Suffering for Freedom of Conscience
A Heritage of Suffering for Freedom of Conscience
May 18, 2014, Baptist Heritage Sunday
Most of us take freedom of conscience in matters of religion for granted. We assume that every person chooses his/her own faith, and the government has no right to interfere in that decision. What we forget is that once this was not true in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and not true in England, which is why people fled to Rhode Island and Block Island in the first place. When this colony was called “a lively experiment” it meant that it was “a living laboratory.” We were the guinea pigs, because nowhere else on the face of the earth had the government explicitly guaranteed the freedom of individuals to choose their own religion. Many Christians in America wanted to enforce their own religion by state power and support the churches with taxes. It was the Baptists who wrote and preached and lobbied to obtain freedom—not just for themselves, but for everyone. John Leland wrote in 1790, “All should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians."
While in the modern world that freedom was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948), freedom of conscience is by no means universal today. Meriam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag is a Christian woman in Sudan married to a Christian man who has American citizenship. She is 8 months pregnant and has a 20-month-old son. On Thursday, May 15, she was sentenced to death for refusing to give up her Christian faith and convert to Islam. Here is the legal basis for that: her father was a Muslim. He married an Orthodox woman, but by law all of his children are Muslim. The father abandoned the family when Meriam was young and her mother raised her as a Christian. She never practiced Islam in her life. But the law says she was and always must remain a Muslim. Unless the world intervenes or the Sudanese government changes its mind, Meriam will be allowed to give birth to her second child. Soon after that, she will be given 100 lashes with a whip as a penalty for adultery; she has been having illegal sex with her Christian husband, they say, because no marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man is valid. After the 100 lashes, she will be hung until dead as the penalty for apostasy. Then her two American citizen children will be taken away from her and given to a Muslim family to adopt and raise as Muslims.
If that doesn’t make your Baptist blood boil, I don’t know what will. Roy Medley, the head of American Baptist Churches USA, issued a statement calling on “the international community to voice opposition to such a heinous act.” He also pointed out that the ABC has condemned the oppression of Muslims in Burma, and will always stand against discrimination and violence against minority faiths. I don’t think that we in the West can just let such things pass as “cultural differences.” We must insist that freedom of conscience in matters of religion is part of what it means to be civilized and to be part of the international community.
We often forget that the same scenarios were carried out by Christians for centuries, using state power to fight what was labeled “heresy” and to oppress Jews and Muslims in the West. It was only in the 1600’s that people began to stand up for the right of individuals to choose their faith, and to deny that kings or governments had the right to execute people for religious beliefs. Those people were the Baptists.
The first Baptists who stood up to the King of England paid for it with their heads. They took inspiration from the courage of the apostles who stood up against the fusion of civil and religious authority in Jerusalem in the first century. In the story we heard from Acts 5, the apostles were arrested for preaching and thrown into prison. An angel let them out and they went right back to preaching right there in the Temple. They were arrested again, but they said to the court, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” The rabbi Gamaliel convinced the court to let them go with a flogging and let the Jesus movement fail on its own. The apostles “rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer disgrace for the sake of the name of Jesus.” Then they went back to preaching in the Temple. Many of the early Baptists had that same sense that they were honored to suffer dishonor for the sake of the gospel of Christ.
In the first centuries of the church, Christians were outsiders to power and at the mercy of fickle Roman rulers who scapegoated them and persecuted them from time to time. But then in 313 the emperor Constantine became a Christian. At first this meant just an end to persecution. But within a few years Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and it became the church’s turn to persecute the pagans, using the power of the government to force them to convert. By Baptist lights, this was the worst thing that ever happened to the gospel. Christians were better off being persecuted than they were being supported by the power of nations or empires. When Rome began to tell people what to believe, the gospel lost its power. Faith that was coerced was not faith at all. Becoming a Christian automatically because you were a citizen of a nation was not becoming a Christian at all. The worst of all possible worlds was one in which everyone was a Christian by birth, because then no one would understand the need for personal faith in Christ and an experience of salvation.
That was the world in which Baptists were born. The Baptist movement began in the early 1600’s. For over a thousand years most Christians had assumed that what God wanted was for them to live in Christian nations. The spiritual power of the church and the secular power of the government were joined. It was the Christian version of sharia. The government could jail or execute you for blasphemy. If you were a citizen of the nation, you were automatically a member of the church. You had no choice but to be saved. If you defied that, you would be jailed or exiled or killed.
The first Baptists were English and they became Baptists in a country that had already broken with the Roman church and created the Church of England. Some see Henry VIII as a Protestant reformer, but what he really did was to create a national church. At least in the Catholic Church there had been some sense that the church transcended nations, but Henry made a church that was completely identified with the nation. If you were English you were automatically a part of the Church of England. As things developed under Queen Elizabeth and King James, every citizen of England was required to attend worship in the Church of England, to use only the Book of Common Prayer, accept the 39 Articles of doctrine, and swear an oath that the king was the head of the church.
Here was the logic. Not only had God given kings and queens their authority and the responsibility to keep the church pure, but it was a matter of national unity. If we are going to be a Christian country, the thinking went, we all have to believe the same things. We all have to worship the same way. If you allow different churches to develop, the country will be divided. King James said after he burned heretics at the stake that he never executed anyone for the sake of conscience, but only for national security.
A few years ago the Baptist History and Heritage Society published a book of Baptist prison writings in the 1600’s and 1700’s [Keith Durso, No Armor for the Back, Mercer University Press, 2007] and what those people wrote from their prison cells is revealing. The very first pastor of a Baptist church in England was a man named Thomas Helwys. His church came to England from exile in Holland. One of the first things Helwys did was to send a copy of a book he had written on religious liberty to King James, and he wrote a personal note on the flyleaf to the king: “Men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure” [Durso, p. 26]. The king threw Helwys into Newgate Prison, which was described as a hell-hole full of darkness, waste, and disease. He was the first of many Baptists to die in that very prison, and the first of many who preached from its cells.
Helwys’ assistant was a man named John Murton. He spent 13 years in Newgate Prison. He kept pointing out that he was loyal to the king, but that forcing people to go to church was a sham. Forced worship was not acceptable to God. Jesus had all the power in the universe, but he never forced anyone to obey him [Durso p. 40].
A pastor named Edward Barber was imprisoned in 1639 for 11 months for denying that God ordained sprinkling infants. In prison, he wrote a petition to the king calling those who used force in religion “rapists of souls” [Durso, p. 64]
Henry Denne was an Anglican minister who became a Baptist and was arrested for preaching against infant baptism. He served time in jail, was released, and then was arrested again for baptizing four converts in a river.
In 1661—the year Block Island was settled—a non-Baptist extremist named Thomas Venner, who believed that Jesus was returning immediately as king, led a violent rebellion. The resulting crackdown led to the jailing of 400 innocent Baptists. Parliament passed laws prohibiting meetings of more than five unrelated people in a house. In 1672 the king issued a Declaration of Indulgence permitting religious groups to apply for a license to hold worship, but a year later the Parliament forced him to take it back, and they arrested the Baptists who had applied for a license.
There were so many heroes in those days. The Baptist prisoners in Kent wrote a petition to the king, who claimed that God had given him authority to rule in spiritual things. They told the king that he had no power to use force to impose anything in the worship of God. Listen to their arguments, which still make sense today: (1) If a Christian magistrate can claim God gave him spiritual authority, so can any magistrate. If we lived in Turkey, we’d have to accept the Koran. (2) Christ’s apostles commanded Christians to obey their magistrates, but those same apostles refused to obey when ordered to violate the true worship of God. (3) New Testament writers said to obey civil authorities, but they never required Christians to obey pagan emperors in matters of faith or worship [Durso, p. 97].
Francis Bampfield spent nine years in Dorchester prison. He started a church while he was in prison, and near the end of his incarceration he preached 16 times a week to people in a yard next to the jail. He wrote, “How much louder and further does my confinement preach than my liberty could; my prison always speaks, even when the pulpit is silent.” When released Bampfield managed to stay out of prison for nine years, but then he was dragged from his pulpit and through the streets and sentenced to life in prison, where he died [Durso, p. 101]
Thomas Delaune was a Baptist who wrote a detailed account of his own trial in 1683, showing how unfair it was. He died in prison two years later, but not before watching his wife and children die in prison before him. The novelist Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, later published Delaune’s account of the trial, and said in his preface that he was one of nearly 8,000 dissenters who perished in prison during the reign of Charles II [Durso, p.110].
These are our forefathers. They preached from prison and died in prison because they believed that the church and the nation were not one. They died for the truth that every person must choose faith in Christ personally, and that the government has no authority to dictate how people pray—or even that they pray at all. These early Baptists would hear the phrase “a Christian nation” and say “No! There is no such thing as a Christian nation, only Christian men and women.”
We are heirs to that heritage of suffering. We must not be afraid to stand up not only to those in other nations who deny freedom of conscience to Christians, but also to Christians who would use state power to promote religion in our own country. If we take the children of Muslim and Hindu parents and force them to sit through Christian prayers or Bible readings in public schools, we are violating them as certainly as a kindergarten teacher who picks up a boy by the neck and knocks him into a wall. If we take money from Quaker taxpayers and give it to Catholic schools, or if we take money from atheist taxpayers and give it to Baptist schools, we have abridged the right of citizens to choose their own religion. If we assume that children who grow up in church are automatically Christian and baptize or confirm them as a matter of course without a genuine spiritual crisis on their part, we as parents and churches have violated their freedom of conscience. And while I believe that churches that follow that pattern are making a mistake, I will defend their right to be free of any government punishing them for what they believe.
I will close by quoting George Washington, who was not a Baptist, but an Anglican and a Mason who espoused the abstract religious views common in the Enlightenment. Washington became President on April 30 of 1789. Ten days later he composed a letter to the General Committee of the United Baptist Churches of Virginia, who were concerned about whether as an Anglican he would support freedom of conscience in religion. (There was no First Amendment yet.) Here is his reply to the Baptists:
"[I]f I could now conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution. ...[E]very man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience." [http://www.churchstate.org/index.php?id=166#sthash.lUUkYemm.dpuf] May it always be so. Amen.
- Harbor ChurchBox D2Phone: 401-466-5940
Block Island, RI 02807