Religious Liberty (Part 4)

Religious Liberty (Part 4)

This is part four of a series of articles addressing the Baptist distinctive of religious liberty. In the last two articles, we have explored how the Baptist distinctive of religious liberty became an American ideal, preserved in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Furthermore, we considered Thomas Jefferson’s contribution to religious liberty with his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. A contribution that has had positive and negative consequences. This article moves the conversation into the 20th century and introduces the contributions of notable Baptist pastors George Truett and W.A. Criswell to the conversation. 

George Truett and W.A. Criswell

George Truett was the distinguished pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas for nearly 50 years. On May 16, 1920, Dr. Truett stood on the East Steps of the National Capitol in Washington, D.C., and delivered a speech entitled Baptists and Religious Liberty. With WWI in the rearview, Truett addressed a fundamental truth for Baptists. Truett constructed a history of religious liberty in America, going back to Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, but he also engaged men like Roger Williams, Henry Dunster, and other Baptists who stood for religious liberty in America’s early years. Truett developed this speech from Isaiah 51:1-2 “Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him.” The premise of Truett’s speech is to “look backward as well as forward.”

 In his speech, Truett claims the supreme contribution of the New World is the contribution of religious liberty. He asserts religious liberty is “the chiefest contribution that America has thus far made to civilization.” He continues, “God wants free worshipers and no other kind.” Truett then goes on to say Baptists are not inherently better than other denominations because of their affirmation of religious liberty and its compatriot, “civil liberty,” but “our fundamental essential principals have made our Baptist people… to be the unyielding protagonists of religious liberty, not only for themselves but for everybody else as well.”

One of the most prominent voices within the Southern Baptist Convention during the 20th century, if not the most, was Dr. W. A. Criswell. Criswell also led from the influential pulpit of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. Succeeding Dr. George W. Truett in 1944, Criswell pastored FBC Dallas until his retirement in 1995. In 1964, Criswell preached a series of sermons celebrating the “sesquicentennial celebration of the organized life, the community of effort of all of our churches for worldwide missionary purposes.” This series was preached over a number of months, concluding on July 5, 1964, in honor of the anniversary of the death of Dr. Truett. The series emphasized Baptist history from the New Testament to the present day. In a sermon entitled Freedom Written in Blood, preached on May 31, 1964, using Isaiah 51:1 as his text, Criswell picks up from where he left off the previous Sunday, where he addressed British Baptists, John Bunyan and John Milton. The subject of the present sermon was none other than Roger Williams. In Freedom Written in Blood, Criswell tells the story of a Quaker family that was punished for their faith in Massachusetts. The penalty was a steep fine that required the selling of the children into slavery to a sea captain. When the captain saw the tears of the children and the parents, he released the children and went on his way. Criswell then records that this family then made their way to the haven of the “Baptist state colony of Rhode Island.” Criswell states, “Anytime you think that they came to America for religious liberty, they never thought of it until those Baptist forefathers of ours (pulling from previous sermons preached during the sesquicentennial celebration) laid down their lives for it.”
Continuing his claim that religious liberty in America was a Baptist ideal, Criswell continues to share stories of Baptist leaders such as Obadiah Holmes, who was stripped and beaten in Boston for refusing to sprinkle infants. Criswell then turns to Henry Dunster, then president of Harvard College. Dunster was in the crowd that watched Holmes’s cruel beating. Criswell shares that after returning to his library, he picked up his Bible and began reading. “The first president of Harvard College stood up and publicly announced, “I have become a Baptist. I believe in the Word exactly as it is written. And on a confession of faith, I want to be baptized.” Dunster’s Baptist testimony led to his being stripped of his position and forced to leave his home. Criswell makes two resounding points in this sermon. First, religious liberty is a Baptist idea. Second, Baptists in America were persecuted for their Baptist faith. 
The concluding sermon in this series, preached on July 5, 1964, was entitled Baptist and the American Constitution. Using the same Isaiah text, Criswell walked from Roger Williams and the Rhode Island colony to Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptist Association before concluding with what he believed to be the “chipping away of the wall of separation between church and state.” In this sermon, Criswell connected the influence of Roger Williams to Isaac Backus and John Leeland, concluding, “That hated and despised doctrine of soul liberty, for which our Baptist forefather had given their lives, had finally become the chief cornerstone of the greatest document of government any nation had ever produced.”
Like Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, the Danbury Baptists, and others, Truett and Criswell held firm to the Baptist distinctive of soul liberty, the idea that every man should have the right to worship his god as he sees fit. In the concluding article, we will consider contemporary applications of religious liberty, including real challenges to how we understand the application of religious liberty to religions other than our own.


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