The Birth of Religious Freedom


The Birth of Religious Freedom

May 17th, 1964 @ 8:15 AM

Isaiah 51:1

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.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

Isaiah 51:1

5-17-64    8:15 a.m.




On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the early morning message entitled The Birth of Religious Freedom.  In the fifty-first chapter of Isaiah and the first verse, the Hebrew prophet called his people back to a remembrance of their forefathers:  “Look,” he said, “unto the rock from 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” [Isaiah 51:1-2].  And because this is the sesquicentennial celebration of the organized life of our combined and conjoined and confederated missionary efforts as a Baptist people on the North American continent, these Sundays I have given myself to the preparation of these addresses on our Baptist forefathers and the price they paid for those precious liberties we enjoy today.

In the address the last time I spoke here, Sunday a week ago, we were following the course of our Baptist martyrs.  We are now celebrating the four hundredth year of the birthday of Shakespeare.  When Shakespeare was in his prime, writing those incomparable plays, and while they were being acted in the theaters of London, there was a bitter and merciless persecution raging against God’s people.  And at the turn of the century, from the 1500s to the 1600s, under James 1, king of England, two little Separatist congregations—one at Gainsborough and one at Scrooby—fled England to find refuge and deliverance in the Netherlands, in Holland.  One of those little congregations came to America in the Mayflower; the other little congregation became Baptist in Holland.  Their preacher was John Smyth, who baptized Thomas Helwys, who was Smyth’s successor.  And Thomas Helwys led his little congregation in the persuasion that they should not remain at peace in Holland in order to avoid the bitter persecutions in England, but that rather they should go back to their native land, to give their lives for the freedom of the preaching of the gospel of the Son of God.  So in 1611, the highest, triumphant year of Shakespeare and the date of his death, in 1611, the little congregation of Baptists under Thomas Helwys returned to England.  And the first thing their pastor did was to address—and I read to you his letter—to address a bold and a challenging appeal to the king of England for religious liberty.  He was placed in prison; and he died 1616, in prison.  But the seed they sowed, and the great cause for which they gave their lives continued on two continents now:  in England and in America.  We follow it first now in England; and we follow it in America.

We follow it in England as a typical sufferer in the name of the incomparable John Bunyan, one of the greatest geniuses of all time.  He was born in 1628, about a mile and a half from Bedford, in central England.  When he was twenty-five years old, he was miraculously converted and was baptized by Pastor Gifford in the little river that runs through Bedford, and became a member of the little Baptist congregation in Bedford.  He was a deacon under Pastor Gifford.  Then when he was twenty-seven years of age, two years later, he was ordained to the gospel ministry; and he followed Pastor Gifford as the pastor and undershepherd of the little church, and continued as pastor of the little church for thirty-two years, until the time of his death. 

In a burst, in a burst of false and vain loyalty, the English people restored to the throne Charles II, ending the Cromwellian Commonwealth.  And immediately there began again that vicious persecution against our Baptist people, and one of the first to suffer was John Bunyan:  arrested and placed in prison in Bedford.

He had one of the sweetest, and gentlest, and purest, and dearest wives that any man ever had.  She made her way to England.  They were unlettered people.  John Bunyan was a tinker, a mender of pots, and skillets, and kettles, and pans; and his wife Elizabeth was meek and humble.  She found the ear of a peer in the House of Lords in England and there made her appeal in behalf of her imprisoned husband and her poor children, the family forced to live upon charity.  That peer introduced her appeal to the House of Lords, and they remanded it to the courts that they might review the sentence under which John Bunyan was incarcerated.  And I have copied down here a part of the conversation in that trial of John, as the trial was reviewed by this superior court in London.  She came before it, three judges named Matthew Hale, and one named Chester, and one named Twisden.  And with all the simplicity of a mother’s and wife’s devotion, she pled for her four helpless children, one of which was blind, and for her husband.  And Sir Matthew Hale was so moved by her little story of simplicity and so pitied her, that he inquired of her husband’s calling.  And the other judges cried out and said, “He’s a tinker, my lord.”

“Yes,” said the poor wife, “and because he is a tinker and a poor man, therefore he is despised.”  Twisden then said, “My lord, he is also a preacher; and he preaches anything that he wists.”  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,” Elizabeth 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 preaching?”  And in child-like honesty she replied, “He dare not leave off preaching so long as he could speak.”  So because he refused to leave off his witness to the Word of God, the Baptist pastor at Bedford, England was left in jail.  Elizabeth left, his wife left in tears; and for twelve long years John Bunyan languished in Bedford jail.

There is no more pathetic passage in all human literature than his description of the hurt in his heart being separated from his family.  I quote him:


The parting with my wife and poor children hath often 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.’


So for twelve years Bunyan languished in prison.  He made laces with his hands, and his little blind daughter Mary sold them outside the jail door, seeking somehow to support the poverty stricken family.  And little Mary died, died while Bunyan was still in prison.

In 1672, he was released, and returned to his pastorate and was the mightiest preacher in England.  It was in the providence of God, for we had never had Pilgrim’s Progress or Grace Abounding had it not been for his years of enforced incarceration.  One of the greatest interpreters of John Bunyan is Cheever and listen to the remarkable, remarkable tribute he pays to this Baptist pastor:


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 of 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.


And that is the great, incomparable allegorist and writer of the most beautiful language and thought and sentiment the world has ever read.  Next to the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress has been the universal book of the heart of mankind.

Now I’ve chosen one other, following the course of our Baptist struggle for liberty in England:  I have chosen John Milton.  John Milton was born in 1608.  The people who knew him said he had the most beautiful frame of any man who ever lived; he looked like Apollo.  He was educated at Cambridge.  He thought to enter the Anglican ministry, but he referred to it as a matter of being enslaved, and he refused.  He left England, and traveling, being a man of affluence and leisure, traveling in the continent, finally to Florence, where he and Galileo became firm friends.  It was in those days that the struggle for liberty came upon England under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell; and John Milton returned to his native land, to throw his life into that struggle.  He defended religious liberty against the prelates.  He defended civil liberty against the crown.  He defended liberty of conscience against the roundheads.  He defended domestic liberty against tyrannical laws, canon laws of the established church.  John Milton roundly, openly, marvelously supported every doctrine of our Baptist people.  His wife and widow was a Baptist.  He himself never became a member of the church; but all of his doctrines and all of his pronouncements were Baptist.

For example, I have chosen just a few.  John Milton wrote, I quote, “For my part I adhere to the Holy Scriptures alone.”  Again, “A church, however small in numbers, is an independent body; nor has it any superior on earth, whether individual or assembly or a convention.  Its officers are pastors and deacons, and the choice of ministers belongs to the people.”  I quote him again:  “Infants are not to be baptized inasmuch as they are incompetent to hear the Word.”  I quote him again:  “Baptism is an ordinance under the gospel wherein the bodies of believers are immersed in water to signify their regeneration by the Holy Spirit and their union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection” [Romans 6:3-5].  For example, again I quote, in Paradise Lost, Book Twelve, he writes that  after Christ’s resurrection he commissioned His apostles, I quote, “To teach all nations what of him they learned and his salvation, them who shall believe baptizing in the profluent stream—the sign of washing them from guilt of sin to life.”  This was the great Baptist, John Milton.  He so poured his life into that appeal for religious liberty, that at forty-three years of age he lost his eyesight, and became blind and for the rest of the twenty-two years of his life, he groped in darkness.  But his abandonment—both by the restoration under Charles II, and by the providences of God—his abandonment secluded him in that darkness to the world, that his eyes might be opened to the glories of God.  And in his blindness, of course you know, he wrote Paradise Lost, from which I have just quoted; and Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, and the most beautiful sonnet ever penned in human literature, on his blindness, ending with those famous words: “They also serve, they also serve who only stand and wait” [Sonnet XVI, Milton].

I have thought that outside of the Bible there’s no more precious sentence ever penned as I look upon our invalids, and our shut-ins, and our sick, and our afflicted, who can’t do great things for God, “But they also serve,” wrote Milton, “who only stand and wait”; so the life of those Baptists in England as they struggled in incarceration, and in persecution, and in ridicule, and in infamy, and in ignominy as they struggled for religious liberty in England.

Now, John Milton was sarcastically referred to as a Baptist; and many, many of his biographers now refer to him as a Baptist.  And taking a page where they were calumniating the Baptist people, at the top of the page you will find Roger Williams castigated, and at the same, on the same page, you’ll find his brother in the doctrine and in the faith, John Milton.  Now both of them put together, side by side, as being Anabaptists, as being Baptists.  So having spoken of John Bunyan and John Milton in England, we now follow the course of our Baptist struggle for religious liberty on the new continent of America.

Every one of the colonies that came to America brought with them that same pattern of church establishment, state-church relationship, and persecution, as they had known it in England.  For example, the Virginia Charter, granted April 10, in 1606, made the Church of England the state church of the new dominion, and all of the people were taxed in order to support that state church.  And in 1607, as you know, Jamestown was settled, the first permanent English colony in America.  And typical of the governors, I have chosen Sir Thomas Dale, who in 1611 promulgated this law here in the New World.  I quote from him:


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 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 of the English courts, under which John Milton and under which John Bunyan suffered, was duplicated sentence by sentence, and word for word, and persecution by persecution in the new dominion here in America.

New Amsterdam was settled in 1626.  And the Dutch Reformed Church brought the same pattern to New York—we call it today—as they had known in the years past.  For example, I have chosen a decree, February 1, 1656, and I quote:  “All conventicles and meetings held in this province of New Netherlands, whether public or private, are absolutely and expressly forbidden; and that only the Reformed service, as this is observed and enforced according to the Synod of Dordrecht is to be held.”  Now 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 a preacher, reader, or singer, in such meetings differing from the customary and legal assemblies.”  And I have chosen to refer to one little humble Baptist preacher; his name was William Wickenden.  He was a cobbler, and he had a wife, and so many children, that when they arrested him, and made him pay the fine, he was too poor to pay it.  So they drove him from the colony into perpetual banishment.  This is the Dutch Reformed in the New World.

And now we come to Plymouth, and to Massachusetts Bay Colony, with its capital at Boston.  The Plymouth Pilgrims came, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans came.  The difference between the two is, the Plymouth, the Pilgrims were separatists:  they believed in separating completely from the impossible Anglican communion.  But the Puritans remained in the Anglican communion, believing that they could purify, they could reform the church.  So those two bodies came to Massachusetts, what we call Massachusetts.  The Pilgrims, we call them the Pilgrims, settled at Plymouth; and organized the Plymouth Plantation colony.  And the Puritans came to Massachusetts; they called their colony the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The Pilgrims came in 1620; the Puritans came in 1628, eight years later.  And both of them, both of them were exactly alike in their spirit and in their constitutional government.  They believed that the church and the state had to be vitally interrelated, and the church written into the constitution of the state in order for civil and spiritual welfare.  And the members of the church were citizens of the state; and if you were not a member of the church, you could not be a citizen of the state.  And the people were taxed in order to support the state churches; and all other churches, and all other teachings were forbidden.  And if a man was found guilty, he was banished from the colony.  Now that was Plymouth, and that was Massachusetts Bay, or Boston.  The whole lineup of colonies, from one end of it to the other, brought with them that state church and the persecution of those who descended from it.

And in those days, and in those days, having been born in 1600 of Welsh parents, having been educated in Cambridge as a lawyer, having thought to enter the  Anglican ministry because he [Roger Williams] was so bent toward theology, he became a minister in the Anglican church, but soon became a stern Puritan; and because he knew John Cotton, pastor of the Puritan church at Boston, and others who had immigrated to America, he left England to cast his life and lot and fortune in the New World.  He was a godly man of tremendous personal character; he was a learned man, and he was affluent.  So when he landed in Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston in 1631, he was immediately received and became pastor of the Puritan church.  These are Congregational churches:  Plymouth churches, Pilgrim churches, Puritan churches, we know as Congregational churches.  He became pastor of the Puritan Congregational church in Salem, Massachusetts.

He had the acumen, he had the political sagacity, he had the spiritual sensitivity to see that in the New World, if that state church supported by taxation, and controlled by civil magistrates, if it continued, that it would follow the same course in America as he had known it in Europe:  corruption, and oppression, and persecution inevitably follow.  So Roger Williams stood up in his pulpit in Salem, Massachusetts, and began to preach the amazing doctrine of a free church in a free state.

It immediately aroused violent opposition.  Roger Williams was tried before the court, and sentenced to be banished.  And because his people in Salem wept upon the sentence, and sympathized with their able pastor, John Cotton and the other ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony severely reprimanded the church at Salem for their tears, and for their devotion to Roger Williams.


Speak, History, who are Life’s victors?  Unroll thy long annals, and say, Are they those whom the world called victors—who won the success of a day?  The martyrs, or Nero?  The Spartans who fell at Thermopylae’s tryst? Or the Persians and Xerxes?  His judges or Socrates?  Pilate or Christ?

[“Io Victis”; William W. Story]


And in the winter, in October of 1635, Roger Williams was driven from the habitations of white men, to perish in the wilderness.  He had no weapon with him, no gun, no bow and arrow, no hatchet, no club; the succulent roots were frozen in the ground, and the earth was covered in snow.  That was one of the bitterest winters history has ever known.  And for fourteen weeks, he wandered where no white man had ever been in the howling wilderness.  He would not have lasted an hour because of the bronze savages—ferocious, treacherous, on every hand—he would not have lasted an hour had it not been that while he was preaching at Plymouth—for a while he was at Plymouth—while he was preaching at Plymouth, he had gone to their wigwams and had preached the gospel to them, and had learned their language, and was acquainted with their chiefs.  And the noise of his friendship to the Indians in Plymouth plantations had spread throughout the length and breadth of Massasoit’s great confederation.  So, Massasoit found him, and taking pity upon his sufferings took him to his wigwam.  And when the spring came, of Massasoit, the great Indian chief, Roger Williams bought a little parcel of land.  And while he was building his cabin and while he was beginning to plant, there came a letter from Governor Winslow of Plymouth Plantation saying, “You’re too close to our colony.  Push further into the wilderness and across the river.”  In obedience, in courtesy, Roger Williams forsook all that he ever knew, and left to plunge further into the wilderness, and further from the church-state of America.  Why, it’s unbelievable!

And upon a day, in his canoe, he found a beautiful and bubbling fountain in the midst of a dense forest.  He stopped there, and he said, “God has been merciful to me in my distress,” and he called it Providence; and named it Providence.  And from Canonicus, the fierce Indian chief, he bought land and began the settlement at Providence; and in the providence of God, wrote a constitution—the first in the earth that the world ever looked upon—a free church in a free state.

One of the greatest tributes of all history and one of the most famous is that written by the glorious American historian George Bancroft to Roger Williams, and I quote:


He was 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 religious peace and spreads 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 system, if the name of Kepler is preserved in the annals of human excellence for his sagacity in detecting the laws of planetary motion, if the genius of Isaac 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.


And in 1872, Congress placed in the great rotunda of the capitol of the United States of America the great memorial to Roger Williams.  And Senator Anthony, on that occasion delivered the memorial address, and I quote from him:


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 the principle, nor to surpass him in the exact fidelity with which he reduced it to the practical business of government.  Religious freedom at that time was looked upon as a wilder theory than any proposition moral, political, or religious that has engaged the attention of mankind.  It was regarded an impracticable, disorganized, the emptiest, and if not utterly subversive to social order, its manifold absurdity would prevent any serious effort to enforce it.  Roger Williams knew, for God whose prophet he was revealed it to him that the great principle for which he contended and 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 priestcraft, from the blindness of bigotry, from the cruelties of intolerance.  He saw the nations walking forth in the liberty wherewith Christ had made them free.


Rhode Island—and we shall speak further of it next time, it just hurts my heart to break into these things; they all go together, and I can’t put them together in so brief a time—Rhode Island remained true, and guarded that sacred trust.

Now I want to illustrate that to you.  So just listen for a minute more.  When he obtained the first charter, and wrote it into constitutional law, he ended the charter with these words, 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 when the restoration of Charles II repudiated and obviated all that the Cromwellian Commonwealth had done, God was good to Roger Williams and Dr. John Clarke, and they obtained another charter under Charles II.  And in that charter they wrote, “No person written, no person within this said colony at any time shall be in anywise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences of opinion or matters of religion.”  Now they were true to that trust, and I have two illustrations of it I briefly give here.

In 1656, the colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven pressed them at Rhode Island 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 on 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 more; and to meditate 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, as despisers of God’s worship, and without order or government.  But they stayed true to the principle.

And I give you one other illustration of it.  Just a few years, eight years, eight years, after the founding of the First Baptist Church at Newport, Rhode Island, under Dr. John Clark, just eight years after that, something happened.  In 1290, England had driven all the Jews from England, all of them; and for three hundred sixty-four years there was not a Jew who lived in the English land, or in any of her possessions and her colonies.  And even in Holland, the Jew was forbidden to write disparagingly of the Christian religion, to make converts to his own faith, to exercise any handicraft, to carry on retail trade, and marriages between Christians and Jews were strictly forbidden—I’ve copied that out of Holland law—and Holland was the only place in the world of refuge for religious persecution.  But in 1658, just about eight years, just about eight years after the founding of that Baptist church there, there is a Jewish congregation called
Yeshuat Israel, which was organized in Newport, Rhode Island; the only place on the globe where such liberty existed, and where the Jew could organize a synagogue, call a rabbi, and let him teach the doctrines of Judaism in liberty and in freedom, without molestation or persecution.

O Lord, what God hath wrought through our forefathers who laid down their lives for the common, everyday, simple gladnesses and freedoms and liberties that we enjoy today, but that were denied to the millions of mankind throughout the history of the annals of their story.  “Look,” said Isaiah, “look,” said Isaiah, “unto the rock from whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit from whence ye are digged” [Isaiah 51:1]; look unto your forefathers.  And what a glorious, glorious succession of preachers, and martyrs, and statesman have glorified the pages of our Baptist story.

Now on the first note of this first stanza, somebody give his heart to Jesus; somebody put his life in the fellowship of the church; while we sing the song, on the first stanza, you come and stand by me, while all of us stand and sing our hymn of appeal together.