Headlines from First Thoughts

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Birthday Gift for Baptists

Baptists have not always held a majority in Knoxville. From our beginnings in Amsterdam 400 years ago this year, Baptists formed a minority religious sect. The early colonies offered hope for freedom. Baptists found, however, that they needed more than just freedom of religion. They also needed freedom from other Christians.

As Steven Waldman wrote in his book Founding Faith, the question for the founders was not whether there would be Christians in America. The early settlers questioned each other’s brand of Christianity. People wanted liberation from the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England. One thought the other was going to hell, and both of them assumed that we Baptists were living there already. Virginia financed the salaries of their Anglican church priests through taxes and unleashed a wave of arrests on those they deemed to be traitors, Baptist ministers. Massachusetts supported the Congregational Church through tax revenue. Baptists were not alone. Depending on the region, Quakers, Methodists, Unitarians and many others paid dearly for their decisions to practice faith by suffering imprisonment, mockery, and beatings—all from other “Christians.” The first place a Baptist could gather freely was in Rhode Island, but even this state had problems with Catholics.

James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and a coalition of others offered Baptists and our communities a gift. This remains a good birthday present to share today. The 1st amendment and later the 14th amendment guaranteed that federal and state governments could not prohibit or enable worship. The boundaries between the two institutions of church and state were guarded with the walls of establishment and expression. In between, the devout found enough room for radicals like us to thrive, governments to do their work, and for religious people to keep from hurting each other.

Religious liberty has been one of the great gifts of our founders to community. In public school education, for instance, religious liberty creates space for children to interact with people of different belief systems. Liberty allows students to express faith personally, gives faith-filled volunteers a place to serve, but avoids the conditions where the unfaithful are intimidated.

Liberty benefits the church as well. A rigorous, vibrant faith cannot be coerced. It can only be lived and believed as individuals in community with others. By creating a place for all forms of belief to learn from each other, we keep each other accountable to focus on our principles and relationships. Faith thrives when we do not depend on public dollars or coercion.

By sharing the gift of liberty, we avoid the problems so prevalent in European cultures. Until the 1990s in Northern Ireland, families chose public education based on religious preference and thus financed sectarianism. Children, however, who attended these Catholic and Protestant public schools knew very little about each other. Some argue that this was the root cause of violence that lasted into the late 1980s. Even though they have moved past these problems, intramural disputes among Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox still comingle with partisan pressures and public financing throughout the continent. The result? Very few faithful people and churches filled with more tourists than testimonies.

By 1843, two newspaper men from New Hampshire had arrived in Knoxville, borrowed a few members from outlying churches, began dunking in the river, and started my church. Soon these Northern Baptists would be caught up in much more than immersion. But the legacy of religious liberty is a gift worth preserving and sharing for the next generation of Americans.

George Washington’s letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, expresses this spirit: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

This column will be published in the Community Columnists section of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Sunday, July 26.

Join us on Sunday, August 16 as the choirs First Baptist Church of Knoxville and Mt. Zion Baptist perform together in Concert celebrating our common heritage as churches.


test_blog said...

Very well written and concise points about how religious liberty benefits the church.

I would like to offer one suggestion. You may want to change, "partisan pressures and public financing throughout the continent" in paragraph six to read, "partisan pressures and public financing throughout the island". Since the example is Ireland, shouldn't the conclusion reflect the example of Ireland rather than perhaps unintentionally extrapolating it to the entire continent of Europe? I am of course assuming that the word continent is referring to the continent of Europe.

Also, sorry I've not been attending the past several weeks. I keep having weekend "errands" that take me back to my hometown of Clarksville. Hopefully, this weekend will be the last one for awhile. Nothing major or serious, I've just ended up driving home every weekend for the entire month of July.

Rob Howard said...

Great article! I think it's great that we can all worship God in accordance with the faith of our fathers. I only wish there was more worshiping going on these days.

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