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Baptists have valued religious freedom and separation of church and state, because they suffered the hard lessons of history.  From jail cells in England, to stockades in Massachusetts Bay, to whipping posts in Virginia, early Baptists experienced firsthand the pain of persecution -- the heartache and bloodshed occasioned by religious zealots armed with the coercive power of government.

After establishing the first Baptist church on English soil, Thomas Helwys (1550-1615) authored a seminal treatise on religious liberty, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612), and sent a copy to King James I.  In his inscription, he wrote: "The king is a mortal man and not God, and therefore hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them."  For his trouble, Helwys, along with his wife, Joan, was severely persecuted.  He later died in Newgate Prison. Often called the apostle of religious liberty, Roger Williams (1603-1689) came from England to Massachusetts Bay in 1631 preaching and teaching "soul freedom" - the notion that faith could not be dictated by any government authority, but must be nurtured freely and expressed directly to God.  He advocated a "hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."  The theocrats in Massachusetts were so offended that they kicked Williams out of the colony.  He trekked to what would become Rhode Island and founded a city he called "Providence," because he judged that God's providence had directed him there. Williams began that "livlie experiment" in religious liberty and founded the first Baptist church in North America.

Obadiah Holmes (1607-1682), also banished from Massachusetts because of his Baptist beliefs, settled in Newport, Rhode Island, seeking religious freedom.  In 1651, Holmes, along with John Clark and John Crandall, traveled back to Massachusetts to visit an aged and blind friend.  After taking communion in the friend's home, they were arrested for engaging in unlawful worship.  Holmes was convicted and sentenced to a fine or whipping.  When he refused to pay the fine because of conscience, he was "well whipped" with 30 lashes.  As his punishment was being administered, Holmes repeatedly told his tormentors, "It is as if you have struck me with roses."  After his release, Holmes returned to Newport and served as a pastor for 30 years.

Henry Dunster (1609-1659) brought Puritan sentiments with him when he immigrated to Massachusetts in 1640.  In time he became convinced through reading the scriptures that only believers should be baptized.  He spoke out against the infant baptism practiced by the Puritans.  The Puritans were not amused.  After a heresy trial, Dunster was forced to resign as president of Harvard College and was banished from the colony.  He relocated to Scituate in Plymouth, where he was free to espouse his scriptural view of baptism.

An evangelist preaching in Virginia during the heady decade of the 1780s, John Leland (1754-1841) boldly advocated religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  He played a pivotal role in convincing our nation's founders of the need for specific guarantees protecting religious freedom in the Bill of Rights.  He stood toe-to-toe with the likes of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason and never backed down on the way to the Bill of Rights.  He later returned to his native Massachusetts where he continued to speak out in favor of religious liberty and against state-established religion.

Isaac Backus (1724-1806) was a Baptist freedom fighter, Massachusetts preacher, social activist, and a popular pamphleteer.  A contemporary of, but 30 years older than, John Leland, Backus has been called "the most forceful and effective writer America produced on behalf of the pietistic or evangelical theory of the separation of church and state." Although they did not always see eye to eye, Backus agreed with Leland that government should not tax its citizens to support the teaching of religion and that the government had no power or authority over the church.

The pantheon of early Baptist freedom fighters witnesses to the uniquely Baptist heritage of being trailblazers for religious liberty.  Such a ‘cloud of witnesses' inspires courage to millions of modern-day Christians in general and Baptists in particular for truth-telling to the powers that be in defending religious liberty and the separation of church and state.  Hundreds of years separate these witnesses, but hundreds of years have not silenced their voices.
Arkansas Law Review

Resources on Baptist Heritage

How to recognize a "real" Baptist if you see one
By James M. Dunn

BJC = JMD2: The Contributions of Joseph M. Dawson and James M. Dunn to the Baptist Joint Committee
By J. Brent Walker

How We Got That Way: Baptists on Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State
By Walter B. Shurden

Baptists and Religious Liberty
Address by George W. Truett

Words of Founders, Baptists and Others about Church and State
Compiled by Kevin Boswell

Articles on Baptist Heritage

The legacy of Dawson and Dunn, then and now
By J. Brent Walker

Brooks Hays: A Baptist Treasure
By Warren I. Cikins

Thank You
By Bill Moyers

Experiencing Baptists' roots and fruit in England
By J. Brent Walker

Each generation plays a role in preserving Baptist heritage
By Stephanie Wyatt

Freedom-loving Baptists should remember Clarke's contributions
By J. Brent Walker

Hamburger wrong about founders' early Baptists' view of separation
By J. Brent Walker

 
 
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