I haven’t written much in the past few years, partially because I’ve subsided my seminary career for teaching, but I have since returned after an interesting point of faith and returning to my Jewish roots, and thus changed my major to Church History, hurrah! But this brings me to today: Somehow, for some reason, my professor refuses to concede a point. So, I’m leaving it up to the blogosphere to tell me if I adequately argued my case.
It all started with a discussion board post…
To what extent were Baptists persecuted in Colonial America? Describe the contributions of Baptists in the fight for religious freedom. In what ways has this legacy continued today?
Seems harmless enough. In the course we are studying about religious dissenters in colonial America and how it would eventually lead to the formation of the First Amendment. Piece of cake. Here’s my response:
Where colonies were set up for commerce, the Baptists were paid little attention, but where the colonies were set up with religious intentions, there the Baptists faced great persecution. The first two colonies fell into the latter category: Virginia and Massachusetts Bay. Virginia was set up largely for commerce, but was given special direction, due to the time, to be an Anglican colony. No other faith was permitted to be practiced there, as none was permitted to be practiced in England at the time. Alternatively, Massachusetts Bay was set up largely by Separtists from England who had come to the New World in a way to escape the same persecution that they would eventually wreak among religious dissenters.
Baptists came relatively early to North America, which is unsurprising since they sprouted mainly from the Separtists who settled in Massachusetts. While they were largely Separtist, they reeked of Anabaptistry so many were exiled and persecuted to the point of execution. The most well known of these dissenters was Roger Williams, who spent much of his life as a Separtist, then a Baptist, then a person seeking only the toleration of religious plurality. While in Massachusetts as a pastor, he was exiled, in the middle of the night during a harsh Massachusetts winter, for failing to comply with the order to cease preaching (McBeth 129). Just as in England, it was illegal not to conform to the state religion (McBeth 123). Later, the start of the First Great Awakening would showcase the desirability of Baptist theology, which drew congregants from the New Lights and the new immigrants who tended to be poor and not care so much for the pomp of more traditional churches (McBeth 210)
Virginia, like Massachusetts, was not very favorable to the Baptists. While they would not encounter Baptists on a large scale until the First Great Awakening, the itinerant preachers who happened to pass through were often brutally attacked and those who stayed were persecuted. Though William and Mary had signed the Declaration of Religious Toleration in 1689, this did not stop persecution in Virginia. Anglicans weren’t happy about people coming from the north, so they appealed to England, but England wouldn’t do anything because they only really cared about the economy of the colony. So it was largely left to the governor and city leaders to decide what to do with “dissenters” (Gaustad 56). During the early 1700s, 40-50 Baptist preachers were jailed for crimes such as, “disturbing the peace.”
The greatest contribution of the Baptists to religious freedom was by being committed to it themselves and to inspiring others to feel the same. For example, the young James Madison witnessed the arrest of some “well-meaning men” near his home in Virginia and that night would cause him to be completely dedicated to religious liberty and enacting such in Virginia—and later the United States (Gaustad 46) They never sought to create a state religion, but to grant themselves freedom for religion – for free exercise of their religion – and leaving the civil authorities to civic duties.
In some ways I think this legacy has not continued through the ages. Continually there are Baptists and other denominations that want to attempt to coopt the civic space for religious issues. This is a dangerous turn that can and will eventually lead to civic leaders in religious spaces. The persecution of faiths other than Christianity by people purporting to be Christians is astounding, and one of the reasons I have left many churches. One need only to look at the recent uproar by evangelicals over the NYC school decision to take off two school days for Muslim holidays in the next school calendar, or the attempt to completely block Muslims from constructing mosques in towns. It is neither helpful nor constructive to continually assert and demand obedience to the idea that the United States is a “Christian country” without lapsing into the very problems evident in England, Massachusetts and Virginia during this time.
I want to take this time to point out that I distinctly mentioned the “legacy” in the final paragraph. Even my classmates were able to see my point as evidenced by this reply that I found interesting:
If we, as Christians, will deny the freedom of religion to others, than I agree with your assessment that we are no better than those who persecuted in Colonial America and England. Freedom of religion dictates that all religions are free of government control. This was the only way to establish the first Baptist churches without them becoming the new state churches. Personally, I struggle with the issue of tolerance. I find myself grumbling at the ‘coexist’ bumper stickers on my coworkers cars, but I know I’m missing the point. I don’t have to agree with what other religions are saying, but I still have to love those that do believe in the same way that Christ loves me. This leaves no room for persecution of others.
I was actually amazed by the discussion that happened under the original post. I thought it was very civil and gave good points to each side, many of which I had not thought of regarding a separation between religious and commercial life. However, when I checked the grade book, my post earned me a 50%. Why? According to my professor:
Needed to have a section on how legacy continues today for Baptists.
The commentary in the last paragraph is off the subject. Wasn’t the issue in NYC about Muslims getting a holiday, but Christians being denied?
Hold up, did you miss my entire final paragraph? Did you miss that word “legacy” in there? Did you miss the not one, but two examples I gave to support my position? Alright, alright. Let’s be civil. So I emailed him:
Dr ____________________________,I would like to respectfully push back on the comments on my last discussion board post. You wrote,”Needed to have a section on how legacy continues today for Baptists. The commentary in the last paragraph is off the subject. Wasn’t the issue in NYC about Muslims getting a holiday, but Christians being denied?”In my post I specifically spoke about how the Baptist tradition of wanting to separate Church and State has been eroded over the past two hundred years into the formation today of imposing Christian ideas into civic spaces (the incident in NYC with the holidays did not displace Christian holidays, but continued the policy of having Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and Christian holidays (Christmas and Easter) off from school). The objection to specifically Muslim students was the issue here. The other example I gave was the creation of ordinances specifically to prevent the building of mosques which has been imposed in Tennessee. These are examples of Christians, not entirely Baptist but including, that have sought to inject religious life into the civic realm, and my fear is that this will invite the appearance of civic leaders in religious life, thereby negating the separation of church and state that the founders of the Baptist denomination fought for. The erosion of Baptist desire for separation is what I believe to be the current legacy.This, I believe is both germane and fulfills the requirement of the question on the Baptist legacy. I would appreciate your consideration in changing my grade from a 50% given this reasoning.Thank you for your time and consideration.
Your argument that Religion should not be allowed to influence the government is not true. The constitution does not disallow Christians to influence the direction of the government or to serve in public office and it does not violate the separation of church and state for Christians to do so. The constitution disallows the government creating a state church.Points were not deducted for these views. Points were deducted for not discussing how Baptists today continue the legacy of fighting for the freedom of religion. You argue that Baptists are not fighting anymore, but provide no evidence supporting your view.
Respectfully, sir, I never said anything about the Constitution, but was remarking about the Baptist legacy of wanting to separate themselves from the state. Early Baptists were disallowed from public service, and religious rites were forced upon them. I was arguing that the earliest Baptists in the colonies sought a separation of church and state for their own benefit, and I do not believe that this desire has lasted to the present day. I even stated that the final paragraph was about the “Baptist legacy” at the start of the paragraph.I have since decided to base my final paper on this topic. Having done further research, I have found a few articles that describe exactly what I was arguing in my final paragraph:
- McDaniel, Charles. “The Decline of the Separation Principle in the Baptist Tradition of Religious Liberty.” Journal of Church and State 50, no. 3 (2008): 413-30.
- Gaskins, Mark E. “Cracks in the wall? Changing attitudes toward the separation of church and state among Southern Baptists.”Baptist History and Heritage 43.3 (2008): 96+.
To your point that I did not give evidence to support my view, I gave two points countering the traditional view of separation of church and state: Baptists intending to impose an ecclesiastic law on a city ordinance (Tennessee), and Baptists intending to block a school system from creating holidays that would provide other religion’s holy days off (NYC), an allowance which Christian holidays already enjoy. Both examples provide justification that the separation of Church and State is being blurred, and allowing for the preference of one religion over another, and this is at the hand of people purporting to be Baptists. And as I said in my discussion board post, I believe that this is a dangerous move and could eventually lead to prescribed prayer and institutional religion prescribed by the government.