OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
OWED TO THE BAPTISTS
"If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?"
"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." -- Thomas Jefferson
“It can not be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians, not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ! For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.” -- Patrick Henry
"GREAT GOD! May it please your worships: There are periods in the history of man, when corruption and depravity have so long debased the human character, that man sinks under the weight of the oppressor's hand, and becomes his servile, his abject slave; he licks the hand that smites him; he bows in passive obedience to the mandates of the despot, and in this state of servility he receives his fetters of perpetual bondage. But, may it please your worships, such a day has passed away! From that period, when our fathers left the land of their nativity for settlement in these American wilds, for LIBERTY, for civil and religious liberty, for liberty of conscience, to worship their Creator according to their conceptions of Heaven's revealed will; from the moment they placed foot on the American continent, and in the deeply imbedded forests sought an asylum from persecution and tyranny, from that moment despotism was crushed; her fetters of darkness were broken, and Heaven decreed that man should be free-free to worship God according to the Bible. Were it not for this, in vain have been the efforts and sacrifices of the colonists; in vain were all their sufferings and bloodshed to subjugate this new world, if we, their offspring, must still be oppressed and persecuted. But, may it please your worships, permit me to inquire once more, for what are these men about to tried? This paper says, 'For preaching the Gospel of the Son of God.' Great God! For preaching the Gospel of the Savior to Adam's fallen race. What law have they violated?!" -- Patrick Henry's 1770 court defense of 3 Baptist pastors for the crime of “... preaching the Gospel of the Son of God in the colony of Virginia.”
Patrick Henry, although a saved and an evangelical man, a champion of religions liberty and a friend of the Baptists, he continued an Episcopalian, and did not understand the Biblical doctrine of the church, nor that it must be separate from the state. The Lord Jesus Christ said:
"... I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it," and "... Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s." (Matthew 16:18, 22:21)
Knowing that the church must remain totally separate from the state, Virginia Baptists opposed Patrick Henry's general assessment bill to "support of the teachers of the Christian Religion." Silas Hart, John Young and others circulated petitions opposing Henry's bill in Baptist associations and the Baptist evangelist John Leland (1754-1841) preached against it in churches throughout the state. On August 13, 1785 the Baptist General Committee of Virginia approved the following resolution:
"That it be recommended to those counties, which have not yet prepared petitions to be presented to the General Assembly against the engrossed bill for a general assessment for the support of the teachers of the Christian Religion, to proceed thereon as soon as possible: That it is believed to be repugnant to the spirit of the gospel for the legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion; that the holy author of our religion needs no such compulsive measures for the promotion of his cause; that the gospel wants not the feeble arm of man for its support; that it has made and will again through divine power make its way against all opposition; and that should the legislature assume the right of taxing the people for the support of the gospel it will be destructive to religious liberty."
In a letter from James Madison to James Monroe dated April 12, 1785 concerning Madison support for Henry's bill Madison wrote:
"Episcopal people are generally for it, tho' I think the zeal of some of them has cooled, the laity of the other sects are equally unanimous on the other side. So are all the clergy except the Presbyterian. ... " -- James Madison (The Writings of James Madison, 1751-1836, ed. G. Hunt 1900-1910, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, Vol. II 1783-1787, letter on pp. 129-132).
Madison's understanding of the Baptist position regarding church and state is recorded in a letter he wrote to James Monroe in the midst of the fight against Henry's bill. Concerning support and opposition to the bill he wrote:
"The Baptists, however, standing firm by their avowed principle of the complete separation of church and state, declared it to be 'repugnant to the spirit of the Gospel for the Legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion, that no human laws ought to be established for the purpose.'" -- James Madison, Writings, Vol. II, pp. 183-191.
John Leland and Baptists helped James Madison secure religious liberty for everyone in Virginia. However, tensions developed between Baptists and Madison over the inadequate provision for religious liberty in the U.S. Constitution which Madison was instrumental in writing. Madison initially opposed adding a bill of rights to the U.S. Constitution. Baptists felt betrayed. On February 28, 1788 Leland sent a letter to Madison giving ten reasons why he objected to the Constitution without a bill of rights. His strongest objection has to do with religious liberty:
"What is clearest of all -- Religious Liberty, is not sufficiently secured, No Religious test is Required as a qualification to fill any office under the United States, but if a Majority of Congress with the President favour one System more then another, they may oblige all others to pay to the support of their System as much as they please, and if Oppression does not ensue, it will be owing to the Mildness of Administration and not to any Constitutional defense, and of the Manners of People are so far Corrupted, that they cannot live by Republican principles, it is Very Dangerous leaving Religious Liberty at their Mercy."
The Baptist General Committee of Virginia met on March 7, 1788 to discuss the issue:
"Whether the new Federal Constitution, which had now lately made its appearance in public, made sufficient provision for the secure enjoyment of religious liberty; on which it was agreed unanimously that, in the opinion of the General Committee, it did not"
The Baptists nominated Leland, and oppose Madison, as the delegate from Orange County at Virginia's convention to ratify the Constitution. A defeat for that seat would have embarrassed the "Father of the Constitution" and might have imperiled adoption of the Constitution. On the eve of the election, Madison visited Leland at his farm on the Fredericksburg road outside Orange. Eugene Bucklin Bowen of Cheshire, Massachusetts documented the traditional Baptist account of their meeting:
"Both Madison and Leland were candidates for the Virginia Convention on ratifying the Constitution. It was evident, however, that Leland had more votes than had Madison. Madison though having practically written the whole Constitution couldn't get an election from his own state for its adoption. They finally met under a certain oak tree near Orange which has been carefully preserved to this day, and fought it out. It was a battle royal with Leland insisting that there should be an article in the Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty. Madison, however, was afraid to put it in on account of the opposition of some of the colonies, Massachusetts in particular. A compromise was agreed upon. This was that Leland should withdraw and advocate the election of Madison. This, they thought, would ensure the adoption by Virginia. It was a tough battle but on the vote of 168 they won out by a margin of 10 over Madison's remaining opponents. ... This agreement between Madison and Leland was conditioned upon Madison's joining Leland in a crusade for an amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty, free speech and a free press." (J.M. Dawson, Baptists and the American Republic, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1956, p. 108-109 says the original manuscript of Bowen's account is in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress.)
After the Constitution was adopted, Leland rejoiced that it would be possible for a "Pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian" to be eligible for any post or office in the government. (The Writings of John Leland, ed. L.F. Greene. New York: Arno Press, 1969, p. 191.)
Madison kept his side of the deal on June 7, 1789 when he submitted the first version of the amendment that became the First Amendment to the Constitution called the Bill of Rights. The final version that has been so twisted the courts and ACLU in recent years is:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Just a little History