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Baptists And Religious Liberty.



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 been enacted.

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 conscience.

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 conceivable positions.

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 Dutch Mennonites."

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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