Baptists, America, and Freedom

It’s July, the month of cookouts and trips to the beach. It’s the month of sunburn and gnats and remembering that winter wasn’t really so bad after all. It’s the month of patriotism and fireworks and celebrating America and independence. It’s remembering our heritage, where we came from, and why we came in the first place. We forget easily.

In the 17th century Pilgrims and Puritans came to America seeking freedom, specifically, the freedom to worship and serve God as their minds and consciences directed. In England they had faced persecution and even death because they had begun to read the Scriptures for themselves and to question the established order, the Church of England. They founded their colonies, built their churches, and then clamped down like a vise on any who would dissent from their views. The persecuted became persecutors.

One of the persecuted was Roger Williams. Williams came to America with the Puritans. Once here his study of Scripture and his disgust at how land was confiscated from Native Americans brought him into sharp disagreement with his fellow colonials. Roger Williams, the Puritan, was on his way to becoming a Baptist. Eventually he did become fully a Baptist in his thinking and beliefs and was invited for this cause to forever leave Massachusetts. Williams left and founded a new colony, Rhode Island, by buying land from the natives there. Throughout his life he would be the Englishman the natives trusted most. He founded the city of Providence and with it Williams started the First Baptist Church of Providence, which was also, truly, the First Baptist Church of America. In Rhode Island the government was limited to making laws about “civil things” and was forbidden from any restriction on religion. Williams believed in “soul liberty”, that each person was free to believe and think as he or she willed. Both these ideas became strong beliefs which would be woven into the fabric of what it is to be a Baptist. As a result Rhode Island became a haven in America for Baptists, Quakers, and even Jews, all of whom were welcomed by Williams. It’s not that he didn’t have strong opinions. He did. He argued vehemently against the teachings of the Quakers, publishing pamphlets in which he sought to expose their errors. But the Quakers remained free to practice and to argue back to their hearts content. You could say that America truly became America with Roger Williams.

We need to recover Williams spirit. America is a place of freedom where the government should not interfere with or limit faith no matter who’s it is, mine or my neighbor’s. Government must not limit nor prefer one faith over another, mine nor my neighbor’s. Besides, the Good News of Jesus is truth that has the Holy Spirit behind it. It needs no other power, no other help, than God’s and for his church to tell it to the world.