Baptists at 400

Just as some Baptists have attended our Calvin celebrations, read our newest studies of the Reformer, and even participated in a revival of Calvinism, so, too, we have much to gain from eavesdropping on the conversations reverberating through the Baptist birthday parties.

At the Outlook we peruse reports from several religious newswires each day, among them the Associated Baptist Press (ABP), which publishes the most self-critical reports and commentaries of all the denominational presses.

One recent report reflects back upon the first ever worship service of that movement (see p. 7).  It was born in a historical context similar yet different from that of Calvin’s Geneva. Yes, the home cities were typically cosmopolitan in those neighboring European countries. But our movement enjoyed the privilege that comes with power:  the city leaders learned their faith under the direct influence of and allegiance to Pastor Calvin. The Baptist movement operated underground, suffering alienation and persecution.

Such a difference has a way of shaping a movement’s sense of place in the world.

Europeans never made much room for these separatist Christians. Roman Catholic Italians, German Lutherans, Swiss Reformed, and British Anglicans ostracized them.

 In the early centuries of America’s founding, they fit neither the Puritan communities of Massachusetts, the Reformed of New York and New Jersey, the Anglican of Virginia, nor the Presbyterian of Pennsylvania or the Carolinas. When their leader (Roger Williams) was thrown out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they settled a small patch of land he named Providence, Rhode Island. Their detractors soon dubbed it, “Rogues Island.”

For survival’s sake, they advocated a clear separation between church and state. For three-plus centuries they have championed that separation.

Then again, according to other reports we’ve been reading, their resolve is wavering these days.

Baptists no longer huddle under the cloak of darkness to worship God as they see fit. In many regions of the country, “Baptists outnumber people,” as they say with a grin. Some have attained astute political skill and are wielding significant influence. To some of them, separation seems overrated.

Such a change in thinking is being fueled by a lack of memory, says Bob Allen, senior writer for ABP.  “For many Baptists in the United States, the separation of church and state is no more than a historical concept or fodder for the culture wars.”

Allen reports that Christopher Marsh, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies at Baylor University, worries that they’re being caught into “the allure of establishment.” Marsh elaborates, “Religious groups that have fought for freedom forget the ideal they fought and died for.”

But, “separation is about freedom, and freedom means nothing if it doesn’t protect ‘the least of these.’”

This controversy’s newest incarnation comes in two Florida counties in the form of billboards that promote greater Christian governance of the country, aiming to refute the notion of separation. However, they are “making false claims and misleading assertions about our country’s history and commitment to religious freedom,” writes Brent Walker, executive director of the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.  He adds, “One ad even fabricates a comment from the first president of the United States.”

That billboard quotes Washington saying, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”

Walker responds that “the billboard organizers admit there is no proof Washington ever said this.” How amazing, he said, that “a group claiming its support for historical accuracy fabricates a statement” to prove their point.

The discussions arising among Baptists these days probably echo ones that arose among Christians in Constantine’s day. After operating for three centuries as a growing but powerless minority those Christians’ newfound privilege of establishment compromised their witness in the world.

We do well to listen to these Baptist conversations. Perhaps they can help us un-compromise our witness.


—    JHH

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