baptists.  One of the first was Balthasar Hubmaier.  He was a German Anabaptist.  In 1525 he wrote one of the first pamphlets on religious liberty.  He titled it, Concerning Heretics and Those who Burn Them.  In it he argued that even atheists must be given religious liberty.  He said, “No one may injure the atheist who wishes nothing for himself other than to forsake the gospel.”  Now that was a radical statement back in 1525.  So much so that, to this day, the Baptist wing of the reformation is known as the “radical” reformation.  Radical reformers generally had a short life span.  Hubmaier survived for three more years.   When he was burned at the stake, his dying words were, “Truth is immortal.”


            From Hubmaier the torch of religious liberty passed to Thomas Helwys.  Helwys founded the first Baptist church in England.  Around 1610 he wrote a book called A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity.  He addressed his book to King James I -- the one who gave us the King James Version of the Bible.  In his book Helwys was so bold as to tell the king that he was a “mortal man and not God, therefore had no power over the immortal souls of his subjects.”   He argued for complete religious freedom saying,

Men’s religion to God is between God and themselves; the king shall not answer for it, neither may the king judge between God and man.  Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” 

Helwys thoughts were too radical for his day too.  The king had him arrested.  He died in prison about five years later. 


            From Helwys the torch of religious liberty passed to Roger Williams.  Roger Williams founded both the first Baptist church in America and the colony of Rhode Island.  Rhode Island’s charter, granted in 1636, made it the first colony in the new world to guarantee religious liberty for every citizen.  Williams founded the  colony after he was banished -- without provisions, in the dead of winter -- from the Massachusetts Bay colony.  He was banished for informing the magistrates that the government had no right to require uniformity of faith and worship.  Fortunately, native American Indians showed more civility than the Bostonians and kept Williams from starving and freezing.  If they hadn’t, the world would have been deprived of another classic writing on religious liberty, William’s Bloody Tenent of Persecution.  In it he wrote, “True civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or kingdom, notwithstanding the permission of diverse and contrary consciences, either Jew or Gentile.”


            Williams was not the only Baptist in America to be persecuted for his faith.  In 1651 John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes and John Crandall were arrested for conducting a worship service in a home that was two miles from Boston.  Clarke and Crandall were fined.  Holmes was given thirty lashes with a three-pronged whip. 


            As late as seven years before the revolutionary war, several Baptist preachers were arrested in Virginia for “preaching the gospel contrary to law.”  One of them, James Ireland, faced three attempts on his life while he was in jail.  Attempts were made to kill him with explosives, to suffocate him with noxious fumes, and a physician and the jailer collaborated to poison him.  Not surprisingly, they destroyed Ireland’s health, but not his spirit.


            With a history like this, there is little wonder why Baptists were in the forefront of the revolutionary war and in the struggle for religious liberty.  For them, the battle was one and the same.  That is also why Baptists refused to ratify the constitution until a bill of rights was added to guarantee that church and state would be separate.   In fact, John Leland told James Madison that if he would not give his support to the bill of rights, that Baptists in Virginia were prepared to elect him, a Baptist minister, in Madison’s place to secure its passage.  Subsequently, Madison wrote and secured the passage of the first amendment which guarantees religious liberty for all Americans.  After Madison succeeded, Leland rejoiced that the constitution made it possible for “a Pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian” to be eligible to serve in any post of the government.


            I have given this long account of the Baptist heritage for religious liberty for a reason.  It serves as a preface to what I am about to say and must say.  The Baptist presence -- and it is a significant presence, upwards from 25% at last count -- within the “Religious Right” is an aberration.  It is a repudiation of all that Baptists stood for until the last 20 years.  That may surprise you since so many Baptists are prominent in the leadership of the “Religious Right” which has been working overtime to tear down the wall of separation between church and state.  Surprise alone, however, is not an adequate emotion for this situation.  I now must tell you why you should be alarmed by this development.


            Baptists are “born again” Christians.  No one is born a Baptist.  We are the ones who believe that each person must come to faith by individual and personal conviction and commitment.  Baptists have always believed in the power of the gospel to win hearts and change lives.  All the gospel needs is a free and open hearing.  That is why religious liberty is so important to Baptists.  For us, real faith can never be produced by compulsion or coercion.  For us, real faith can never be passed down like an heirloom from one generation to the next.  For us, real faith must be accepted freely by individual commitment and conviction.


            The “Religious Right” has a different understanding of faith.  They intend to make the United States a Christian nation by political action and legislation.  For them, politics is a mission field.  For them, getting voters to the polls is like raising armies for crusades to reclaim the holy land.  For them, faith can be spread by inquisition, imposition, and coercion.


            The impulse and goals of the “Religious Right” are diametrically opposed to the impulse and goals of the historic Baptist faith and vision.  That so many Baptists are caught up in it, and leading it, should tell you that there is a crisis of faith within the Baptist community -- and within the broader evangelical community so far as they claim to be “born again” Christians.  The crisis of faith is rooted in a loss of faith.  The faith that has been lost is faith that the gospel alone has power to win hearts and change lives.  The “Religious Right” has given up on what the apostle Paul calls, “the foolishness of preaching” that transforms society by changing individual lives.  The “Religious Right” is determined to transform society by the “wisdom of the world” -- by legislation, by adjudication, and by very doctrinaire education.


            Should the “Religious Right” achieve their goals there will not be a happy ending for either the church, the state, or the American people.  The church will be compromised and the gospel will lose its credibility.  The state will intrude on the rights of individuals.  And, the American people will be deprived of the most basic human rights -- freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.


            That is enough to alarm me and it is enough to motivate me to support the work that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is doing to preserve religious liberty.


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