Baptist Contributions to American Life

Article excerpt

The American Revolution is probably the most significant single event in the history of the nation. In the space of only twenty years, colonists within the British Empire in America formulated an agenda of grievances, declared their independence from Britain, transformed their colonies into states, and created a new nation.

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Although these events were compacted into a brief span of time, historians disagree over how revolutionary they were. Some historians argue that American society was already quite democratic and that the revolution was to preserve the considerable freedom that already existed and that new British policies were attempting to destroy. To these historians, the revolution was an attempt to preserve freedom, not gain it.

Other historians argue just as passionately that the revolution bears kinship to other great movements such as the French and Russian revolutions. Like them, the American experience involved a violent social upheaval by which the lower classes sought to gain a greater degree of democracy. As evidence, these historians point to the sweeping reforms of social institutions that followed the American Revolution. One of the major examples of this social change came in the transformation of American religious practices.

Escape from religious persecution was a chief factor in the establishment of the British colonies, and oppressed minorities settled from Georgia to New England. Puritans, Separatists, Quakers, Catholics, French Calvinists, Scotch Presbyterians, Baptists, German Mennonites, and many others sought refuge from persecution in Europe, sometimes to impose it themselves on dissenters within colonies which they controlled.

Baptists contributed significantly to the debate about religious freedom. They also brought unique religious ideas with them about the proper relationship between church and state. And contact with the American frontier confirmed and deepened these convictions.

John Smyth and Thomas Helwys led a group of General (Arminian) Baptists (1609) who were part of the separatist communities that thrived in seventeenth-century England and who briefly resettled in the Netherlands (Amsterdam). Another segment of the separatist community settled in Leyden, also in the Netherlands, and shortly thereafter embarked for the New World on the Mayflower. On his return to England, Helwys was confined to Newgate prison. Before his death in confinement, he wrote in the flyleaf of a book: "The king is a mortall man and not God. Therefore hath no power over immortall soules of his subjects, to make lawes and ordinances for them, and to set spirituall lords over them." (1)

Considered by Baptist historians to be "the first statement of absolute religious liberty to be written in English," (2) Helwys's contention that religious liberty was an absolute right for both Christian dissenters and nonconformists turned out to be no more popular in Puritan New England than in Anglican Old England. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Roger Williams (who briefly called himself a Baptist) entered the wilderness of Rhode Island to escape the Puritan theocracy. Baptist pastors John Leland and Issac Backus went to jail for opposing the use of public funds for private churches. (3)

The struggle between religious groups in the colonies operated on several levels. It was partly a religious controversy between a church recognized by the various colonial governments and dissenter sects that resented the favored position of their competitor. At another level, it was a conflict between ministers who deemed themselves representatives of God's special revelation against the British crown.

Resentment against the imposition of Anglicanism as a state church to be supported by public taxes particularly offended many non-Anglicans. When word spread in the years before the American Revolution that England was contemplating naming an Anglican bishop for the colonies, an outburst occurred that was especially bitter in the colonies settled by Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, and other dissenters. …