As Baptists, we claim a long legacy of women and men who have risked their lives to advocate bravely for religious liberty for all.

BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty) continues this legacy of defending the right of everyone to choose a faith journey free from government coercion or penalty, while leading honest and open conversations about our past failings and how we can forge a more inclusive future.

The Founder

In 1612, Thomas Helwys, one of the founders of the Baptist movement, published the first treatise in the English language calling for religious freedom, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity. “For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it,” he wrote. “Let them be heretics, Turks [Muslims], Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” It was a dangerous view under the rule of King James I; Helwys was sent to Newgate Prison for his advocacy of religious tolerance. He died there in 1616.

The Rebel

By the time Dorothy Hazzard walked out of her own husband’s sermon in 1640, vowing never to hear him preach again, she was known in Bristol, England, for her radical, separatist ways. She defied the Church of England in keeping her grocery shop open on Christmas (she didn’t believe in celebrating feast days) and helped found what would become the Broadmead Baptist Church in her home. She also opened her doors to pregnant women who wanted to deliver their babies without going through the “churching” (purification) ceremony required by state religion.

The Pioneer

In 1631, Roger Williams arrived in the Massachusetts Bay colony, having left England to escape religious persecution, but he encountered it on these shores, too. Preaching “soul freedom,” the notion that faith could not be dictated by any government authority, he was banished from the colony for heresy. He went on to establish the colony of Rhode Island, setting up its government as a “lively experiment” to protect “liberty of conscience.” He also helped create the first Baptist congregation in colonial America in 1638, and he was the visionary who introduced the language of a “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

The Persecuted

Early America was not a land of freedom. Beginning in 1619, millions of enslaved Africans and their descendants lost not only their personal liberty but also their religious liberty. The men, women and children brought to these shores in slave ships came with their own religions — mostly indigenous African religions or Islam. Their humanity and religious freedom were violently denied through family separation and restrictions against gatherings and speaking in their native languages. In the 17th and 18th centuries, religious leaders such as Obadiah Holmes, Esther White, Martha Kimball, John Waller, James Ireland and John Clarke were whipped, fined or jailed for their Baptist beliefs. James Madison and other founders of this country were moved by these persecutions to protect religious freedom for the new country, while ignoring the much greater injustices that they were themselves perpetrating.

The Lobbyist

Massachusetts-born Baptist minister John Leland spent most of his ministry preaching in Virginia, where he became an ally to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Leland’s leadership helped galvanize Baptist petitions in support of Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Leland was also a key player in convincing Madison to include the guarantee of religious liberty in the Bill of Rights, the 10 amendments that were added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791. “Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics,” Leland argued. “Let every man … worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing.” After helping lead the charge for the separation of church and state in Virginia, Leland fought to do away with official state religions in Connecticut and Massachusetts. It is important to acknowledge, however, that his advocacy for freedom exhibited inconsistencies later in life. While Leland spoke out strongly against slavery during his time in Virginia and for the majority of his ministry, he became increasingly silent on the issue in later years and expressed more accommodationist views of it shortly before his death in 1841.

The Organizer

Since the days of slavery, African-Americans have fought to worship God freely: first in secret and then through small plantation churches under the master’s watch. Preacher Gowan Pamphlet began his ministry as an enslaved person in Williamsburg, Virginia, in the 1770s. Pamphlet bravely evangelized at a time when slave religion, often associated with rebellion, was violently quashed by those in power. Despite threats and attacks, Pamphlet persevered, and grew his congregation to around 500 people. When he was set free in 1793, he applied for, and was received into, membership of the Dover Baptist Association. He pastored the only Baptist church in Williamsburg until his death in 1807. The church continues to this day as the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg.


The Abolitionist

The struggle of Baptists for religious liberty has always been deeply connected to the fight for freedom and justice in America. One activist, Maria W. Stewart, was born to free black parents in Connecticut and, after being orphaned at age five, grew up as an indentured servant. But she taught herself to read and write and did something unthinkable for a woman of her time, especially for a black woman: She delivered public speeches. Stewart spoke about religion, women’s rights, abolition and prejudice. “Had we as people received one half the early advantages the whites have received,” she told one audience, “I would defy the government of these United States to deprive us any longer of our rights.”

The Leader of the Movement

Baptist preacher and Nobel Prize laureate Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed that religious liberty was crucial to enabling the civil rights movement. “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state,” he said in Strength to Love. King paid dearly for this activism: he was arrested more than 20 times, his home was bombed, and he was assassinated at only 39 years old. But his words have not been silenced. In his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., King declared to the 25,000 marchers that he envisioned the “day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

The Firebrand Activist

Pastor, campus minister, college and seminary professor, and leader of the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, James M. Dunn became the fourth executive director of the BJC in 1981. Known for his stalwart defense of religious liberty, colorful turns of phrase and ubiquitous bow tie, Dunn consistently fought for a strong application of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause while shepherding the organization through a tumultuous time in Baptist denominational history.