Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Early American Baptists and the separation of church and state

There remains some debate today as to whether the founders of this nation truly supported the notion of the separation of church and state. On that question, let it be stated clearly that all of the founders did not agree that church and state should be separate but those who did believe that church-state separation was the only way to properly safeguard religious liberty won the day. But my purpose here is to point out that, regardless of what the founders believed, evangelicals at the founding of this nation, Baptists in particular, adamantly affirmed the complete separation of church and state.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, there was great concern in Virginia about a perceived decline of morality. In response, in 1784, Patrick Henry introduced "A Bill for Establishing a Provision for the Teachers of the Christian Religion," a general tax to be used to support the teaching Christian principles. Evangelicals in the state, led by Baptists, came out strongly against the proposal and it was eventually defeated. In the course of the battle over this legislation, James Madison sent a letter to James Monroe in which he praised Baptists for "standing by their avowed principle of the complete separation of church and state."

In 1786 Virginia Baptists sought the repeal of an act that, following a pre-Revolutionary pattern, formed some connections between the Episcopal Church and the state. John Leland, the foremost leader of Baptists at that time, penned the petition of the Baptist General Committee opposing the act and in it he said the legislation was "a Bitumen to Cement Church and State together: the foundation for Ecclesiastical Tyranny and the first steps towards and Inquisition." In response, nearly all of the provisions of the bill were dismantled. According to Hamiliton Eckenrode, this Baptist led legislative effort "definitely marks the separation of Church and state in Virginia."

In the case of the bill related to the Episcopal Church, Baptists, led by John Leland, opposed a more formal religious establishment. But it should be noted that, beyond their resistance to formal establishments, Leland and his fellow Baptists believed the complete separation of church and state to be the only proper way to safeguard religious liberty. Leland pointedly called "blending ... religion and politics together" an "evil."

Baptists fought for church-state separation in part because of fresh memories of days when they were fiercely persecuted for their religious convictions and practices. But, in their typical pattern, Baptists ultimately stood by the principle of the separation of church and state because they believed the Bible told them to do so. John Leland demanded that someone show him "an instance where Jesus Christ ... or the apostles ... ever gave orders to or intimated that the civil powers on earth ought to force people to observe the rules and doctrine of the gospel." Leland, of course, knew that no such biblical example exists.

The debate will likely continue as to whether or not the founders supported the separation of church and state with many evangelicals of recent times taking the side against separation. But no one can make the historical case that Baptists of the early days of this nation opposed separation. Indeed, Baptists were perhaps the most vocal group calling for the complete separation of church and state. Baptists of today would be wise to continue their heritage as defenders of religious liberty through church-state separation.