Whatever Became of Liberty of Conscience

By Dr. Bruce Prescott

For the Third Annual Mainstream Convocation in Nashville, TN 

February 28, 2004


Liberty of conscience used to be something that every Baptist held dear.  We cherished it because it was denied to us for so long.  For early Baptists conscience was something sacred and inviolable.  They refused to give anyone the liberty to judge another person’s conscience – not even the conscience of a Jew or a Turk (their name for a Muslim) or an atheist.


In the beginning of the Baptist movement, every Baptist felt the blow to personal integrity that came when someone tried to force them to affirm allegiance to another man’s creed.  Most of them had first-hand experience with the assault to conscience that came from being taxed to support the faiths of their oppressors.


At great personal sacrifice those Baptists refused to pay taxes to support state churches.  Isaac Backus said,


"it implies an acknowledgement that the civil power has a right to set one religious sect up above another . . . [and it] emboldens people to judge the liberty of other men’s consciences."[1]


No one described the price that our Baptist forefathers paid to secure our liberty of conscience more succinctly or more eloquently than John Leland.  In a letter to George Washington, written on behalf of Virginia Baptists, Leland explained why Baptists refused to ratify the Constitution until the First Amendment was added.  He wrote:


"When the Constitution first made its appearance in Virginia, we, as a society, had unusual strugglings of mind, fearing that the liberty of conscience, dearer to us than property or life, was not sufficiently secured. Perhaps our jealousies were heightened by the usage we received in Virginia under regal government, when mobs, fines, bonds and prisons were our frequent repast."[2]


"Liberty of conscience, dearer to us than property or life" and opposition to judging "the liberty of other men’s consciences" -- those were convictions that used to distinguish Baptists from other Christians.  Whatever happened to those convictions? 


Whatever became of liberty of conscience?


Does anyone today hear the voices of those early Baptists?


From the mists of time I imagine that Isaac Backus would like to speak to us.  He asks,

“Can it be true that 21st century Baptists choose leaders who arrogate authority over both church and state and who take the liberty to judge the consciences of others?  Say it’s not so.” 


But it is so. 


Now John Leland has a question.  He asks,


“After 18th century Baptists endured fines, beatings, imprisonments and had our property confiscated because we refused to pay taxes to support the hireling clergy that denied us liberty of conscience – how can 21st century Baptists willingly pay tithes to clerics who are devoted to negating liberty of conscience in the church and in civil society?  Say it’s not so.”  


But it is so.  And that’s just the beginning.


Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong ask,


“What happened to the Baptists who looked for Jesus in the eye of everyone they faced?  We hear that 21st century Baptists look for sin in the face of everyone they eye?  Say it’s not so.” 


But it is so.  And that’s not all.


A whole chorus of Baptists, led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams, backed up by generations of Baptists all the way to E.Y. Mullins and George Truett and R.G. Lee and Herschel Hobbs -- and with one voice they are all asking,


“Can it be true that some 21st century Baptists deride appeals to liberty of conscience as evidence of an unorthodox faith and proof of ‘liberalism?’  Say it’s not so.”


But it is so.  And we all know it.


In the last two years alone Southern Baptists have:


·        fired scores of missionaries for refusing to sign an idolatrous and unconscionable creed,


·        we’ve sparked riots in countries around the world with our finger pointing pronouncements and inflammatory rhetoric about Islam and its founder,


·        we’ve assumed the role as chief priests in a neo-conservative political crusade to assert American supremacy and force American values on the rest of the world,


·        and now we are withdrawing from the Baptist World Alliance because of a supposed “leftward drift” and “A decided anti-American tone.”



All of these things have happened in full public view and under the eyes of the people who fill Baptist pews.  But Baptists don’t seem to care.  Why is there no outcry in our churches?  Why do Baptists dutifully fill the coffers of the Southern Baptist Convention Sunday morning after Sunday morning and thereby underwrite, endorse and perpetuate such evils?


I have an answer that may surprise you.  I think most Baptists support the SBC out of a sense of gratitude.  We are grateful to the SBC for relieving us of the liberty and responsibility for making conscientious choices. 


Freedom is a burden.  Liberty of conscience means you must accept the responsibility to make conscientious choices.  Better than anyone else, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky understood the depth of that burden.  In his novel about The Brothers Karamazov he told a parable about the “Grand Inquisitor.”  In Dostoevsky’s story, the Inquisitor observes the risen Christ raising a little girl from the dead and has him arrested.  Then the Inquisitor interrogates Christ and condemns him for the crime of making men free.  Christ was silent throughout the interrogation, but the Inquisitor, like some Fundamentalists we know, already had the answers to all his questions. 


The Inquisitor said to Christ

“For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good. . . . today, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet.”

He added

“nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. . . . Man prefers peace, and even death to freedom of choice . . . Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.”

Finally, the Inquisitor advised Christ that his work had to be corrected and founded upon miracle, mystery and authority.  He said when they did that,

“men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and the terrible gift [of liberty of conscience] that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts.”


Baptists are indeed being led like sheep and the burden of liberty of conscience has been lifted from their hearts.  As I see it, it is the task of Mainstream Baptists to put it back on their hearts.


There are two burdens that need to be placed squarely back on the hearts of Baptists.  One has to do with stewardship and the other has to do with being consistent and not hypocritical in applying the Golden Rule.


The choices that modern Baptists find most burdensome are associated with stewardship.  Baptists have been trained to take their tithes and offerings to the storehouse and they think the Southern Baptist Convention is God’s storehouse.  When Baptists take their tithes to the storehouse, in their minds, they mistakenly think their accountability has ended and that the responsibility to see that their money is spent wisely has been shifted to God or to others.


It is time to tell Baptists that the days of storehouse tithing are over.  The Southern Baptist Convention is not God’s temple, and though Morris Chapman may think he is --  he is not God’s high priest, and though the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention may act like it is -- it is not the Sanhedrin.  All such hierarchical mediating systems ended when Jesus came.  The only mediator between God and man is the man Christ Jesus.  We are all personally accountable to him.  Every Baptist is personally accountable for the stewardship of his or her own resources and responsible to God for how all of their time and talent and treasure gets spent.  Individual Southern Baptists cannot evade the accounting they must give to God for how they let their denomination uses their tithes and offerings.


Here’s a good rule of thumb for conscientious stewardship.  If the people asking for money don’t respect liberty of conscience, they don’t deserve your support.  Find organizations that do support liberty of conscience and send your money to them.   The SBC should be supported in proportion to the degree that its leadership extends liberty of conscience to its journalists, missionaries, professors, and employees.  Right now, that would amount to absolutely nothing.


That brings me to the second burden that Baptists need to accept.  More is at stake than a support system for missionaries.  The money sustaining the SBC is eroding the common ground on which all present and future mission work depends. 


Conscience is the sacred ground in the human soul where we listen for the voice of God and respond to it.  Liberty of conscience is sacred and inviolable because it is the necessary pre-requisite for people to hear the gospel and receive it.  We are not born into the kingdom of God.  Salvation is not our birthright and it is not something we earn or deserve.  Real faith does not come by coercion.  God extends grace to us freely and it must be received freely.  To be free to receive it means that we must also be free to reject it.  That is why real Baptists have always coupled liberty of conscience with a consistent and non-hypocritical application of the Golden Rule.   


The early Baptists were consistent about wanting to see liberty of conscience extended to everybody – to people of all faiths and to people of no faith.  They took liberty of conscience seriously and the Golden Rule literally.  They willing did what Jesus commanded when he said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”   For them, the Golden Rule was a principle of respect for the liberty of conscience of other persons.  It also provided the common ground on which people of divergent beliefs and convictions could live together in peace and unity – if they desire to do so.  Unfortunately, not everyone desires to do so.  Fundamentalism in the SBC, like Fundamentalism in every religion, restricts the Golden Rule and compresses the circle of people that are treated with respect.  That always leads to violence.


The cycle of violence in Baptist circles began in 1979 when some Fundamentalists began waging a holy war against moderates within the Baptist family.  In the beginning the Fundamentalists waged war with slanderous verbal assaults and paper ballots.  Most Baptist lay people thought they could stop up their ears to this violence and it would go away.  But, it didn’t go away.  Once the Fundamentalists gained power their assaults took the form of committee recommendations and their weapon of choice became pink slips.  This time, Baptist lay people closed their eyes to the violence and thought it would all go away.  Their eyes are still closed.  If they would open their eyes, they would see that all but a few moderates did go away, but that still didn’t put an end to the violence.  Now Baptist Fundamentalists are waging a holy war against Muslims and Hindus and Humanists and Homosexuals.  Already, the weapons of war are shifting from ballots and pink slips to bullets.  Now people are literally dying.  No matter how tightly Southern Baptists close their eyes and stop their ears, the violence of Fundamentalism is not going to go away.  It will not go away until Baptists open their eyes, take their hands off their ears and start doing something to put an end to the barrage of insults that their leaders are using to promote culture wars at home and to fuel violent clashes between civilizations abroad.


Southern Baptists have sown to the Fundamentalist wind and twenty-five years later the whole world is reaping the whirlwind.  Today Southern Baptists pose a threat not only to liberty of conscience and religious liberty, but to world peace.  In Oklahoma at least one prominent Southern Baptist leader has recruited other Baptists and solicited funds from them for a loosely organized group of revolutionary white supremacists known as “posse commitatus.”  Nationally, prominent Southern Baptist leaders work closely with the leaders of a movement that believes democracy is heresy and wants to set up a Fundamentalist Christian theocracy in America.  Internationally, prominent Southern Baptist leaders work closely with Christian Zionists whose political influence and Armageddon theology has become a major impediment to finding a peaceful solution to conflict in Israel and the Middle East.   Southern Baptists are increasingly playing a major role in a cycle of escalating violence that could literally lead to the nuclear incineration of the very people to whom we once felt called to share the good news about God’s love and redemption.


Why can’t Southern Baptists see the stain of blood of martyred missionaries that is on their hands?  When will Baptists listen to the voices of their own missionaries crying out from under heaven’s altar? 


Like all the martyr voices under heaven’s altar they ask one question, “How long?”


·        How long must God’s servants live in fear of assassination by the Fundamentalists of other faiths and, at the same time, face witch hunts from Fundamentalists within their own faith? 


·        How long will Baptists let people like Jerry Vines and Paige Patterson and Jerry Falwell represent them before the world? 


·        How long will Baptists continue to fund rhetoric that incites hatred against Christians and creates stumbling blocks to the reception of the gospel? 


There is little hope that Baptist’s role in this cycle of violence will end unless Baptists return to their roots and once again become champions of liberty of conscience.  


·        Should we do that, there is still hope that Baptists can live in peace with each other and with people of different convictions. 


·        Should we do that, there is still hope that a common ground of respect for persons of other faiths could secure a peaceful forum where we can share the gospel. 


If we fail to do that, we will all be condemned to share in the plagues of perpetually escalating violence and injustice that our own Fundamentalists are helping to bring upon the world.


God help us! 


God help us to get Baptists to stand up and face the scourge of Fundamentalism before it completely destroys the peace not only of our denomination and of the Baptist World Alliance, but of the very world that you gave your son to redeem. 


God help us.

[1] Isaac Backus on Church, State and Calvinism, ed. By William G. McGloughlin.  Cambridge:  Belknap Press, 1968, p. 333.

[2] The Writings of John Leland, ed. L.F. Greene.  New York:  Arno Press & the New York Times, 1969, p. 53.



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