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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
M. E. Dodd, 1912
Our subject is Religious and Political Liberty and the part which the Baptists have had in securing to the world this unspeakable blessing. I do not know of a better scripture to start with than this one found in John's gospel, chapter 8, verse 32: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
For the body of a man to be bound in fetters of brass is an unspeakable calamity. But I know something that is worse than that. For the soul or the mind of that man to be shackled by the chains of error and superstition is infinitely worse. The body may be free as the wings of a bird but the mind and the soul be the slave of a look or a word. And until it can be said of every mortal man in all the earth that he is free in body and mind and soul, we cannot rejoice in the universal blessing, of liberty's boon. I am to speak to you, therefore, on this most important phase of all the subjects of liberty; liberty of the soul and liberty of the mind.
We cannot overestimate this blessing. I fear that we have thought and spoken and written too little upon this subject. It is my desire, therefore, in this discussion to stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance and to bring you, if I may, to a keener realization of this priceless blessing and to acknowledge the debt of gratitude and thanksgiving which we owe to those of the past centuries who have bought it for us at such tremendous cost.
In the course of a thirty minutes it will not be possible to cover all the ground of this vast subject. Whole volumes have been written upon it and there is scarcely a history that does not have full chapters devoted to it. I want to speak more particularly of that part which our own people have had in securing and guaranteeing to the world the blessing of religious and political liberty.
I will be under the necessity of narrowing the subject more than that. I cannot speak even of one-tenth of the part which our people have had in this mighty task. I shall not speak of the battles and the struggles and the triumphs and victories of our brothers in the early part of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Germany, in Switzerland and Moravia when they upheld their own faith with their life's blood and with' the blue tongues of the fires lapping about their bodies declared that no potentate or power of earth could subject their consciences in the matter of Godly worship. I cannot speak even of the more recent things that have occurred among our brothers in Russia.
I read last week in the papers the story of a man who is one of the mightiest of this century, who, in our great world's Baptist Congress in Philadelphia, set that vast throng of ten thousand afire with his mighty story of the battles of religious liberty in Russia within these past years. I cannot speak of them. I shall confine my remarks this morning more particularly to the struggles of our brothers who have more immediately preceded us in England and America and I shall only be able to touch the bare hem of the garment of the vast stories that cover pages of history written in their own life's blood of their contentions against all state churches, against all religious and political tyrants who with the iron heel of oppression would seek to grind down the consciences of men in subjection to some earthly or state authority.
In his book on the Axioms of Religion, Dr. E. Y. Mullins of the Louisville Seminary has a chapter on what he is pleased to call "The Religio-Civic Axiom;" viz: A Free Church in a Free State. Now axioms need no demonstration and to us in this enlightened twentieth century, we are willing to accept the truthfulness of this axiom. But it has not always been so. In this chapter Dr. Mullins quotes Mr. Brice, that great statesman and scholar, in these words:
"Half the wars of Europe, half the internal troubles that have vexed the European states, from the monophysite controversies in the Roman Empire of the fifth century down to the Kulturkampf in the German Empire of the nineteenth century, have arisen from theological differences or from the rival claims of church and state."
And to corroborate that statement of Mr. Brice it is a fact of remarkable significance that the union of church and state has always been twin brother to religious persecution.
I would ask you to define with me, first of all, the distinction between liberty and toleration, because that is a matter of considerable importance. Toleration means simply allowing a man to do what he will in the matter of religion with the understanding that you have the power to stop him whenever you will. Liberty means that a man, in matters of religion, may do as he will, regardless of any power above him to say when he shall or shan't or what he shall or shan't.
In all these struggles for religious liberty, Baptists have had, as we shall see, a foremost and loyal part, leading all the organizations of the world in their contention for this great blessing.
In this first public declaration and publication of our Baptist faith, here is a clear and ringing article on the absolute separation of church and state, and these contentions of our brothers from that early century continued through the generations until two hundred years after that, to be accurate, in 1776, when these principles came to their full fruition in the last bloody struggle of our Baptist forefathers in Virginia. We will confine our study of these subjects then to these English and American declarations and activities in behalf of this glorious principle.
Beginning then with the English contention for liberty, there are many harrowing stories of persecution, of suffering and even of death for conscience sake in England both prior to and following the forming of the Episcopal church by Henry VIII in 1534. It was a crime in those days punishable by death and that in the most cruel and horrible form for a man to speak a word against baptizing infants or to say a word about rebaptizing one who had been baptized in infancy.
The last execution that was committed in England on a charge of this sort was on April 11, 1612, when Edward Whitman, a Baptist, was burned alive in Litchfield because he dared to say that no civil power had a right to coerce a man's conscience in matters of religion. But after that last execution in 1612, the persecutions continued for many years afterwards, by imprisonment, by whipping, and by the taking of property and goods away from the individual.
The most notable perhaps of all these cases, is that of John Bunyan, an eminent Baptist preacher who was incarcerated in Bedford jail for daring to preach that the church should be absolutely free from the state. I want to read here just a few words concerning him:
“And I found myself a man encompassed with infirmities the parting with my wife and poor children hath oft been to me in this place as the pulling of my flesh; and that not only because I am somewhat too fond of these great mercies, but also because I should have often brought to my mind the many hardships, miseries and wants that my poor family was likely to meet with, should I be taken from them especially my poor blind child, who lay nearer my heart than all besides. Oh, the thought of the hardships my poor blind one might undergo, would break my heart to pieces! Poor child, thought I, what sorrow art thou to have for thy portion in this world! Thou must be beaten, must beg, suffer hunger, cold, nakedness and a thousand calamities, though I cannot now endure the wind should blow on thee. But yet, recalling myself, thought I, I must venture you all with God, though it goeth to the quick to leave you."
So chains were bound about his wrists and knees and in the dark, damp dungeon he was bound by these chains in Bedford.
My brothers, are you and I today worthy of the heritage of this liberty which we enjoy, purchased for us at the sacrifice of men who were dragged out of their homes, from their blind babies left to starve, to seal their own faith with their blood?
Let us come to the story in our own America. Bancroft writes in his 1888 edition of the History of the United States, that "Roger Williams was the first person in modern Christendom to establish civil government on the doctrine of liberty of conscience."
Sidney S. Riders in his Soul Liberty or Rhode Island's Gift to the Nation, page 85, says: "Rhode Island was the first commonwealth in the new world, the first in the world, to make soul liberty the basis of a constitution for a state."
Benedict, in his History of the Baptists, page 446, says: "Roger Williams justly claims the honor of having been the first legislator in the world that fully and effectually established absolute liberty of conscience for the people."
Who was Roger Williams? A plain simple Baptist who: landed at Salem, Mass., in 1631, on February 5, who up to 1634 was preaching his doctrine of soul liberty and freedom from all civil authority and who, in 1636, received as a boon for his pains, banishment, with the officers of the law given papers to arrest him and send him back to England because he dared to say that a man ought to be free in matters of religion.
Now the fact that Rhode Island was the first in all the world to establish soul liberty in its constitution has been called in question, notwithstanding the high authorities which I have just quoted, only one of whom was a Baptist.
Cardinal Gibbons in his Faith of our Fathers, page 271, says:
"Turning to our own country, it is with no small degree of satisfaction that I point to the state of Maryland as the cradle of civil and religious liberty and the land of the sanctuary. Of the thirteen original colonies, Maryland was the only one settled by Catholics. She was also the only one that raised aloft over her fair lands the banner of liberty of conscience, and that invited the oppressed of other colonies to seek an asylum beneath its shadow."
Now I am heartily in sympathy with anyone who desires to establish for the organization to which he belongs the honor and privilege of having had primacy in the matter of establishing soul liberty and I have read all that I could possibly find from any denomination as to what they could say in the matter of securing this great place and I commend them for the efforts which they are making to establish their place in the great world's struggle for religious and political liberty. But what are the facts in the case? Toleration, as defined a moment ago, and not liberty was the principle in Maryland and so incorporated in the statutes.
In the articles of 1649, these words were incorporated in the laws of Maryland:
"Death with forfeiture of land and goods is denounced against all who shall blaspheme God or shall deny the Holy Trinity or the unity of the Godhead or any of the Trinity, or shall use or utter any reproachful speeches against the Holy Trinity." Now what does that law mean? Together with other incorporated statutes, it means that in Maryland, Protestants, or Baptists, would be tolerated for the sake of the government itself but with the understanding that there was a power above them to say how far they should or should not go and that the Jews and Unitarians and infidels should have no place or part in the government of that state and that their renunciation of the Trinity should be denounced by death. The Baptist principle is that a man shall have liberty to be an infidel or Catholic, or Unitarian, or whatever he will in matters of religion and that the only influence which we have the right to assert is the influence of moral suasion.”
And that was the principle of Roger Williams and the Baptists in Rhode Island.
Furthermore, we have some such words as these:"An act was passed providing that persons shall be punished in Maryland who utter words of reproach against the blessed Virgin Mary."
How was religious liberty first established in this country? By the state of Rhode Island in 1636 and following. Roger Williams had been a student in Jesus College, Oxford. He was a preacher of much renown and he is described as being tall, stalwart, brilliant, and scholarly. He renounced the established church in England and came to America.
The Governor of Massachusetts demanded that he should be arrested and banished to England, for the principles that he was preaching concerning soul liberty. Hearing of this, he on a cold January night when the bleak winds had frosted the air on the outside and the ground was frozen and covered with snow, in the dense darkness of night, stole out of the bed, passed over to the couch of his sleeping baby and kissed it goodbye and then his wife and stole out into the darkness of the night, to shiver in the cold and seek a refugee among the wild Indians which his own Puritan brothers had denied to him.
Williams, alone with his God, with no temple to worship in but the open sky that bended its blessing over his head and no choir to sing but the sobbing pines that sighed their requiem of death at his back. Alone with his God, Roger Williams established once and for all the state that was to be the seed acorn of the mightiest oak that has ever been grown and that gave the great principle of religious and political liberty to the world.
What are the facts of the struggles of our brothers in Virginia? It is a long story.
General Washington said of the Baptists "Baptist chaplains were among the most prominent and useful men in all the army of the Revolution.
The elder Dr. Richard Furman, a brilliant and stalwart man, went about over the country inciting in the people the spirit of liberty and arousing them to action against the tyranny of kings until he became so prominent that Lord Cornwallis offered a bonus of a thousand pounds, or five thousand dollars for his head, and it is said of Cornwallis that he used these words, that he feared the prayers of that Baptist preacher, more than he did all the armies that were raised against him.
Let us take another example. The Code of Sir Thomas Dale, first published for the government of colonies, dated in 1611; required every man or woman in the colony, or who should afterward arrive, to give an account of their faith and their religion to the parish minister and if not satisfactory to him, they should repair often to him for instruction and if they refused to go to the minister for instruction, the governor should cause the offender for the first offense to be whipped, for the second to be whipped twice and to acknowledge his fault on the Sabbath day in the congregation and for the third offense to be whipped every day until he should comply with the demands of the law.
Now how did our Baptist brothers take that Code and law there in Virginia? In June 1768, John Waller, Louis Craig, James Childs were incarcerated in Spottsylvania jail for preaching that men should be free in matters of religion.
At the same time, there was a large number of Baptist preachers and others gathered together from all over the country and placed in prison and whipped and beaten for preaching that man should be left to the dictates of his own conscience in matters of religion. Among them were William Webbed, James Greenwood, Robert Ware, John Young, Edward Herndon and John Clay, the father of Henry Clay, himself a Baptist preacher. No wonder that born of such a sire who sealed the faith of religious liberty with his blood, that his illustrious son could make those mighty speeches, ringing for liberty, among the colonies.
James Madison, himself a member of the established church, said these words:
"That diabolical hell conceived principles of persecution rages among us and to their eternal infamy the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such purposes. There are at the present time in the adjacent county not less than five or six well-meaning men in jail for preaching their religious beliefs which are, in the main, quite orthodox."
The Declaration of Independence has these words:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Whence came this lofty sentiment that is incorporated in this sublime article, almost divinely inspired, the Declaration of Independence?
I will read you some words concerning its origin. William Cobb of Boston says this in his, Meaning of Christian Unity, page 136: "Jefferson testified that he derived his practical conception of civil liberty from the actual working of the doctrine of equal rights in a little Baptist church in Virginia."
Jefferson had the habit of going down to a little Baptist church to see what they were doing. He saw them come together for the transaction of business. He saw the pastor as he was elected moderator, or someone else the servant of all, and heard the brethren make and second the motions and debate and then vote on them altogether from the least to the greatest, and sitting back, looking on that scene, he said, "That is a fine principle to found a government upon, that sort of principle will stand for a government," and so he wrote into the Declaration of Independence, the very principles he had learned in the little Virginia Baptist church.
In the first amendment to the constitution of the United States, there is the guarantee forever more of absolute liberty to men and women in the matter of religion. How did this come about and what was the origin of it?
On August 8, 1789, many representative and leading Baptists met in Richmond Virginia, and drafted a petition to General Washington, asking for such an amendment to the constitution as would secure to the United States citizens for all time to come the rights of religious liberty.
Now that is a matter of record in state papers and let it be said to the credit of our own people without attempting to snatch one of the laurels from anyone else, that the Baptists are the only religious body that petitioned Mr. Washington, or the assembly that came together for this work, to vote for such an amendment to the constitution of the United States.
Will you ask what about all other denominations? I am willing to concede to every organization, religious or otherwise, its part. What part did they have in the struggle? The disciples or followers, of Mr. Campbell were not yet on the scene because they did not begin until 1827 and this was back in
The Methodists were just beginning to gather on the scene, for Mr. Stephens himself a Methodist, in his History of Methodism says that in 1774 there were just 2,073 Methodists in America. The Wesleys, who founded the church, themselves never were members of it. They lived and died Episcopalians.
What about the Presbyterians? They were very loyal allies of the Baptists and let it be said to their credit that for a long time they stood faithfully by in the contention for advancement of religious and political liberty. They fell by the wayside, however, when the compromise proposition to allow each church to share in the taxes was proposed.
Now have I assigned too much credit to the Baptists? I will read a few words about what others say about us and let you take their testimony and not mine. General Washington, in reply to this same petition above referred to, says: "The Baptists have been throughout America uniformly and almost unanimously the firm friends of civil liberty, and the persevering promoters of our glorious revolution."
Dr. Hawks, a most learned Episcopal scholar, said: "The Baptists were the principle promoters of the work (of putting down the establishment) and in truth aided more than any other denomination."
Bishop Meade, himself a learned Episcopal scholar, said: "The Baptists took the lead in the dissent and were the chief object of persecution by the magistrates and the most violent and persevering afterwards in seeking the downfall of the establishment."
Dr. Campbell, not a Baptist, in his "History of Virginia," says: "The Baptists having suffered persecution under the establishment were of all others most inimical to it and the most active in its subversion."
In American State papers, we find words like these: "No church in history, perhaps, has done more for religious liberty than the Baptists; no church has so long and so logically upheld the principles of individual freedom in all religious concerns as the Baptists."
Dr. Howison, in his History of Virginia, says: "In two points, they (the Baptists) were distinguished. First, their love for freedom, Second, their hatred of the establishment. They hated not its ministers but its principles."
John Locke, in his essay on toleration, has these words: "The Baptists were the first and only propounders of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty.
And he is not a Baptist.
Mr. Bancroft, in his History of America says: "Unlimited freedom of mind was from the first a trophy of Baptists."
Oh, my brothers, if these things, be true, as others themselves testify, what a debt of eternal gratitude do we owe to those noble men and women who thus purchased for us this inalienable right to worship God according to the dictates of our conscience.
But for the Baptists in Rhode Island and Virginia, scores of states in America today would still be under the establishment or government of the state church that requires a man to worship God according to their orders and forms and symbols instead of according to his own clear conscience and the teaching of God's word.
Let us rejoice in our liberty, not in the way of self-exultation and praise, but only for truth's sake and right's sake.