Baptists & Religious Liberty in America

Q:  Name the place where the following law was enforced: those not attending religious services twice daily were subject to whippings and imprisonment.

A:  Jamestown—the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, in the colony of Virginia, where the Church of England was the established official state church.

Q: Name the place where this practice was enforced: only church members were eligible to vote in public elections. Those who did not belong to the Church were not citizens, only inhabitants. In this place some dissenters were hanged.

One piece of our Baptist identity we can be proud of is this: our unwavering insistence upon religious liberty for all people.

A: Massachusetts Bay Colony, 17th century America.

Q: Where did the following take place? In 1651 three Baptists—John Clarke, John Crandall and Obadiah Holmes—were arrested. The charge: conducting an unlawful worship service. They were placed in prison and were fined, with the provision that if the fines were not paid, they would be publicly whipped. Two were freed when friends paid their bail without their knowledge, but Obadiah Holmes was given 30 lashes with a 3-corded whip, the same sentence given to violent criminals. 

A: Boston, Massachusetts  

John Leland portrait- Internet Archive- from The Baptist Encyclopaedia by William Cathcart.jpg

America finally won our independence from England. But the Constitution that was approved in September of 1787 included no guarantee of religious freedom. It was the Baptists, inspired by the Scriptures, who lobbied government leaders like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to add a Bill of Rights. It was largely because of the influence of Virginia Baptist preacher John Leland that James Madison pressed for the First Amendment to the Constitution, forbidding the government to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Baptists are known for a lot of things in America, some of them rather embarrassing. But one piece of our Baptist identity we can be proud of is our unwavering insistence upon religious liberty for all people.   

Methodist historian Frank Mead paid Baptists this compliment: “They are God’s patriots—putting allegiance to Him always above allegiance to Caesar. Freedom of conscience and complete divorce of Church and State! How they have suffered for that! They have faced mockery and mud, fines, whippings and iron bars; they have been burned at the stake and pulled on the rack, but they have held to it.”  (Frank S. Mead, See These Banners Go (New York: The Bobs-Merrill Company, 1936), 97.) 

So as you watch fireworks light up the sky next Tuesday night, let yourself breathe a prayer of gratitude to God for this brave, steadfast, insightful tribe to which we belong.

Peace and grace,