Modern Baptists, Religious Liberty & Forgetting History

Most Baptists — including Baptists of the Southern (or Great Commission kind) — have never heard of Elder John Leland. I first heard of John Leland when I had the privilege of serving on the Religious Liberty Committee for the Baptist General Association of Virginia during my tenure as Pastor of Grundy Baptist Church in Grundy, VA. Even though I was the “token” conservative on the Committee and did not always see eye-to-eye on religious liberty issues with some of the more moderate members of the Committee, I have continued to gain  a better — and deeper — appreciation for not only my service on the BGAV’s Religious Liberty Committee, but also  a deeper appreciation for Virginia Baptists’ historical defense of religious liberty.

All Baptists — not just Virginia Baptists — should have a deep appreciation for John Leland. A native of Massachusetts, Leland served Baptist congregations in his home state and most notably in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It would be during his time among the brethren of the Baptist General Association of Virginia that Leland would become known as a strong proponent of religious liberty for all people — not just Baptists:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” (John Leland, “A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia,” The Writings of the Later Elder John Leland, published in 1845.)

Baptists in Leland’s day well understood the significance of extending religious liberty to all people, including those who were not Christians. Baptists — who were often a persecuted minority at the time that the United States Constitution was ratified — knew that religious liberty was a right that must be secured if the Gospel was to flourish. Baptists like John Leland did not expect the government to grant any special privileges to the church. However, Leland and other Baptists of his day did expect the government to protect the right of all men — regardless of their beliefs — to be free to propagate those beliefs:

“Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let the government protect him in so doing.”

Modern Southern Baptists have simply forgotten — if they were ever taught — the price that John Leland and others paid so long ago so that we might continue to enjoy our religious liberty today. Modern Southern Baptists have forgotten that our Baptist forefathers (in the days before there was an SBC) were oppressed for their beliefs and that the oppression they faced came primarily from the state. No wonder we have Baptist pastors participating in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” I can almost understand how some non-Baptists could endorse political candidates from behind the pulpit. Baptists should know better!

I suppose that Southern Baptists — the largest Protestant “denomination” in the United States today — see themselves quite differently than their 17th & 18th century ancestors. After all, we have come to see ourselves as part of the establishment. We followed Jerry Falwell so deep into the “Moral Majority” and “Religious Right” that when Richard Land, soon-to-be-retiring President of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he wanted to see a marriage between the Religious Right and the Republican Party, we barely noticed:

“The go-along, get-along strategy is dead. No more engagement. We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of marriage.”

We have accepted the historical revisionism that David Barton sells teaches to unsuspecting Christians as truth. We have increasingly relied upon the power of government, political parties, and politicians to bring much-needed spiritual revival to our land instead of relying upon the God-given power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to bring about true hope and change in the hearts and minds of those in spiritual darkness. We have prostituted our churches by allowing political candidates to campaign during the time set aside for worship of Almighty God. And, we have broken the law, not because we have been prevented from proclaiming the Gospel, but in order to endorse a candidate for highest office in the land, all the while knowing that said candidate is a member of a non-Christian cult.

In short, we have forgotten what it means to be Baptist Christians in a land that we are just passing through. In these days ahead, when so many within our Baptist congregations (and other Evangelical churches) are looking to politicians to fix what ails us, we would do well to remember the words of another early Baptist leader, Massachusetts Pastor Isaac Backus:

“It appears to us that the true difference and exact limits between ecclesiastical and civil government is this, That the church is armed with light and truth to pull down the strongholds of iniquity and to gain souls to Christ and into his Church to be governed by His rules therein, and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed, while the state is armed with the sword  to guard the peace and civil rights of all persons and societies and to punish those who violate the same.  And where these two kinds of government, and the weapons which belong to them are well distinguished and approved according to the nature and end of their institution, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other.  But where they have been confounded together no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.” (emphasis added)


7 comments for “Modern Baptists, Religious Liberty & Forgetting History

  1. October 9, 2012 at 6:38 AM

    Well said, Howell. I remember going back to read a Baptist history book that was given to me by my grandmother many years ago and being astonished at learning some of the same things you cited in your article. Thanks for publishing this post and the previous one about “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Both are spot on and much needed these days.

  2. Shane Morgan
    October 9, 2012 at 8:29 AM

    Howell, one of the things that frustrates me as a pastor and a chaplain is talking to other well-meaning Christians who make forceful and passionate statements like: “America is a Christian nation,” or “America needs to return to it’s Christian roots.” When I hear these statements, I am immediately conflicted, because initially, I want to agree with them for selfish reasons. Statements such as these are designed to immediately fill the Christian with a sense of “righteous indignation” toward any person or party who would dare to think of America as anything but Christian! And as a Christian who loves this country and admittedly would love to see everybody here come to faith in Jesus Christ, I’m always tempted to jump on the bandwagon . . . . But, I can’t! As much as the idea appeals to my emotions, it’s wrong-headed for several reasons.

    First of all, a person who truely values freedom of religion would never want to say “America is a Christian nation;” instead, such a person would want to say, America is a RELIGIOUSLY FREE nation. Anything else betrays a religious bias. (For the record, I admit that I am biased toward Christianity. Jesus is the way and the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father but by Him. But I would never force that bias upon another.) As you so poignantly brought to light, we champion religious freedom for ALL Americans. And when all Americans are free to believe and practice their religion openly, Christians are free to believe and practice their religion openly as well. That’s what we need to be striving toward!

    Second, if America were truely a Christian nation, in the sense in which the statement is ususally made, it would be a violation of the establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” And let me say that any attempt to stifle Christianity or blackball Christians within the political arena is a violation of what I like to refer to as the free exercise clause: “or prohibiting the free exercise therof.” As Christian Americans, we have to honor both clauses within the first ammendment with equal vigor if we are truely interested in honoring the constitution.

    Third, most of the founding fathers were not Christian, they were Deist – most notably Thomas Jefferson, who at one point broke out a pen-knife and carved all the miracles and divinity statements out of his copy of the New Testament. America wasn’t founded on Christian principles as much as it was founded upon Theistic principles with an emphesis on human rights. And while the greatest expression of Theism and human rights is, without doubt, found within the principles of Christianity, what we find in the constitution is manifestly less than Christian. It is at best, what we might call Theistic Humanism. And when we suggest otherwise, we lose intellectual credibility with the watching world.

    Fourth, to suggest that America is a Christian nation, can come across as bigotry within the religiously diverse atmosphere in which we now find ourselves. And that doesn’t help our efforts to spread the gospel. Now let me say quite clearly that I am perfectly happy to be called a bigot, if people want to cast that epithet upon me for proclaiming the exclusivity of the gospel. I will gladly bear any and all derogatory remarks for the cause of Christ! But we have to be very careful not to place any of our own stumbling blocks in the way of those who might otherwise come to faith in Jesus. And a Christianity mingled with Americanism not only presents a stumbling block to many, but is essentially a hybrid form of the gospel which we need to avoid if we want to remain true to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

    In closing, let me say with all the vigor I can muster that I love America, I love Jesus Christ, and I would love to be able to say that every American citizen is a Christian. But then that is vastly different than saying that America is a Christian nation, isn’t it? To suggest that every American is a Christian says something about PEOPLE. To suggest that America is a Christian nation says something about a political entity. Jesus came to redeem PEOPLE not POLITICAL ENTITIES! Let’s not lose our intellectual credibility. Let’s not assist the watching world in seeing Christians as biggots for all the wrong reasons. Let’s honor the constitution and champion the first ammendment in it’s entirety. Let’s protect the precious Gospel of Jesus Christ from any additions or dissolutions, no matter how well-intentioned. Let’s be content to let America be America with all of its glorious rights and freedoms. Let’s be content to let the Gospel be the Gospel in all of its glorious and redemptive power. And let’s be content to spread that glorious Gospel within the context of a glorious America, without making any vain attempts to confound the two.

    God bless America,
    Shane Morgan

  3. October 9, 2012 at 3:01 PM

    I used Leland’s quotes in a Bible study I wrote. After reading your post and others, I decided to download the original document and verify the one that starts “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect….” The first part appears to be some later commentator’s interpretation of preceding comments. The actual quote starts with “Government should protect…” While Leland’s preceding comments would support that introductory statement, it appears to be an embellishment as far as I can tell. Download the book from Google books and go to page 118.

    • October 9, 2012 at 3:36 PM


      Thanks for taking the time to read and to share what you had found about Leland’s quote. If by book, you are referring to the 1845 book, I will go back and reread page 118. I downloaded it last night, but have not waded through most of it just yet. If the quote has been embellished, then it has apparently been picked up by numerous sources, as all of the sources I found with the quote had it exactly as I quoted. That would not surprise me if it was embellished, although I would be surprised that some of the sites (and individual authors) that I read did not pick up on that, given their background with early American Baptist history. Thanks again for the heads up. God bless,


  4. October 9, 2012 at 5:27 PM

    Great post, Howell. We need to be reminded again and again what our Baptist forefathers thought about and fought for concerning religious liberty. John Leland and Isaac Backus ought to be required reading. Roger Williams (not a Baptist for very long) and John Clarke have a lot to say to us as well. Too many Baptists have adopted a non-Baptist version of the relationship of religion and government in our society (a lot of secularists have it wrong too).

    Years ago I enjoyed following David Barton, until I realized what he was doing, or at least where he was going. I think initially he provided a service in showing there are alternative views to a secular history that painted our founding fathers as mostly deists and nearly atheists. But (in my opinion) as he went on he fell into an agenda as bad as theirs, trying to paint his picture as the ideal (and the way it was), just like, but in the opposite direction of the secularists. I also began to notice that the Christians he was following and quoting and idealizing, while perhaps good men and good founders, were men who DID NOT believe in the kind of religious freedom that my forefathers believed and taught. Historical revisionism is bad whether it advances from the left or the right!

    • October 9, 2012 at 6:29 PM


      Thanks for the kind words. I think that you are spot on when you point out that “too many Baptists have adopted a non-Baptist version of the relationship of religion and government in our society.” I wish I would have said it that good 🙂 I understand why so many Christians have bought into what Barton is selling. People need to realize that Barton is a salesman and he is making tons of money off of Christians and their desire for “returning America to its Christian roots.” We can debate that till the cows come home, but that ship has sailed long ago. We are no longer a Christian nation — if we ever truly were — and we cannot go back to “the good old days.” We live in a culture very similar to the church of the 1st century. That is the context that we minister in. Let’s get about sharing the Gospel and not get sucked into politics. And, to think that these politicians are looking out for the interests of Christian America is ludicrous. They know they have a built in voting block (or audience). Baptists would do well to remember the religious freedom that our Baptist ancestors fought for. It was a religious liberty for all, not just the established churches (all non-Baptists) in the colonies and later states. Thanks again for the reminder. God bless,


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