Patrick Henry (1736-1799) was one of the leading figures of the American Revolutionary period, perhaps most famous for his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775. Nine years after that speech, in 1784, Henry introduced in the Virginia legislature a bill designed to help fund the work of churches. The proposal would send tax dollars from the government treasury to churches as a way to improve life in the state.
You might expect churches to embrace such a bill and, indeed, many did. But some churches opposed the measure with the fiercest critics of Henry’s proposal being Baptists. Indeed, Baptists were so dead set against this piece of legislation that they organized a movement against it. Petitions opposing the bill were sent in from Baptist bodies all across the state. Baptists sent more petitions against the proposal than any other group.
In the end a bill that had a popular beginning failed and historians credit Baptists with derailing the measure. Why were Baptists so strongly opposed to legislation that would have helped the budgets of their churches? It is because Baptists considered church-state separation far more important than any benefit that might come from government funding of their mission. Baptists of the late 1700s agreed with the stance of Baptist hero E. Y. Mullins of the early 1900s, that using tax dollars to aid church work is “the essence of union of church and state” and Baptists opposed uniting church and state. Every Baptist petition sent in opposition to Henry’s bill declared that effort of the government to financially assist churches “contrary to the spirit of the gospel.”
This chapter from Baptist life is likely one of many that Holly Hollman of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) had in mind in a statement she released earlier this week expressing disappointment over the ruling of the United States Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer. Trinity Lutheran Church had been denied a government grant from the state of Missouri for refurbishing its playground because of state law prohibiting taxpayer aid to religion. The High Court ruled that there is nothing blatantly religious about a playground and so denying the grant violated the church’s religious freedom rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
The BJC had filed an amicus brief urging the court to uphold Missouri’s denial of the grant because of the church-state entanglements that arise from direct government funding of churches, which has historically been prohibited and which has been explicitly barred by several states. In her statement, Hollman said that, while the court claimed to be standing up for churches with this ruling, it actually worked against “the hard-fought battles of Baptists and other religious dissenters that abolished government controls over religion and secured church autonomy.” Battles like the one Baptists in Virginia waged against Patrick Henry’s bill in the late 1700s.
Traditionally Baptists have believed that churches should not go to the government with their hands out asking for money to be placed in them. They have taken this stand because they have historically considered direct government funding of the church’s mission to represent a union of church and state which Baptists long considered contrary to the spirit of the gospel. After all, when Satan tempted Jesus with the power of the governments of the world, our Lord rejected the offer as the temptation of the devil that it was.
In so doing, Jesus placed a separateness between his mission and the power of government. He did not provide us an example of trying to amass government power or seeking government aid in accomplishing his goals and he died not with the sword of government in his hand but with the spear of government in his side.
In this season that we celebrate the birthday of the land of the free let us rededicate ourselves to advocacy of religious freedom. In so doing, may we affirm the mechanism for protecting religious liberty long cherished by Baptists: the separation of church and state. Where we see that mechanism weakened let us support it in the tradition of our Lord who rejected the power of government as a means of achieving his goal.