Teaching Baptists about their heritage of secular government


I have recently had a couple of interactions with some Southern Baptist clergymen in which they expressed hostility to the concept of secular government. This is probably no surprise, I realize. It has been more than a few years since the Southern Baptists joined their right-wing Christian confederates in claiming that America should be a “Christian nation” and bemoaning the evils of “Secular Humanism.”

It is absurd for them to take this position, as members of the movement that started the idea of secular government, at least in the English-speaking world.  But what struck me as sad was that they didn’t seem to realize the absurdity. They were unaware of their own Baptist heritage. The lesson is that Baptist churches should make secular government  part of the Sunday School curriculum.

My office oversees the expenditure of certain Federal funds to local nonprofit agencies. Recently we had to suspend funding to a Baptist-affiliated group because it was taking Federal funding for a program that was spreading the gospel message to the clients it was assisting. The Baptist Director of the nonprofit complained that it was unfair for them to lose their taxpayer funding if they used it to teach the gospel, claiming that we were forcing them to adopt the religion of “secular humanism.”

I was describing this situation to an acquaintance of mine who is a pastor and holds a high office in the Southern Baptist Convention. I concluded by saying “its pretty sad to see that from the movement of Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams.” The Southern Baptist pastor responded by shaking his head and saying “No. People always claim the founding fathers were a bunch of atheists, but really the founding fathers wanted this to be a Christian nation.” At first I thought he didn’t hear me. I said “No, not the founding fathers. Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams.” He just stared at me. I realized that he has no idea who Thomas Helwys or Rogers Williams were.

Roger Williams founded the first Baptist church in America, and he also founded the first English-speaking secular government: the colony of Rhode Island. He was following the lead of the pastors of the very first English Baptist congregation, including Thomas Helwys, who had already written in favor of separating Church from State.  The concept of religious liberty, of government not interfering in religion, is probably the most prominent contribution that the Baptist movement has made to human history.

History is not everyone’s favorite topic. I would not expect the average person on the street to know about Roger Williams, but I was appalled that a member of the senior leadership of the largest Baptist association did not know about him.

But why should he? In order for Baptists to be aware of their long history of supporting religious liberty, they have to learn about it from somewhere. They won’t just absorb it via osmosis. Where will they learn it? Did you learn about the Baptist tradition of religious liberty in Sunday School? Are Baptist kids today taught in church about John Smyth and Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams?

We Baptists should be proud of the role our movement played in freeing our society from the yoke of religious theocracy.”If the Kings people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane lawes made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more: for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man” wrote Thomas Helwys. This contribution of the early Baptists, the separation of church and state, is under attack by those who insist that government should promote Christianity.  The next generation of Baptists should continue to defend secular government against its critics…

…but they won’t know they should unless someone teaches them about it.


15 Responses to “Teaching Baptists about their heritage of secular government”

  1. Bruce Gourley Says:

    An excellent post! Too many Baptists have forsaken, or altogether forgotten, their own faith heritage, a heritage that is inextricably woven into the very identity of the American nation. In its place they have embraced the myth of America’s founding as a “Christian Nation,” thus denigrating and betraying their own faith and national heritage.

    The telling of the story of Baptists is as important now as it ever has been. You may be familiar with the work of the Baptist History & Heritage Society (www.baptisthistory.org) in telling our story. The BH&HS offers digital and print resources for this important task.

  2. pskonicki Says:

    Thank you for posting this. One of the main reasons I have stayed in the Baptist Church is its history of the separation of church and state and the autonomy of the local church. I learned that way back in BTU (for you youngsters that stands for Baptist Training Union-yes that does date me). But it is a very rich heritage . I too am appalled at the ignorance of those who keep saying the United States was founded as a Christian Nation. Even the “founding fathers” were concerned that the state would interfere with religious liberty and freedom. Many of them would not meet the criteria of the Southern Baptist today. GAs and YWAs as well as BTU taught me about my Baptist ancestors and made me proud to be among them. Maybe we are failing our young people by not providing them the same learning experiences that we had.

  3. chbcblog Says:

    One can only wonder if most Southern Baptists were being taught the Baptist Distinctives, especially separation of church and state, as youngsters in their Sunday Schools prior to the conservative takeover of the SBC. Seems if most layfolk had been taught all that they would not have swallowed the conservative propaganda and the conservative takeover would not have happened. Let’s be sure our ABC and CBF kids are taught what it means and has meant to be Baptist.

    submitted by John Birkimer

  4. barrycre Says:

    I wrestle with the right answer to the question. I was not taught about Smyth & Helwys as a kid. I had never heard of them until Cooperative Baptists named their publishing house after them…about the same time as I heard about them in a church history class. Roger Williams was a bit more famous, due to his political connections with Rhode Island.

    An aside here — A couple of years ago, as we vacationed in the area, we stopped by Providence, RI briefly to pay our respects to this cradle of American Baptist history. Have you read about Roger Williams’ grave? http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2210

    What intrigues me most about the discussion here is the tribalism that our denominational identity often brings. Many of you know that I work for a different denomination. When its members gather to talk about denominational distinctives more often than not, they list the same things that Baptists list when they talk about it: “God Alone is Lord of the Conscience” vs Soul Competency, Religious Liberty vs Separation of Church & State, historic commitment to missions and education, etc. If many groups share the same distinctives, they really can’t be said to be distinctives anymore.

    It is our tribalism that makes us think we are alone in struggling for these key issues. While in Richmond a few years ago, I learned about Samuel Davies and the Polegreen Church – birthplace of religious liberty in Viriginia http://www.historicpolegreen.org/story/ . They have their own claims to pioneering religious freedom as well. But just like we don’t know our own stories, we also don’t know each others’ stories.

    So, it makes me wonder whether what we most need is to learn more about the heritage of our own tribe, or perhaps to learn what we have in common with others, and find ways to work together. The big issues today really aren’t about what Williams, Smyth, Helwys, and Davies did back then, but how we will live them out today. Even if we win the historical argument that Baptists, “true Baptists,” have always supported the separation of church and state, what have we won if we can’t articulate why it makes sense today?

    Instead of seeing the historical argument as the goal, perhaps we ought to do more to demonstrate the urgency of working together to preserve that freedom today.

    A few months after Roger Williams founded the 1st Baptist church in America, he left it, allegedly saying, “God is too large to be housed under one roof.” So, I’m torn between doing more to accentuate our own particular style, versus doing more to show that we really aren’t alone in this struggle, alliances are there if we can just find a way to lay down our labels and work together.

    • batesandrewj Says:

      I concur that the historical “tribalism” is not the big issue, but it is the source of great irony when the largest faction of the “tribe” that first introduced religious liberty in our society is now one of it’s most vocal opponents. That was my intended point.

      • barrycre Says:

        Yes, there is a good bit of irony there. There is a lesson in that also, in that we should want a government when we are in the majority, or at least in power, that would serve us well when we are in the minority, or out of power.

        As for what we should teach our kids, I think we give too little time to the philosophical/theological underpinnings of religious liberty. I love history, and enjoy reading those stories, but religious liberty is really simpler than that, I think.

        Two easy models for looking at the topic. One is the golden rule: do to others what you would have done to you. This is similar to the point above. As we build governments, a scriptural principle would be for that government to govern others the way we would want to be governed…that is, without coercion or preferential treatment.

        A second model would be to look at the way God treats humans with free will — the sun rises on the evil and the good, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:45). If God shows this sort of impartiality in matters of human affairs, then walking in the way of Jesus means that we should do the same as we build structures, such as governments. Nowhere does Jesus call for his followers to build theocracies.

        One might conclude that this is our calling, but it is only at the end (Rev 11:15), as we sang on Sunday, that the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord.

  5. chbcblog Says:

    It would be easy to miss the point of some of this discussion because of the historical comments and allusions, but what is important is that the founders were mostly concerned with preventing state churches and we need to be concerned about efforts in that direction today. Back then the state churches would be what we call denominations today; now such a church would be a simplified kind of fundamentalist Christianity. The Baptist distinctives were based on each person’s working out their relationship with God on their own. So no priest (minister) could tell then what to believe, no organization (like the SBC today) could tell them that, and certainly no government could.

    The same point holds today. Separation of church and state permits each of us to work out that relationship with God; government coercion or bias toward Christian belief or practice is incompatible with that. (None I know want to argue only Baptists have so argued; if other traditions have held similar positions, they would be good allies. There are of course denominations that posit one person or some who do decide what their members should or must believe. Hopefully they too will generally recognize the problems with breaking down the church/state separation.

    Finally, church/state separation protects those who are unsure God exists or are sure he does not, folks who might be poorly treated by an actively “Christian” government.

    posted by John Birkimer.

  6. sjb Says:

    I agree with Phyllis that one of the main reasons I remain Baptist is that I agree so firmly with the Baptist Distinctives such as Separation of Church and State, priesthood of believers and local church autonomy. I was raised in an American Baptist Church and we were taught and saw demonstrated these and other distinctives. We heard them preached in a series of sermons at least every other year; we discussed them in Sunday School and Bible School. I was saddened and shocked when I went to SBC churches to find that they were not taught. Phyllis and others at Crescent Hill Baptist Church tell me they were taught them when they were children, but I had taught Sunday School and attended church services in Louisville since 1977 and I have never heard them discussed in either situation. John and I taught a series of lessons on Baptist Beliefs to children on Wednesday night, but that is all I am aware our children have heard them.

    My paternal grandparents came to America from Denmark in the early 1900s because the Lutheran Danish government would not allow them to own land and also be a Baptist. My parental grandmother was a kind and deeply religious woman but I was told in stern tones many times “Do not allow the Lutherans to tell you how to worship.” Lutherans were the predominant religion in North Dakota but my family stuck to being committed Baptists when we heard what had happened when the Danish government ruled the church and government.

  7. barrycre Says:

    How can we make the result different, Sharleen? My only point earlier was that I wasn’t sure that teaching about Smyth, Helwys, and Williams, or even Baptist distinctives, would change our kids, or society. Each of those seem like something from long ago, or something off in a cul-de-sac with respect to where folks are today.

    I know I’ve also heard adults in our congregation who struggle with these ideas, thinking that Great Commission calls us to go and convert the world for Christ, including government institutions. Finding ways to unpack the reasons why we believe the way we do, like your story of Baptists growing up among Lutherans, is one piece of that, I think.

  8. batesandrewj Says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments. I am teaching the 8-9th grade Sunday school, and I have been teaching the kids a little about Baptist principles, but I resolve to do it more deliberately.

    Something that your responses made me consider: on the topic of separating church and state, the misunderstanding is not only on the conservative side. Often liberals seem to equate the separation of church and state with opposition to religion.

    In other words, people on both sides of the issue seem to think a person must be either pro-religion or pro-secular. The early Baptists and Mennonites were both highly religious and advocates of secular government. In fact, they championed secular government BECAUSE they were strongly religious. Sharleen’s story illustrates why this is not a paradox.

  9. Chuck Leach Says:

    Many years ago I was in a workshop led by a short, round little woman of Jewish, agnostic/antagonistic heritage, who was not at all impressive at first appearance. She was, however, a package of dynamite in terms of potency. One of her comments–simply an aside to other conversation–was that “religious people don’t think so good.” That is a bit of a broadside, but often comes back to me in discussions such as this one.

    We seem, as human beings, to adhere to a common practice that coercion is more evil when I am on the receiving end of it; but that the ends justify the means when I am doing something for someone else’s good. The good I intend outweighs any incidental harmful consequence. In fact it seems to me that when we intend good–and are convinced we are good people doing God’s will–we become the most dangerous.

    My inclination, of course, is to point at “them” and make note of how “they” are myopic, which then raises my suspicion that this may show up in my mirror as well. But I don’t want to talk about it; this gets too close to home.

    [Thanks for stirring the pot!]

  10. arnettjw Says:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
    Note it doesn’t say “the establishment of religion”

    The spirit is the same as prohibiting laws respecting the establishment of a particular religion such as the Puritans, the Church of England, or the Roman Catholics.

    I don’t think the founding fathers and mothers would have taken the side of the FFRF (Wikipedia reference below) in this debate, but we who must be PC and not offend any are reluctant to admit that folks like the FFRF may suffer from the “arrogance of ignorance.” I’ve been down the agnostic road and understand why those who take that path are so defensive and want the article in the 1st amendment to be “the” rather than “an.” Despite John Lennon’s FFRF theme song, Imagine, I think there’s a place for religion and am not in favor of taking “In God We Trust” off the coins, dropping “One nation under God” from the pledge, removing chaplains from the armed forces, or doing away with the church tax code exemption. Obviously, I’m not an attorney, and these issues will continue to be debated. I’m interested to see how the Supreme Court deals with the latest ruling in favor of the FFRF to ban “Day of Prayer.”


    • barrycre Says:

      I tend to think of the issues through the lens of what I would want if I were in a minority position. The establishment clause makes good sense from that perspective. It isn’t so much a desire to be politically correct, but rather “do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

      If the day comes that we find an objectionable religious tradition controlling the legislative and executive branches of government, I think we will hope that the judicial branch would stand firmly behind the separation principles. If other slogans are printed on our money and fed to our children in school, or made the subject of legislation, we would not like it. We would just want the right to practice our religion without the constant reminder through the government’s mechanisms of the dominance of another faith.

      So, I agree that there is a place for religion, but I don’t think the government should be able to take faith statements, like “in God we trust” or “one nation under God” and distribute them throughout the land.

      We may be inclined to minimize the value of those statements, saying that they are just words from our cultural heritage, they don’t mean anything, but that doesn’t help me much…if they do mean something, then that’s where I’d object…if they don’t mean anything, why are we doing it?

      For me the question is what would I want my government to do if a different religious tradition were dominant?

    • batesandrewj Says:

      My original post came before the story about the FFRF case, but it is very pertinent. I don’t generally agree with the underlying principle of the FFRF. It isn’t just freedom “from religion” but freedom “of religion.” In this case, I’m not sure if a National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional, but I think it is a bad idea. Every day should be a National Day of Prayer. It just shouldn’t come from the government. I like what the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty wrote on the topic. I find myself more often in alignment with their positions. As their director wrote: “Religion is Safer In the Hands Of the People” http://www.bjconline.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2388&Itemid=

  11. April 2010 – Baptist History and Heritage Society Says:

    […] blog post speaks to the widespread lack of understanding, among many Baptists, of our heritage. Teaching Baptists about their heritage of secular government laments that some Baptist “leaders” in America of the 21st century have never heard of Roger […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: