Anabaptists and the First Amendment
During the Protestant Reformation, the Anabaptists, standing practically alone, espoused the concept of the “free church”—a concept formulated in contrast to the state Christianity that had prevailed in Europe for more than a millennium. The paganizing of Christianity began in the fourth century, when the new faith was first tolerated by the Roman Empire (Constantine) and then made the exclusive state religion (Theodosius). Religion thus dissolved into politics. That Christians who had suffered under state persecution should have welcomed this reversal of imperial policy is understandable. Political control and religious establishment reduced the insecurities inherent in the faith. The subsequent brutality of state-building processes, of course, is not to be blamed directly on Christianity. The problem is rather that many churchmen of that era were only too eager to invoke imperial power in support of their cause.
All this changed during the Reformation. Luther, of course, sought only to reform, not to divide, the church. Once the break with Rome occurred, however, the Reformers acutely faced the question: What and where is “the church”? At first Luther toyed with the idea of a believers’ church, as did Zwingli. The free church idea gave way, however, to the principle of religious uniformity, and it was left to the Anabaptists to form communities of people who sought disestablishment. Other free movements, such as the Baptists and the Congregationalists, were to follow, all of them espousing religious liberty, separation of church and state, and believer’s baptism. In the New World the diversity of churches in the various colonies precluded the favoring of one denomination over others. Hence the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Today religious liberty is taken for granted, but do we really have a “free church” in American society? In fact, do we possess a biblical ecclesiology at all? “Free churches,” including Baptists, have constructed their own mammoth top-heavy “denominations,” vague replicas of what they ostensibly rejected in the break with Rome. In our modern “Evanjellycalism,” with its almost blind support of big government, the prevailing norms of New Testament Christianity are barely noticeable.
The evidence is clear that Baptists consistently opposed the rule of the state over the church or the church over the state. The minutes of the New London Baptist Association meeting held at Saybrook’s Second Baptist Church on October 20 and 21, 1818, expressed the convictions of Connecticut Baptists at the time. The minutes acknowledged “the kind interference of Divine Providence in favor of Religious Liberty in this State in the removal of those impediments which have so long lay in our way; but God forbid that this liberty should ever be perverted to licentious purposes….” And in an address delivered from the East Steps of the National Capitol at Washington, D.C., on Sunday, May 16, 1920, in connection with the Annual Session of the Southern Baptist Convention, George W. Truett said,
Indeed, the supreme contribution of the new world to the old is the contribution of religious liberty. This is the chiefest contribution that America has thus far made to civilization. And historic justice compels me to say that it was pre-eminently a Baptist contribution. The impartial historian, whether in the past, present or future, will ever agree with our American historian, Mr. Bancroft, when he says: “Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was from the first the trophy of the Baptists.” And such historian will concur with the noble John Locke who said: “The Baptists were the first propounders of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty.” Ringing testimonies like these might be multiplied indefinitely.
The demand of all true Baptists has been the absolute freedom from state interventionism in religion. This liberty was gained by those who, in spite of the intolerance shown them, contended for this freedom that would not only benefit them but all who came to America.
January 2, 2004
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.