By Sarah Amick
2016 BJC Fellow

As a Virginian, I was aware of the colonial history of my state, and I knew of Colonial Williamsburg as a unique place where one could personally encounter the early revolutionary history of the United States of America. As a Baptist, however, I did not know that the history of my faith tradition and its impact on historical figures and founding documents could also be encountered here. As a BJC Fellow, I have learned so much about our nation’s beginnings, the need for religious freedom and how important it is to continue protecting and promoting that freedom. 

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin were all familiar to me, thanks to history lessons over the years. These historical figures and “founding framers” of our country are well-known by most Americans. But what about John Leland and Gowan Pamphlet? How many people have heard their names and know their stories? Thanks to the BJC Fellows Seminar, I had the wonderful experience of “meeting” John Leland and Gowan Pamphlet, as well as the famous Thomas Jefferson, through historical interpreters.

John Leland was a Baptist preacher who traveled to Virginia to work for religious freedom, not just for his fellow Baptists, but for people of all denominations and faiths. It was interesting to learn that John Leland actually interacted with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and he influenced the drafting of the First Amendment. Prior to preparing for the BJC Fellows Program, I had no idea just how severely Baptists and other “dissenting” minorities had been persecuted throughout the colonies. This new knowledge really helped me understand why the First Amendment was so necessary. Not only were John Leland and other Baptist leaders at the time working to secure religious freedom for all, but they were also abolitionists. It was incredibly moving to hear about Gowan Pamphlet, the only ordained black preacher in America in 1772, who was freed from slavery in 1793.  His story is one that all Americans and all Baptists should know and share.

Speaking of stories from history that all should know and share, Michael Meyerson’s book, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America, is filled with such stories. Meyerson even included the following quote from John Leland at the beginning of his book: “Truth is as essential to history as the soul is to the body.”  I learned so much from reading this book, and I was delighted to discover that Professor Meyerson was one of our speakers during the Seminar!  After reading all about his research and discoveries regarding religious freedom, it was exciting to be able to discuss these historical accounts and issues with him in person.  

One of my favorite stories from Meyerson’s book, which he also referenced in his Friday morning lecture during the Seminar, is about Benjamin Franklin designing what was essentially an interfaith center in Philadelphia. Meyerson writes, “[R]eflecting the inclusive view of religion held by both Whitefield and Franklin, the structure was made available without religious discrimination. According to Franklin, the property was ‘expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.’” I was surprised, yet pleased, to learn that Benjamin Franklin was being intentionally inclusive of not just all Christians, but of all religions. The colonial period was a time when Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, other minority Protestant denominations, and especially Catholics and Jews, faced horrible discrimination, and even death for their beliefs.

Brent Walker addressed the topic of Muslims as a minority during his lecture on Friday, in which he discussed current myths regarding the separation of church and state. One of the myths he debunked was that “Islam is at odds with American values and all Muslims hate all Americans.”  As an American Christian married to a Muslim, I know for a fact that this statement is false! Just as Baptists were mistreated during colonial times, Muslims and adherents to other minority faiths today are the target of many hateful words and actions. Walker’s lectures really helped me to better understand how the BJC has been addressing this issue and fulfilling its mission of “defending and extending religious liberty for all.”

As we discussed throughout the Seminar, it is very difficult to know exactly what may violate someone’s religious freedom, and it is important to be sensitive to that. It is crucial that we continue trying to find the commonalities among us all, even with our various differences of background or belief. One way of doing this is through simply getting to know each other as fellow humans, which is why I was excited to learn more about the “Know Your Neighbor” campaign. I’m incredibly thankful for the BJC Fellows Program, which has not only taught us the history of religious freedom in this country, but it also has encouraged and equipped us to share this knowledge with others! 

In Endowed by Our Creator, Meyerson writes, “The framing generation also reminds us that, especially during times of distrust and antagonism, religious acceptance is a fundamental American value. We can learn once more that it is ultimately our decision whether religion will be used to alienate and divide, or to inspire and unify our religiously diverse nation.” I was grateful to learn that George Washington and other founding leaders used deliberately inclusive, open, and respectful language. They knew how divisive religion could be and were intent on preventing that from happening. My intention as a BJC Fellow will be to continue to protect and promote religious freedom and diversity in order to include and unite us all.

Read other reflections from BJC Fellows and visit BJConline.org/Fellows for more on the program.