Dr. Bruce Prescott’s Opening Comments for

The Panel on “Religion and Democracy” at the University of Oklahoma

February 11, 2004


            I am a Baptist minister and I have been interested in the relation between religion and democracy since I was a teenager.  That was when I discovered that reputable historians believe that the principle separating church and state codified in the First Amendment of our Constitution is Baptists greatest contribution to the history of western civilization.


            That probably surprises you.  During most of your lifetimes you have heard voices on radio and television telling you over and over again that the idea of separating church and state was a communist invention and that America was a Christian nation until 1962 when some liberal, secular humanist judges on the Supreme Court kicked God out of the public schools.  Most of the voices saying such things call themselves Baptist and most of the people listening to them call themselves Baptist. 


But, for someone who knows Church history, Baptist history and American Colonial history, it is obvious that Baptists today are just repeating the mistakes that the other Christians made two-hundred to five-hundred years ago -- and they are taking our nation along for the ride.  It’s a ride that almost everyone except conservative, “born again,” evangelical Christians will find bumpy.  In fact, many moderately progressive, “born again,” evangelical Christians like myself are increasingly becoming alarmed at what we perceive as the reckless way that conservative Christians, often led by Baptists, are steering the ship of state.  They seem to be steering our ship of state to the dry dock of Christendom.  By Christendom I mean the union of church and state.


Church and state have been united throughout most Christian history.  Such unions have proven to be more than dry docks, they have been trails of blood.  Much of the blood that was spilt was Baptist blood, but that was when we were a minority faith.  When Baptists were in the minority we took the Golden Rule seriously and were consistent about wanting to see liberty of conscience for people of all faiths and of no faith.   Long before religious wars prompted the philosophers of the enlightenment to call for religious tolerance, Baptists were appealing for liberty of conscience.  Listen to what they said:


In 1525 Balthasar Hubmaier, a German Anabaptist, wrote one of the first pamphlets calling for religious liberty – a pamphlet called Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them in which he said, “No one may injure the atheist who wishes nothing for himself other than to forsake the gospel.”[1]  His opinions were so radical that he was burned at the stake.


Around 1615 Thomas Helwys, the first pastor of the first Baptist church in England, died in prison for writing a book and sending a copy of it to King James.  He wrote:


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 whatever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.[2]


In 1631 Roger Williams immigrated to America searching for liberty of conscience only to be banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for saying things like, “No persons, papists, Jews, Turks, or Indians, [should] be disturbed at their worship . . . Also, that immunity and freedom from tax and toll may be granted unto the people of such and such religions.”[3]


Williams went on to start the first Baptist church in America, to found the colony of Rhode Island, and to secure the first charter in the world that established “a free, full, and absolute liberty of conscience” for all citizens.


The Baptist struggle for liberty of conscience literally continued all the way to the eve of the revolutionary war.  By then Baptists were in all of the colonies and were welcome in none except Rhode Island.  Particularly unwelcome were their refusals to pay taxes to support the state churches saying, “It is not the PENCE but the power that alarms us.”[4]   It was the power to tax to support churches that alarmed them.  Baptists insisted that churches should only be supported by the voluntary contributions of their own members.


Colonial governments flogged, fined, imprisoned and confiscated Baptist’s property until the need to enlist soldiers to fight the British outweighed the need to collect taxes for religion.  Baptists joined the War for Independence as part of their fight for liberty of conscience.   When the war was over they refused to ratify the Constitution until the First Amendment was added to assure that church and state would be separate.  As John Leland, the leader of Virginia Baptists, explained to George Washington in a letter:


When the Constitution first made its appearance in Virginia, we, as a society, had unusual strugglings of mind, fearing that 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.[5]


After the constitution and the first amendment were adopted and Christians of other denominations were denouncing it as a ‘Godless Constitution,’ that same John Leland, leader of the Virginia Baptists, publicly rejoiced that our constitution made it possible for “a Pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian” to be eligible to serve in any post of the government.[6]


The early Baptists really did take the Golden Rule seriously and they were consistent about wanting to see liberty of conscience for people of all faiths and of no faith.  Being in the minority themselves, they understood that, in the final analysis, the first amendment protects minorities from the tyranny of the majority in matters of conscience.  Unfortunately, now that Baptists are in the majority, we have forgotten our history and heritage. 


Every morning when I wake up I pray that God will help Baptists to remember our heritage before we add our name firmly to the long list of groups that have exercised the power of the state to persecute religious minorities.  Then I go to work to remind them of their legacy.



[1] Hubmaier, Balthasar.  Balthasar Hubmaier Shriften.  Ed.  Gunnar Westin and Torsten Bergsten.  Heidelberg:  Von fur Reformationsgeschichte, 1962, p. 99.

[2] Helwys, Thomas.  A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity.  Ed. Richard Groves.  Macon:  Mercer University Press, 1998, p. 53.

[3] Williams, Roger.  The Bloody Tenent of Persecution.  Ed. Richard Groves.  Macon:  Mercer University Press, 2001, p. 156.

[4] Backus, Isaac.  Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism:  Pamphlets, 1754-1789.  Ed. William G. McLoughlin.  Cambridge:  Belnap Press, 1968, p. 359.

[5]Leland, John.   The Writings of John Leland.  Ed. L.F. Greene (New York:  Arno Press & The New York Times, 1969), p. 53.

[6] Ibid. p. 191.


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