BAPTIST PRINCIPLES RESET
BAPTIST PRINCIPLES RESET
And Religious Liberty.
BENJAMIN O. TRUE, D. D., PROFESSOR OF CHURCH
HISTORY IN ROCHESTER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY.
The struggle of Baptists for
religious liberty is a long and a complicated story. The details cannot be
recounted in a brief article, but there are certain features of the conflict
which are of fundamental importance. These have found place on the continent of
Europe, in England, and in America, where three phases of a common struggle have
From the fourth to the sixteenth
century, civil rulers, generally in alliance with ecclesiastical officials,
assumed authority to dictate to their subjects forms of doctrine, polity, and
worship, and to enforce uniformity of creeds, rites, and liturgies. The civil
magistrate and the church official, one or both, practically exercised this
power from the time of Constantine the Great until the historic protests of
Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. These reformers appealed from the Pope, from
councils, and the Roman church, to the Scriptures as the final and supreme
authority in matters of religious faith and practice. But not one of these great
men, or the movements which they directed, consistently recognized the proper
separation of Church and State, the rightful autonomy of the church, or the
complete rights of the individual conscience. All these leaders strenuously
advocated the continued union of Church and State. They desired to supplant the
religious influence of the mediaeval emperor and civil rulers by the authority
of local princes in Germany, of the council at Zurich, and of magistrates at
Geneva. Leading types of Protestantism-Lutheran, Zwinglian, Calvinian, and
Anglican?agreed in the repudiation of papal authority, but all retained a
State church, without adequate provision for the permanent freedom of the church
from secular control, or for the sacred and inalienable rights of the individual
The supreme authority of the
Scriptures was declared to be the formal principle of the Protestant
Reformation, but Protestants disagreed in the application of this principle.
Some held that customary forms of worship, not expressly forbidden by the
Scriptures, might properly be retained; others strenuously held that many
practices of the old church were superfluous and misleading, and that nothing in
the constitution or worship of the church ought to be inculcated which is not
explicitly authorized by the Scriptures.
To those who believed in the
final and supreme authority of the Scriptures their authoritative interpretation
became "a question of urgency." On this subject there were three
The organized church might be
regarded as the proper interpreter of the Scriptures, through its councils and
higher officials, priests, bishops, and theologians, and, by those who held to
the papal primacy, through the Pope, as the visible head of the church.
The prerogative of interpreting
the Scriptures might be attributed to the State, through its legislators and
magistrates, or through the expressed will of local rulers. The effort was
actually made among the numerous States of Germany, when the conflict between
Romanists and Protestants Was intense, to have the religion of every State
determined by its civil ruler. It was soon found, however, that the prince could
decide only what religion should be established by law. He could not compel
intelligent subjects by force or convince them against their will. Thus
dissenters might easily outnumber the cordial adherents of the State church.
Moreover, the interpretations of Scripture by either civil or ecclesiastical
officers in different States were variant and discordant. Often they were
manifestly modifications, rather than expositions or applications of the
Scripture?the mere expression of personal preferences or partisan prejudice.
The natural and inevitable
tendency of Protestantism increasingly favored the interpretation of the
Scriptures by the individual believer. This was the right of private
interpretation, and it involved an obligation commensurate with the privilege.
It was, indeed, desirable that all believers should be intelligent and
conscientious, but in the last analysis it was felt that every man must have
personal dealings with the Almighty. Whoever held to this right of private
judgment could not consistently permit either civil magistrates or
ecclesiastical officials to dictate or control his personal religious
convictions or practices.
Out of these two principles?the
supreme authority of the Scriptures in matters of religion and the right of
private judgment?have arisen the historic and repeated protests which have
been made in continental Europe, England, and America against unscriptural
creeds, polity, and rites. and against the unwarranted assumption of religious
authority over other men?s consciences by either priests or civil rulers.
Scarcely had Luther and Zwingli
denied the validity of papal indulgences before men in Germany and Switzerland,
and a little later in the Low Countries, declared that infant baptism was not
supported by Scriptures, and that the inability of the infant to exercise
personal faith rendered such an act priestly, or at best parental, and therefore
invalid because it was not the personal and voluntary act of the subject. It
therefore had no place in the Christian dispensation and was not an indication
of the personal faith of the child. Zwingli was at first disposed to accept this
view. Melancthon was greatly troubled to explain the consistency of infant
baptism with justification by faith, the material principle of the Reformation.
But Zwingli had been called to Zurich by the civic council. He had never known a
church separate from the State. When he realized that the rejection of infant
baptism involved the restriction of church membership to professed believers and
the organization of churches without State support, he drew back from such
consequences, and insisted upon the continued practice of infant baptism. He
soon withdrew all sympathy with anti-pedobaptists, and became one of their most
bitter and persistent persecutors. Largely through his influence, multitudes who
discarded infant baptism were imprisoned and banished. Not less than six
anti-pedobaptists were put to death by the Reformed at Zurich.
Meanwhile, numerous churches of
professed believers who rejected infant baptism came into existence, while
refugees of the same faith carried their views to remote parts of Europe. Among
the continental anti-pedobaptists of his time, no one was more notable or more
worthy of remembrance than Balthasar Hubmaier. He was born at Friedburg,
banished from Zurich after painful imprisonment, and finally burned at the stake
by Romanists at Vienna, March 10, 1528. in his tractate, "Concerning
Heretics and Those Who Burn Them," written about 1524, Hubmaier made one of
the most emphatic early protests against the prevalent infringement of religious
liberty. "A Turk or a heretic," he wrote, "is not to be overcome
by fire or sword, but by patience and instruction. The burning of heretics is an
apparent confession, but an actual denial of Christ."
The Mennonites of the Low
Countries, like the so-called Anabaptists of Germany and Switzerland, suffered
severely for their repudiation of infant baptism. They have been denounced for
refusing to serve as magistrates, but as a body they were pure and peaceable
men, and utterly repudiated the fanatical lawlessness which prevailed at
Munster. When we remember that civil magistrates were called to execute laws and
edicts which banished, imprisoned, and even put to death, godly citizens for
their fidelity to their consciences, it is manifest that refusal to serve as
magistrates did not necessarily imply opposition to magistracy or civil order.
Men like Felix Mantz, Balthasar Hubmaier, and Menno Simons were not anarchists,
but good citizens, faithful to God and true to their fellowmen. They insisted
that Christian faith is a personal matter; that every man sustains direct
personal relations to God; and that private judgment is a natural and an
inalienable right. They denied the right of the State through its magistrates,
or of any organized church by its priests, to intervene between the believer and
his Lord, and thus assume to compel religious opinions or worship. They held
that true religion cannot be compulsory, but trust be voluntary, and in this
contention they were undoubtedly right.
It is understood that the early
English Baptists, either in their native country or during their banishment to
Holland, early in the seventeenth century, were led to adopt the views of the
Dutch anti-pedobaptists. During the reign of James I., in 1612, Edward Wightman
rejected infant baptism, and was burned as a heretic. He was the last person who
suffered capital punishment in England for his religious opinions. During that
same reign, many from London and the north of England fled to Holland, as
exiles, where some boldly advocated religious liberty. John Smyth, in his famous
confession, written a year before Wightman?s death, declares that "the
magistrate is not to meddle with religion or matters of conscience, nor to
compel men to this or that form of religion, because Christ is the King and
Lawgiver of the conscience."
In 1614, Leonard Busher wrote a
noble work, far in advance of the prevalent views of his countrymen, entitled,
"Religious Peace; or, A Plea for Liberty of Conscience." In it he
pleads for the rights of Jews and Romanists, not only to speak, but to write and
to print any views of religion for which scriptural authority may be claimed.
"It is not only unmerciful, but unnatural and abominable?yea,
monstrous?for one Christian to vex and destroy another for difference and
questions of religion."
The confession of the seven.
Baptist churches in London, issued in 1643, is the first complete and
comprehensive statement of religious liberty adopted by associated churches. It
declares: "We cannot do anything contrary to our understanding, and
consciences, neither can we forbear the doing of that which our understanding
and consciences bind us to do." From this time on, in treatises and
confessions, English Baptists have urged religious liberty and the restriction
of the magistrate?s functions to their legitimate sphere.
It is abundantly manifest that,
when Roger Williams declared to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay that the civil
magistrate had no right to punish men for the violation of the first
table?that is, the first four commandments of the Decalogue?he advanced a
principle which had been held more than a hundred years earlier by Hubmaier and
had been urged by his own countrymen when Williams was a mere youth. Yet to
Roger Williams, without doubt, belongs the distinguished honor, accorded to him
by Judge Story, of having established a State in whose "code of laws we
read, for the first time since Christianity ascended the throne of the Caesars,
that conscience should be free and men should not be punished for worshipping
God as they were persuaded he required."
Apart from the Quakers in
Pennsylvania, no other colonial government in America adopted and retained such
generous provision for civil and religious liberty as did Rhode Island, and it
should be remembered that the early English Quakers were historically connected
with those same early English Baptists, who, as we have seen, were powerfully
influenced by Dutch anti-pedobaptists, "We are compelled," says
Barclay, in his "Inner History of the Religious Societies of the
Commonwealth," "to view George Fox as the unconscious exponent of the
doctrine, practice, and discipline of the ancient and stricter party of the
The long and painful struggle for
religious liberty in the Puritan colonies of New England did not cease in
Connecticut until the new Constitution was adopted, in 1818, and religious
equality was not attained in Massachusetts until 1834. In Virginia, the
Episcopalian church was disestablished and practical religious liberty was
secured, largely through the determined efforts of the Baptists, soon after the
American Revolution, after a period of prolonged, provoking, and at times
cruelly severe persecution. It seems strange that the Puritan founders of
Massachusetts, who sought for themselves an asylum from the persecution which
they despaired of escaping in the Old World, should have failed to recognize
that to worship God according to the dictates of conscience is an inherent and
an inalienable right-a right as valuable to others as to themselves.
It seems strange that men who
counted not their lives dear in their determined effort to secure their own
religious freedom should have refused to grant to others that which they so
highly prized for themselves. Their descendants were slow to learn the lesson
which the fathers failed to understand; but we may confidently hope that this
fundamental principle of Protestantism has at last, in this country at least,
been well learned. Dr. Lyman Beecher says, in his
"Autobiography," of the agitation which resulted in the adoption of
the new Constitution in Connecticut in 1818, with its article in favor of
religious liberty, that he "suffered what no tongue can tell? for what he
afterwards came to regard as "the best thing that ever happened to the
State of Connecticut."
Thanks to the vigilant foresight
of Virginia Baptists, the first amendment to the Constitution prohibits, we may
hope forever, any establishment of a national religion in the United States.
Writing of "the establishment of the American principle of the
non-interference of the State with religion and the equality of all religious
communions before the law," Dr. Leonard Woolsey Bacon, in his "History
of American Christianity" (page 221), says: "So far as this was a work
of intelligent conviction and religious faith, the chief honor of it must be
given to the Baptists. Other sects, notably the Presbyterians, had been
energetic and efficient in demanding their own liberties; the Friends and the
Baptists agreed in demanding liberty of conscience and worship and equality
before the law for all alike. But the active labor in this cause was mainly done
by the Baptists. It is to their consistency and constancy in the warfare against
the privileges of the powerful "Standing Order" of New England, and of
the moribund establishments of the South, that we are chiefly indebted for the
final triumph in this country of that principle of the separation of Church from
State which is one of the largest contributions of the New World to civilization
and to the church universal."
We have seen that the early
English Baptists, like many who repudiated infant baptism on the Continent, were
earnest advocates of religious liberty. There have been repeated acknowledgments
of this service by writers not themselves Baptists such as Dr. John Stoughton,
Professor David Masson, and Principal A. N. Fairbairn.
In the Old World, the rapid
growth of the democratic spirit has greatly modified, though it has not
altogether removed, the injustice which is always involved in the establishment
of a religion by the State. The logic of Protestantism tends irresistibly to
favor civil and religious liberty, but every form of hierarchy demands priestly
rule in the church and is naturally allied to oligarchical or a monarchical rule
in the State. Therefore, it is idle to claim that the Roman Catholic church has
been or can be favorable to real democracy or to genuine religious liberty.
Probably that church is today the
most complete organization and can wield the most masterful worldly power of any
organized agency on earth. Those greatly err who suppose that the loss of
temporal power in Italy restricted the Roman church to the performance of
strictly spiritual functions. Her social, economic, and political influence is
still manifold and far-reaching: It is almost alike potent in monarchies and
republics, in Protestant Germany and Roman Catholic Austria, in the republic of
France and in portions of the United States. This unequalled organization is
historically the product of imperial sacerdotalism, a combination of the methods
and polity of the old Roman empire, the greatest secular power of the ancient
world, and of sacerdotalism, partly Jewish and partly pagan. The child, like
each of its parents, is the historic and mortal enemy of true historic freedom.
The votaries of the Roman organization boast that their church does not change;
that it is everywhere and always the same. The two forces from which it sprung,
imperialism and sacerdotalism, are foreign to the spirit of the New Testament.
Like the singularly strong organization which they produced, they antagonize the
inherent rights of men.
Roman. imperialism held that man
exists for the State, not the State for man. It pitilessly destroyed the
happiness and needlessly sacrificed the lives of multitudes in order to extend
the limits of the empire and increase the glory of the State. Sacerdotalism
obtrudes a class of functionaries between the ordinary man and his Maker. A
distinctive mediatorial priesthood assumes to monopolize the application of
saving and efficient grace, and so denies every man?s fundamental right and
duty to have direct personal dealings with the Almighty.
The Roman church magnifies the
externals of religion, and, by the most cruel persecution and inquisitorial
torture, it has attempted to enforce outward uniformity of doctrine, worship,
and polity. Between this system of imperial sacerdotalism and the demand of the
New Testament that every man shall sustain direct personal relation to a
personal God there is wide divergence. Every branch of Christendom and every
intelligent Christian man is called to choose between these opposing systems,
whose antagonism is radical and irreconcilable. Every young man who enters upon
the work of the Christian ministry must decide whether he will be a priest or a
preacher; whether he will assume to be a distinctive channel of saving and
efficient grace or will strive to hold forth "the word of life" as a
teacher sent of God to his fellowmen.
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