Challenges to Baptist Freedom
In Spiderman: The Movie Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben lay dying on the sidewalk after being gunned down in a robbery and he utters these words, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Truer secular words have never been spoken, but sometimes truth is hard to put into practice. Power corrupts, personal agendas demand preeminence, and leaders want to reign over successful political and religious movements. Others just want everyone to believe the same way they do and will even exert force to get their way. The wisdom of when to exert control and when to trust in God’s Spirit weighed heavily on the minds of those convening early Baptist meetings and conventions.
It was hard for these religious reformers to break from the established Church. These brave souls were persecuted, hounded out of their homes, kicked off their land, and often put to death. Corrupt clergy who had the secular and religious power to enforce church practices upon them made their lives miserable. Baptists were adamant that only a few core freedoms were necessary for the body of Christ to spiritually prosper as a witness in the world: the priesthood of the believer, believer’s baptism, freedom of worship, and freedom of conscience (soul liberty). But these radical ideas still met with resistance.
For example, Roger Williams, an Anglican clergyman, was constantly running afoul of early American religious settlers who insisted that he maintain ties with the Anglican Church while in America. One of the first to practice “soul-liberty,” Williams decided that no religious organization reflected his Christian beliefs. His views about freedom of conscience and his refusal to distinguish between religious insiders and outsiders were unpopular with the established church. He founded Providence, Rhode Island as a refuge for those seeking religious liberty. He dared to trade with the Indians rather than label them pagan and questioned American settlers’ right to take Indian land. He advocated religious freedom for all persons, not just Christians, and became a peacemaker and conciliator. Although he was only briefly a Baptist, American Baptists still trace their roots to his uniquely American religious ideals. Williams is just one example in a long line of Baptists who put their personal faith into action regardless of church organizational pressure.
Baptists since then have always been at the forefront of religious freedom movements. They have also been at the forefront of sharing the Gospel at home and abroad. Fueled by the fervor of evangelistic revivalism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Baptists began a missions movement that would become their major focus for years to come. Forming a missionary society was one of the most significant turning points in Baptist history. Biographies of famous missionaries and their work abound in Baptist literature including such names as William Carey, Luther Rice, Lottie Moon, and American Baptists such as Adoniram Judson.
Next time, we will turn from Baptist history to Baptist Spirituality and discuss the Four Fragile Freedoms of the Baptist Identity and how they are threatened not only by secular society, but sometimes by the church itself.
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”
2 Corinthians 3:17