Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

A Millstone Hanged about His Neck?: George W. Truett, Anti-Catholicism, and Baptist Conceptions of Religious Liberty

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

A Millstone Hanged about His Neck?: George W. Truett, Anti-Catholicism, and Baptist Conceptions of Religious Liberty

Article excerpt

 
   The Baptist message and the Roman Catholic message are the very 
   antipodes of each other.... The Catholic doctrine of baptismal 
   regeneration and transubstantiation is to the Baptist mind 
   fundamentally subversive of the spiritual realities of the gospel 
   of Christ. Likewise, the Catholic conception of the church, 
   thrusting all its complex and cumbrous machinery between the soul 
   and God ... is to the Baptist mind a ghastly tyranny in the realm 
   of the soul and tends to frustrate the grace of God, to destroy 
   freedom of conscience, and to hinder terribly the coming of Kingdom 
   of God. (1) 

**********

So declared George W. Truett in his celebrated address on Baptists and religious liberty delivered on the east steps of the United States Capitol on May 16, 1920. In this and other addresses, Truett utilized this juxtaposition of the Baptist and Catholic theological traditions as a useful conceptual tool for his advocacy of the Baptist tradition of religious liberty and the separation of church and state.

Some recent scholarship has suggested that the anti-Catholicism of Truett and other Protestant leaders of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was central to their understanding of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Philip Hamburger argued that there was an evolution of Americans' understanding of religious liberty during the nineteenth century that was driven in large measure by Protestant nativism. According to Hamburger, the growing fears of Catholicism led Protestants to "elevate separation of church and state as an American ideal." (2) Others have charged contemporary Baptist scholars with historical revisionism by seeking to "isolate Truett's defense of religious liberty from his opinions about Catholicism." Rather, they argue, Truett's understanding of religious freedom was "inextricably bound up with his perception of Catholicism." (3)

How central then are Truett's views of Catholicism to his understanding of religious freedom and the separation of church and state? Is the Catholic Church merely a convenient foil or the lynchpin of his political theology? To put it another way, to what extent does Truett's anti-Catholicism constitute % millstone hanged about his neck?" In looking at his major addresses on religious liberty, his rhetoric reveals an anti-Catholic bias. Yet Truett's views on Catholicism can only be understood in light of the context of his life and work. This context included a pre-Vatican II Catholic Church, social and political change brought on by rapid immigration and urbanization in the United States, a resurgence of nativism, and World War I. In light of this milieu, Truer understood the Catholic Church to be one of the contemporary threats to both civil and religious liberty. Therefore, his characterizations of Catholicism served primarily as a useful tool to highlight the Baptist tradition. Moreover, Truer drew from a wellspring of Baptist history and thought when formulating his views on religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Thus, his defense of the Baptist tradition, rooted as it was in the idea of a "free church in a free state," enjoyed both a historical continuity and a contemporary relevance independent from his views of Catholicism.

The Context of Truett's Life and Thought

As a leading Southern Baptist statesman during the first half of the twentieth century, George W. Truett represented, according to Leon McBeth, the mainstream of Southern Baptist life "and in many ways was the unofficial spokesperson of the denomination." (4) Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas for forty-seven years, Truett was widely regarded as a leading pastor not only in the denomination but nationwide. Selected by President Woodrow Wilson as one of twenty clergy invited to minister to the troops during World War I, Truett was also named one of the twenty-five most outstanding pastors in America. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.