BAPTISTS AND THE FEDERAL BILL OF RIGHTS

Released: Monday, April 09, 2018

From time to time, I want to relate some historical perspective on Baptists influencing government. Only by staying conspicuously involved in government can we expect to see a government “of the people.” For this reason, VAIB continues to be your voice for Christian liberties.

Eddy Aliff, Executive Director VAIB

The following was written by E. Wayne Thompson, noted historian on religion and Baptist preacher from Virginia. I am thankful for Dr. Thompson’s diligence in researching and compiling this and other stories related to Baptist heritage. Taken from the book, This Day in Baptist History (volume 1, published 1993), the article was for September 25 and entitled “Baptists and the Federal Bill of Rights.”

The final drafts of the twelve amendments (out of the many that had been suggested by James Madison and others) were passed by Congress on September 25, 1789, after only seven or eight days of debate, and were presented to the states for approval. This action fulfilled the promise of Madison to John Leland and the Baptists when, as a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention and later as a candidate from Orange County for the House of Representatives in the Congress of the United States , Madison solicited their support.

All this began with the influence of the Baptists upon Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other leading statesmen in Vir­ginia. The Baptists had been consistent in their convictions relating to liberty of conscience for many years. Their convictions were demon­strated by their willingness to suffer physical abuse and imprisonment. These convictions caused them to petition the Virginia legislature on many occasions.

Some years before when a committee was appointed by the Virginia legislature to write a Declaration of Rights, George Mason presented the articles, of which the 16th had the phrase "that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.'' Madison raised an objection to the term toleration and offered the substitute "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.'' Toleration, Madison maintained, belonged to a system where there was an established church and where liberty was a thing granted, not of right, but of grace. He feared the power in the hands of a dominant religion to construe what ''may disturb the peace, the happiness, or the safety of society," and he ventured to propose the substitute which was finally adopted. It marks an era in legislative history and is believed to be the first provision ever embodied in any constitution or law for the security of absolute equality before the law to all religious opinions.

Where did Madison learn the distinction between religious freedom and religious toleration? Surely it was from observing his Baptist neigh­bors who persistently taught that the civil magistrates had nothing to do with matters of religion and as a result had experienced persecutions. Jeremiah Walker, John Williams, and George Roberts were appointed by the Baptists to represent their views on such important occasions :J ..J. before the legislature and were doubtless on hand.2

It was John Leland, James Madison's near neighbor with whom Madison counseled on more than one occasion, who wrote, "Govern­ment should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for, is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence.''

After a long, bitter struggle, religious freedom had triumphed in Virginia. The words of Virginia's Declaration of Rights were incorporated into the Federal Bill of Rights and began with ''Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Thank God for the humble Baptists of Virginia who, after the century-old tradition of their forefathers, were faithful to the Baptist principle of separation of church and state. May we protect this liberty for our posterity.