I’m currently taking a class on Baptist history, which is turning out to be more fascinating than I anticipated. The following is a discussion board post I wrote this past week summarizing the Baptist experience in America during the 18th century when the denomination both exploded in size, as well as faced severe persecution. I was stunned at this piece of our nation’s history, so I thought I would pass it on.
It is shocking to me to read the degree of persecution that Christians faced here after fleeing European persecution. It is a sad piece of our history and a revealing aspect of man’s sinful nature that the response of the settlers who fled England as dissenters after years of being persecuted established their faith as the official church and began persecuting those who disagreed with them.1 While the middle colonies were relatively free compared to the north and the south, the Congregationalists in the North and the Anglicans in the South. Baptists were viewed as a threat to established religious orders, a threat that became more serious as they saw rapid growth and demonstrated a passion for evangelism in the 18th century. As a result, other religious leaders stretched the law, or ignored it entirely, to make life as difficult as possible, hoping to intimidate people into not becoming Baptists. Methods of persecution included having property confiscated, fines and taxes, being imprisoned for being Baptist, accused of “parental cruelty” and fined for not baptizing their children, public harassment, whippings, beaten by mobs, exiled, bodily mutilation, and even being stoned.2 Overall, it was a horrific piece to American and Christian history.
With that being said, Baptists made great inroads in both establishing and defending religious freedom, and defining the separation of church and state. Part of that was due to the focus of their motivation; McBeth put it this way, “Some wanted freedom in order to escape religious influence over the government … this position has been called freedom from religion. Others, like the Baptists, sought the same freedom, but for different reasons. They wanted freedom for religion, freedom to worship, preach, and practice according to their own convictions.”3 Through constant pushing, using legal means, political pressure, standing up to the wrongs – even if the wrongs would have been in their favor (for example, giving preference to Baptists), leaders were able to push back and gain religious freedom for all and end “official” religions in America.
McBeth asks the question at the end of the eighth chapter as to whether or not Baptists who live in comfort can preserve the religious liberty achieved by their predecessors.4 I’m not sure a church in comfort can have correct perspective on religious liberty. One of my great frustrations over the last decade as a Baptist pastor is how quick Christians in general have voiced outrage and claimed religious persecution or other types of horrible mistreatment over even the most minor of offenses. There is a difference between having the freedom to worship and expecting the world around to not only tolerate it, but embrace it. The Baptist movement several hundred years ago would not have spent time demanding the world around them say “merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays,” or other things like that – the threat of very real physical, financial, or legal danger gives a focus and a perspective on what matters and what is worth fighting for. Our primary calling is to reach the world for Christ, not reshape it in our defined ideals. A world won for Christ will become a Christ honoring world by virtue of changed hearts, not mandated obedience. My concern is that in our lack of focus, our over reliance on emotional responses to perceived insults or threats has created an environment where Christians over react to too many issues and are not taken seriously when actual religious liberty is at stake. In our comfort, we lose sight of what actually counts. It is too easy to become complacent, and to feel like we have lived out our calling to reach the world by posting an angry Facebook rant about the latest headline.
1. H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987), 255.
2. Ibid, 252, 268, 270, 272.
3. Ibid, 253.
4. Ibid, 284.