Affirming Religious Liberty from a Baptist Perspective

By Rev. Jason Smith, Arkadelphia, Arkansas
Affiliated Alliance of Baptists

In January of 1636, ardent preacher and religious leader Roger Williams was expelled from Plymouth, Mass. for propagating, according to the Puritan General Court, “erroneous and very dangerous opinions.”[1] His restless spirit challenged the Puritan authorities as one of the first advocates for religious liberty in the New World. Williams would carry his cause across the border of the early settlement to found the colony of Providence, creating the First Baptist Church in America. From this moment forward, Baptists have been staunch advocates for religious liberty in the United States, proposing that church and state should live and breathe freely without interference from the other, and promoting a country where individuals should have the liberty to follow their freedom of conscience.[2]

Baptist Characteristics: Unbound Liberty

While Baptists have stayed away from establishing any sort of formal creed or set of principles, certain core characteristics weave throughout Baptist history and have a profound effect on church polity and general theological convictions. Walter Shurden identifies several important characteristics in The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms. The first and core Baptist affirmation is the idea that every individual has the liberty and authority to read, interpret, and learn from scripture through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.[3] In the spirit of the Reformation, Baptists assert that biblical interpretation allows every individual to discover personally the Gospel message.

A secondary idea that surfaces as a core principle of Baptist tradition is the concept that each individual has “soul freedom” or “freedom of conscience.” Individuals have the freedom to trust the Holy Spirit’s guidance and challenge authority. Jesus challenged individuals to consider personally who they believed him to be.[4] Individuals are encouraged to take personal responsibility for themselves, including their confession of faith and decision to be baptized.[5] Each person has unique experiences and ideas about faith that make them distinctive, and Baptists have long recognized that every individual has dignity and worth in deciding their destinies and personal paths of salvation. This freedom is rooted in the idea that each person is under the direct authority of Jesus Christ, an individualism that places all Baptists at the same level of subservience to Jesus Christ.[6]

A third principle that unites a majority of Baptists is the idea that each individual church is a unit with rights and responsibilities of governance and polity. The autonomy of the local church is a critical part of Baptist identity, allowing congregations the opportunity to follow the creative path of the Spirit as a community of faith.[7]

The fourth idea numbered by Shurden flows directly out of the first three freedoms: religious liberty. The concept of religious liberty is embedded in the Baptist tradition and forms part of the essence of faith for Baptist believers. Most Baptists share the unifying belief that only Jesus Christ can stand between an individual and their access to God. It is from this idea of that the concepts of “Bible freedom,” “soul freedom,” and “church freedom” inspire the idea of “religious freedom.” Everything that Baptists believe comes out of this freedom concept, the autonomy of the individual, the autonomy of the local church, and the assurance that the church and state remain separate entities for both to prosper. Baptist history is one of pursuing and ensuring these freedoms and liberties for all people.[8]

Baptist Connections to Religious Liberty

A careful study of Baptist history unearths a unique perspective on religious liberty. While scholars and academics debate as to which tradition Baptists originated, the best theory is that Baptists emerged from separatists and formed a second branch of the English Reformation.[9] As Congregationalists who dissented from the Church of England, Baptists would eventually differentiate themselves into ‘Particular Baptists,’ who were inspired by the Calvinistic theory of predestination that would later be developed, and ‘General Baptists’ who believed that all were capable of earning salvation.[10]

As a student at Oxford in the 1620’s, Roger Williams followed his convictions and joined the Puritan movement in England, believing in the reformation of the Church of England, and pursued his calling and ministry to the Plymouth Colony in 1631. While in Massachusetts, Williams began to have grave disagreements with the theocratic Puritan system in Colonial America and with government-sponsored religion in general. In seventeenth-century New England, Puritan colonies maintained a power structure with religious and civil authority. Church attendance was compulsory, and failure to attend could result in a fine of five shillings or time in jail.[11] But Williams challenged this authority with the idea that faith should not be dictated by the state.[12] He argued strongly from a Biblical perspective that the Puritans did not have authority over the religious beliefs of individuals, citing instances in scripture of faithful followers suffering under civil authorities for living out their freedom of “conscience;”[13] from Daniel being cast into a den of lions to the early Apostles being stoned to death and persecuted for their convictions, examples of individuals following their convictions abound in scripture.[14]

After preaching complete separation of church and state in New England, Williams was expelled fled to Providence, Rhode Island in 1636, fearing for his safety. In Rhode Island, he came to practice Believer’s Baptism, advocating for the baptism of adult believers by immersion and would later establish the First Baptist Church in America.[15] Williams’ life, ministry, and radical preaching against the Puritan influence of the region are significant as his passion led him to become a dedicated proponent of religious liberty. He is credited with first using the phrase “[A] hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” in describing the relationship between the church and the state.[16] For Williams, religious liberty meant separation of church and state and protection of the integrity of churches and for the rights of religious minorities, and the image of “the wall” symbolized the firm respect of each individual’s conscious and a genuine reverence for human dignity.[17]

Williams’ metaphor of the “wall of separation” would later be used by constitutional scholars to define and clarify the meaning of the establishment clause of the United States Constitution. In his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, Thomas Jefferson described the dynamic between the state and the church as a “wall of separation.” Upon Jefferson’s election in 1801, the Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, described themselves as “uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty” and urged the newly elected president to not “destroy” the progress already achieved with the nascent constitution. In his response, Jefferson declared that the religious liberty clauses in the First Amendment were “the act of the whole American people” and affirmed the “wall of separation between Church and State” as a unique part of the American experiment and that the “rights of conscience” should be affirmed.[18]

The Supreme Court would later make use of Jefferson and Williams’ words most notably in the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing, NJ. In Everson, the Court famously applied the First Amendment Establishment Clause to state law, and Justice Hugo Black, a Baptist turned Unitarian, delivered the majority opinion. Black affirmed that the Establishment Clause was binding upon the states, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment applies equally to the states the stipulations included in the Bill of Rights.[19] Many Baptists, including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty,[20] have affirmed Everson as strengthening religious liberty by affirming the separation of church and state in the First Amendment.[21]

The idea of religious liberty being a closely treasured idea for Baptists comes from their history as a persecuted group. Because Baptists were not always a majority denomination, they advocated for tolerance and respect of faiths in the minority. Now that Baptists have become a more influential group in the United States, it is imperative to continue the fight for the rights of religious minorities so that each individual is protected by the government and from government or societal encroachment into individual liberty. While Baptists were not the primary originators of the concept, religious liberty became a solid theme for the persecuted religious group throughout Europe and America.[22] As a former persecuted religious minority, Baptists believe that, in order for society to be free, civil authorities must protect and defend the religious rights of all people.[23]

Advocating Today

James Dunn, former Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee, used to tell his classrooms that “the trouble with a theocracy is everyone wants to be Theo!”[24] Beginning as an early outsider group in the Protestant Reformation, Baptists remember their persecution and support the religious liberty rights of all individuals, arguing that no authority, either a demographic majority or civil power, should impose their religious beliefs on others.[25] The staunch advocacy of religious liberty is one of the strongest gifts that Baptists have offered civil society in the United States, affirming and expanding the pluralistic vision of our country’s founders, and fully living into the spirit of the ideals of the Enlightenment.[26]


[1] Gastaud, Edwin S, Roger Williams (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 11, 13.

[2] Shurden, Walter, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon: Smith & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 1993), 47.

[3] Shurden, Walter. The Baptist Identity, 10.

[4] Coogan, Michael D. The New Oxford Annotated Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), Matthew 16:13.

[5] Shurden, The Baptist Identity, 29.

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] Ibid, 34, 35.

[8] Ibid, 29.

[9] Goodwin, Everett C. Down by the Riverside: A History of the Baptist Faith (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2002), 7.

[10] Goodwin, Everett C. Baptists In the Balance: The Tension between Freedom and Responsibility (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1997), 74-75.

[11] Bowlby, David Dean. The Garden and the Wilderness: Church and State in America to 1789 (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013), 27.

[12] Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. “A Heritage of Freedom.” Citizens of Two Kingdoms: Lessons for Youth in Baptist History and Religious Liberty (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishers, 1996), 12, 13, 14.

[13] Goodwin, Down by the Riverside, 13-14.

[14]Groves, Richard, ed. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (Atlanta: Mercer University Press), 33.

[15] Goodwin, Baptists in the Balance, 78-80.

[16] Bowlby, The Garden and the Wilderness, 28.

[17] Davis, Roger. On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008) 3.

[18] Bowlby, The Garden and the Wilderness, xii, 189, 190.

[19]Alley, Joseph S. James Madison on Religious Liberty (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1985), 280, 281, 282.

[20] Note: For more information on the Baptist Joint Committee, or to read about contemporary issues concerning religious liberty, visit www.bjconline.org.

[21] “Supreme Court and Religious Liberty.” Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. http://bjconline.org/mission-history-church-state-separation/

[22] Goodwin, Everett C. The New Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2995), 18, 19, 20.

[23] Ibid, 52, 53.

[24]“Truth with the Bark on It: The Wit and Wisdom of James Dunn,” The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, July, 2015, http://bjconline.org/truth-with-the-bark-on-it-the-wit-and-wisdom-of-james-dunn.

[25] Goodwin, The New Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches, 19.

[26] Davis, On Religious Liberty, 3.


Rev. Jason Smith is the Congregational Engagement Specialist for the Alliance of Baptists and resides in Arkadelphia. He is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University and Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the incoming Chair of the Interfaith Arkansas Board of Directors.