God and Graduation, Part 2

church state

In my last post, I asked you to weigh in, to think about, to express your thoughts on a Public School Superintendent’s religious references and appeals in his High School commencement address.

I get both sides of the issue.  Here’s why.

Fall, 1978, my first semester at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Ft. Worth, Texas, at that time, the world’s largest seminary.    The Moral Majority would start in 1979.  The Southern Baptist Convention was embroiled in a battle between fundamentalist and moderates.

It was a raucous time.  The battle lines were drawn.  The banners were waving. In my hand was the Fundamentalist’s banner.  I had sided with the Moral Majority.  I had celebrated the marriage between the Religious Right and the Republican Party and was all about “Putting God back in our public schools!”

Then, I took an ethics course at Seminary, taught by Dr. Tillman. The topic on this day was all things church and state, the wall of separation, “Christian America,” etc.   Dr. Tillman presented a view that was new to me.  His view challenged me. Unsettled me.  Dr. Tillman invited debate.  I debated.

At the end of the class, he made this appeal, “Phillip, someday, I hope you will actually become a Baptist.”  I couldn’t miss that message!

There was no anger in his voice.

No judgment.

There was just a kind of sadness.

The message was that, somehow, I, a Southern Baptist seminary student,

-born and raised in a Southern Baptist family;

-immersed in Southern Baptist Sunday School, Training Union, Sunbeams, Youth Group,

-a 4th generation Southern Baptist pastor-in-training;

-a recipient of an undergraduate degree from a Southern Baptist college…

Yes, I was, by holding this view on this issue, not a Baptist.

What?  Not a  Baptist?

His statement stuck.  “If I’m not a Baptist, what am I? What is he, besides a liberal!! What is a Baptist?” Time to research.  Here’s what I found:

Religious Liberty is really a big deal to Baptists.

John Locke (1632 -1704), a major influence on our Founding Fathers,  once wrote, “The Baptists were the first propounders of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty.”

Seventeenth century England was a theocracy led by James 1 (Yep, the King James Bible guy).

James was all about forced uniformity. “Church and state together forever!”  He was horrified by the thought of liberty of conscience.  He couldn’t imagine a society built on the freedom to choose one’s faith.

It was during the reign of James that a little group led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, pioneers of the Baptist movement, left England to find religious freedom in Holland. John Smyth was the first Baptist on the planet to insist on religious liberty and the separation of church and state, with these words, “the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion or doctrine, …”

Helwys came back to England, and I guess, couldn’t avoid a good fight, because he wrote these words concerning the Roman Catholics, “…our lord the King hath no more power over their consciences than ours, and that is none at all…For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves; the King shall not answer for it; neither may the King be judge between God and man.  Let them be heretics, Turks (Muslims), Jews or whatsoever…”

Helwys was sent to prison for his views and there he died.

It was during the reign of James’ successor, Charles, that those looking for religious freedom swarmed to New England. But in the ultimate irony, the Puritans who came to the shores of America to escape religious persecution, turned around and persecuted those who didn’t share their religion.

“Religious liberty for me but not for thee!” could have been their motto.

Then came Roger Williams, whom biographer, John M. Barry calls, “America’s first rebel.”   Williams arrived in Massachusetts to pastor the church in Salem. The Governor of Massachusetts was John Winthrop.  Winthrop, in a sermon, had used the phrase, “city upon a hill”, which has been quoted ever since.

Winthrop’s vision for America was for it to be a Christian nation.

William’s vision for America was for it be a place of freedom -“soul liberty” he called it.

Those two philosophies go together like nuts and gum.

The Puritans, led by folks like Winthrop, believed there was only one true religion – theirs.

Their religion was the only “pure” religion – hence the name: Puritans.  They moved further, insisting that it was the duty of the government and civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary.

People of other religions, dissenters, nonconformists would be punished, even executed.

The “persecuted” became the “persecutors.”

One of the dissenters they persecuted was Roger Williams.  Welcomed to Massachusetts, at first with open arms, it wasn’t long until those open arms turned to closed fists, pushing Williams out of the church, the city, the state.

Williams said things like:

“Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”

“All religious sects have the right to claim equal protection from the laws, and that the civil magistrates have no right to restrain the consciences of men or to interfere with their modes of worship and religious belief.? 

That kind of talk could get you fired, banished, or killed.  When Williams was banished, he didn’t just start a new church, he started a new town in a new state – Providence, Rhode Island.  The church he started?  The First Baptist Church, of Providence.

First Baptist was not just a name –  It was actually the first Baptist church, and not just in Providence, but in all of the colonies.

According to author John M. Barry, Roger Williams created the first government in world history in which there was a clear separation of church and state: Providence.

Now, this blew me away:  The founding documents for every other colony in the Americas, whether Spanish, French, Portuguese or English, all said the purpose of this colony was to advance the Christian religion.

But not Roger Williams.  In his first draft, he asked for God’s blessing.  Then he decided he would not even do that!  He wrote plenty of letters and books in which spoke freely of God and Scripture, so for him to not even include a request for God’s blessing is an incredible statement of his view that government should be entirely secular.

Roger Williams, the first Baptist pastor of the first Baptist church in the colonies of the New World.

Oh, you know that “wall of separation” phrase?

Revered by some and despised by others.

Yes, Thomas Jefferson, made it famous.

But, it originated with that Baptist pastor, dissident, “Amerca’s first rebel,”  Roger Williams.

Thank you Dr. Tillman for opening my eyes.  My mind.

…for your kindness.

…for your challenge.

I wonder how Baptists, myself included, drifted so far from these roots.

I wonder what Roger Williams would say about the Graduation Ceremony?

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