The Baptist Heritage of Religious Liberty

We have the Baptists to thank for religious liberty in this country. Yesterday, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, representing fourteen Baptist denominations, held a Baptist Unity Rally for Religious Liberty at the U.S. Capitol. They remembered a 1920 address on that location by Baptist pastor George W. Truett, by having various public officials and others read selections from that speech. It’s a long speech–9200 words–about 90 minutes worth. So they edited it.

Now, Baptist commitment to religious liberty arose in a particular context, on the heels of persecution by Catholics, by Anglicans, and by Puritans and Separatists. It arose because of specific theological beliefs that are contrary to the beliefs of Catholics and some other churches. Truett laid it all out in 1920. Some of this was edited out.

Catholic revert Francis Beckwith is appalled that they would edit it. He thinks it represents some kind of fraud. He says,

If you read the speech carefully and in its entirety, it is clear that Truett saw his views of religious liberty as seemlessly connected to his rejection of Catholicism and even Protetsant [sic] theological traditions that take eccesiology and creeds seriously. Thus, for the BJC to offer an abridged and thus incomplete presentation of Truett’s sermon, ironically, limited its audience’s liberty to be fully informed of the conceptual connections that grounded Truett’s understanding of theology and its support of religious liberty.

Beckwith would muzzle Truett completely.

But Truett would not muzzle Beckwith:

Although the Baptist is the very antithesis of his Catholic neighbor in religious conceptions and contentions, yet the Baptist will whole-heartedly contend that his Catholic neighbor shall have his candles and incense and sanctus bell and rosary, and whatever else he wishes in the expression of his worship. A Baptist would rise at midnight to plead for absolute religious liberty for his Catholic neighbor, and for his Jewish neighbor, and for everybody else.

Truett will defend every person’s right to believe and practice according to his conscience, even though history shows that Catholic and Protestant alike did not share this belief in liberty. He had harsh words for the Reformers as well:

These mighty reformers turned out to be persecutors like the Papacy before them. Luther unloosed the dogs of persecution against the struggling and faithful Anabaptists. Calvin burned Servetus, and to such awful deed Melancthon gave him approval. Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, shut the doors of all the Protestant churches, and outlawed the Huguenots. Germany put to death that mighty Baptist leader, Balthaser Hubmaier, while Holland killed her noblest statesman, John of Barneveldt, and condemned to life imprisonment her ablest historian, Hugo Grotius, for conscience’ sake. In England, John Bunyan was kept in jail for twelve long, weary years because of his religion, and when we cross the mighty ocean separating the Old World and the New, we find the early pages of American history crimsoned with the stories of religious persecutions. The early colonies of America were the forum of the working out of the most epochal battles that earth ever knew for the triumph of religious and civil liberty.

And from those battles emerged the crystal clarity of the Baptist teaching of separation of church and state and religious liberty.

Now Catholic Carl Olson comes along and brands this Baptist Joint Committee, upholding this teaching, as “liberal.” I’m not sure what that means in this context, but regardless, it’s a red herring.

A better point to underscore is that this Baptist committee remembers something that some of their cousins in other Baptist denominations have forgotten: religious liberty is for all, separation of church and state is a good idea, the state’s role is not to enforce Christian beliefs. See the blog of Americans United for more on this.