Shackelford on Baptist History (Complete)

Chapter 20. Baptists and Religious Liberty

Baptists have always been advocates of religious liberty. This constitutes one of their fundamental principles. They have always claimed the right for themselves, and others, to worship God according to their understanding of His word. They have always opposed a union of church and State, and have refused to accept any legislation in religious matters for themselves, and have opposed it for others.

Mr. Orchard, in writing of the Baptists of Germany at the close of the fifteenth century, says: “But amidst all the sectaries of religion, and teachers of the gospel in Germany at this time, the Baptists best understood the doctrine of religious liberty; to them, therefore, the peasants turned their eyes for counsel; and to their immortal honor be it recorded, that the Baptists were always on the side of liberty. Under whatever government they could realize this boon, whether Pagan, Saracen, or Christian, domestic or foreign; that dynasty which would guard their freedom, was their government. This might be traced in all their migratory movements, from the Italian dissenters to the Rhode Island settlement.”

It has been truly said that the Baptists were the only people who labored to secure religious liberty in the formation of the government of the United States. Indeed it is owing to their efforts more than all others combined that we today enjoy both civil and religious liberty. The Baptists had been preceded in America by other denominations which had already, in some instances, become established by the government. In Virginia the Baptists were the strongest, though the Episcopal church, or church of England, was established in that colony. Every effort was made by the Baptists to overthrow the establishment, not to secure it themselves, but to secure for themselves and others equal liberty in religious matters. Their ministers had been rudely cast into prison, and their members were heavily taxed to build houses and to support ministers of the established church. Of their efforts in this direction Mr. Cook, in his “Story of the Baptists,” says:

“In 1779, the salaries of the clergy of the establishment were taken away; the general assessment bill was defeated and the famous act for establishing freedom prepared by Thomas Jefferson was presented. Efforts were made in 1784, to restore in a measure the disestablished church. The general assessment bill permitting the taxation of the people for the support of religion, the tax collected to be distributed among the different denominations, was revived and postponed. All other denominations as a whole, favored, advocated and petitioned for it, except the Baptists. They were the only ones who plainly remonstrated, says Semple. They stood alone in opposition to it. The general committee remonstrated. To defeat the bill they resorted to petitions. Papers protesting against the bill were circulated everywhere by them, for signatures for presentation to the assembly. ‘”When the assembly met, the table of the House of Delegates almost sunk under the weight of the accumulated copies of the memorial sent forward from the different counties, each with its long dense column of subscribers. The fate of the assessment was sealed.’ Besides, Jefferson’s act for the establishment of religious freedom was at once passed.”

The same writer further says: ”The work of the Baptists in Virginia, was not, however, done. They had still another battle to fight in Congress for the overthrow of ecclesiastical establishments, and for securing constitutional liberty throughout the land. The danger was not passed. Dr. Cathcart quotes Thomas Jefferson, who says: ‘There was a hope confidentially cherished, about A.D. 1780, that there might be a State church throughout the United States, and this expectation was specially cherished by Episcopalians and Congregationalists. John Adams believed in leaving the matter to the States, each State having its own establishment. This design it was the work of the Baptists to frustrate. They did not want the Constitution of the United States, nor of any State, to be made a religious creed, but they were determined to have religious liberty for themselves and all the world.'”

I quote the following from Backus’ History of the Baptists in New England: “After General Washington was established as President of these United States, a general committee of the Baptist churches in Virginia presented an address to him, in August, 1789, wherein they expressed an high regard for him; but a fear that our religious rights were not well secured in our new constitution of government. In answer to which, he assured them of his readiness to use his influence to make them more secure, and then said, ‘While I recollect with satisfaction, that the religious society of which you are members, have been throughout America, uniformly and almost unanimously the firm friends of civil liberty, and the persevering promoters of our glorious revolution, I cannot hesitate to believe, that they will be the faithful supporters of a free, yet efficient general government.’ An amendment to the constitution was made the next month, which says, ‘Congress shall make no law, establishing articles of faith, or mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition to the government for a redress of grievances.'”

It is frequently stated that any denomination would avail itself of State support if the opportunity were offered. Whatever may be the application of such a statement to other denominations, it is a reflection upon Baptists and Baptist principles. Those who know our history and our principles, know that we have always opposed a union of church and State with as much persistency as we have opposed infant baptism. And in answer to the question, Would the Baptists become established by State if the opportunity were given, we answer, No! No! The very hour that any Baptist churches form such an alliance, they are guilty of harlotry, in the ecclesiastical use of that term, and cease to be churches of Christ. The very idea is contrary to the genius of Baptist churches. The opportunity has been theirs and they have always refused it. I quote again from Dr. Richard Cook, as follows:

“In Virginia, in 1792, ‘the Baptists had members of great weight in civil society; their congregations had become more numerous than any other Christian sect.’ They doubtless controlled the government of Virginia, and yet they secured equal liberty there for all. In “Wales, the Baptist churches and ministers declined State support by taxation of the people, such as others received, which was offered them, though they were as poor as any. For one hundred and fifty years, the Baptists had the sole power and rule in Rhode Island, and the evil example of others around them, but, unmoved in their principles, they used their power for the good of all alike. The utter failure of Baptist principles has been again and again foretold, but Baptists have stood the test of centuries, and they have, more than any others, given civil and religious freedom to the world. With the origin and perpetuity of American liberty they have had much to do.”

In February, 1785, the Georgia Legislature passed an act for the support of religion in that State, which provided that “thirty heads of families might choose a minister to explain and inculcate the duties of religion in any county in the State.” The manner of choosing was to be by subscription, and to be certified to by an assistant judge and two magistrates, on which the governor was to give an order on the treasurer to pay out the money for the support of a minister chosen in that way.

Since the Baptists were more numerous than any other denomination in Georgia at that time, this act would have given them an immense advantage, but instead of taking it, they, in May following at a meeting of the Georgia Baptist Association, entered a most earnest remonstrance against the law, and asked for its repeal. These facts abundantly show their position on this question.

Having traced the history of the Baptists from the days of the apostles to the present time, and briefly narrated some of their struggles for the promulgation of their doctrines in America, it is well to introduce some important testimonies as to their origin and history, looking back over their entire existence.

The king of Holland on one occasion appointed a committee to prepare a history of the Dutch Reformed church. This committee devoted one chapter to the history of the Baptists. The author of the Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge gives the following account of this committee and their testimony:

“An account of the origin of the Dutch Baptists, or Mennonites, was published at Beda, in 1819, by Dr. Ypeij, professor of theology at Gronigen, and Rev. I. J. Dermout, chaplain to the King of the Netherlands, learned Pedobaptists.” These learned men, having access to the best libraries of Germany, reported as follows:

“We have now seen that the Baptists who were formerly called Anabaptists, and in latter times, Mennonites, were the original Waldenses; and who have long in the history of the church, received the honor of that origin. On this account the Baptists may be considered as the only Christian community which has stood since the days of the apostles, and as a Christian society, which has preserved pure the doctrines of the Gospel through all ages. The perfectly correct external and internal economy of the Baptist denomination, tends to confirm the truth, disputed by the Romish church, that the reformation brought about in the sixteenth century, was in the highest degree necessary; and at the same time, goes to refute the erroneous notion of the Catholics, that their communion is the most ancient.”

Alexander Campbell, in his debate with Purcell, page 65, as quoted in the Bay-Lucas discussion, bore the following testimony to the history of the Baptists. He says:

”We can, however, show that from the earliest times there has existed a people whom no man can number, that have earnestly and consistently contended for the true faith once delivered to the saints.”

There can be no doubt that Mr. Campbell referred to the Baptists in the above quotation as is seen from the following, taken from the Campbell and Maccalla debate, page 378, as quoted in the same work: “From the apostolic age to the present time, the sentiments of Baptists and their practice of baptism, has had a continued chain of advocates, and public monuments of their existence in every century can be produced.”

In the Campbell and Walker debate, page 262, Mr. Campbell states as follows: “The Baptists can trace their origin to the apostolic times, and produce unequivocal testimony of their existence in every century down to the present time.”

In summing up the history of the Baptists we can but exclaim, “What hath God wrought!” For nearly eighteen hundred years they were oppressed by every other existing church organization. Again and again every effort was made to blot out their very memory from the face of the earth. They have been martyred by the hundred thousand for their principles, robbed of their property, and driven from country to country. Every century of their history has been stained with blood. Yet from the ashes of their martyrs and the blood spilled by the inquisitors, the cry has continually gone up for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Yet to-day we live—live to bless the world by contending for a converted membership and a pure church.

Though only one hundred years have passed since we have been granted equal rights with others in religious matters, we, today, in the United States alone, number more than three million communicants. Our missionaries have penetrated every land, and, with an open Bible, are contending for the faith of the gospel as taught by Christ and his apostles.

Our splendid schools and colleges are to be found in every State of the Union, as numerous as those of any other denomination, while our universities are being endowed with millions of dollars. If this much has been done in the past hundred years by so few in the beginning, what may we not expect during the next century!

Since these struggling Baptists have survived the long ages of persecution, and passed through such a long night of suffering and have now attained such magnificent results, must we not exclaim that their’s are the churches of the living God, and their Founder and Head is JESUS CHRIST!