SBC Resolutions regarding Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State (1940-1997): A Fundamental Shift

By Prevost, Ronnie | Baptist History and Heritage, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

SBC Resolutions regarding Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State (1940-1997): A Fundamental Shift


Prevost, Ronnie, Baptist History and Heritage


Stances for religious liberty and the separation of church and state have long been among the hallmarks of Baptists. Baptists in America, in particular, have especially had a long record of supporting strict separation and absolute religious liberty.

This article will briefly review the doctrinal reasons for and the history of Baptist efforts toward and statements on religious liberty and separation of church and state in America. It then traces the changing attitudes of the Southern Baptist Convention [SBC] away from its traditional values as reflected by resolutions passed in SBC annual meetings from 1940 through 1997. The resolutions are grouped chronologically under three themes: general statements and issues of continuing concern, statements on taxation and tax support, and statements on religion and public schools. The article concludes by comparing and contrasting the resolutions and describing how the differences delineate significant fundamental historical and ideological shifts in the SBC from 1940 through 1997.

I. Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State as Baptist Distinctives

Theological Underpinnings

The great Texas and Southern Baptist leader, George W. Truett, once said:

   Never, anywhere, in any clime, has a true Baptist been willing, for one
   minute, for the union of church and state, never for a moment ... That
   utterance of Jesus "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and
   unto God the things that are God's," is one of the most revolutionary and
   history-making utterances that ever fell from those lips divine. That
   utterance, once for all, marked the divorcement of church and state. (1)

In describing why he chose to unite with Baptists, evangelist Billy Graham wrote, "I share with Baptists a strong belief in the separation of church and state" and went on briefly to describe Baptist contributions to that end. (2) The late R. G. Lee, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee, put it this way: "There should be religious liberty for all people ... There should be complete separation of church and state at all times--no matter what, no matter who, no matter where." (3)

To understand the doctrinal foundations of this issue so important to Baptists, one may look to Edgar Young Mullins, one-time president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of the Southern Baptist Convention. In his Axioms of Religion, Mullins listed, defined, and described six general truths basic to faith. Among them was the "Religious Axiom" that "All souls have an equal right to direct access to God." The "Moral Axiom" was "To be responsible man must be free." The "Religio-civic Axiom" called for "A free Church in a free State." In chapter 11 of Axioms, Mullins connected the concepts of soul freedom and the separation of church and state:

   The Church is a voluntary organization, the State compels obedience. ...
   The direct allegiance in the Church is to God, in the State it is to law
   and government. One is for the protection of life and property, the other
   for the promotion of spiritual life. An established religion, moreover,
   subverts the principle of equal rights and equal privileges to all which is
   part of our organic law. Both on its political and on its religious side
   the doctrine of separation of Church and State holds good. Civil liberty
   and religious liberty alike forbid their union. (4)

Mullins was echoing what John Smyth, sometimes called "the founder of the modern Baptist churches" (5) had written in Propositions and Conclusions concerning True Christian Religion, containing a Confession of Faith of certain English people living in Amsterdam (1612):

   84. That the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with
   religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that
   form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to
   every man's conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions (Rom. … 

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