Mission & History
The BJC’s mission is to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, furthering the Baptist heritage that champions the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government.
Baptists have long valued religious freedom and separation of church and state because they often suffered the hard lessons of history. From jail cells in England to stockades in Massachusetts Bay to whipping posts in Virginia, early Baptists experienced firsthand the pain of persecution — the suffering inflicted by religious zealots armed with the coercive power of government.
John Smyth (1570-1612) was a seminal figure in the early Baptist movement in Europe. Smyth left the Church of England in 1606 and helped establish a new community of believers. In 1607-8, he moved the congregation to Amsterdam where they would enjoy freedom of religion. After repudiating infant Baptism, Smyth baptized himself and then the others in 1609. When he began to negotiate affiliation with a group of Mennonites, the congregation split, with some returning to England under the leadership of Thomas Helwys where they formed the first Baptist church. Helwys (1550-1615) authored a treatise on religious liberty, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612), and sent a copy to King James I. In his inscription, Helwys wrote: “The king is a mortal man and not God, and therefore hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them.” For his trouble, Helwys, along with his wife, Joan, was subsequently persecuted. He later died in Newgate Prison.
Baptists have Roger Williams (1603-1689) to thank for establishing the first Baptist church in North America. Often called the apostle of religious liberty, he came from England to Massachusetts Bay in 1631 preaching and teaching “soul freedom” — the notion that faith could not be dictated by any government authority, but must be nurtured freely and expressed directly to God. He advocated a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” The theocrats in Massachusetts expelled Williams from the colony. He trekked to what would become Rhode Island and founded the city he called “Providence,” because he judged that God’s providence had directed him there.
Obadiah Holmes (1607-1682), also banished from Massachusetts because of his Baptist beliefs, settled in Newport, Rhode Island, seeking religious freedom. In 1651, Holmes, along with John Clarke and John Crandall, traveled back to Massachusetts to visit an aged and blind friend. After taking communion in the friend’s home, they were arrested for engaging in unlawful worship. Holmes was convicted and sentenced to a fine or whipping. When he refused to pay the fine because of conscience, he was “well whipped” with 30 lashes. As his punishment was being administered, Holmes repeatedly told his tormentors, “It is as if you have struck me with roses.” After his release, Holmes returned to Newport and served as a pastor for 30 years.
Isaac Backus (1724-1806) was a Baptist freedom fighter, Massachusetts preacher, social activist and popular pamphleteer. Backus has been called “the most forceful and effective writer America produced on behalf of the pietistic or evangelical theory of the separation of church and state.” Backus believed that government should not tax its citizens to support the teaching of religion and that the government had no power or authority over the church. He represented the Warren Association of Baptists and lobbied the continental congress for religious liberty.
Virginia evangelist John Leland (1754-1841) boldly advocated religious liberty and the separation of church and state during the creation of the United States. The Baptist preacher played a pivotal role in convincing our nation’s Founders of the need for specific guarantees protecting religious freedom. Leland worked with the likes of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, and he never backed down on the way to the Bill of Rights. He later returned to his native Massachusetts where he continued to speak out in favor of religious liberty and against state-established religion.
For more from the BJC:
BJC’s Baptists and Religious Liberty resource page
Colonial Baptists’ Contributions to Religious Liberty
By J. Brent Walker
The False Divide: Religious Support for Separation of Church and State
Michael Meyerson’s presentation for the 2014 Shurden Lectures:
For further research:
Baptist History and Heritage Society
Virginia Baptist Historical Society’s Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies
“God in America” series from PBS
American Baptist Historical Society
American Baptists: A Brief History (From American Baptist Churches USA)
Seventh Day Baptist General Conference Historical Resources
Texas Baptist Historical Collection
National Baptist Convention USA Inc. History
National Baptist Convention of America History
Progressive National Baptist Convention History
Baptists and Religious Liberty by William M. Pinson Jr.