How Did Our Baptist Ancestors View Church and State?

July 6, 2016

Ronnie Rogers | Pastor
Trinity Baptist Church, Norman, OK

John Leland, a Baptist preacher, “emerged a leader among the Commonwealth’s Baptists. He was instrumental in allying the Baptists with Jefferson and Madison in the bitter Virginia struggle to disestablish the Anglican Church and to secure freedom for religious dissenters.”[i] According to L.H. Butterfield, Leland “was as courageous and resourceful a champion of the rights of conscience as America has produced.”[ii] Leland, who allied with the Baptists, supported Jefferson because of his commitment to “the rights of conscience.”[iii] This did not refer to separating religious beliefs from politics, but rather allowed one to believe according to his own conscience without government interference. For example, Leland celebrated Jefferson’s election from his pulpit.[iv] By conscience, they referred to the first table of the Ten Commandments as Roger Williams did. Conscience refers to ‘opinions’ so referred to by both Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists in their correspondence.

Generally, Baptists, dissenters, and Republicans were supporters of Jeffersonian Republicanism because of the emphasis of ‘religious freedom’ whereas the New England Congregationalists, establishment clergy, and Federalists were not because of their belief in a stronger relationship between state and church. In Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists he said, “believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”[v] (italics added)

Note that the wall protected the reality that a person’s faith and worship was between God and him alone. The wall protected man from having to give an account for his faith to the federal government. Baptists had fought alongside Jefferson for the disestablishment of the established church in Virginia. The First Amendment phrase ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’ was in that historical context.[vi]

That this is Jefferson’s emphasis is even clearer in his second inaugural address when he said, “In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the power of the General Government. I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it, but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of the church or state authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.[vii] (italics added)

Constitutional law authority Edward S. Corwin says of Jefferson’s statement, “In short, the principal importance of the amendment lay in separation which it effected between the jurisdiction of state and nation regarding religion, rather than on its bearing on the question of the separation of church and state.”[viii] Similarly, Daniel Dreisbach, Professor of Law, American University comments, “Jefferson’s ‘wall,’ strictly speaking, was a metaphoric construction of the First Amendment, which governed relations between religion and the national government. His ‘wall,’ therefore, did not specifically address relations between religion and state authorities.”[ix]

Dreisbach, further notes, “Jefferson’s ‘wall,’ like the First Amendment, affirmed the policy of federalism. This policy emphasized that all governmental authority over religious matters was allocated to the states. The metaphor’s principal function was to delineate the legitimate jurisdictions of state and nation on religious issues. Insofar as Jefferson’s ‘wall,’ like the First Amendment, was primarily jurisdictional (or structural) in nature, it offered little in the way of a substantive right or universal principle of religious liberty.”[x]

Further confirming Jefferson’s jurisdictional understanding, is the fact that he sent his letter to the Danbury Baptists on 1/1/1802, which was the same day that Baptist Pastor John Leland brought him the Cheshire cheese as a betokening of celebration of his election as president.[xi] Additionally, Leland accepted an invitation to preach in the House of Representatives 1/3/1802, which Jefferson attended, just two days after Jefferson used ‘wall of separation’ in his letter. [xii] Jefferson asked for prayer in his second inaugural address.[xiii] In addition, “so far as the extant evidence indicates, he never again used the ‘wall’ metaphor.”[xiv] Jefferson concluded the Danbury letter with prayer as an official presidential act, “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.”[xv]

Based upon Jefferson’s understanding of the First Amendment, he was disinclined to make public religious proclamations like his predecessors (although congruent with his view of state rights, he did do so as governor of Virginia), but he was not so disinclined to use religious language that was virtually indistinguishable from previous religious proclamations.



[i] Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State, (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 13.
[ii] L.H. Butterfield, “Elder John Leland, Jeffersonian Itinerant,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 62 (1952): 157, as quoted by Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 13.
[iii] Herbert M. Morais, “Life and Words of Elder John Leland” (M.A. thesis, Columbia University, 1928), 44-50 as quoted by Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 13.
[iv] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 10.
[v] Church and State in Your Community (Philadelphia: WestMinister Press, 1964), 22.
[vi] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 51-53. New England Baptists did not support Jefferson’s use of ‘wall of separation’ or his deism. No New England Baptists ever used the phrase.
[vii] Rus Walton ed., Biblical Principles concerning issues of importance to Godly Christians, (Plymouth, Mass.: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1984) 226.
[viii] Walton, Biblical Principles, 227.
[ix] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 50.
[x] Ibid., 69.
[xi] Ibid., 17.
[xii] Ibid., 21.
[xiii] Ibid., 174, note 11.
[xiv] Ibid., 54.
[xv] Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert E. Bergh, ed. (Washington, D. C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, 1904), Vol. XVI, 281-282.

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Robert Vaughn

The religious liberty position of Roger Williams and later Baptists differentiated between “the first table of the law” (a man’s relationship to God) and “the second table of the law” (a man’s relationship to other men). When we look at Williams’s approach, we can see it is conceived in a Judeo-Christian ethic or worldview. Ronnie, do you think the breakdown of the Judeo-Christian ethic in the USA affects our ability to govern according to “the second table of the law”? Where we as a people once had a substantial agreement about the nature of man’s relationship with other men, we now find the scrapping of the Judeo-Christian framework by hedonists, atheists, and such like. We may not be troubled by laws that govern man’s relationship to man in areas such as human sacrifice or polygamy, which affects some people’s practice of their religion. But many conservative Christians (such as myself) are deeply troubled by laws (or interpretations thereof) that require Christian bakers to bake cakes for homosexual weddings. To me, this affects one’s practice of religion. But perhaps the liberals simply see themselves as governing the area of man’s relationship to man under their new views, like the older settled views most of us agreed on. (Hope that makes sense.) If they say “conscience refers to ‘opinions’,” then they might argue we are free to have our opinions, just not practice them (as someone might be free to believe in human sacrifice, but not to practice it). What do you think? Thanks.

    Ronnie W Rogers

    Hello Robert

    You said, “Ronnie, do you think the breakdown of the Judeo-Christian ethic in the USA affects our ability to govern according to “the second table of the law”’?

    I agree. Williams and the Baptists comments etc. must be understood within the context of the Christian world-view that prevailed at the time. Without a proper understanding of God and man (Christian perspective as referenced in the Declaration of Independence) modern man looks to science (scientism with its inherent agnosticism and relativism) as the sufficient guide. I believe liberals, progressives have little or no interests in our actual history or founding documents.

    You said, “But many conservative Christians (such as myself) are deeply troubled by laws (or interpretations thereof) that require Christian bakers to bake cakes for homosexual weddings. To me, this affects one’s practice of religion.”

    I am profoundly troubled as well. Progressives are dedicated to restricting the first amendment to encompass freedom of worship rather than freedom to practice ones religion, and to absolutely ignore its prohibition of involvement in such matters by the Federal Government—“Congress shall make no laws”. The latter protects the bakers and the former does not. President Obama and Secretary Clinton both use the phrase “freedom of Worship” rather than “Freedom of Religion.” The former phrase appears in Homeland Security documents which are used for people coming into this country legally. Oklahoma Senator James Lankford is addressing this.

    You said, “If they say “conscience refers to ‘opinions’,” then they might argue we are free to have our opinions, just not practice them (as someone might be free to believe in human sacrifice, but not to practice it).”

    They are surely trying and without a populace that knows our history, they may continue to succeed in their unabashed disregard for our founding documents and history.

    Thanks for your comments, and have a blessed day.

      Robert Vaughn

      And though they speak of “freedom of worship” there are attempts to restrict that as well. By increments, but working nonetheless. In A Public Accommodations Provider’s Guide to Iowa Law “Iowa Law…Effective July 1, 2007, the Iowa Civil Rights Act (Iowa Code Chapter 216)” is explained as “expanded to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes.” In this code the state of Iowa asserts itself into the topic of religious gatherings (not saying they have enforced it yet), allowing itself to determine what is a “bona fide” religious purpose. Explaining whether churches must follow the code on gender discrimination and such like, they write, “Where qualifications are not related to a bona fide religious purpose, churches are still subject to the law’s provisions. (e.g. a child care facility operated at a church or a church service open to the public).” [emphasis mine]

      Robert Vaughn

      “a church service open to the public” was supposed to be underlined, but didn’t come out that way. That was what I wanted to emphasize. To me it looks someone in Iowa has gotten this in place for when they want to go after church services in the future. Everyone knows that most all church services are “open to the public” in that they are freely invited to attend.

        Ronnie W Rogers

        Hello Robert
        Quite alarming! I think their quest for control of everything religious is insatiable. Unless God intervenes, Christians wake-up, the future does not bode well for Christians.

        Thanks for your comments and insights.

        Jim Poulos

        Bottom line is the greatest and most fearful war is the war within. If that war is won even crucifixion will cannot overcome God’s power of resurrection. Someone was a good example of that power.

        If God’s people live the resurrected life the world will have to submit someday. If the world wins the hearts of God’s people God’s people will let the world win.

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