It is difficult for American Christians today, long accustomed to the political benefits of liberal democracy, to imagine what it was like to live in a time when religious freedom was not taken for granted. The concept of the separation of Church and state was a radical idea in the seventeenth century, and it is still a debatable one today. As Baptists have become more numerous and more successful in American society (just a few years ago, the top five constitutional officers in the United States were all Southern Baptists), they have tended to lose touch with the historical role their forebearers played in the struggle for religious liberty.
In February 1646, Thomas Edwards, orthodox Puritan heresiologist, published the first installment of his magnum opus entitled Gangraena, or A Catalog and Discovery of Many of the Errors, Heresies, Blasphemies and Pernicious Practices of the Sectaries of this Time. Edwards represented those parliamentary Presbyterians who, having once thrown off the yoke of bishops, had no desire to tolerate that great swarm of “illiterate, mechanic preachers, yea of Women and Boy Preachers,” which had suddenly arisen in the unsettled clime of the English Civil War. Of particular offense to Edwards were the Baptists or “dippers,” and he urged “that whosoever re-baptized any that had been formerly baptized, he should be cast into the water and drowned.” (1)
Edwards also lamented the growing sentiment in favor of leniency for religious dissenters. In particular, he deplored the publication of the famous Bloody Tenet of Persecution by the sometime Baptist, Roger Williams. All such books, Edwards believed, should be delivered to the hangman for public burning: “Oh what a burnt offering, a sweet smelling sacrifice this would be to God!” (2)
Both Edwards and Williams had died by the time Parliament enacted the famous Act of Toleration in 1689, but the idea of unabridged religious freedom for all persons everywhere first surfaced in England as the distinctive religious tenet of one of Edwards’ despised sects, the Baptists. This idea was exported to the American colonies where it merged with other more politically prudential motives, as well as currents of thought emerging from the Enlightenment, to produce the distinctive American concept of the separation of Church and state.
In his essay, “Protestantism and Progress,” theologian Ernst Troeltsch, while acknowledging the rationalistic and utilitarian sources of the idea of religious toleration, argued that “its real foundations” were to be found, especially in England, in “the revived Anabaptist and Spiritualist movements, in combination with Calvinism of a radical tendency.” (3) Baptists, along with other Protestants, are heirs of the Reformation, “stepchildren of the Reformation,” to use Troeltsch’s term. Despite important affinities with continental Anabaptism, the Baptist movement as we know it today emerged from the matrix of Puritan and Separatist reform efforts in early seventeenth-century England. They wanted, as Robert Browne put it, a “reformation without tarrying for any.” For the Baptists, however, the great doctrines of the Reformation were refracted through the prism of persecution and dissent which informed their intense advocacy of religious liberty and the separation of Church and state.
In both its Calvinist and Arminian expressions, the Baptist movement saw itself in continuity with the great doctrinal breakthrough represented by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and other mainline reformers. The doctrine of justification by faith alone was fundamental for Baptists’ soteriology, while the principle of sola scriptura was cited as the basis for both the rejection of infant baptism and the gathering of covenanted congregations organized according to the blueprint of New Testament Church order.
Some Baptists were aware that Luther himself had early on advocated a similar ecclesiology. In 1520, for example, he had defined Christianity as an “assembly of believers including all those who have true faith, hope, and love.” In 1526, he called on earnest Christians to separate and meet alone in a house for prayer, Bible reading, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. (4) True enough, Luther never thought of setting up Anabaptist-like conventicles separated on principle from the territorial Church. His “congregationalism” was closer to the later Pietists’ experiment of a collegium pietatis, church intended to function as a leaven within the larger Church body. However, with the proliferation of Protestant sectarianism, Luther backed away from this congregational ideal in favor of an official Reformation carried out under the aegis of the territorial prince.
In the early years of the Reformation, Luther had also emphasized the noncoercive character of faith and stoutly opposed the persecution of heretics-both important themes in the Baptist defense of religious liberty. In his 1523 tract, On Civil Government, Luther wrote: “Heresy is a spiritual thing, which can not [sic] be cut with steel nor burned with fire nor drowned with water. We do not kill, banish, and persecute anyone who teaches other than we or starts a sect.” (5) It is the “papists,” he said, who engage in killing, burning, and persecution. “They are the devil’s Christians.” (6) With the unraveling of the Reformation, however, Luther had second thoughts about his earlier toleration of heresy and endorsed a policy of religious coercion. In 1529, the imperial edict of the Diet of Speyer revived the ancient Code of Justinian calling for capital punishment for anyone who practiced rebaptism or denied the doctrine of the Trinity. In 1531, Luther supported the drowning of Anabaptists, claiming that while it seemed cruel to execute them, it was more cruel for them to damn the ministry of the Word and upset the true Church. Luther saw the tension inherent in his view but opted for faith over love. As he put it, “I am bound to obey faith more than love, for faith is above love. Faith I must defend with head, neck, and belly. When we have that we can come back to love.” (7)
Like Luther, the leaders of the Reformed churches in Switzerland also sanctioned the coercive power of the state to suppress religious dissent. Zwingli watched as his former disciple Felix Manz was held in a cage and drowned to death in the Limmat River, while Calvin acquiesced in the execution of Servetus. Theodore Beza eschewed the idea of religious liberty: It simply meant that everyone would be left to go to hell in his own way. (8) There was nothing distinctively reformational about this sentiment: Servetus was burned in effigy by the Catholics before he was burned in reality by the Protestants! Both mainline Protestant and counter-Reformation churches maintained the Theodosian legacy of the corpus christianum with the coercive power of the civil authority in the service of religious teaching.
Baptists on the Separation of Church and State
The early Baptist doctrine of religious liberty was forged between the apolitical pacifism of Anabaptism on the one hand and the official reformation of the magisterial churches on the other. Their argument for the separation of Church and state was complex and included the following elements:
1. Two Kingdoms. The Baptists claimed that religious persecution resulted from the confusion of the temporal and spiritual realms. The attempt to establish by law a particular religion and to prohibit by force the exercise of any other religion was a clear violation of Christ’s royal prerogative. The civil magistrate could be a member of the Church but was basically incompetent in all purely spiritual matters. Thus, the Baptists recognized the possibility of a Christian magistrate while denying with equal vigor the concept of a Christian magistracy. The biblical basis for denying magisterial authority in matters religious derived from an asymmetrical hermeneutic. In the new dispensation, civil magistrates could no longer serve as “nursing fathers” for the Church. This custodial model of Church-state relations, with the attendant policy of physical force and civil sanctions based upon it, had been abrogated by Christ’s “last will and testament.” As Roger Williams put it, Christ no longer has a national people, only a congregational one. In the former covenant, heretics along with civil offenders were subject to magisterial punishment. But in the new covenant, heretics were liable only to the spiritual weapons of congregational censure and excommunication.
2. Inviolability of the Conscience. In separating regnum from sacerdotium, Baptists argued that each soul stood in a unique and immediate relation to God. Thus, the forcing of conscience by means of violence was a heinous crime whereby magistrates became “soul-murderers.” Since God alone is “Lord and lawgiver to the soul,” civil encroachment into the spiritual sphere was an infringement on this sacred relationship.
3. Noncoercive Character of Faith. The forcing of persons in matters of faith, Baptists claimed, was also completely counterproductive. Constraint of the conscience would only produce hypocrisy, not true conversion. The Baptists’ insistence on believers’ baptism was also related to the noncoercive character of faith. Adult baptism presupposed repentance, faith, and regeneration. Since small children could not repent, they could not be the proper subjects of faith whether implicit (Catholic), infant (Lutheran), or federal (Calvinist).
4. Evangelism and Christian Unity. Baptists were confident that the truth of the Gospel, when freed to compete in the marketplace of ideas, would win out over all opposition. Freedom of worship and the liberty of free speech would advance the apostolic faith and do far more than persecution to restore the broken unity of God’s people. Furthermore, to execute heretics would foreclose the possibility of conversion and thus increase the population of hell. Motivated by their intense evangelistic zeal, the Baptists, somewhat ironically, were the first religious group in England to argue for the readmission and toleration of the Jews, who had been legally excluded since 1290. As Leonard Busher put it, “If persecution be not laid down, and the liberty of conscience set up, then can not the Jews, nor any strangers, nor others contrary-minded, be ever converted in our land … for they will never seek to inhabit there.”
5. Predestination. The Baptist movement sprang from two separable beginnings in the seventeenth-century: the Particular Baptists were strongly Calvinistic in theology, whereas the General Baptists were more Arminian. Both groups used their differing views on the doctrine of predestination to argue contrary-wise for religious liberty. The Generals argued that since Christ never forced himself on anyone, neither should the state meddle in affairs of the soul. The Particulars, on the other hand, argued from the inscrutability of election, claiming that even heretical sects might include some of God’s chosen ones. Since God alone knows the elect, the state should abstain from all coercion of conscience lest perchance, along with the tares, some of God’s good corn be also plowed up!
These arguments, among others, were set forth in a number of writings including Thomas Helwys’s A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity published in London in 1612 and addressed to King James. One extant copy of this tract bears the following handwritten ascription by Helwys: “Hear, Oh King, and despise not the counsel of the poor … the king is a mortal man, and not God, therefore hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects.” Helwys was placed in prison where he died in 1616, leaving behind his wife Joan and their seven children. Oppressed sects had long argued for their right to religious toleration. What set the Baptists apart was the explicit avowal of universal religious freedom, or as Helwys put it: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them.”
Shaped by this heritage, Baptists believe that a free Church in a free state is the Christian ideal. This implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all persons, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power. God alone is the Lord of the conscience, and Church and state should be separate. The Church as a covenanted community is no longer coextensive with the nation as it was in ancient Israel: Nowhere does the New Testament impose thenonomous government upon the political arena in the name of Christian duty. To borrow a phrase from Catholic writer Richard John Neuhaus, the naked public square should not be replaced by the sacred public square but by the civil public square. The Church, along with the family and other voluntary associations, are mediating institutions through which tradition-shaped moral and religious values can-and should-have a positive impact on the wider culture. But this kind of influence can be wielded better not from the security of a confessional state, but rather through the engaged witness of individual Christians and communities of faith sustained by faith, love, and prayer.
Although the separation of Church and state does not mean the divorce of religion and politics, it is a safeguard against both the encroachment of civil authority into the community of faith and also the improper use of religious principles for partisan ends. The Christian community is called to speak truth to power, never forgetting that its ultimate accountability is to a transcendent Reality beyond the relative and penultimate aims of any political party or ideology. For this reason, Christians must bring to the public square not only conviction but also humility, preaching forgiveness as well as judgment. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminds us in The Gulag Archipelago: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
2 [ Back ] Edwards, part i, 203. C. N. Brailsford, The Levelers and the English Revolution (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1961), p. 40.
3 [ Back ] Ernst Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress: A Historical Study of the Relation of Protestantism to the Modern World, trans. W. Montgomery (1912; reprint ed., Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), pp. 124-26.
4 [ Back ] George H. Williams, "The 'Congregationalist' Luther and the Free Churches," Lutheran Quarterly 18 (1967), pp. 283-94.
5 [ Back ] Weimarer Ausgabe Luther's Werke (Hereafter, "WA") 11, 268.
6 [ Back ] WA 19, 263.
7 [ Back ] WA 15, 616.
8 [ Back ] Roland Bainton, "The Struggle for Religious Liberty," Church History 10 (1941).