At the time of the founding of America, all the mainline protestant churches believed in a state church. They believed that to be a citizen one must first be a member of the church that was sanctioned by the State. They all taught that the sword of the state should be used to enforce their religious beliefs. That being said, these men opposed what their churches believed on this issue. The question we must ask is, Why?”
Today I want to look at what influenced these men to go contrary to the teachings of their churches on freedom of conscience. There were two things that had never existed before the founding of the colonies in the New World. First, never before had the Bible been available to the common man. Secondly, the Baptists had never been a force big enough to influence the political leaders of the time.
Before I look at these, let me remind you of the text for this series.
Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance. (Psalms 33:12)
The Hebrew word translated “God” is translated in several different ways. In this case it means the supreme God. It is also translated judge. This supreme God is the judge to whom the blessed nation submits. Lord in this passage is Jehovah, which means the self-existent eternal God. He must be the God of a nation if it expects to be blessed.
This verse is primarily talking about Israel, but I think it is safe to say that any nation who makes Jehovah their judge and lawgiver will be blessed of God. America, at the beginning, was just such a nation.
The god of modern America is no longer the God of the Bible. For most people, the god they worship is self. There is a second god that the people turn to when self cannot meet their desires, it is the government.
Although the effects of God’s blessings in America still remain to some degree, we are quickly losing them. This will continue until we turn back to God.
The Bible’s Availability
The need to return to the Bible is a subject deserving a series of its own. For the sake of time, I only want to look very quickly at four passages on this subject.
And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32)
There can be no real freedom apart from the truth. There is only one source of absolute truth, and that is the Word of God.
Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. (John 17:17)
To sanctify means to set apart for a purpose. God sanctifies people and nations by teaching them the truth. His word is truth, and only a people who follow it can be truly free.
The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. (Psalms 19:7-9)
The law of the Lord (Jehovah) is perfect. It brings the soul to salvation, makes the simple wise, rejoices the heart, and gives pure vision. It can be depended upon, it is always right, it endures forever. Its judgments are true and righteous.
Thou art near, O LORD; and all thy commandments are truth. (Psalms 119:151)
With the Bible available to the average man, each person could study the Scriptures and come to a knowledge of the truth. This caused many to turn from the mainline Protestant churches to the Baptist position. Others remained in the Protestant churches, but believe the Bible instead of their religious leaders. This is one reason they came to believe in freedom of conscience.
Our Founding Fathers knew that apart from biblical principles, there could be no real freedom because something has to bridle the passions of men. It must be either religious faith or the government.
The Baptist Influence
For time’s sake, I will only look at three Baptist preachers who brought freedom to America. There were many more that I could refer to, but these will show where the influence that brought us freedom came from. The first of them set the principle into law, the second spread the Baptist faith throughout the colonies, and the third ensured that this freedom became a fundamental principle in America.
John Clarke was a Baptist preacher who founded the first Baptist church in the new world. The credit for this is often given to Roger Williams, but the church in Newport was founded by John Clarke about two years before the church in Providence.
Roger Williams was opposed to the government forcing people to be part of the state church. For a short time he espoused Baptist principles, but soon left the Baptists and became what he called a “seeker.”
Most historians give Roger Williams credit for the founding of Rhode Island. It was the first colony to have a constitution that gave freedom of religion. While it is true that he started the process, had it been left to him, the charter would never have been granted.
Williams and John Clarke sailed to England to request the charter for Rhode Island. They petitioned the King but he refused to grant it. Williams returned to America without the charter but John Clark stayed in England to fight for the charter. He finally received it after twelve years of petitioning the King. This reminds me of a parable told by our Lord.
… There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. (Luke 18:2-5)
The purpose of this parable is to teach us to continue in prayer. John Clarke’s prayer to God and to the King are what won the day.
Clarke was also the one who wrote the founding documents for the government of Rhode Island. It was the first government to enshrine into law the principles of freedom of religion. It was also used as a guide for the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
Shubael Stearns was saved under the preaching of George Whitefield in 1745. He soon felt the call to preach the Gospel. He continued as a pedobaptist (those who baptize infants) until 1751. Through his study of the Scriptures, he came to the conclusion that the Baptists were correct. He was baptized by Elder Wait Palmer, at Tolland, Connecticut, on May 20, 1751.
He continued his ministry in New England for another two or three years. He, along with his church, moved to Virginia. After a short time in Virginia, he moved to Guilford County, North Carolina. He established the Sandy Creek Baptist Church and the Sandy Creek Baptist Association. From this church and association, Baptist churches were established from throughout the southern colonies.
Gov. William Tryon was determined to rid central North Carolina of Baptists. He declared war against them. It lasted from 1765 to 1771. The government forces prevailed, but during the Revolution the Baptist forces reorganized and were a major contributor to the winning of the Revolutionary War. During the Revolutionary War they were known as the “Over the Mountain Men.” Their harassment of Cornwallis allowed Washington to prepare for the battle in which Cornwallis was defeated and resulted in victory for the American colonies.
This would not have been possible without the labors of Shubael Stearns and the Sandy Creek Baptist Association. in 17 years, the Sandy Creek Association had spread its branches westward as far as the great river Mississippi; southward as far as Georgia; eastward to the sea and Chesapeake Bay and northward to the waters of the Pottowmack (Potomac River). It was mother, grandmother, and great grandmother to 42 churches, from which sprang 125 ministers.” In a generation it is estimated that 5,000 churches were established by this Association, and only God knows how many were saved. They did this by following the example found at the church at Antioch.
Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. (Acts 13:1-3)
Stearns’ greatest contribution to the religious climate of his day was evangelism and church planting. The evangelism of Stearns and the Separate Baptists is different from that of most Baptists today. There was no plea to accept Christ, no sinner’s prayer was used, no read and sign on the back of this tract, nor psychological tricks used to get the desired response. There was only the preaching of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness.
To them salvation came from the Lord through the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. With none of the modern-day techniques, Stearns somehow organized and evangelized a great portion of the South. Perhaps we would have more success in our evangelistic efforts if we would return to the methods of Shubael Stearns, which are the same as we see in the New Testament. (See my book Shipwreck Soulwinning.)
It was this proliferation of Baptists that gave them the political power to affect the founding of a nation. This brings us to one of the most influential Baptists at the time of the founding of our nation.
Leland was a Baptist preacher who was known not only for his fiery sermons and evangelical zeal, but also for his opposition to slavery and his advocacy of strict separation between government and religion. Leland preached freedom in all aspects of life, exhorting his listeners to be free from sin, to oppose slavery and free others from physical bondage, and to be free from the “spiritual tyranny” of state-established religion.
Leland advocated for religious liberty protections in the Constitution. He was a friend to both Jefferson and Madison. He and his fellow Baptists supported Jefferson’s initial bill to ensure religious liberty in Virginia and took up the cause when Madison reintroduced it some years later. Tensions arose between Madison and Leland over the introduction of similar protections in the federal constitution. Madison did not initially think that additional amendments were needed to protect religious liberty. He felt that it was not necessarily because the Constitution said there could be no religious test for public office. Leland and his Baptist followers sharply disagreed.
Despite the fact that Madison had drafted much of the Constitution, Leland had more votes than Madison for the Orange County seat at the Virginia Convention on ratifying the Constitution. Leland agreed to drop out of contest for the seat if Madison would work to include a religious liberty provision as an amendment to the Constitution. Madison then won out over his other opponents to attend the state ratifying convention. Leland’s ideas of freedom of religion were eventually included in the Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia state constitutions.
Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences. (2 Corinthians 5:11)
Persuade means to convince by argument or reason. Argument does not mean to be angry, it means to present your case as a lawyer does in a courtroom.
There is an old saying that says, “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.” It means you can force someone to say they believe something, but you cannot force them to truly change what they believe.
The Bible way of reaching the lost is through the presentation of the truth in convincing arguments. The sword can only bring outward compliance. Persuasion brings about an inward change that shows on the outside.
Excerpts From Leland’s Writings
“Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a preeminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” – A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia.
But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. (Matthew 12:36)
We will give account for everything, including every word we speak. If the government can force compliance, then the government must answer to God for what it forces. However. Each individual is responsible for what he does. The government’s job is to ensure freedom so each individual can make his own choices.
“Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.” – Right of Conscience Inalienable.
So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God. (Romans 14:12)
Since everyone must give account of himself to God, each should have the right to follow the dictates of his conscience.
“Truth disdains the aid of law for its defense — it will stand upon its own merits.” – Right of Conscience Inalienable.
Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven. (Psalms 85:11)
In the end truth will triumph.
The lip of truth shall be established for ever: but a lying tongue is but for a moment. (Proverbs 12:19)
Truth is forever established, but lies will only last for a moment.
The fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity, has done it more harm than all the persecutions ever did. Persecution, like a lion, tears the saints to death, but leaves Christianity pure: state establishment of religion, like a bear, hugs the saints, but corrupts Christianity, and reduces it to a level with state policy. (p. 278)
Forced Christianity has done more harm than all the persecutions we suffered for our faith. Persecution separates true Christians from nominal Christians. We value most those things we must fight for. When we are forced to be “Christians,” the things of faith lose their value.
If freedom of religion has a down side, it costs nothing to believe. Until the late 1800s we had freedom, which we should have, but there was still contention between different doctrinal positions.
In the early 1900s, unity became more important than truth. The Fundamentalist movement limited truth to five doctrines. Baptists had resisted this in previous attempts at this kind of unity, but we joined the interdenominational fundamentalists and started sending our young preachers to interdenominational schools. This resulted in compromise of truth. Baptists lost their distinctive character and ceased to be a force for truth and righteousness. This was the beginning of the fall of America. If we don’t turn back to our roots, this great nation will cease to be great.