Baptists and The American Constitution
July 5th, 1964 @ 8:15 AM
BAPTISTS AND THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-5-64 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the early morning message entitled Baptists and the American Constitution. On the Sunday nearest the anniversary of the death of Dr. George W. Truett, who for forty-seven years was the pastor of this church and one of the greatest Baptist statesmen and preachers our denomination has ever produced; on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the death of Dr. Truett, who died the seventh day of July in 1944—on that Sunday, I deliver an address, a message regarding some facet of the life of our denomination in which he was so vitally interested: as the Annuity Board, which was organized in this First Baptist Church, our foreign mission enterprise, evangelism, the church itself, Baylor University Hospital, the great school itself.
Through these years—and this is the twentieth year—through these years, I have delivered an address on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of his death. And this Sunday, I have chosen Baptists and the American Constitution. I heard Dr. Truett himself one time quote this great passage in Isaiah 51:1-2:
Look unto the rock from whence ye are hewn,
and to the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged.
Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you.
The old prophet is calling his people back to a remembrance of the heritage they received from the founders of their nation. And we shall do that today.
One of the tremendous events in the life of our Southern Baptist Convention took place the twentieth day of May in 1920. The Southern Convention that year met in Washington, D.C., and on that Sunday afternoon, Dr Truett delivered from the steps of the Capitol in our nation one of the great addresses of all time. There were more than fifteen thousand people gathered there. The leaders of American government—senators, executives, chief justices, legislators from all over America, they were assembled there that Sunday afternoon.
The title of the address of Dr. Truett was Baptists and Religious Liberty. And in that immortal message, I quote from the great pastor and denominational leader. This is a passage out of that address:
Much of the time were Baptists pitiably alone in [this] age-long struggle [for religious liberty]. We would now and always make our most grateful acknowledgement to any and all who came to the side of our Baptist fathers, whether early or late, in this destiny-determining struggle. But I take it that every informed man on the subject, whatever his religious faith, will be wiling to pay tribute to our Baptist people as being the chief instrumentality in God’s hands in winning the battle . . . for religious liberty. Do you recall Tennyson’s little poem, in which he sets [forth] the history of the seed of freedom? Catch its philosophy:
Once in a golden hour
I cast to earth a seed,
Up there came a flower.
[That] people said, a weed.
To and fro they went,
Through my garden bower,
And muttering discontent,
Cursed me and my flower.
Then it grew so tall,
It wore a crown of light,
But thieves from o’er the wall,
Stole the seed by night;
Sowed it far and wide.
By every town and tower,
Till all the people cried,
‘Splendid is the flower.’
Read my little fable:
He who runs may read
Most can grow the flower now
For all have got the seed.
We are very happy for all our fellow religionists of every denomination and creed to have this splendid flower of religious liberty, but you will allow us to remind you that you got the seed in our Baptist garden.
Now that is a quotation from that immortal address.
Now my purpose this morning is to demonstrate out of American history the truth of that statement that George Truett made that day in 1920. In the days before the Revolutionary War, in these past several addresses, I have sought to delineate and to recount the terrible sufferings of our Baptist people here on the shores of America. Of the thirteen original colonies, nine of them had state-established churches. There was religious persecution in all of them except the little Baptist colony of Rhode Island and the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. It was not until 1833, years after the colonies had formed the United States of America, that the last vestige of religious persecution and public taxation for the support of an established church was discarded in the state of Massachusetts. Two hundred twenty years and more, we have a history of religious intolerance and persecution, far longer than the history of our nation, which was declared such in 1776.
The bitterest years of persecution against our people was from 1753 to 1775. For example, in Virginia our people were beaten and stoned and the pastors and their flocks scattered abroad. Our people were put in prison. They suffered all kinds of indignities, and hatreds, and malice, and malicious injunctions, and imprisonments. John Ireland, for example, in 1769 was placed in Culpepper jail in Virginia. They sought in a dozen different ways to destroy his life. They put gunpowder underneath the floor to blow him up. They filled his cell with sulfur fumes to suffocate him. They put poison in his food. After six months, he barely escaped with his life.
For example, in a letter that James Madison wrote to a friend in Philadelphia, he said, and I quote:
That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of religious persecution rages among some, and to their eternal infamy the clergy can furnish their quota for such purposes. There are at the present time in the adjacent county not less than five or six preachers of the gospel in close jail for proclaiming their religious convictions, which are in the main quite orthodox.
This is America, and these are those American colonies. In Virginia, I have just mentioned, in Fredericksburg, in King and Queen County, in Middlesex, in Essex, in Caroline, in Culpepper, our preachers were constantly incarcerated. Crowds would gather outside the grating of their jail doors and listen to the preaching of the gospel of the Son of God by these Baptist evangelists. Many of them were saved, many brought under conviction as these Baptist preachers proclaimed the message of Jesus from their cells. For example, James Ireland would date his letters, “From my palace in Culpepper.” He could have said, “From my pulpit in Culpepper.”
And in those tragic days, God raised up two intrepid, mighty champions for religious liberty—two Baptist preachers: one named Isaac Backus, born in Connecticut and living his life in New England and in Massachusetts; and the other, John Leland, born in Massachusetts, and the scene of his great ministry in the state of Virginia.
Isaac Backus was born in 1724 and died in 1806. His life then spanned the entire course of the American Revolution, and he lived to see not only his country liberated but his brethren freed. For over fifty years, this Baptist historian and great champion of the truth was pastor of the Baptist church in Middleborough, Massachusetts.
In those far away days, upon a bitter cold and rainy night, the mother of Isaac Backus was taken out of her home and cast into prison. She had refused to pay, for conscience sake, a tax on her home, she was a widow, a tax on her home to support an established church, and for that reason she was thrown into jail. Out of those days in her imprisonment, she wrote to her son Isaac, and I quote:
Oh, the condescension of heaven, though I was bound when cast into this furnace, yet I was loosed and found Jesus in the midst of the furnace with me. Now the prison looks like a palace to me. Deacon Griswold was put in prison the eighth of October, and yesterday old Brother Grover, and the officers are in pursuit of others. The church—
the little Baptist church there—
has appointed the thirteenth day of November to be spent in prayer and fasting.
That letter addressed to her son Isaac, a young minister of the gospel ordained in our Baptist communion. Isaac Backus thereafter threw the strength of his life into a battle for religious liberty from which he never turned or wearied, and he did it with great acumen and wisdom. He made out a platform, and he followed it faithfully. To the state house in Massachusetts, to the governor’s mansion, to the legislators, he sent petition after petition. He was bogged down in his appeal by the political maneuvers and the legal gymnastics of the Samuel and John Adamses, the cousins, and other state-established church politicians, but he never wearied or he never turned aside. He was a thorn in their flesh, and they were uneasy and unhappy, for wherever there was a champion of church establishment, there also was Isaac Backus.
In 1774, the First Continental Congress gathered in the little city of Philadelphia. There were delegates there from all over the thirteen colonies, and they came to see if they could find a common way to win their just and natural rights from the oppressive measures of Great Britain. The town was filled with excitement. The people were talking about the Stamp Act. They were talking about the oppressions of Parliament and of King George III, and often on their lips was the word “independence.”
The first citizen of Philadelphia and a representative delegate in that First Continental Convention was Benjamin Franklin. He had just returned from England where he had failed to make peace between the mother country and her colonies. So for days in the fall of 1774, in Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, the First Continental Congress sat, and they discussed ways and means by which they could win their liberty and their just rights from the oppressive measures of England.
Upon a noonday, as that Congress was deliberating, the delegates filed out for their noon meal. And the two Adamses—the cousins, John and Samuel—as they walked outside Carpenter Hall, John Adams turned pale, and he tugged at the coattail of his cousin Samuel and pointed; and when Samuel Adams’ eyes followed the pointed finger of John Adams, his eyes fell full upon Isaac Backus, with a little group around him to whom Isaac Backus was speaking on the brick walk.
That night, when the First Continental Congress met, it was jammed and packed. It was filled with Baptists. The Philadelphia Baptist Association, meeting in a three-day session, had dismissed and had gone to attend the convocation of these delegates from the thirteen colonies. They had won a hearing through Isaac Backus to present their case and cause before the entire assemblage.
First, Dr. James Manning, president of Rhode Island College—now Brown University—James Manning stood up and read a letter of petition for religious liberty to the First Continental Congress, and then he introduced Isaac Backus to speak. Isaac Backus stood up, that great, intrepid Baptist preacher, and he pled for religious liberty. “Why,” said Isaac Backus, “are we pleading for liberty, civil, and from taxation and from oppressive measures from Britain when here in our own colonies our people called Baptists suffer the indignities and the persecutions of state churches and the absence and loss of religious freedom?” Then he described the oppressions of Baptists in the colony of Massachusetts. When he finished, all eyes turned and fell upon the delegates from Massachusetts, John and Samuel Adams.
Slowly Samuel Adams rose to his feet. What would he say? For just a few months before, he had cried aloud against the loss of religious liberty in Massachusetts when England said, “We’re going to force upon the colony Anglican bishops from the mother country.” What would he say now about their oppression of our Baptist people? Samuel Adams slowly rose to his feet in that First Continental Congress, and he minimized, and he minimized the oppressions of our Baptist people in Massachusetts.
Isaac Backus stood up and said, “Nay!” And then he recounted great loss and wrong, one after another, that his people had suffered in Massachusetts.
Then Samuel Adams said, “But this is a matter for the general court of our colony and not for this Continental Congress.”
Isaac Backus replied, “You have met here for liberty; so have we!”
Then John Adams replied, “Sooner will there be a change in the lunar system, in the solar system, than if there is a change from the established state church in Massachusetts!”
After the assembly was dissolved, the Baptist people turned away greatly discouraged. And some of them said, “We have jeopardized our cause. We have done nothing but engender bitterness against us by bringing our appeal to the Continental Congress of all of our American colonies.”
But they had done better than they thought, for three reasons. I name them: one, they made powerful friends in Patrick Henry, and George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and they won Benjamin Franklin to their cause; second, because of their incomparable support of the Revolutionary War to a man; and third, because of the raising up of a young man who picked up the torch of Isaac Backus as he himself had picked up the torch of Roger Williams and Dr. John Clarke—a great giant of a man in his mind, in his physical stature, in his heart, and in his great ability. His name was John Leland.
Now I speak of those three. First, let me speak of the Revolutionary War. Our Baptist people supported that conflict to a man. You can see that in three ways. First: one-third of all the chaplains in the American Revolutionary War were Baptists, though they were relatively a very small minority in the population of the American colonies. George Washington’s favorite and most respected chaplain was John Gano, a Baptist. It was because of him that George Washington said, “Our Baptist chaplains are the most useful and impressive of all of our chaplains.”
You see it again in the little Baptist colony of Rhode Island. Rhode Island had nothing to gain from the success of the Revolutionary War. They had no crown governor appointed for them. They enjoyed the fullest liberties. Yet for us to lose the Revolutionary War would have been for Rhode Island to lose all of those great freedoms for which she had bled and died. And for the success of the Revolutionary War—meant nothing to them, yet two months before July 4, 1776, Rhode Island declared itself free from the government of Great Britain, and Rhode Island threw into the Revolutionary War her utmost strength.
A third thing that illustrates the Baptist contribution to the Revolutionary War is their treatment in the triumph of the British flag wherever they won. Wherever the British triumphed our Baptist people were destroyed. Their meeting houses were burned down and torn down, and their pastors and their flocks were scattered. In contempt, for example, when Great Britain won New York City, they used the meeting house of the First Baptist Church in New York for a stable for their horses and mules. Our Baptist people threw into the Revolutionary War to a last man their entire effort.
Now I speak of the friendship the Baptists gained in these great American patriots. Patrick Henry: he was their indomitable representative in every court in the land. Time and again in Virginia did Patrick Henry, without recompense or compensation, did Patrick Henry plead the cause of our incarcerated Baptist preachers.
George Washington: because of their loyalty to the American Revolution and because of their incomparable patriotism, they gained the love and respect and admiration of the father of our country.
And Thomas Jefferson: the sister of the mother of Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Jefferson’s favorite aunt, was a Baptist. And as a little boy, and as a lad, Thomas Jefferson attended the Baptist church with his aunt that he loved so much. There was a Baptist church near his home in Albemarle County, near Monticello, and Thomas Jefferson loved to attend the business sessions and the other meetings of that little Baptist church. And Thomas Jefferson confided to friends and neighbors freely that he gained his idea of a great democracy from watching the processes of that Baptist church.
Upon a time, the pastor of the Baptist church asked young Thomas Jefferson what he thought about their government, and Thomas Jefferson replied that it struck him with great force. “Thomas Jefferson said to me, ‘This is the only pure democracy existing at this time in the world.’ And he further avowed, ‘I think it would be worthy to be patterned in the government of our American colonies.’” Thomas Jefferson, at the instigation of Baptists, wrote those articles of religious liberty that became a part of the state government of Virginia. And through the years and through the years, he was their firmest friend.
And now James Madison, for it was through James Madison that this victory was finally and marvelously won. James Madison had a brother, General Madison, who was a Baptist. And the Madison family followed closely the record and the history of the struggles of our Baptist people for religious liberty, and it came about like this.
John Leland, this big, tremendous man and young preacher, when he was twenty years of age moved from Massachusetts down to Virginia, and there he picked up the torch of the battle for religious freedom. In September 1787, the Constitutional Congress in Philadelphia finally finished the writing of the American Constitution, penned by James Madison. Then it was given to the separate colonies for ratification. Nine needed to ratify to make it a part of the government of the new nation. Nine needed to ratify out of the thirteen. Now the question came up for ratification in the colony of Virginia. And in , there was a statewide campaign for delegates to a convention of ratification. John Leland began to speak, and he said, and I quote:
There is no Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Whenever a number of men enter into a state of society, a number of individual rights must be given up to that society, but there should be a memorial of those not surrendered, otherwise, every natural and domestic right becomes alienable…
What is dearest of all—religious liberty, is not sufficiently secured . . . If a majority of Congress with the president favor one system more than another, they may oblige all others to pay to the support of their system. . . oppression does not ensue, it will be owing to the mildness of administration and not to any Constitutional defense . . .
It is very dangerous leaving religious liberty to their mercy.
[excerpt of letter from Joseph Spencer to James Madison, Orange County, VA., 26 February 1788, quoting John Leland]
And he continued: an individual’s belief or unbelief is simply outside the states’ sphere of sovereignty.
Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has to do with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith . . .
[from sermon “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable,”
John Leland, 1791]
Experience has informed us that the fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than all the persecutions ever did. Persecution like a lion tears the saints to death but leaves Christianity pure. State establishments of religion like a bear hugs the saints but corrupts Christianity.
[quoted in The Writings of the late Elder John Leland,
by L. F. Greene, 1845, p. 278]
And the Baptist people listening to John Leland began to say to one another, “What was the matter with James Madison, our friend? He didn’t write into the Constitution a provision for religious liberty, a safeguard for freedom. What is the matter with James Madison? We can’t trust him! We can’t trust him!” So in Virginia they nominated John Leland, the Baptist preacher, to run against him. Now James Madison was in Philadelphia with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, writing those famous papers in favor of the Constitution later known as the Federalist Papers. And upon a day when James Madison was returning from Philadelphia to his home in Orange County in Virginia, he spent the night on the way home in the Fredericksburg Inn in Virginia. And as he sat down to eat his evening meal, a messenger, breathless, came in and placed in his hand a letter. James Madison opened it, and it read:
This is sent to warn you. You are going to be defeated for the seat in the Ratifying Convention unless you and your friends exert yourselves. I would advise you to call on Elder Leland and spend a few hours with him since his home is near yours in Orange County. See him on your way from Fredericksburg.
James Madison folded the letter and put it in his pocket. He immediately retired. He arose early in the morning before anybody else stirred, and he made that journey of forty miles and arrived at Orange in the evening, and sent for John Leland. John Leland came out to meet him. He swung off of his sturdy horse and advanced toward Madison under a big oak tree. Madison was very small, slender, short, small, and John Leland towered over him like a giant.
Madison said to him, “I have received this letter, and I am warned of your success and my defeat.” “Let me ask you,” said James Madison, “Let me ask you: do you have a personal ambition for this office, or is it because of your religious convictions you seek this?”
John Leland, the Baptist preacher, said, “I have no personal ambition for the office at all. It is just in behalf of the freedom of our people that I run for this election.”
James Madison thought and then said, “Well, Elder Leland, Elder Leland, if I promise you that if I’m elected to this ratifying convention—and if I’m elected to that I can be elected to Congress—if I promise you that if I’m elected I will see to it that a Bill of Rights is added to the Constitution we have written, will you support me? And will you withdraw from the race?”
The big Baptist preacher thought carefully, then extended his long, heavy, bony hand and grasped the slender hand of James Madison, and John Leland said, “I will withdraw, and I will support you, if you will promise in your election you will see that a Bill of Rights is added to the Constitution of the United States of America.” And they grasped hands.
A day or two after that, they had a big political rally in Orange, and on a tobacco hogshead, James Madison stood up and explained for two hours why they had not written into the Constitution itself this safeguard for religious liberty; because, he said, state colonies like Massachusetts would not ratify it. “But after ratification,” said Madison, “I will promise you I will do my utmost to see that a Bill of Rights is adopted and made organic in the instrument, the Constitution itself.”
And when James Madison stepped down from that big barrel, John Leland, the towering Baptist preacher, stood up to make his address. And he said, “On the basis of this promise of James Madison, I withdraw from the race. And I ask all of our friends and our people to support James Madison in this election.” The effect was electric. James Madison won his place in the Constitutional Convention of Virginia, and then the next year, and the next year, he won his race to the Congress of the United States of America.
The first thing he did, carrying to Philadelphia, carrying to the Congress of the United States all of the hopes and dreams of our Baptist people—the first thing he did was to tell our Baptist people in Virginia to address a letter to George Washington. And our Baptist people in Virginia addressed a letter of appeal to George Washington, General Washington, who was then the first president of the United States. And I haven’t time to read Washington’s letter back to the Baptist people of Virginia, but he said, “I will do my best to advance your hopes and your prosperity.”
Then with the guidance of George Washington, James Madison prepared for the Congress of the United States what we call the Bill of Rights, Article I of which reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
That is the first article of the ten that we call the Bill of Rights. And James Madison, with the help and encouragement of George Washington, guided those ten amendments to Congress. They were bitterly opposed, but in September of 1789, they were passed and submitted to the colonies for ratification. And by December of 1791, eleven of the thirteen colonies had ratified those ten amendments that we call the Bill of Rights, that assure to the American nation freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech.
For the first time in the history of the world, there was made the chief cornerstone of a nation that men shall have the right to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience. This despised and hated doctrine of soul liberty, espoused by our Baptists and loved by our people, at last has been inwoven into the very organic life and Constitution of the nation itself. There was brought to pass the saying in the Bible, “The stone which the builders rejected is made the chief cornerstone” of the building [Matthew 21:42].
I haven’t time here to speak of Thomas Jefferson as he wrote to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, “thus building”—speaking of that Article I, “thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” That is where that phrase came from, in a letter carefully prepared under the guidance of the attorney general of the United States, the wall of separation between church and state. Ah, that I had time to speak of this modern thrust that is chipping away the purpose and heart and intent of that first article in the Bill of Rights, chipping away at the wall of separation between church and state.
I have to close. I love the beautiful hymn that we sang in the first worship period of this holy hour. Samuel Smith was pastor of our Baptist church in Newton, Massachusetts, and he wrote the hymn “America.” He wrote the hymn “America.” And the last stanza of that hymn is so typical of our American people.
Our fathers’ God, to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing:
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!
And that’s why Dr. George W. Truett, on the steps of the Capitol of the United States in that year of 1920, spoke of religious liberty as a gift to the world of our Baptist people. God bless to us the inheritance we have received from their dedicated hands.
We sing our hymn—just one stanza. And while we sing the hymn, somebody today to give his heart in open confession of faith to Jesus [Romans 10:9-10; Ephesians 2:8], somebody to put his life in the fellowship of our dear church. Upon the first note of the first stanza, come and stand by me, while all of us stand and sing together.