Written and quotes compiled by Wally Mayo - firstname.lastname@example.org
In this reading, I hope you will get a sense of our holding of religious liberty, especially as Baptists. But, also note that it is the Spirit of Christ that unifies all believers, in a way that should supersede all differences between us, and see past the differences of all peoples.
It was a time of great opportunity and challenge. Europe was awash in religious persecution and abuse of power. The new discovery of America was quickly seen as a chance for a brave new world. One where men and women could start fresh with ideals that forwarded liberty, and, very importantly, religious freedom.
Even in the Old World, there were persecuted voices that called for values for which Baptists are known. One group in France was called the Lollards, with a huge emphasis on lay leadership, were peaceful bible-reading believers who quietly taught true freedom to be found in Jesus Christ.
That real freedom that comes from Christ was echoed very strongly by others such as John Knox.
Also, in Europe, we see the Anabaptists, who fled persecution from England, first landing in Amsterdam. “ANABAPTIST” simply meant one who baptizes again. They dared believe that if you were baptized as an infant, you needed to experience a believer’s baptism. Their sense of human equality was very high. But, what got them into real trouble was that they said the state shouldn’t delve into the internal affairs of the church. What a notion!! They would jump at the chance of leaving Amsterdam for the newly discovered lands.
By now, England was a mess, with conflict between Catholicism and a form of Protestantism, often going back and forth depending on the ruler. In 1610 James I made it clear that anyone who did not agree with him religiously would be “harried out of the land.”
In 1608, we see Puritans fleeing England for Holland, remaining 12 years. But, they also saw a greater opportunity in the new land.
And onward many more came to the New World.
But, let us turn our attention to Virginia.
In 1607, 14 years before the Puritan settlement in new England, Virginia is chartered with these words, “that it shall be necessary for all such as inhabit within the precincts of Virginia determined to live together in the fear and true worship of Almighty God, Christian peace, and civil quietness;” – Wow. Looking to God in together going forward.
These kinds of words attracted many seeking religious freedom. And in that time, there were many great leaders—such as John Jay, a Christian legislator, statesman and judge, who noted that “the Americans are the first people whom heaven has favored with an opportunity of deliberating upon and choosing the forms of government under which they should live.” And that “Every man is permitted to consider, to adore, into a worship in a manner most agreeable to his conscience.”
Did you get that? What a radical change from Europe! They didn’t want to have anyone from the state slip in check them out, to see if they’re square with someone else’s ideas of faith for that church. And, that is something that Baptists have fought for, for a long time.
That does not mean that statesmen should hide their light under a bushel. God wants all of us to shamelessly identify with Him and the Gospel. And that He will be our guide in all of our lives, as we participate in the marketplace or in governing. That is also our freedom. But, Baptists to make sure there was tolerance for all.
There is to be no imposing or state control of faith.
The founding fathers made it clear that freedom of religion would be central to our emerging nation. George Mason was among the earliest and most distinguished of all champions of freedom. He drafted the first declaration of rights ever adopted America as Virginia became an independent state on May 15th, 1776. Article 16, states “That religion, or the duty which we owe our Creator or, in the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force and violence, and, therefore, that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate; unless under the color of religion any man disturb the peace or the safety of society; and that it is a natural duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each.”
The Huguenots, persecuted cruelly, were welcomed to the colony of New York, stating that with “their ministers, they had come to adore and serve God with freedom.”
The orator of the Revolution, signer of the Declaration of Independence, first Vice-President and second President of the United States John Adams affirmed (in his words) that Religion and virtue are the only foundations of republicanism (speaking as a form of government) and of all free governments.
He also believed that “The fourth day of July, 1776, will be a memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to Almighty God. It ought to be solemnized with pomp, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, and this time forward forever.
But he further warns … “You will think me transported with enthusiasm; but I am not. I am well-aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this declaration in support and defend these states; yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of light and glory. I can see that the end is worth more than all the means, and that posterity will triumph, …”
In the course of determining the certainty of religious liberty, Thomas Jefferson stated “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure, when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gifts of God?
A specific designation in the Constitution declares that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Judge Bayard, a lawyer and a Senator from Delaware, wrote “The people of the United States were so fully aware of the evils which arise from the union of church and state, and so thoroughly convinced of its corrupting influence upon both religion and government, that they introduced this prohibition into the fundamental law.
You can be proud that Baptists were often at the forefront of this kind of thinking. And, we stand today with an equal sense of commitment, as we rely on God.
But, it is also important that we recognize the civility and respect we should all have as we exercise freedom and tolerance.
The first gathering of the Congress of the United States was remarkable. It was suggested that it open with prayer. And, a few objected, not over praying, but worried that there was quite a variety of believers there, such a Quakers, Puritans, Episcopalians, etc. But Mr. Samuel Adams rose and said, “I am not bigot, and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his county.” The motion to pray passed. The next morning, a Mr. Duche’ read the 31st Psalm that began with “In Thee, O Lord, do I put my trust;” … then he abruptly breaks into a tremendous prayer, that Webster records has those men who were about to resort to force to obtain their rights were moved to tears—floods of tears.
You can depend on it—Webster notes, “where there is a spirit of Christianity (of Christ) there is a spirit which rises above form, above ceremonies, independent of sect or creed and the controversies of clashing doctrines.” Do we need that today?
Which leads me to close with these words from Abraham Lincoln:
“And whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God ... and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.”