Soul Freedom: A Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty

By Don Byrd.  Don Byrd is a lecturer at Nashville’s Belmont University and an attorney. He presents this article from the perspective of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He writes the popular Blog from the Capital for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, available at BJConline.org/blog


The tradition of Baptist advocacy for church-state separation and religious liberty is rooted in the foundational Baptist view of the relationship between God and the individual. As James Dunn, the former executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, once wrote, “No pastor or priest, no doctrine or disciple, no book or belief, no church or creed comes between the individual and God.”[1] Instead, each one of us is responsible before God; and with that responsibility, each of us is free.

“Soul freedom” sparked the Baptist resistance to an established state religion in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it continues to inspire the response of true Baptists to religious freedom challenges in America today. Although faith is nurtured by church and family, we all come to God single-file, personally and individually, or not really, Dunn also said.

A pair of contemporary religious liberty issues arising out of Arkansas help demonstrates this connection.

First, in January of 2015, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Holt v. Hobbs. Gregory Holt is a Muslim prisoner in the Arkansas Department of Corrections, who claimed a religious objection to prison policies forbidding him from growing a beard as required by his faith.

Arkansas officials argued that the beard ban was necessary for reasons of safety and security, while Holt maintained the state failed to demonstrate how a ½-inch beard posed a legitimate threat.

Second, in April 2015, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law a bill authorizing the display of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state Capitol. The state will not pay for the monument, but it will, according to the law, arrange for its design and placement.

Opponents to such a display argue it amounts to an improper government endorsement of religion. State officials, however, believe the Decalogue, as a historically significant text, is rightfully placed among other monuments at the Capitol.

These two scenarios represent both contemporary church-state questions and centuries-old religious liberty dilemmas. How should we resolve a conflict between government regulation and an individual’s free exercise of religion? Should the state acknowledge the popular religious themes and ideals of its people?

Understanding the Baptist perspective on religious liberty and these fundamental questions requires a quick dive into Baptist history.

Baptists trace our North American heritage back to Roger Williams, an English preacher and all-around gadfly who brought his message of “soul freedom” to Colonial America in 1631, where he would demand separatism from the established church.

Williams believed authentic Christian faith to be impossible within a church tethered to the state. He advocated instead for a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”[2] That separation is necessary, he urged, for a person to truly express their God-given liberty of conscience.

According to Williams’ theology, the faithful must not be mediated by a government or even a church authority, but must be free to commune directly with God. The influence of the state is an act of interference that corrupts the favored church and cripples the disfavored.

The idea of “soul freedom,” as one might expect, did not sit well with the Puritan theocrats governing the Massachusetts Bay colony, which was Roger Williams’ new home. Ultimately exiled for his “dangerous opinions,”[3] Williams and a small band of devotees traveled to then-uncolonized Rhode Island and established the town of Providence to put his radical ideas into action.

Conceived as a “livlie experiment”[4] in religious freedom, Williams’ settlement was by most accounts the first government in history committed to completely separating citizenship from faith. Providence became a shelter for minority faiths, voices of dissent, and those “distressed of conscience.”[5] It was there, in 1638, that he founded North America’s first Baptist church. The First Baptist Church in America remains today a vibrant congregation, describing itself as “still a haven for the oppressed.”[6]

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, hundreds of Baptist churches sprouted across America. While most colonies supported in some fashion an established state religion, Baptists championed separation as the only government stance that would allow voluntary faith to flourish. So long as the state picks sides in matters of faith, Baptists warned, the claim to God-given, individual soul freedom is undermined.

That fundamentally Baptist perspective on religious liberty explains why Virginia Baptist preacher John Leland pressed James Madison so fiercely to secure a Bill of Rights that included a guarantee of religious freedom. It also explains why the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association, oppressed under the state’s established Congregational church, wrote to President Thomas Jefferson to encourage his continued support for rights of conscience.  (Jefferson famously replied in 1802 with a letter expressing his hope that the “wall of separation between church and state” built by the First Amendment’s religion clauses would be an idea that “might germinate and become rooted in . . . political tenets.”[7])

The central lessons regarding government neutrality toward religion passed down from America’s early Baptist churches are still relevant today and cherished by true Baptists.

First, the state must not promote a religious creed, tradition, or viewpoint. This principle is enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ”

Treating any faith as privileged or even advancing religion in general is a misuse of the public trust. On that point, early Baptists like Isaac Backus, fighting for disestablishment in Massachusetts in the late 18th century, vigorously opposed taxation to benefit the established church. But they opposed just as strongly the corrupting influence of government activity that might promote their own religious views. As John Leland proclaimed, “ . . . the fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than all the persecution ever did.”[8]

Second, the government must not interfere with religious exercise. This principle is written into the First Amendment by barring Congress (and more broadly the government) from “ . . . prohibiting the free exercise . . .” of religion. As soul freedom and soul competency before God are guiding tenets of Baptist theology, individuals must be allowed to express their faith according to the dictates of their conscience –

that is to say, freely, but always responsibly. Churches must likewise be granted autonomy to structure their worship, mission, and administration as they see fit.

For Baptists, however, the concern about state interference extended to all faiths. Experienced with religious persecution and marginalization as a small minority sect, early Baptists knew that if religious liberty of anyone is denied, the liberty of everyone is threatened.

Thus, both the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause work together to protect religious liberty. They address concerns that formed the foundation of Baptist churches. Continuing the Baptist tradition, then, means demanding that both religion clauses remain robust. True religious liberty, unhinged from government support or interference, promotes social harmony across religious divides and allows religion to flourish. Or, as the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty likes to say, “the separation of church and state is good for both.”

How does that Baptist tradition translate to the contentious church-state disputes of today?

For one, it means acknowledging the diverse religious perspectives that make up our country by insisting on religious liberty for all, recalling that Baptists know the sting of persecution all too well. Baptist heritage calls on us to advocate for the religious exercise of a Muslim mosque with a fervor equal to a Baptist church that is denied a building permit without sufficient basis. Likewise, the standards governing workplace religious discrimination law should be the same for employees who observe the Sabbath on Saturday as they are for those who worship on Sunday.

The Baptist Joint Committee (BJC) has advocated this historic Baptist view of church-state separation for 80 years in Washington, D.C. The BJC, which serves 15 Baptist bodies, was instrumental in creating key federal laws that protect all Americans’ free exercise rights, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which was the statute applied in the Holt case. Both laws stand for the proposition that the government may not pose a substantial burden to a person’s religious exercise unless the burden is necessary to achieve a compelling governmental interest.

In the case of Gregory Holt, the Muslim inmate in Arkansas who sought to grow a beard, Baptists were rightly on his side. In a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, the BJC argued the state must make more than just a cursory effort to justify its policies when a person’s religious exercise is burdened. The Court agreed, ruling unanimously that the state Department of Corrections violated Holt’s religious liberty rights under RLUIPA by refusing to allow him a ½-inch beard in accordance with his faith.

Through the BJC, Baptists continue to advocate strong free exercise principles for all Americans, not just fellow Baptists.

With respect to Establishment Clause disputes, including challenges to government-sponsored Ten Commandment monuments, the traditional Baptist view demands no less fidelity to the principle that the state should refrain from promoting religion.  That is true both for the sake of those who have different religious views and for the sake of the promoted religion itself. The government would do better by all of us to stay out of the business of posting religious displays on property owned by all of us, whether it is a Ten Commandments monument at the state Capitol, a Nativity scene at the county courthouse, or a large memorial cross in a public park.

As BJC General Counsel K. Hollyn Hollman once wrote,

Government-sponsored religious monuments are always constitutionally suspect and theologically questionable. Any rule that puts the government in the position of making religious decisions threatens the freedom of religion. Those who share the BJC perspective on religious liberty will continue to promote the Ten Commandments (and other scriptural mandates) in a way that the Bible encourages: by writing them on our hearts, as the prophet Jeremiah instructed.[9]

Unfortunately, the Establishment Clause has been weakened in recent years, jeopardizing the religious liberty of all of us. Government funding for faith-based religious schools (through vouchers) has been upheld as constitutional, as have government-led invocations opening official local government meetings.  The U.S. Supreme Court has also made it more difficult in some circumstances for taxpayers to challenge government funding of religion at all. From a traditional Baptist perspective, these are unwelcome holes in the wall of separation between church and state that has framed Baptist thought since Roger Williams.

Even worse, many religious liberty advocates, including some Baptists, have come to discount the value of a strong Establishment Clause and the “wall of separation” metaphor, which they claim has been used to marginalize religion by “pushing faith out of the public square.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Religion is as vibrant and robust as ever in America. What Baptists have urged since the 1630s remains true today: keeping government out of the religion business only enhances our freedom.

As for the Arkansas law authorizing a Ten Commandments monument on the state Capitol grounds, recent events surrounding a similar statute in Oklahoma might be instructive. The Legislature passed and the governor signed the bill into law in 2009, despite opposition from the BJC expressing the view stated earlier, that while we cherish Scripture, it does not belong on a state Capitol monument. Six years later, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the display violates the state’s constitution and ordered it removed.

Depending on the details surrounding such a display, courts may or may not find it lawful. Either way, Baptists should oppose government-sponsored or government-hosted religious monuments as a bad idea. It waters down and undermines the religious nature of the display, and it marginalizes those who follow a different faith or choose to follow none at all.

Since the founding of the first Baptist church in America nearly 400 years ago, Baptist heritage has emphasized the separation between church and state. Government neutrality in matters of faith – neither promoting nor interfering with religion – is the only way to assure authentic expression of our God-given soul freedom. Roger Williams’ “livlie experiment” works, if only we will strive to maintain it.


[1] www.bjconline.org/truth-with-the-bark-on-it-the-wit-and-wisdom-of-james-dunn.

[2] Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 207.

[3] LaFantasie, Glenn W., ed. The Correspondence of Roger Williams, University Press of New England, 1988, Vol. 1, pp.12-23.

[4] Evan Haefeli, “How Special Was Rhode Island? The Global Context of the 1663 Charter,” in The Lively Experiment: Religious Toleration in America from Roger Williams, Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda, eds. (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) 37-52.

[5] Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience, 207.

[6] www.firstbaptistchurchinamerica.org.

[7] Thomas Jefferson to Danbury Baptist Association, January 1, 1802.

[8] Edwin S. Gaustad, Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 107.

[9] Report From the Capital 60/7 (July/August 2005): 10.