committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

 

BAPTIST PRINCIPLES RESET

PART 1

CHAPTER 14.

Religious Freedom.

 

We cannot close this discussion of Baptist principles without a reference to religious freedom. The liberty to worship God according to the dictates of conscience, is the dearest of all human rights. That it should ever have been denied is one of the strongest proofs of human fallibility. Certain it is, however, that, a little more than two centuries ago, almost all religionists, Catholic, Greek and Protestant, maintained that either the civil or the ecclesiastical power had the right to regulate the public worship of God, and that all persons subject to its jurisdiction were bound, under pain of fines, imprisonment, and death itself, in its most appalling forms, to comply with the prescribed regulations. In the early ages, Christians suffered severely from their heathen rulers, because they persistently worshipped Christ and labored to bring the world into subjection to his authority. After Christianity gained the ascendancy and the churches were consolidated into a hierarchy and invested with secular authority, or were able to control it through its subservient minions, the acceptance of its creed and conformity to its rites, worship; and decrees, were enforced with an intolerance and severity which exceeded even pagan ferocity. The history of Romanism is a heart-rending record of spiritual tyranny?of chains, dungeons, tortures, and fires. When the churches of Northern Europe threw off the papal yoke, along with many and important reforms which they introduced, they retained the intolerant views and spirit of their recent rulers. Romanists, claiming infallibility, had the plea of consistency for their persecutions; while Protestants, admitting their inability to err, had not that poor defense for their relentless cruelties to those who called in question their spiritual authority or dissented from their religious creeds. The Protestant sects of the sixteenth century?Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians?invested with civil authority, or able to influence secular rulers, were intolerant, and carried their tyranny not only to fines and confiscation, but to imprisonment, torture, and blood. Even the Independents, who fled from the persecutions of the English Episcopalians to the wilds of America, deemed it their duty to cherish the spirit and imitate the example of their oppressors.

We can hardly claim belief in religious liberty as being now a distinctive Baptist principle. A great change has taken place in the views and spirit of the Christian world on this subject, especially the Protestant portion of it, within the last two centuries, and more particularly since the beginning of the present century. In all Protestant countries, there is, at present, religious toleration, if not full freedom. In most Roman Catholic countries, dissenters are tolerated, or, at least, treated with less severity than in former times. The fires of the Inquisition have been extinguished, and that ecclesiastical court, so fiendish in its spirit and so fearful in its works of darkness and of blood, has everywhere been overthrown or stripped of its power for mischief.

Baptists, under all the names which they have borne, in different countries and in different centuries, have been unswervingly loyal to the principles of religious liberty. Whatever may have been their faults?and they have neither been infallible in judgment nor irreproachable in conduct?they have been free from the guilt of persecution. They have not only been the earnest advocates of religious liberty, but they have supported it in its fullest extent. They have not only claimed it for themselves, but have accorded it to others?Jews and pagans, as well as Christians.

It must be conceded that Baptists, with scarcely an exception, have been a minority under civil governments. Minorities, especially when oppressed and persecuted, are always favorable to extending the limits of freedom. It would be impossible that they should not desire liberty in regard to the matters which subject them to reproach and punishment. It must also be admitted that small and persecuted sects have deep sympathy for each other in their trials, and are easily led to make common cause in the defense or for the extension of the freedom in which they have a common interest.

We claim for Baptists, however, not merely that they have been the steadfast friends of religious liberty, but that their distinctive principles necessarily compel them to maintain this position. They cannot be consistently Baptists and not advocates of soul liberty. Before they can persecute for conscience sake, they must renounce, or, at least, ignore their distinctive principles. They may not be free from the spirit of bigotry and intolerance; but it is directly antagonistic to their doctrines.

Let us carefully examine this matter, even if, in doing so, we must retrace ground already trodden. According to Baptist views, no man can become a church member who does not voluntarily accept Christ as his Master, and who does not willingly receive baptism in attestation of this submission. Moreover, having freely become a member, he cannot retain his place in the church, unless his life is in harmony with his profession. In short, faith and baptism are essential prerequisites to church membership, and a godly life is necessary to the continuance of the connection. If these principles are maintained, neither birth, nor baptism, nor education, nor wealth, nor office, nor profession, can secure a place in a Baptist church; nor can one retain his place in it without imbibing the spirit and imitating the example of the Redeemer. It is obvious that a church organized on these principles cannot be a persecuting body. For what purpose could it persecute? Not to force members to join it; for none can be admitted to its membership without qualifications which no persecution can secure. Not to keep members within it; for it can retain only such as love its members, doctrine, ordinances, and discipline, and force cannot produce these fruits. The conquests of such a church must be made, not by the sword of the executioner, but by "the sword of the Spirit." Other churches may employ carnal weapons, and inflict pains and penalties, to promote their prosperity; but Baptist churches, if they flourish, must succeed by moral suasion and the grace of God.

Hierarchies?churches established by law, and supported by civil, and, if necessary, by military power?have been the greatest curse of Christendom. They are utterly at variance with the spirit and doctrine of Jesus. His kingdom is not of this world. He came, not to destroy men?s lives, but to save their souls; and, to fulfill his mission, he employed, not swords and spears, but truth and reason and kind persuasion. He established no hierarchy, and gave no authority for its establishment. The connection between Church and State is adulterous, and equally corrupting to the church and pernicious to the State. A hierarchy cannot be supported without a hereditary membership, the obliteration of the line of demarcation between the godly and the ungodly, and the limitation of discipline to dissent from the established faith and resistance to spiritual authority. As a matter of history, all hierarchies have been composed of the population in their respective territories, regardless of their moral qualities. In England, until quite recently, no man could hold office who was not a communicant In the Established church; and it may be easily seen how strong was the temptation to hypocrisy and the profanation of the Lord?s supper among the aspirants for political and official preferment.

Pedobaptism, though not necessarily associated with a hierarchy, is adapted to encourage it, readily lends its aid to support it, and is essential to its development. No State church has ever existed, or ever can exist, without its help. According to the Pedobaptist theory, children of church members are born in the church or are regenerated and inducted into it by baptism. They grow up in it, with whatever of selfishness, impurity, and unbelief may be developed in them. In most such churches, they are, at a certain age, without any profession of conversion, confirmed in their membership, by appropriate ceremonies?remain in their connection, regardless of their impiety, to the end of their lives?and are then buried in consecrated ground, in proof of their good ecclesiastical standing. It is easy to perceive that infant baptism is "the ground and pillar" of the system. Without it, hierarchies would soon tumble and disappear. "as the baseless fabric of a vision."

Baptists have an honorable record on the subject of religious liberty. If they were not the first, they were certainly among the first to proclaim it as the indefeasible right of man. Roger Williams, a Baptist, founded the State of Rhode Island, the first government in which full religious liberty was ever secured. Of him Bancroft says: "He was the first person in modern Christendom to assert in its plenitude the doctrine of the liberty of consciences the equality of opinions before the law, and in its defense he was the harbinger of Milton, the precursor and the superior of Jeremy Taylor." Dr. S. S. Cutting, in his introduction to the Struggles and Triumphs of Religious Liberty, by E. B. Underhill LL. D., of London, speaking of this testimony of Bancroft, says: "The truth, however, is that the contest in the colony of Massachusetts Bay was an imported contest. it came, with all its distinctively recognized principles, across the Atlantic, in the breasts of men who had fought the same battles in Holland and England. John Cotton and Roger Williams had had their teachers in such men as John Robinson and Thos. Helwys"?both Baptists. Largely through the influence of Baptists, the religious establishment of Virginia was overthrown, and perfect soul freedom guaranteed in the State. This, so far as we know, was the first instance in the history of Christendom in which a hierarchy was dissolved, except to be succeeded by another of a different creed, with an unchanged spirit of intolerance and tyranny. Baptists took an active, and, no doubt, influential part in procuring an amendment to the Constitution of the United States securing religious freedom to all its citizens. How much their efforts have contributed to the progress and triumphs of religious liberty, it is impossible accurately to estimate. It is cause, however, for congratulation that they were, not only the first to assert it in its plenitude, but that they have been its consistent and earnest advocates for centuries; have heroically suffered persecution from most Protestant sects, but have persecuted none; and have been permitted to see the steady progress of the doctrine which they once held almost alone and under reproach, until almost the whole Christian world has been constrained to admit its truth, and govern its course accordingly.

 
 
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