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Baptists in the history of separation of church and state

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Historical Background
Christianity  · Anabaptists
General · Strict · Reformed

Doctrinal distinctives
Sola scriptura
Priesthood of all believers
Individual soul liberty
Separation of church and state

Pivotal figures
John Smyth · Thomas Helwys · Roger Williams · John Bunyan · Shubal Stearns · Andrew Fuller · Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Baptist Associations and Conventions

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Separation of church and state is one of the primary theological distinctions of the Baptist tradition.


Originally, Baptists supported separation of church and state in England and America and some Baptists still do. Some important Baptist figures in the struggle were John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Edward Wightman, Leonard Busher, Roger Williams (who was a Baptist for a short period but became a "Seeker"), John Clarke, Isaac Backus, and John Leland.

In modern day United Kingdom, of the four constituent countries, only England still has a state faith. The Church of England is officially endorsed by the state. Although an established church, it does not receive any direct government support. The British monarch (at present, Elizabeth II), has the constitutional title of "Supreme Governor of the Church of England."

In the U.S. today, a significant group of Baptists, as well as some other Protestants, believe the United States was formed as a Christian nation by the Founding Fathers. They assert that the term "separation of church and state" in no way limits religion in the state, but merely refers to the state's responsibility to refrain from exerting authority over ecclesial bodies. David A. Noebel, J.F. Baldwin and Kevin Bywater, in their book Clergy in the Classroom: The Religion of Secular Humanism view the state as giving support to secular humanism, as "de facto the established religion of our land," particularly in government-run public schools.[1] Dr. James C. Dobson, President of Focus on the Family, asserts that American culture has shifted from "its Christian underpinnings" toward secular humanism (among other religious and philosophical viewpoints).[2] Also, Francis A. Schaeffer calls for Christians to "let go of fear and a false concept of spirituality to stand against the tyranny and moral chaos that has resulted from the cultural shift away from Judeo‐Christian thought to secular humanism."[3] Some argue in favor of organized Christian prayer and Bible reading in the public schools during regular school hours, which federal courts have generally restricted to voluntary groups outside the purview of state-supported educators acting in their professional roles.

However, many Baptists in the United States still believe in the wall of separation and support maintaining it. For example, fourteen Baptist organizations, representing collectively over 10 million Baptists in America, collaborate with one another to protect religious liberty and the separation of church and state through their funding of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Freedom of conscience is a historic Baptist distinctive, and many Baptists continue to believe the best course for obtaining and securing freedom of conscience is through the separation of church and state.

English Baptists

In 1612 John Smyth wrote, "the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience". That same year, Thomas Helwys wrote that the King of England could "command what of man he will, and wee are to obey it," but, concerning the church -- "with this Kingdom, our lord the King hath nothing to do." In 1614, Leonard Busher wrote what is believed to be the earliest Baptist treatise dealing exclusively with the subject of religious liberty.[4]

American Baptists

The Danbury Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut sent a letter, dated October 7, 1801, to the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson, expressing concern over the lack in their state constitution of explicit protection of religious liberty, and against a government establishment of religion.

In their letter to the President, the Danbury Baptists affirmed that "Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty — That Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals — That no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinions - That the legitimate Power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor..."[5]

As a religious minority in Connecticut, the Danbury Baptists were concerned that a religious majority might "reproach their chief Magistrate... because he will not, dare not assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ," thus establishing a state religion at the cost of the liberties of religious minorities.

Wall of separation

Thomas Jefferson's response, dated January 1, 1802, concurs with the Danbury Baptists' views on religious liberty, and the accompanying separation of civil government from concerns of religious doctrine and practice. Jefferson writes: "...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 & State." [6]

See also


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