After King Henry VIII broke from Rome in 1534, England began enforcing Anglican religious uniformity. Some wanted to purify the Anglican Church from the inside, being given the name “Puritans.” Others separated themselves completely from the Anglican Church as dissenters. Of those were Thomas Helwys, John Murton and John Smyth, who founded the Baptist faith in England.
Thomas Helwys wrote “A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity,” 1612, considered the first English book defending the principle of religious liberty: “Queen Mary … had no power over her subjects consciences … neither hath our Lord the King … power over his subjects consciences. … The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them. …”
He continued: “If the King’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all humane laws made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more: for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it, neither may the King be judge between God and man.”
Thomas Helwys was arrested and thrown into London’s notorious Newgate Prison, where he died in 1616.
Another Baptist dissenter, John Murton, was locked in Newgate Prison as punishment for spreading politically incorrect religious views. Prisoners were not fed, but instead relied on charity of friends to bring them food, such as bread or bottles of milk.
Roger Williams referred to John Murton in his work, “The Bloody Tenet (Practice) of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience,” 1644: “The author of these arguments against persecution … being committed (a) prisoner to Newgate for the witness of some truths of Jesus … and having not use of pen and ink, wrote these arguments in milk, in sheets of paper brought to him by the woman, his keeper, from a friend in London as the stopples (corks) of his milk bottle. … In such paper, written with milk, nothing will appear; but the way of reading by fire being known to this friend who received the papers, he transcribed and kept together the papers, although the author himself could not correct nor view what himself had written. … It was in milk, tending to soul nourishment, even for babes and sucklings in Christ … the word of truth … testify against … slaughtering each other for their several respective religions and consciences.”
Williams wrote: “Persecution for cause of conscience is most contrary to the doctrine of Christ Jesus the Prince of Peace. … Enforced uniformity is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants.”
Roger Williams was a contemporary of John Bunyan, who wrote “Pilgrim’s Progress” while in prison for conscience sake. When the government sought to arrest Roger Williams for preaching religious liberty, he fled to Boston, Massachusetts, on Feb. 5, 1631.
To his dismay, Puritans in Massachusetts had begun enforcing Puritan religious uniformity. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in Engel v. Vitale, 1962: “When some of the very groups which had most strenuously opposed the established Church of England found themselves sufficiently in control of colonial governments … they passed laws making their own religion the official religion of their respective colonies.”
A controversy raged among inhabitants of Massachusetts, between “a covenant of grace” versus “a covenant of works.” The “covenant of grace” leaders were Sir Henry Vane, Rev. John Cotton, Rev. John Wheelwright, and his sister-in-law, Anne Hutchinson.
Rev. John Wheelwright fled Puritan uniformity in Massachusetts in 1637 and founded Exeter, New Hampshire. Roger Williams was briefly the pastor a church till “notorious disagreements” caused the Massachusetts General Court to censor his religious speech. Upon hearing the sheriff was on his way to arrest him and send him back to England, Williams fled again, in freezing weather, January of 1636. For weeks he traveled alone till he was befriended by the Indians of Narragansett. He founded Providence Plantation, Rhode Island – the first place where the church was not controlled by state.
Roger Williams wrote in 1661: “I having made covenant of peaceable neighborhood with all the Sachems (Chiefs) and natives round about us, and having in a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress called the place Providence … a shelter for persons distressed of conscience.”
A historical plaque reads: “To the memory of Roger Williams, the Apostle of Soul Liberty, Founder of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation.”
The reverse of the plaque reads: “Below this spot then at the water’s edge stood the rock on which according to tradition Roger Williams, an exile for the devotion to the freedom of conscience, landed. 1636.”
In 1638, Roger Williams organized the first Baptist Church in America.
A plaque reads: “The First Baptist Church, Founded by Roger Williams, AD 1638, The Oldest Baptist Church in America, The Oldest Church in this State.”
Physician John Clarke came to Rhode Island and founded another Baptist Church in Newport. Other dissenters arrived in Williams’ Rhode Island Colony, such as William Coddington, Philip Sherman, and Anne Hutchinson. Anne soon left again to settle in the Dutch settlement of the Bronx in New York City, where all her family was scalped and beheaded by raiding Indians in 1643. There was only one survivor, Anne’s nine-year-old daughter Susanna, who was taken captive. After several years, she escaped and married an innkeeper, Samuel Cole. Their descendants included three U.S. presidents.
The Governor of Massachusetts from 1636 to 1637 was Sir Henry Vane, who helped found Harvard. He supported the efforts of Roger Williams. Due to the “covenant of grace” versus “covenant of works” controversy, Governor Sir Henry Vane was not reelected, being replaced by John Winthrop.
In 1639, Sir Henry Vane returned to England where he backed the Puritan Revolution, led by Oliver Cromwell, though he did not support the Rump Parliament which beheaded Charles I.
During the brief English Commonwealth, Vane helped draft for Roger Williams the Patent for Providence Plantation, which was unique in that it did not acknowledge a king, and it guaranteed freedom of religion and conscience. Vane later defended the Patent on behalf of Roger Williams against a competing charter.
Roger William wrote of Vane in April of 1664: “Under God, the great anchor of our ship is Sir Henry Vane … an instrument in the hand of God for procuring this island.”
A statue of Sir Henry Vane is in the Boston Public Library with a plaque that reads: “Sir Henry Vane … An ardent defender of civil liberty and advocate of free thought in religion. He maintained that God, Law, and Parliament were superior to the King.”
The Plantation Agreement at Providence, Sept. 6, 1640, stated: “We agree, as formerly hath been the liberties of the town, so still, to hold forth liberty of conscience.”
The Government of Rhode Island, March 19, 1641, stated: “The Government … in this Island … is a Democracy, or Popular Government; that is to say, It is in the Power of the Body of Freemen orderly assembled.”
Roger Williams responded to Puritan leader John Cotton’s accusations by publishing “The Bloody Tenet (Practice) of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience and Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered in 1644.” In this, Williams first mentioned his now famous phrase, “wall of separation”: “Mr. Cotton … hath not duly considered these following particulars. First, the faithful labors of many witnesses of Jesus Christ, existing in the world, abundantly proving, that the Church of the Jews under the Old Testament in the type and the Church of the Christians under the New Testament in the anti-type, were both separate from the world; and that when they have opened a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broken down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, &c. and made his garden a wilderness, as at this day. And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world, and that all that shall be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the world and added unto His Church or garden … a separation of Holy from unHoly, penitent from impenitent, Godly from unGodly.”
Roger Williams was alluding to Isaiah 5:1-7, that when God’s people sin, He judges them by allowing his vineyard, the church, to be trampled by an ungodly government, in the same way that when Israel sinned, God let ungodly foreigners invade and trample them: “My well-beloved hath a vineyard … And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine … and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem … judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. … When I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? … I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down. … For the vineyard … is house of Israel … and he looked for judgment, but found oppression.”
Roger Williams also referred to the warning to the Church at Ephesus in the Book of Revelations, “Repent and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.”
Roger Williams stated that if God’s people repent, “He will restore His garden” protecting it as “walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world.”
This became a foundational Baptist tenet, that government should be prevented from intruding into church affairs.
Over the next century and a half, Baptist churches began in other colonies. James Madison wrote to Robert Walsh, March 2, 1819: “The English church was originally the established religion. … Of other sects there were but few adherents, except the Presbyterians who predominated on the west side of the Blue Mountains. A little time previous to the Revolutionary struggle, the Baptists sprang up, and made very rapid progress. … At present the population is divided … among the Protestant Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Baptists and the Methodists.”
A famous Baptist minister and abolitionist was Rev. John Leland, who helped start churches in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. He was instrumental in getting Baptists involved in politics to elect James Madison to the first session of Congress, as Madison promised to propose an Amendment to the Constitution which would protect their religious liberty.
In 1802, Rev. Leland delivered an enormous block of cheese to President Jefferson from the citizens of Cheshire, Massachusetts, after which he was invited to address Congress on the topic of liberty of conscience, that the government should be separated from interfering with the church.
Echoing the earlier Baptist views of Thomas Helwys, John Leland wrote in “Rights of Conscience Inalienable,” 1791: “Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.”
A short theological explanation of “freedom of conscience” is necessary to fully understand the mindset of colonial New England founders. Namely, when a government protects “freedom of conscience,” it facilitates the exercise of “free will,” which is the essence of choosing to “love” God. The more you love someone, the more you want that someone to love you back. God loves each of us infinitely, and He has an infinite desire for each of us to love Him back. Deuteronomy 6:5 “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”
God does not need our love, as He is not incomplete in any way, but He wants it. This is like parents: They do not need the love of their children, but they want it. They desire affection, appreciation, and fellowship.
Throughout the Scriptures, Israel, and the church, are referred to as the Lord’s “bride.”
Hosea 2:19-20 “And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea … I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the Lord.”
II Corinthians 11:2 “For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”
In other words, the Lord loves us as a groom loves a bride, and most grooms get jealous if their bride is spending more time with another man. Exodus 34:14 “The Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” The dilemma is this: love, by its very nature, must be voluntary, freely given. The moment it is forced, it is no longer love – it evaporates.
William Penn experienced imprisonment in the Tower of London. He wrote in “England’s Present Interest Considered,” 1675: “Force makes hypocrites, ’tis persuasion only that makes converts.”
God wants our love, but He refuses to force it, for if He did, our response would no longer be love. It might be submission, or obedience, or fear, but it is not love.
God is a God of rules and laws. Everything He created follows laws: laws of gravity, laws of physics, laws of planetary motion, etc., and laws of how mankind is to behave. From electrons to apple seeds to puppy dogs to galaxies, everything obeys the rules God put in place. But He desired something more, namely, beings that could love Him. Man just has the free will choice as to whether or not to follow God’s laws.
Sir William Blackstone explained in his “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” 1765-1769: “When the Supreme Being formed the universe, and created matter out of nothing, He impressed certain principles upon that matter, from which it can never depart … He established certain laws of motion, to which all movable bodies must conform. … From the greatest operations to the smallest … from mere inactive matter to vegetable and animal life … The whole progress of plants, from the seed to the root, and from thence to the seed again; the method of animal nutrition, digestion, secretion and all the branches of vital economy; – are not left to chance, or the will of the creature itself, but are performed in a wondrous involuntary manner, and guided by unerring rules laid down by the great Creator. … Man, the noblest of all sublunary (earthly) beings, (is) a creature endowed with both reason and free will.”
God gave man free will, and His desire is for us to yield to His grace and voluntarily choose Him.
John 4:23 “A time is coming … when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such as these to worship Him.”
God does not force our will, but His grace acts upon it like the consistent pull of a magnet. He influences our will through positive and negative motivations: blessings, and the withholding of blessings.
In other words, He has Plan A and Plan B. Plan A is, He blesses us so much we voluntarily turn to Him out of gratefulness. If that does not work, there is Plan B, He withholds His blessings and we turn to him out of desperation. Some adamantly refuse to turn to Him by hardening their hearts, and He respects their choice.
God put the tree in the garden of Eden and told Adam and Eve not to eat from it, but He gave them the choice. He gave the children of Israel the Law, explaining the blessings and the curses, and told them to “choose life,” but He gave them the choice. All of creation obeys God, but only man has the choice to love God.
To illustrate this, if a man twists his wife’s arm and says, “tell me you love me,” no matter what she says, she does not love him. But if he defends her, protects her, provides for her, rescues her, woos and courts her with dinner, flowers and chocolates, and out of the abundance of her heart it bubbles up, “I love you,” then it means something.
God is not interested in “submit or I will chop your head off.” If he wanted us to obey Him, he could have made us, as He did with rest of creation.
Roger Williams wrote: “God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state.”
President James Madison expressed this view in his National Proclamation of Public Humiliation and Prayer, July 23, 1813: “If the public homage of a people can ever be worthy of the favorable regard of the Holy and Omniscient Being to whom it is addressed, it must be … guided only by their free choice, by the impulse of their hearts and the dictates of their consciences. … proving that religion, that gift of Heaven for the good of man, is freed from all coercive edicts.”
James Madison wrote in “Religious Freedom – A Memorial and Remonstrance,” June 20, 1785: “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to Him.”
After the Revolution, there was a Second Great Awakening Revival, and churches multiplied in the states. When the Constitution was being ratified, there were concerns that the federal government might override the states and establish one denomination for the nation, as countries in Europe had.
During North Carolina’s Ratifying Convention, Governor Samuel Johnston stated, July 30, 1788: “I know but two or three states where there is the least chance of establishing any particular religion. The people of Massachusetts and Connecticut are mostly Presbyterians. In every other state, the people are divided into a great number of sects. In Rhode Island, the tenets of the Baptists, I believe, prevail. In New York, they are divided very much; the most numerous are the Episcopalians and the Baptists. In New Jersey, they are as much divided as we are. In Pennsylvania, if any sect prevails more than others, it is that of the Quakers. In Maryland, the Episcopalians are most numerous, though there are other sects. In Virginia, there are many sects; you all know what their religious sentiments are. So in all the Southern states they differ; as also New Hampshire. I hope, therefore, that gentlemen will see there is no cause of fear that any one religion shall be exclusively established.”
In his “Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States,” 1833, Justice Joseph Story stated: “In some of the states, Episcopalians constituted the predominant sect; in other, Presbyterians; in others, Congregationalists; in others, Quakers. … The whole power over the subject of religion is left exclusively to the state governments.”
Though the federal government was prohibited by the First Amendment from establishing a religion, the state governments were not.
John Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1889), stated in its definition of Religion: “The Constitution of the United States provides that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ This provision and that relating to religious tests are limitations upon the power of the Congress only. … The Christian religion is, of course, recognized by the government, yet … the preservation of religious liberty is left to the States.”
Justice Potter Stewart (Abington Township v. Schempp, dissent, 1963): “As a matter of history, the First Amendment was adopted solely as a limitation upon the newly created national government. … The Establishment Clause was primarily an attempt to insure that Congress not only would be powerless to establish a national church, but would also be unable to interfere with existing state establishments.”
The state of Connecticut had established the Congregational denomination from its founding by Rev. Thomas Hooker in 1636, till its first state constitution in 1818. Connecticut’s government collected everyone’s tithes and paid the pastors, a model used in states like Virginia, as well as in modern-day countries like Germany. After the Revolution, Connecticut thought it was being tolerant by letting Baptists in, they simply had to register as dissenters and their tithes would be forwarded to their churches. When Congregational Church membership began to decline in the early 1800s, Connecticut’s government made it more difficult for Baptists to opt out.
The Danbury Baptist Association felt it was an inequality to have to register in the first place. They wished Connecticut would disestablish the Congregational Church in the same way Virginia disestablished the Anglican Church in 1786, with the help of Thomas Jefferson.
This was the setting for why the Danbury Baptist Association wrote to President Jefferson, Oct. 7, 1801, complaining of their second-class status in Connecticut: “Sir … Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty; – That religion is at all times and places a matter between God and Individuals; – That no man ought to suffer in name, person or effects on account of his religious opinions; – That the legitimate power of civil Government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor: But Sir … our ancient charter (in Connecticut), together with the Laws made coincident therewith … are; that … what religious privileges we enjoy (as Baptists) … we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights. …”
Danbury Baptists continued: “Sir, we are sensible that the President of the united States is not the national Legislator & also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the Laws of each State; but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial Effect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth. Sir … we have reason to believe that America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of State. … May God strengthen you for the arduous task which Providence & the voice of the people have called you. … And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his Heavenly Kingdom through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.”
On Jan. 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote back, agreeing with the Baptists: “Gentlemen … Believing with you – that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, – that he owes account to none other for faith or his worship, – that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all his natural rights. … I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man.”
Jefferson explained who was limited by the “wall” in his letter to Samuel Miller, Jan. 23, 1808: “I consider the (federal) government of the United States as interdicted (prohibited) by the Constitution from inter-meddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States (federal government). …”
Jefferson continued: “Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general (federal) government. It must then rest with the states as far as it can be in any human authority. … I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines. … Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets.”
Jefferson wrote in his second inaugural address, March 4, 1805: “In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the general (federal) government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercise suited to it; but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state and church authorities by the several religious societies.”
James Madison entered in his journal, June 12, 1788: “There is not a shadow of right in the general (federal) government to inter-meddle with religion. … The subject is, for the honor of America, perfectly free and unshackled. The government has no jurisdiction over it.”
James Madison stated in his first inaugural address, March 4, 1809: “To avoid the slightest interference with the rights of conscience or the function of religion, so wisely exempted from civil jurisdiction.”
Emphasizing voluntary, free will, James Madison proclaimed a National Day of Fasting, Nov. 16, 1814: “I … recommend … a day on which all may have an opportunity of voluntarily offering … their humble adoration to the Great Sovereign of the Universe.”
Madison proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving, March 4, 1815: “I now recommend … the people … unite their hearts and their voices in a freewill offering to their Heavenly Benefactor of their homage … and of their songs of praise.”
Agreeing with Baptist Roger Williams’ views regarding rights of conscience, Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia: “Our rulers can have authority over our natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God.”
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