Celebrate the New Year with Cheese

Cheese 2019

Black-eyed peas, greens, cornbread, pork, pomegranates, noodles, cakes  are considered some of the lucky foods to eat for New Years. Mmmm Good!

The Wrights are adding a big block of cheese to our menu today…
It’s not just because I’m a cheesehead -not the NFL Packers kind – just a lover of cheese (goat cheese), but because of an event that happened on New Year’s Day 1802.  

January 1, 1802, Baptists of Cheshire, Massachusetts, sent a giant block of cheese to President Thomas Jefferson.  The big cheese (a 1,200 pound cheese wheel) was delivered by the Baptist pastor, John Leland to the President as an expression of “thanks” for his stand on religious liberty for all – even for the irreligious and non-religious.  

“Religious Liberty” meant something different to them then than it does to many in the U.S. now.  It seems to me that some today define religious liberty as “freedom to impose my religion on everybody.” It seems that some religions are “more equal” than others.

Baptists in the days of Jefferson and Leland would not recognize many Baptists and other evangelicals today in regard to their views on religious liberty.

In the days of Jefferson and Leland, Baptists were among the discriminated class.  In many communities, being Baptist or anything other than the state-approved religion, was grounds for persecution and imprisonment.  Yes, the Puritans had sailed to these shores seeking freedom of religion, but freedom of their religion only.  

Do we have some Puritans hanging around today?  

Are Evangelicals today, the discriminating class?  

As Francis L. Hawks wrote in Ecclesiastical History, 1836: “No dissenters in Virginia experienced for a time harsher treatment than Baptists.  They were beaten and imprisoned, and cruelty taxed ingenuity to devise new modes of punishment and annoyance.”  

Baptist John Leland, who pastored in both Massachusetts and Virginia demanded not just toleration, but equality.  

Are we demanding equality for all religions? Shouldn’t we be? 

Back to the cheese:

*Pastor Leland enlisted the ladies of his Baptist congregation to concoct the giant cheese. 

*Leland, a passionate abolitionist, also carefully made sure no slaves were used to make the cheese.

*Jefferson’s policy to refuse gifts while in office led him on January 4, 1802, to pay Leland $200 for the cheese.  (about $5000.00 in today’s dollars!  Wow.  That’s a lot of cheese and money!)

One other thing from that New Year’s Day, January 1, 1802.  

Jefferson wrote a letter that day.  From that letter we get the phrase, “wall of separation between church and state.”  The letter was addressed to a different group of New England Baptists.  Baptists from Danbury, Connecticut were concerned that their religious liberty was at risk because of a government that sanctioned one religion over another.  Their religion was not the sanctioned religion. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

 Baptists were the minority, the outcasts, the heretics.  

So it was party time for the Baptists when  Jefferson, an outspoken proponent of absolute religious liberty for all, was elected President.  Danbury Baptists wrote a letter to the President expressing their delight in his election and hope for his assistance in disestablishing Connecticut’s official religion. 

Jefferson composed his reply to their letter on the day he received the cheese from Baptist pastor John Leland.  I wonder it the “religious freedom cheese” reminded him, “Oh, I forgot to respond to the Danbury Baptists!”

Anyway, in this letter, Jefferson stated:

“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 and State (emphasis mine).” 

I love that wall.  

I appreciate that wall. 

Without that wall it could be my religious views that are considered heretical and illegal.

Think about this history when you see government sponsored religious displays – whether it is a cross in a public park, or religious slogans on government property.  

Ask ourselves the questions: 

Have the persecuted become the persecuting?  

Why have I turned God into the God of my tribe?

 On this New Year’s Day, I will enjoy a chunk of cheese with my black-eyed peas  and contemplate these words from Catholic Mystic, Nicolas of Cusa, “God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

I worship a God who is inclusive enough for all and appreciate a country established on the principle of liberty for all.

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“Soul Freedom”

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Happy 4th of July.  Happy Birthday USA.  We live in the land of the free because this was the home of some very brave people.  One of these brave individuals is Roger Williams.  I grew up in a Baptist home, went to and pastored Baptist churches, received my undergrad and graduate education at Baptist schools. So Roger Williams was as much a hero to me as Stan Musial is to Cardinal Nation.  Yep.  Roger Williams established and pastored the first Baptist church in the New World, located in Providence, Rhode Island.   Oh, he founded the town of Providence as well, giving it that name because he figured that God’s providence had led him there – God’s providence and Roger’s rebel spirit.

Williams rebelled against the religious philosophy and practice of the day, which was basically, “my way or the highway,” or “my way or the stocks or sword”.    The Puritans came to these shores to find religious freedom, but when they got here they turned it around and denied it for everyone else.  “You’re free to think, believe, and act like us.”  New England residents who didn’t attend worship services were put in the stocks.  People of other faiths were often forced to pay higher taxes or kicked out of the colony.  This “my way” approach was personified in John Winthrop, the Governor of Massachusetts, the “City on a hill” guy.

Enter Roger Williams. He came to Massachusetts Bay from England preaching and teaching “soul freedom,” the idea that faith cannot be dictated by any civil or church authority.  In fact, he said that forcing someone toward a belief or to think a certain way was “soul rape.”  “Forced worship,” he said, “stinks in the nostrils of God!”

Roger Williams was a Bible scholar, holding a high view of Scripture. Yet, he recognized the difficulty in reconciling contradictory scriptural passages as well as different Bible translations.  Given these complexities, Williams judged it impossible for any human to interpret all Scripture without error.  So, he considered it “monstrous” for one person to impose any religious belief on another.

That kind of thinking might get you fired – or in William’s case, banished.  Roger Williams had once been considered as pastor of the Puritan church in Boston – a great job!  Yet his ideas were too radical. The authorities found him guilty of spreading “newe and dangerous opinions” and banished him from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The colony’s leaders agreed that his position was nothing less than “Satan’s Policy.” Williams found a safe place with the Narragansett Indians whose chiefs sold land to him and his followers.  They established a new settlement and named it Providence.  Its reason for existence, its claim to fame was complete and absolute religious liberty.  Rhode Island became a safe haven for all sorts of religious outcasts and misfits  -people who would not let the establishment make spiritual decisions for them.

Having been both a witness to and victim of religious persecution, Roger Williams believed that most of the wars in the world were the result of religious conflict.  He advocated total religious toleration even as other Puritan pastors preached, “Tis Satan’s policy, to plead for an indefinite and boundless toleration.”  Not for Williams. He argued that “ all religious sects had the right to claim equal protection from the laws, and that the civil magistrates had no right to restrain the consciences of men or to interfere with their modes of worship and religious belief.”

Now we understand why Rhode Island never had a a witch trial.  Or blasphemy trials.  Nor hanged, whipped or jailed people because of religion.  All the other colonies executed witches. Most had blasphemy trials.  In nearly all of colonial America people of faith were persecuted.  Massachusetts hanged Quakers.  Virginia threw Baptists into jail.  These things did not happen in Rhode Island because Roger Williams founded Providence to be a “shelter for those distressed of conscience.”

Other governments called Rhode Island the “latrine of America”.  Roger Williams called it a “shelter.”

Fast forward 150 years.  Our founding fathers were putting together a government for the USA.  “Which way do we go?”  The way of John Winthrop or the way of Roger Williams. The way of religious intolerance or the way of  liberty? The way of government enforcing religious principles upon the people or the way of a wall of separation. The American experiment could have gone in the direction of John Winthrop and, yet, it went in the direction of Roger Williams.

Freedom.  We love and appreciate it.  Many have died for it.  It was Roger Williams who planted the seeds of religious liberty that we enjoy today.
Want a great book on Roger Williams?  Check out Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul by the premier historian John M. Barry.