A Letter to My Dear Baptist Ancestors

Thank you for your willing and unselfish sacrifice for my undeserved freedom of religion in America!

It seems to me that most Americans, including many Baptists, are either unaware or have forgotten the extraordinary role that Baptists played in securing religious liberty in America. Many Americans who are aware seek to minimize Christianity’s role in general and Baptist’s role in particular. Then there are those whose lack of acknowledgement and appreciation sometimes manifests itself in admonishments to pastors, particularly Baptist pastors, against speaking out or being involved in politics. Some of these chastisements come from Baptist pews and pulpits. Let me mention one historical example of Baptist influence.

Many Baptists who were persecuted[1]in New England for preaching the gospel were deeply concerned that the proposed Constitution did not go far enough to guarantee liberty of conscience in religious freedom. The approval of nine states was required to ratify the Constitution, and Rhode Island and Virginia were both refusing to sign because it did not guarantee liberty of conscience in religious freedom.

The Constitutional Convention was embracing the Virginian, James Madison’s version of the new Constitution. However, there were Baptists in various counties who did not trust Madison. They actually looked to the separatist Baptist preacher, John Leland, for leadership. He was a powerful Baptist preacher and leader who was highly esteemed and trusted by Virginians.

At the time, Baptists were siding more and more with Patrick Henry in an attempt to unseat Madison as the Virginia delegate to the convention. Madison also became aware that Leland and the people were growing hesitant of supporting him and the new Constitution.

Madison was a Federalist, and Henry was an Anti-Federalist. Henry was not in favor of Virginia’s secession from the Union,[2] but he did believe that the proposed new Constitution for the United States based upon “we the people” would produce a “consolidated” government rather than a confederation, which could only be based upon “we the states.”

In a speech delivered June 5, 1788 in the Virginia ratifying convention, Patrick Henry asked, “Is this a Monarchy, like England a compact between Prince and people?”[3] He referenced the Bill of Rights of Virginia in his arguments and then noted various rights that would be lost under a “consolidated” or national government of “we the people.”[4] The continual expansion of the national government seems to have vindicated his concern. Even though the Anti-Federalists lost, they did greatly influence the adoption of the “Bill of Rights” to the Constitution of the United States. Baptists played a significant role in that adoption.

Since Madison[5]feared losing the support of Baptists, he arranged a meeting with Mr. Leland during which Madison promised Leland that he would include a definite declaration for religious liberty and conscience in the new Constitution, which would guarantee religious liberty to all Americans. Subsequently Mr. Leland publicly endorsed James Madison.

Madison informed Pastor George Eve that the Constitution needed to address particularly rights of conscience. On January 27, 1789 Pastor Eve defended Madison during a public meeting at his church Blue Run Baptist Church.

Then, on December 15, 1791, under the direct leadership of James Madison and in large part[6]due to the extraordinary influence of John Leland and his Baptist supporters, the Bill of Rights was ratified. Thus Americans have known religious freedom that is unparalled in human history or the current world milieu.

Much of our heritage of religious freedom is the result of God working in and through His people. Will our descendants say the same about us?[7]

[1] This is chronicled in my book The Death of Man as Man: The Rise and Decline of Liberty(Bloomington, IN.: CrossBooks, 2011)Âand a sermon series entitled “Those Darn Baptists.”
[2] The Anti-Federalists: Selected Writings and Speeches, introduction by Bruce Frohnen (Washington, D.C., Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1999) 695-696.
[3] Anti-Federalists, 676.
[4] Anti-Federalists,676-737.
[5] Interestingly, Baptists supported Madison’s attempt in Virginia to defeat a 1784 bill sponsored by Henry for a general religious assessment. “Madison and his allies passed in January 1786 Thomas Jefferson’s famous Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which brought the debate in Virginia to a close by severing, once and for all, the links between government and religion.” http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel05.htmlaccessed 12/17/12.
[6] I would include the profound influence of all of Anti-Federalists as well.
[7] The basis for this can be found in Richard Land’sbook, The Divided States of America? What Liberals AND Conservatives are missing in the God-and-country shouting match! (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2007) 119-124 and my book The Death of Man as Man, primarily pages 38-40.

Ronnie W. Rogers