Our Baptist story started when Henry VIII wanted the Pope (Clement VII) to grant him a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon, and the Pope would not do it. Henry decided he could deal with this problem by creating an entirely new church movement that essentially mirrored the structure of the Roman Catholic Church, save for a new CEO, which would be him, the King of England. Thus, the Church of England, also known as the Anglicans, came into being. But there were Christians within the Church of England who wanted to purify it, and those Christians became known as “Puritans.” Within that group of Puritans were Christians who believed the Church of England was too corrupt to purify, and they wanted to separate from it. Those Christians became known as “Separatists.” Within that small group of Christians known as Separatists there were a small group of Christians who believed that a church should be formed of believers who entered into baptism by an act of their own will and volition. Those Christians eventually became known as “Baptists.”
Two people exercised a leadership role in forming this Baptist group. One of those, John Smyth, a Cambridge-trained, former Anglican minister, convinced this persecuted group of believers to relocate from London to Amsterdam, where they could practice their faith free from governmental interference. John Smyth then baptized himself and the rest of this group of Christians, and the first Baptist church was formed in 1609. But John Smyth didn’t stay Baptist very long; he soon became a Mennonite. Many in the group followed him into the Mennonite faith, but the remainder said, ‘We don’t know exactly who we are, but we know we are not Mennonites.’ This group rallied around Thomas Helwys, who persuaded the church to move back to England, though he knew they would face fierce oppression. Once back home, Thomas Helwys penned The Mystery of Iniquity, the first book in the English language championing the principle of religious freedom, liberty of conscience. Thomas Helwys asserted: “The King is a mortal man and not God; therefore he hath no power of the immortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinance for them . . .” Indeed, Helwys argued for religious liberty not only for his small group of Baptists, not only for Protestants and Catholics. He said that the individual conscience was inviolable, and religious liberty should be extended to Jews, Muslims and even atheists. For those brave words, Thomas Helwys was thrown into the Tower of London, and that is where he died. But from their beginning, Baptists were willing to live for, bleed for and die for religious freedom. In so doing, Baptists birthed an idea that has nourished the entire human community – the notion of liberty of conscience.
About the time Thomas Helwys was writing The Mystery of Iniquity, a group of American colonists were led by Roger Williams to found the little state of Rhode Island, the first political entity in the New World to champion the cause of religious liberty. These Christians founded the first Baptist church in America, and they were not concerned about spiritual homogeneity. They proclaimed, ‘Anyone and everyone can come into our little state and you can believe what you want, without governmental oppression.’ They were the first political entity in the New World to affirm this principle. Liberty of conscience! Throughout colonial history, Baptists preferred to be flogged and imprisoned rather than pay taxes to a state church they did not attend. They would rather be regarded as radical dissidents rather than endorse the notion of state-established religion. Once the American colonies emerged as an independent nation, Baptists were in the forefront of lobbying the early American government to amend the American Constitution with a Bill of Rights that guaranteed religious liberty. A stress on liberty of conscience and religious freedom was Baptists’ great contribution to American democracy and indeed, the entire human community.
Second, in their collective core of values Baptists have insisted on liberty of conviction. As Baptists, we believe that every single believer is a minister of Christ. We believe that everyone of us has been endowed by God with the spiritual capacity to make decisions of ultimate reality for ourselves. Whether you are a nine years old and a new Christian, or eighty-nine, and an old Christian, while I as your pastor can offer you spiritual guidance, ultimately you have been endowed by God with the spiritual competency to make decisions about ultimate reality for yourselves. That’s why we as Baptists affirm the priesthood of each believer.
Third, Baptists have been distinguished by their emphasis on liberty of confession. That great Baptist thinker Walter Rauschenbusch noted: “The Christian faith, as Baptists hold it, sets spiritual experience boldly to the front as the one great thing in religion.” Spiritual experience! Which means what? Simply this: when you join this Baptist church, you will not be asked to recite a creed. You will not be asked to give assent to a particular doctrine. You will not be asked to agree with a particular interpretation of a Bible verse. You will not be asked to affirm a particular view of Biblical inspiration. All that will be asked of you is, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” If your answer is ‘Yes,’ you are in! We believe in liberty of confession, and we allow for great latitude in one’s experience of God. Your experience of God can be as dramatic as Saul’s on the road to Damascus or as subtle as Elijah listening to God’s still small voice. But your experience of God is uniquely yours, and we cannot judge it. When you choose to join this church by an exercise of your own volition and will, then you have put into practice the freedom of liberty of confession.
Finally, Baptists have been distinguished by their insistence on liberty of community. When John Smyth and Thomas Helwys formed that first Baptist church over four hundred years ago, they did not ask any ecclesiastical hierarchy for permission. When Roger Williams and friends formed that first Baptist church in the New World, they did not ask any ecclesiastical authority to allow them this privilege. They just did it. For many years, I was the Director of Missions for Charlotte’s small United Baptist Association, and one day I received a call from some man in Texas saying that he had received funds from the Southern Baptist Convention to start Cowboy Baptist churches throughout the great cities of America, and he wanted me to do research for starting a “Cowboy Church” in Charlotte. I said, “Sir, we don’t have cowboys in Charlotte. We have bankers.” I hung up the phone and laughed. One more crazy moment in another crazy day. Two years later, I was heading to a hospital out of town and passed a dilapidated building near an open field and saw a sign that said, “The Cowboy Baptist Church of Charlotte.” I thought, “That is the genius of Baptists.” Individual churches may or may not be flexible. Individual associations may or may not be flexible. But Baptists enjoy liberty of community, and we are free to respond to the needs of the market. If you want to create a church for bankers, or bikers, or cowboys, or left-handed softball pitchers, Baptists are free to do it.
Liberty of conscience; liberty of conviction; liberty of confession; liberty of community – all of these liberties root in the basic principle that we birthed so many years ago, religious freedom. These themes constitute our Baptist heritage. On this July the Fourth weekend we celebrate our nation’s heritage as a beacon of democracy. We celebrate our nation’s Constitution, which has formed the framework for that democracy. We also celebrate the first ten amendments to that Constitution, known to history as the Bill of Rights, which sets forth the principles of the freedom of the conscience from governmental coercion and the establishing of the principle of the separation of church from state. What you may not know is that a Baptist minister named John Leland had a direct role in promoting conditions that would secure those Bill of Rights. Sure, James Madison penned them, but James Madison was tutored and encouraged in his efforts to articulate the principle of religious liberty and the separation of church and state by his Baptist pastor friend John Leland who had spent his life arguing for the adoption of these bedrock principles. As we celebrate our nation’s heritage of freedom, let us also celebrate our Baptist heritage as that religious tradition that has historically been the most outspoken advocate for liberty of conscience. An emphasis on religious freedom is our spiritual birthright.
However, even as we proudly acknowledge the impact Baptists have had in shaping our national democracy, we must also acknowledge an observation made by perhaps the most prominent Baptist in the modern era, Jimmy Carter. Former President Carter noted that people around the world do not associate the name Baptist with such terms as liberty of conscience, freedom of thought, tolerance of diversity. He noted that people around the world do not associate Baptists with terms like “harmony,” “peace,” and “cooperation.” Rather, he asserted, Baptists emanate an “image of division.” He said Baptists are marked by words like “animosity,” and “argument,” and they present a “negative image of Christianity.” Those are strong words. But who could argue with the president’s forthright analysis of the state of Baptist life? A creeping creedalism in recent years has undermined our commitment to religious liberty.
Some years ago, I took a sabbatical in which one of my goals was to worship in contemporary churches that young people were frequenting. I remember visiting one particular church whose theme for that month was classic Christian doctrine combined with classic rock. I took the young pastor to lunch and asked him how his church came to be started and he said, “Oh, we received start-up funds from the North Carolina Baptist State Convention.” Inwardly, I had to laugh. As moderator of the United Baptist Association, I had been trying to secure supporting funds for little Providence Baptist Church in Hendersonville, which had recently joined our association. But the North Carolina State Baptist Convention refused to give money to Providence Baptist because they had called a woman pastor. I thought, ‘What irony. Providence Baptist in Hendersonville was singing “Amazing Grace” on Sunday morning, while this other church was singing songs by “The Who.” Yet Providence Baptist was considered outside the bounds of doctrinal propriety, while the other church was considered orthodox. ‘ I thought, ‘What strange litmus tests we have devised to define who is a proper Baptist and who is not. Where is our commitment to liberty of conscience, conviction, confession and community?’
Shortly thereafter, I received a call from an aspiring Baptist minister in Oklahoma who said, “Good buddy, I hear you have an open associate minister position at your church.” I admitted that we did. “Wa’ll, good buddy, how many deacons do you have?” I told him. “Wa’ll good buddy, I don’t suppose any of those deacons are women?” I replied, “Well, our chair of deacons’ name is Margaret.” Dead silence. Then he said, “Wa’ll, good buddy, I’ll be getting back to you.” But I knew he wouldn’t. He was a victim of the creeping creedalism that has come to characterize Baptist life and stands in opposition to and abnegation of the principles of liberty by which Baptists have been defined.
I want to suggest to you that as our Baptist congregation moves forward in the twenty-first century, we must do so in awareness of the fact that Baptists have projected a public persona as a contentious and querulous people. I would also argue that this persona has undermined our articulation of the Christian Gospel. We must once again become a people of liberty. We must recapture that old Baptist emphasis on liberty of conscience, conviction, confession and community.
We must articulate to the world, “Whosever will may come to our banquet table of grace, and may work out their salvation with fear and trembling – just like the rest of us are doing.” Baptists must once again become a people who emphasize liberty and emanate a spirit of cooperation and openness.
We all know that our nation is polarized. But as a historian I can vouch for the fact that America has often been a polarized democracy. The man whose literary creation we celebrate this weekend, Thomas Jefferson, largely responsible for crafting our Declaration of Independence, was a polarizing figure in his day. In fact, when he was elected president of the United States, there were many people who feared that he would launch a violent attack upon the clergy and upon the church, similar to what happened during the French Revolution. But one minister, our Baptist forefather John Leland, who was pastoring in New England at the time, decided to address this acute fear. He convinced the residents of Cheshire, Massachusetts, that they needed to make a grand gesture of goodwill to Jefferson, even if they feared his policies. In response to Leland’s urging, the people of Cheshire made this grand gesture: pooling milk from the community’s cows, they fashioned a 1,250 pound of cheese, a block of cheese that was 4 feet across! Leland then escorted this humongous piece of cheese to Washington, where he presented it to Jefferson on January 1, 1803. Leland informed Jefferson that the citizens of Cheshire had sung a hymn and prayed over this cheese and enclosed with it one of Jefferson’s own quotes: “ To resist tyranny is to answer the call of God.” This huge block of cheese was featured during our capitol’s Independence Day celebration on July 4, 1803.
Jefferson was so touched by this town’s act of generosity, and so cognizant of the nation’s fears that he might use his presidency to interfere with people’s practice of religion, that he wrote a letter to a small Baptist church in Danbury, Connecticut. That letter to that small Baptist congregation left an indelible mark on our country. Jefferson wrote: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate power of government reaches actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
I don’t think enough of us own cows to make a 1200 lb. block of cheese to send anybody we don’t understand or appreciate, but maybe John Leland was trying to teach us something. Maybe that old Baptist’s behavior reminds us that our role as Christians is to find ways in which we can span the chasm between the variety of perspectives that define our country. Maybe Leland’s behavior challenges us to find ways in which we can express grace and tolerance toward views that we don’t understand, much less appreciate. Maybe that old Baptist’s behavior can remind us that as ambassadors of Christ we are meant to be agents of reconciliation and are called to build bridges that connect people who are estranged from each other. Perhaps during this celebration of our nation’s independence we can find creative and courageous ways to affirm people’s liberty of conscience and to encourage fellowship with them even when we disagree with them.
Liberty of conscience. Liberty of conviction. Liberty of confession. Liberty of community. These are the great themes that have shaped Baptist life for four hundred years, all rooted in the fundamental notion of religious freedom. The question looms, will these great themes characterize Baptist life in the years to come?