Baptists: Champions of Liberty// American history that schools won’t teach you

As most of you I’m sure have come to realize, I am proudly Baptist and American. I make no efforts to hide it. This comes as a terrible shock to most of you, I know. 😉

But why does the name Baptist mean so much to me? Why will I most gladly be labeled as a Baptist patriot? And what does that have to do with America and liberty?

Over the course of time, from the very first Baptist church in the times of Christ all the way to modern day, Baptists have been set apart as champions of liberty. In the dark ages when the Protestant reformers and Catholics were persecuting those who believed differently than them, Baptists were standing firmly on the belief that every human being is granted freedom by Almighty God.

Though the Reformers were begging the Catholic Church to be granted the freedom to believe as they saw fit, they were slaughtering Baptists for doing the same. Time is filled with examples of Baptists who stood again and again for liberty, and I am going to be presenting some of those to you in the future.

Liberty and separation of church and state has always been one of the Baptists’ most strongly held beliefs. This didn’t change once the foundations of the American colonies were laid. Prior to our War for Independence, the American colonies were struggling with some of the same problems that Europe had for centuries before.

Most people think of the Pilgrims and Puritans when they think about the people who first came to America for religious liberty. This is only partially correct. They were only two of many various people groups who came to America with a vision for freedom. Some came for freedom to start a new life, unhindered by their pasts in the Old World. Some came for adventure. Still others came to flee the bloody persecutions that had been sweeping through Europe.

Yet within the flood of immigrants coming to America’s shores, a steady trickle of Baptists were also coming. For too many years they had suffered at the hands of men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldriech Zwingli. The promise of freedom in the New World caused them to come. They would never have been allowed to come in a large group like the Puritans, so instead they came in small groups. It has been said that there were most likely Baptists on every ship that came to America in her early days.

Soon Baptists composed a large portion of the religious groups scattered throughout the colonies. The problem they faced though was that religious liberty was not being given to them. The Pilgrims granted some liberty to the Baptists, however the Puritans who came did not believe in complete liberty. They only desired liberty for themselves, and once they received it, they denied it to those who disagreed with them.

State churches began to be established that prohibited Baptists from worshiping the way the Bible commanded, or preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the southern colonies, the Church of England held an iron grip. Presbyterianism and Congregationalism ruled in the others.

Laws were passed with the intent to prevent any religious group, other than the state recognized one, from being able to worship freely. Remember, these were the groups of people who originally came to America because of the bloody persecution that they themselves had experienced in Europe and around the world. Yet still no freedom was found for the Baptists.

In Massachusetts, one of these laws said,

“It is ordered and agreed, that if any person or persons, within this jurisdiction, shall either openly condemn or oppose the baptizing of infants, or go about secretly to seduce others from the approbation or use thereof, or shall purposely depart the congregation at the ministration of the ordinance…after due time and means of conviction…every such person or persons shall be sentenced to banishment.”

Among the dissenters who were banished from the colony due to this law were many Baptists. Springing from this persecution, the idea of a free colony was born. Roger Williams and John Clarke, two of the men banished by the Massachusetts government for their beliefs, traveled to England to secure permission from the Crown to establish a colony based on freedom for everyone. For twelve long years, the Baptists pleaded with the Crown to allow them to worship freely in their own colony. And for twelve long years, they were denied.

Finally in 1663, Rhode Island became a legal colony, and the Baptists established the first place granting freedom to all. It was unheard of at that point for there to be a place on earth where you could worship in freedom and sincerity, without fearing the brutal punishments that had been so prevalent up to and during this time.

Out of the original thirteen colonies founded in the early days of America, only one of them was built upon complete freedom—Rhode Island.

The Baptists were the ones who brought it to pass. They were the original champions of liberty.

Severe persecution continued its bloody deluge in the other parts of America. It would still be another century before the idea of complete freedom would spread to the other colonies.

Tyranny held a strong grip. Baptists experienced harsh punishments for their beliefs. Their preachers were jailed and beaten. Their members were harassed and unjustly fined for crimes they did not commit. In Virginia alone, records show some of the type of punishments given to those who bore the name Baptist. They were:

“jerked off stage—head beaten against ground”

               “ducked and nearly drowned by 20 men”

               ” jailed for permitting a man to pray”

               “meeting broken up by a mob”

               “arrested as a vagabond and schismatic”

               “pulled down and hauled about by hair”

               “tried to suffocate him with smoke”

               “tried to blow him up with gun powder”

               “drunken rowdies put in same cell with him”

               “horses ridden over his hearers at jail”

               “dragged off stage, kicked, and cuffed about”

               “shot with a shot-gun”

               ” ruffians armed with bludgeons beat him”

               “severely beaten with a whip”

               “whipped severely by the Sheriff”

               “commanded to take a dram (of whiskey), or be whipped”

               “hands slashed while preaching”

In some cases, Baptist church meetings were broken up by the authorities and all of the members were forced to watch their preacher be severely whipped in front of them for daring to preach the counsel of God.

On a side note, it’s interesting that one of the punishments received by a Baptist was choosing between drinking whiskey or being whipped. Many would say, “Just drink the alcohol! Why would you choose to be whipped when you could simply drink a little whiskey and be done with it? God will understand.”

It’s obvious that the authorities knew the Baptists would not drink the alcohol because of their belief in the Bible, and thus would end up being condemned to be whipped. To me, that shows that these Baptists had integrity and held strongly to God’s Word, even if it meant unjust punishments.

As the eve of the War for Independence began to form, America’s colonists were becoming thirsty for the sweet taste of freedom. Even some who were non-baptists were growing tired of watching Baptist blood be spilled for exercising their God-given freedom. Men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson saw the terrible wrongs being committed against Baptists, and the spark of freedom was ignited.

In 1774, James Madison said in a letter to a friend,

“That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some. . . . There are at this time in the adjacent county not less than five or six well-meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which in the main are very orthodox. . . . So I must beg you to . . . pray for liberty of conscience for all.”

Meanwhile in Northampton, Massachusetts, around the same time that Madison wrote this from Virginia, eighteen Baptists sat in prison. Their only crime being, refusing to pay taxes to support the established “church” that went against God and their beliefs.

Hope must have seemed so dark at this point in time. How could liberty ever gain a foothold while being chained down by the unjust laws of tyranny? But in spite of the persecution, Baptists continued to hold to their beliefs, and the dam of freedom was about to be blown wide open. America was about to experience the bloody cost that freedom always brings.

Baptists were among the very first—in fact I would go so far as to say they were the first—to take up arms in the War for Independence and fight for the rights granted to all men by our Creator God. In fact, interestingly enough, Rhode Island (a colony founded by and predominately composed of Baptists) declared itself free from England and King George III on May 4, 1776—an entire two months prior to the Declaration of Independence being adopted. This proved that, once again, Baptists were leading the fight for liberty.

Baptists supported the cause of freedom and liberty so much that there is record of only one Baptist in America siding with the British. Even in England itself during the war, the British Baptists supported and sided with America. The principle of freedom and liberty meant more to them than maintaining control of the colonies.

A Baptist pastor in London said of the war and the Patriot cause,

“I believe all of our Baptist ministers in town, except two, and most of our brethren in the country, were on the side of the Americans in the late dispute…We wept when the thirsty plains drank the blood of our departed heroes (the American Patriots), and the shout of a king was among us when your well fought battles were crowned with victory; and to this hour, we believe that the independence of America will, for a while, secure the liberty of this country, but if that continent had been reduced, Britain would not have long been free.”

John Rippon

Why do I bear proudly my Baptist heritage? Why am I unashamed to call myself a Baptist and American?

This article is why—and it is only barely scratching the surface of Baptist history, persecution, and freedom fighting in America. Liberty is worth fighting for. Baptist heritage is one of unparalleled valor and courage in the fight for liberty. That’s something to be proud of.

In future posts we are going to dive farther into these various aspects and topics. Consider this just wetting your appetite for future posts.

Did you enjoy this post? Let me know in the comments!

A. M. Watson

Hebrews 13:8

Sources Cited:

Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia by Lewis Peyton Little

The Faithful Baptist Witness by Dr. Phil Stringer

The Trail of Blood by Dr. J. M. Carrol

America in Crimson Red by James R. Beller

When America Put Pastors in Prison

James Madison’s letters

6 thoughts on “Baptists: Champions of Liberty// American history that schools won’t teach you

  1. So much truth here. People today are not being taught true history, and so many churches don’t want to affiliate themselves with a “name”, but there is so much in a “name”. It is wonderful to see you proudly claim your spiritual heritage and stand by it. So many Baptists gave so much for our freedom and Biblical truth. Thank you for this post.


  2. Pingback: Rhode Island Independence Day | Seeking The Timeless Anchor

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