- June 5, 2008
I’ve attempted to teach Baptist distinctives, particularly religious liberty, to my Sunday school class. But some members reject the importance of separation of church and state. Don’t Baptists have a moral obligation to understand the place of religious liberty?
In April 2005, Baptist church historian Walter Shurden asserted: “Our denominational vision, once crystal clear on First Amendment issues, today is opaque. Impervious to the light of our denominational history and family commitments, we have blocked out heroic chapters of our very own story.”
Those heroic chapters of our Baptist story contain valuable lessons about the Baptist commitment to religious liberty. Learning about 17th- and 18th-century Baptists has convinced me Baptists have an obligation to understand and champion religious liberty.
Yet many Baptists are unfamiliar with their history. They do not know about early Baptists who endured oppression, discrimination and persecution, who courageously confronted the established churches and the governments, and who tirelessly worked for religious freedom for all people.
Stories of those early Baptists need to be told, including stories about early English Baptists like Vavasor Powell, a Welshman who preached two or three times a day, rarely going two days without preaching. Because of his commitment to Baptist beliefs and his determination to preach the gospel, Powell was arrested in 1653, and over the course of the next 17 years, he was arrested numerous times. By the time of his death, he had spent a total of 11 years, or 21 percent of his life, in prison for preaching the gospel.
Baptists in the New England colonies also faced persecution. They often were fined, whipped and/or imprisoned. Their land sometimes was confiscated and sold. One Baptist, Thomas Painter, was whipped in 1644 for refusing to have his child baptized.
In Virginia, where the Anglican Church was the established church, Baptists had to register their meetinghouses and to support the Anglican clergy with their finances. In 1771, several Baptists, including John Waller, were arrested. The magistrate had two of those Baptists whipped, one severely, and he sent Waller and a few others to jail. Imprisonment, however, did not silence these Baptists. They spent their days in jail preaching the gospel to all who would listen.
Preachers, teachers and church leaders ought to tell these stories in their sermons, Sunday school lessons, newsletter columns and Bible studies, and as a result, the “opaque” Baptist vision would quickly clear and would once again be “crystal clear” on the value of religious liberty, one of our great historic Baptist distinctives.
Pamela R. Durso, associate executive director
Baptist History and Heritage Society