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Baptists and Religious Freedom in America

The following was a response I posted after reading Isaac Backus’ “Appeal to the Public for Religious Freedom” (1773) in my “Creation of the Constitution” course in Harvard Extension School.

When we consider that the Christian religion is symbolized by a Roman crucifixion, it’s obvious that the relationship between Christians and their governments has been and will be difficult.  The early Christians had no political power and often lived hiding from government persecution, but this changed in the 4th century, when the emperor Galerius issue an Edict of Toleration, ending the state’s attempt to force Christians to observe the state religion.  This would soon be followed by Constantine’s Edict of Milan the next year, which went further and and granted Christians the freedom to worship publicly–without conditions. Shortly thereafter, however, that same Constantine convened a council of Christian bishops, where the beliefs and practices of some were forbidden. Obviously, religious freedom wasn’t going to be simple. 

Thus, in the 18th century, it’s no surprise to find this struggle continuing between Christians and their governments, even when Christians are in power.  Moved by the same practical concerns as past leaders, men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison considered religious freedom for the benefits it might bring to the state. It’s obvious, however, that this talk of religious freedom was not absolute.  There would be no human sacrifices permitted in America, even if they were called for by a certain religious tradition.  Men were free to practice some religions, namely, those that were judged to contribute to the common good. 

For many, though, religious freedom was not simply a means of political tranquility, nor were the stakes the same for all groups.  James Madison could speak of freedom of religion while living in Virginia, where the Anglican Church he attended was publicly funded.  Other religious groups in the state had to provide for their own places of worship while also supporting the Anglican Church, whose beliefs and practices they did not necessarily agree with.  What was true in Virginia was true in other states as well.  We read earlier that the Constitution of Massachusetts provided for “the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers.” Again, men were free to worship–if they happened to worship in approved ways.  If true freedom of religion was going to be established in America, this would need to change.

The Baptists in early America don’t appear to have enjoyed the same privileges as the Congregationalists or Anglicans, maybe even of the Quakers. Moreover, despite being Christians, their beliefs and practices did not align well with other Christian groups.  The name “Baptist” highlights the key distinction, namely, that whereas Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians and Congregationalists all baptized infants, the Baptists did not.  They did not do so because they respected the right of the individual to choose his religion when he was capable of doing so.  

I would argue that the Baptists held what might be considered the most “American” form of Christianity, which had the principle of religious freedom at its core.  The practices of other Christian groups led to apparent self-contradictions in civil and ecclesiastical practice, which Isaac Backus enumerated in his “Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty”.  Backus argued that it is man’s duty to “render unto Caesar the things that are his, but…not to render unto him anything that belongs to God.”, that is, to be ruled by men in civil affairs but not religious.

Other Christian groups, and political leaders, could content themselves with imperfect policies of religious freedom, but the Baptists could not.  They demanded complete liberty of conscience with respect to religious belief and practice.  Religious freedom was, for the Baptists, an all-or-nothing proposition and the state would either honor Christian liberty or deny it.  In time, American leaders realized that forcing Baptists to fund Anglican churches in Virginia, or “paedobaptist” teachers in Massachusetts, would be impossible to justify.

William C. Michael, O.P.

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