The Birth of Religious Freedom

The Birth of Religious Freedom

May 17th, 1964 @ 10:50 AM

Isaiah 51:1-2

Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him.
Print Sermon
Downloadable Media

Share This Sermon
Play Audio

Show References:


Dr. W.A. Criswell

Isaiah 51:1-2

5-17-64    10:50 a.m.


On the radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the pastor bringing the 11:00 o’clock morning message entitled The Birth of Religious Freedom.

This is the sesquicentennial celebration of the organized life, the community of effort of all of our churches for worldwide missionary purposes.  And the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the founding of those organizations is celebrated this year, this week in Atlantic City.  And in keeping with this year of celebration, I have prepared, am preparing several messages concerning our Baptist forefathers.

In the fifty-first chapter of Isaiah and the first verse, Isaiah the prophet of God called his people back to a remembrance of their forefathers:


he said—

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.

[Isaiah 51:1-2]

 And what that ancient prophet did in calling his people back to a remembrance from whence they came—and the blood and sacrifice, the tears and sorrows, and agony that gave birth to their nation—we are doing the same thing now in this series of addresses: looking back to those martyrs and to those patriots and to those forefathers who brought to us, and placed in our hands, the incomparably glorious liberties that we enjoy today.

Now the last address concerned our Baptist people in their witness on the continent and in Europe.  In Gainesboro and in Scrooby, England, were two little tiny separatists’ congregations.  Under the fierce and terrible persecutions of the Anglican Church, under James I, those two little congregations fled for freedom to Holland, to Netherland.

There, one of them proceeded to come to America and they landed at a place they called Plymouth in 1620.  The other little separatist congregation became Baptists; their pastor, John Smith.  And he baptized Thomas Helwys, who succeeded John Smith as pastor of the little Anabaptist church.   And while they were enjoying the liberties and the political asylum afforded them in Netherlands, Thomas Helwys, their pastor said, “I do not think it right for us to avoid the persecutions of England in order to live and to have our congregation here in Holland.”

So they went back to England in 1611, and the first thing the pastor of that little Baptist church did was to address an open, a fearless letter to King James I.  For it, of course, they placed him in prison where he died in 1616.  Now we take the story up from there, and we shall follow that agonizing struggle for soul liberty in England and on the continent of America.

In England, we shall follow it through two incomparable Baptist leaders: one named John Bunyan and other named John Milton.  John Bunyan was born a mile and a half from Bedford, England, in the year 1628.  When he was twenty-five years of age he became a Christian—was gloriously converted and was baptized by Pastor Gifford in the little river that runs through Bedford, and became a deacon in the Baptist church in Bedford, England.  Two years later, at twenty-seven years of age, he became a minister—was ordained a Baptist minister.  And for thirty-two years following, he was pastor of a little Baptist church in Bedford.  By trade, he was a tinker; he mended pots and pans and skillets and kettles.  He was poor.  He had a sweet, precious wife and four little children; one of which, the second one of which, Mary, was blind.

In 1660, in a burst of false loyalty the people of England restored to the throne Charles II.  And the first thing he did following the breakup of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, was to reinstitute all of those fierce and terrible persecutions directed by the Anglican Church.  And one of the first to fall under that terrible tyranny was the pastor of the little Baptist church in Bedford, whose name was John Bunyan.  The trial and hardship and privation it wrought upon the family was indescribable as his wife and four children became objects of charity.

His wife—sweet and humble, meek as a lamb, made her way to London, there to appeal for the liberation of her husband-preacher.  She gained the ear of one of the peers in the House of Lords and he introduced it before that august body, and they remanded it to a review on the part of three judges in London.  One was named Sir Matthew Hale, one was named Sir Chester, and one was named Sir Twisden.

And when, in her artless simplicity, she laid the story of her helpless children and of the poverty of her home, Sir Matthew Hale pitied her and inquired of her husband’s calling.  And when he did so, the other two judges cried out and said, “He’s a tinker, my lord.”

“Yes,” said Elizabeth the wife, “and because he is a tinker and a poor man, therefore he is despised.”

Then Twisden, who treated her so harshly, said, “But, my lord, he’s also a preacher, and preaches what he lists.”

She replied, “He preacheth nothing but the Word of God.”  The angry judge cried out, “His doctrine is the doctrine of the devil, my lord.”  The wife replied, “When the righteous Judge shall appear, it will be known that his doctrine is not the doctrine of the devil.”

Twisden asked, “If he is released, will he leave off his preaching?”

In childlike honesty, she replied, “He dare not leave off preaching so long as he can speak.”

So the request was denied, and Elizabeth, the poor wife, left the court in tears, and John Bunyan remained in prison for twelve long, interminable years.  He made lace with his hands and his little blind girl, Mary, sold it to help support the family outside the jail door.  And one of the most pathetic passages in all human literature is this by John Bunyan as he writes in his prison:

The parting with my wife and poor children hath been to me in this place as the pulling off my flesh from my bones.  The hardships, miseries, wants of my poor family, especially my poor blind child who lay nearer my heart than all I had besides.  Poor child, thought I, what sorrow art thou like to have for thy portion in this world?  Thou must be beaten, suffer hunger, cold, nakedness and a thousand calamities.  But yet, thought I, I must venture all with God.  I was as a man pulling down his house upon the head of his wife and children; yet, thought I, I must do it.  I must do it.

And while he languished there in prison, his little blind girl Mary died.

In the imposition of God of this sorrow upon him, of course, it came to pass that he wrote the greatest piece of literature in the human language outside of the Word of God, Pilgrim’s Progress and Grace Abounding.  One of his incomparable interpreters, Cheever, said, and I quote:

To make the highest jewel of the day as a Christian, a minister and a writer, divine providence selected a member of the then obscure persecuted and despised sect of Baptists.  He took John Bunyan, but He did not remove him from the Baptist church into what men said was the only true church, but He kept him shining in that Baptist candlestick all his life.  All gorgeous and prelatical establishments, God passed by and selected the greatest marvel of grace and genius in all the modern age from the little Baptist church in Bedford.  In 1672 he was liberated and returned to his pastorate, the mightiest and most famous preacher of his day; and one of the greatest literary geniuses God hath ever bestowed to bless mankind in the earth.

[from “The Select Works of John Bunyan,” George Cheever ed.]

The second one I have chosen in those days of tragic persecution is John Milton.  John Milton was born in 1608.  He was educated in Cambridge.  He was so beautiful of body, they referred to him as an Apollo.  He was so brilliant—there’s never been one like him in mind and stature, in nobility of voice and expression as the incomparable singer and poet John Milton.

He was educated for the ministry, but when he saw what he called “the enslavement” that it involved, he renounced it.  Being a man of wealth and of leisure, he left England for the continent and in Florence, Italy; became a close intimate associate of Galileo.  But in those days, the great Cromwellian struggle came to pass against the crown, struggling for liberty.  And John Milton left his life of leisure, returned to England and plunged immediately into the struggle, agonizing, that cost him his very life for soul liberty.  He defended liberty of conscience against the Roundheads.  He supported and defended liberty of civil life against the crown.  He defended soul liberty against the Church of England.  He defended domestic liberty against cannon law.  Milton threw his whole life into the agonizing struggle for the freedoms of mankind.

He was a Baptist.  His wife and widow belonged to the Baptist church.  He himself never joined it, but all of the great doctrines that John Milton so roundly and fully defended, without exception, were great Baptist principles.  I quote from him, “For my part,” he said, “I adhere to the Holy Scriptures alone.”  I quote from him again, “A church however small in members is an independent body, whether individual assembly or convention.  Its officers are pastor and deacons, and the choice of ministers belongs to the people.”  I quote from John Milton again, “Infants are not to be baptized inasmuch as they are incompetent to hear the Word.”  I quote from him again, “Baptism is an ordinance unto the gospel wherein the bodies of believers are immersed in water to signify their regeneration through the Holy Spirit and their union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection” [Romans 6:3-5].

And from his Paradise Lost, book twelve, he writes that after Christ was resurrected, “He commissioned His apostles,” and I quote, “to teach all nations what of Him they learned and His salvation [Matthew 28:20]; them who shall believe, baptizing in the profluent stream, the sign of washing them from guilt and sin to life” [Matthew 28:19].

John Milton of course went blind at the age of forty-three in his defense of those great soul principles.  For the following twenty-two years lived in utter darkness.  But abandoned by men and apparently forgotten by his race, plunged into loneliness, he opened his eyes—the eyes of his soul—heavenward.  And in those days wrote Paradise Lost; Paradise Regained; Samson Agonistes, and the most incomparable sonnet ever penned in the English language on his blindness, the last verse of which you remember is this, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  And outside of the Bible, I think that’s the greatest sentence in the English language.  And when I think of it, and when I read it, and when I call it to mind, I think of our poor who are sick, and who are invalid, and who are shut out, and who would long to do so many things denied to them, but John Milton’s verse, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

He was maligned by his enemies, in contempt and scorn called a Baptist.  A great many of his biographers since have labeled him an Anabaptist.  And I’m going to take a page now, of one of his bitterest enemies.  On the top of that page, they castigated Roger Williams; then underneath, he castigated John Milton—binding them together, including them together as being Baptists—which to him, of course, was a term of ridicule and opprobrium.

So I come now to Roger Williams.  Roger Williams was born in 1600 of Welsh parents.  He was a well-to-do man, came of a well-to-do family and was wonderfully educated in Cambridge for the law.  But as the days passed, his bent turned more and more toward theology.  So he became an Anglican minister and in the established Church of England, he became a stern Puritan.  Now he had a friend in America by the name of John Cotton, who was pastor of the Puritan church in Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  So in 1631 Roger Williams decided to immigrate to America where he had so many friends, and he landed in Boston in 1631.

Being a man of great learning, of impeccable and sterling character and being affluent, he was readily and anxiously and gladly received and became pastor.  After having preached at Plymouth, he became pastor of the church at Salem.  But there was a political acumen, there was a spiritual sagacity, there was an ecclesiastical sensitivity in Roger Williams that made him immediately see something in America, and it was this—and it was this.  When he came to America, he found that the same pattern of church-state life followed by corruption and persecution, he found that same pattern in America all up and down the American colonies.  For example in Virginia, Jamestown was settled in 1607, the first permanent settlement on the American continent by the English speaking people.  And I choose in 1611, a typical mandate; a law, a decree by the governor, Sir Thomas Dale.  Listen to it, quote:

And every man or woman now present or hereafter to arrive must give an account of his or their faith and religion and repair unto the minister that their orthodoxy may be tested.  Upon refusal to do this, the minister is to give notice to the chief officers of the town, and for the first refusal the offender is to be whipped.  For the second, to be whipped twice, and for the third offense, the offender is to be whipped every day until acknowledgment is made.  All who therein refuse are to be driven from the colony.  No other ministers but those of the established church shall be permitted to preach or to teach publicly or privately.

The brutal intolerance that was seen in the English courts was faithfully copied by the New World in the colony of Virginia.  New Amsterdam—New York we call it now, was settled in 1626.  And the Dutch came over and established New Netherland.  And from the beginning, there was that same harsh persecution of our people, and the same establishment of church and state.  Now I’ve chosen one instance out of the Dutch in their New Netherland.  In 1656 they decreed, and I quote:

All conventicles and meetings held in this province, whether public or private, are absolutely and expressibly forbidden, and that only the reformed service which is observed and enforced according the synod of [Dort] is to be held.

And then I quote again:

Under penalty of one hundred pounds to be forfeited by all those who take upon themselves either on Sundays or on other days any office whether preacher, reader, or singer in such meetings differing from the customary and legal assemblies.

And if I had time I would speak of one instance.  There was a humble cobbler who was a Baptist preacher.  His name was William Winchendon, and he was too poor to pay that exorbitant fine.  And when he pled the poverty of his wife and his many children, he was driven from the colony into perpetual banishment.  Virginia, New Amsterdam, New Netherlands, and now we come to Plymouth and to Massachusetts.

The Pilgrim came and established in 1620 the colony called Plymouth Plantation.  Eight years later in 1628, the Puritan came and founded Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  But when they came, they brought with them that same church establishment and that same complex of persecution.  They came to find freedom for themselves to worship God and to deny it to all others.

The church was established by law.  The people were taxed to support it.  And all dissenting churches and all dissenting people were excluded from the colony.  It was that kind of a situation up and down the entire Atlantic seaboard that Roger Williams found when he landed in America in 1631.  And he saw that there was to be duplicated on American soil that same denial of soul liberty, and that same pattern of blood, and martyrdom, and persecution as he had known in the Old World.  So in the New World he began to preach in his pulpit at Salem the doctrine of soul liberty that he had learned from the Baptists in England.  It created a violent reaction, and in 1635 Roger Williams was tried by the court of Massachusetts Bay Colony, was defrocked and was banished from the presence of white men.

And when the church there in Salem began to weep and to cry in sympathy for their pastor, John Cotton and the other ministers of Massachusetts Bay Colony severely reprimanded the congregation, even for their tears in behalf of the pastor.  So Roger Williams was driven out from the presence of white men, because of his contention and struggle for soul liberty.

It was in winter.  He had no weapon with him, not even a club or a hatchet.  The succulent roots were frozen in the ground.  The earth was covered in snow.  It was one of the bitterest winters in history, and for fourteen interminable weeks Roger Williams wandered in the wilderness where no white man had ever been.  He would not have lasted one hour in the presence of those bronze savages, who were treacherous and ferocious and fierce, had it not been that while he was a preacher at Plymouth, he had visited their wigwams.  He had learned their language, he had become acquainted with their chiefs.  And the friendship of this white man for the Indian had spread far beyond the little colony of Plymouth, into the great interior wilderness beyond.

So Massasoit, the chief of the great tribe of the Narragansett Indians, Massasoit found him in his suffering.  And Massasoit took him to his wigwam, and in the springtime Massasoit sold him a parcel of land.  And Roger Williams began to build thereon a little house and to plant.  And when the Plymouth colony heard of it, Governor Winslow wrote him a letter, saying, “You’re too close to the Plymouth Colony.  We ask you to cross the river and to push further into the wilderness.”

In kindness to that request, Roger Williams started again, and upon a June day, upon a June day in 1636, he found a bubbling spring of water in the dense forest, and he looked up to God, and he said, “God hath been merciful to me in my distress,” and he called it Providence.  And there, in that sacred soil and in that place, he built the first spot of civilization in this earth where there was absolute liberty of conscience and liberty of soul, written into the constitution and civil government and law of the land.  The story of that is unspeakably, unspeakably glorious.

The famous tribute of George Bancroft, the American historian-statesman, one of the most classic passages to be found in American history, I quote it:

Roger Williams is the first person in modern Christendom to assert in his plentitude the doctrine of liberty of conscience.  Williams would permit persecution of no religion, leaving heresy unharmed by law and orthodoxy unprotected by the terrors of penal statutes.  No discovery of truth could be of more direct benefit to society than that which establishes a perpetual religion peace and stretched tranquility through every community.  If Copernicus is held in perpetual reverence because he published to the world that the sun is the center of our universe, if the name of Kepler is reserved in the annals of human excellence for his sagacity in detecting the laws of planetary motion, if the genius of Newton has been almost adored for dissecting a ray of light and weighing heavenly bodies in a balance, let there be for the name of Roger Williams at least some humble place among those who have advanced moral science and made themselves the benefactors of mankind.

In 1872 there was placed in the Capitol at Washington a statue, a memorial to Roger Williams, and Senator Anthony delivered the great address on that day.  And I quote from that superlative oration:

In all our history, no name shines with a purer light than his whose memorial we place in the Capitol.  In the history of all the world, there is no more striking example of a man grasping a grand idea at once in its full proportions, in all its completeness and carrying it out unflinchingly to its remotest, legitimate results.  Roger Williams did not merely lay the foundations of religious freedom, he constructed the whole edifice in all its impregnable strength and in all its imperishable beauty.  Those who have followed him in the same spirit have not been able to add anything to the grand and simple words in which he enunciated a principle, nor to surpass him in the exact fidelity with which he reduced it to the practical business of government.

Religious freedom—listen—religious freedom at that time was looked upon as a wilder theory than any proposition, moral, political, or religious that had engaged the attention of mankind.  It was regarded as impracticable, disorganizing, impious, and if not utterly subversive to social order, its manifest absurdity would prevent any serious effort to enforce it. . .Roger Williams knew, for God—whose prophet he was—revealed it to him.  Roger Williams knew that the great principle for which he contended and for which he suffered, was founded in the eternal fitness of things and would endure forever.  In his vision he saw mankind emancipated from the thralldom of priest-craft, from the blindness of bigotry, from the cruelties and intolerance.  He saw the nations walking forth in the liberty wherewith Christ had made them free.

So he constituted with Dr. John Clark, the Baptist pastor at Newport, Rhode Island, he incorporated the law of freedom of conscience and liberty of soul in the Constitution of that colony.  One of the most beautifully worded and sweetest of all of the sentences I found in any of those ancient charters is this.  In the first charter that Roger Williams secured from the commonwealth under Cromwell in England, he closed the delineation and the decrees of the laws under that charter, he closed the civil enactments with these precious words, and I quote from it:

All men may walk as their consciences may persuade them, every one in the name of his god.  And let the lambs of the Most High walk in this colony without molestation in the name of Jehovah their God forever.

And in the restoration in 1660 under Charles II, all of the charters and laws and decrees of the commonwealth were rendered null and void.  And in that obviation, Roger Williams and Dr. John Clark had to repair to England to seek another charter.  And they were blessed of God in gaining one in 1663, and in that charter Roger Williams wrote, had written, quote:  “No person within the said colony at any time shall be in anywise molested, punished, disquieted or called in question for any difference of opinion on matters of religion.”

Now I want to show you how they faithfully carried out, how Rhode Island was true to that faithful commitment.  And I’m going to take as an illustration what they did for the Quaker and what they did for the Jew.  In 1656, and I copied this out of an old history:

 In 1656 the colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Haven, pressed them hard to give up the doctrine of religious liberty and join the confederates to crush out the Quakers.  This, Rhode Island refused to do, saying, “We shall strictly adhere to the foundation principle upon which this colony was first settled; to wit, that every man may peaceably worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience without molestation.”

This answer made the other colonies hate them the more and to mediate their ruin by slanderous words and violent actions. They had to resist old England as well as New England.  They were calumniated as the scum of the earth—as libertines and despisers of God’s worship and without order or government—but they stayed by the rock of that foundation.  And the Quaker could come and worship God in Rhode Island, as well as his Baptist neighbor and his Baptist friend.

[from “A History of the Baptists,” Thomas Armitage,1890]

And I take one other, the Jew: in 1290 all Jews were expelled out of England, and for three hundred sixty-four years there was not a Jew to be found in the British commonwealth of peoples, and colonies, and nations—not one in England, not one in Scotland, not one in Wales, not one in Ireland, not one in the colonies, not one in the whole English earth.

The English government in 1290 had expelled all Jews from the earth, and even in Holland.  And even in Holland, the one little sanctuary known to civilized man, even in Holland, I quote:  “They are forbidden to write disparagingly of the Christian religion.  They are forbidden to make converts to their own faith.  They are forbidden to exercise any handicraft or to carry on retail trade.  And marriages between Christians and Jews are strictly forbidden.”  That was the Jew in those terrible and trying days.

But what of it in Rhode Island?  Just a few years—just a few years after the founding of the first Baptist church in Newport with Dr. John Clark—just a few years, we find the first Jewish synagogue organized on the face of the globe in those far away years.  They called it Jesuit Israel.  And it was the only place in the earth where such liberty of conscience, and freedom, and soul response to God was according to the dictates and the mandates of a man’s conscience.

I have an opportunity to pursue this in its marvelous story whereby our Baptist people wrote it in the Constitution of the United States of America.  But we shall pick this story up next address, and the next address, as our forefathers—having written it in the Constitution of Rhode Island—struggled, and under the friendship of George Washington, and of Thomas Jefferson, and of James Madison, and of Patrick Henry, they made it the fundamental and basic law of the United States of America.

“Look, look unto the rock from whence ye are hewn.  Look, look to the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged.  Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah who bare thee” [Isaiah 51:1-2].  Ah, what we have received from the hands of our martyred forefathers and these who paid the price of the liberties we now enjoy in tears, in agony, in banishment, in suffering, and in death.   May God grant to us, their children, that worthiness of dedication as shall make us true sons and daughters of those who went before.

Now while we sing our hymn of appeal, somebody you to give his heart to Jesus [Ephesians 2:8], somebody you to put his life in the fellowship of our dear church, as the Spirit of God shall open the door, shall lead in the way, make it now, come now.  Many of you are listening on television, on radio.  If you’ve never given your heart to Jesus, oh! soul and life and every rich gift from heaven bestowed upon us from His nail-pierced hands [Ephesians 4:8], why not drive to the side of the road, bow your head over the steering wheel, and give your heart to Christ, your life to God?  Seated in a living room, or in a bedroom, or in a den in the house, bow before the great God and our Savior [Titus 2:13]; tell Him the whole issue of the love and destiny of your life you place in His saving and keeping hands.

And here in this vast assembly this morning, taking Jesus as Savior, putting your life in the fellowship of this precious congregation, on the first note of the first stanza, come.  There’s a stairwell at the back on either side, at the front on either side, in the balcony, come.  In the great press of people on this lower floor, somebody you, a family you, into the aisle and down to the front, “Pastor, I give you my hand.  I give my heart to God, and here I come,” while we stand and while we sing.