|First Baptist Church of|
Providence, the oldest
in the United States
I don’t mean to imply that all Baptists or all Republicans are stupid. Far from it. True, I have no respect for anyone of any party or religion who drinks the ideological Kool-Aid and liberal Democrats and Katholik Krazies can do that as blindly and blithely as conservative whacko-Jesus Tea-partiers. I have only contempt for those of any party or religion who serve up the toxic potion—they know better—and I would put our four Congressional horses’ asses of the Apocalypse in this category. I can’t pray “Father, Forgive them for they know not what they do” as they very well know how they are manipulating the truth for the most unsavory of political ends. But how does this relate to their being Baptists?
Let’s look at Baptist history and perhaps we can discover the flaw that skews our friends both intellectually and morally.
In our series on the history of Anglicanism we saw that the Baptists developed out of the radical congregationalism of non-Conformist groups that broke with historic Established Church in England during the period of the Commonwealth/English Civil War.
A Church of England priest, John Smyth, had gone to serve an English congregation in Amsterdam as early as 1609 because he had come to believe that the privileged position under English Law of the Established Church was contrary to the scriptures. Smyth also believed that one must first believe and then be baptized—that the practice of infant baptism was contrary to the Scriptures. In the Netherlands Smyth had become familiar with Mennonites, a sect who came out of the Anabaptist tradition. The Mennonites had been founded by Menno Simmons, a Dutch Catholic priest who, in the 1530’s had broken with the Catholic Church over several practices, including infant baptism, which he considered contrary to scripture. Smyth would eventually himself become a Mennonite as did many of his followers. Some of his followers under Thomas Helwys returned to England and established a congregation at Spitalfields in today’s East End of London. Helwys, like Smyth, rejected the idea of an Established Church and believed that the King (that is to say, the Government) had no right over the conscience of his subjects and that all should be free to worship God as he pleased. This led to his imprisonment in Newgate prison where he died in 1616.
Meanwhile, Roger Williams who had apprenticed in Law under the great English jurist, Sir Edward Coke, but who had been ordained in the Church of England left England in 1631 for Boston in the great Puritan migration fleeing the High Churchmanship of Charles I and his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Williams had moved from a position of Puritanism within the Church of England to a more radical Congregationalist Puritanism, but one that was a bit extreme even for the Boston Puritans. Williams insisted that the civil authorities must have no power to punish religious dissent. His principles were: separation from the Established Church, freedom of conscience, and separation of Church and State. The Puritans at Boston, while not anxious to be part of the Established Church of England, were not about to reject the use of civil power to enforce conformity to their own particular brand of religion, nor were they about to let each person worship as they might please. When Williams’ opinions rendered him unacceptable to Puritan authorities in Boston, he moved to Salem and later to Plymouth where the Church employed him, but eventually the more traditional Puritans managed to have him summoned before the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to answer for his separatist views. He was accused of spreading “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions” and before he could be apprehended he fled to Raynham Massachusetts where he was sheltered for the winter by the Native Americans, and from there in the spring he and a band of followers settled in what is now Providence, Rhode Island. Within two years of his settling in Rhode Island, Williams became convinced of the importance of believer’s baptism and had himself rebaptized by Ezekiel Holliman before the end of 1638. Williams and his followers constituted the first Baptist congregation in the United States and the congregation survives today as the First Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island. Williams did not long a Baptist; he was troubled by the lack of an apostolic continuity and came to believe that Christians must await the Divine appointment of new apostles who would restore the Church. The Baptist congregation which he established, however, did and does survive as I just noted.
English Baptists tended to reject the Calvinist doctrine of double pre-destination by which some have been destined from before time for salvation and others for eternal damnation. With his strict Puritan roots, however, Williams was a staunch Calvinist. Baptists who believe in double pre-destination are Particular Baptists; those who hold to Free Will are General Baptists. Perhaps it would be clearer to explain that Particular Baptists hold that Christ died for each person who has been pre-destined by that atonement for salvation. Salvation is thus particular. General Baptists believe that Christ died for the atonement of the sins of all people and that while all are not necessarily saved, grace is available to all. Salvation is thus general.
Rhode Island was established on the principle of Religious Freedom and there was even a Jewish congregation founded before the end of the seventeenth century. While there was no overt persecution of Catholics, they were never welcomed in Rhode Island and at the time of the American Revolution there is no record of a single Catholic living in the State which is very strange given that they were found in every other State of the New Republic, even Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia—all of which had strong laws against them.
Baptists have a very strange intellectual history. While both Smyth in England and Williams in America were products of the Oxbridge system and competent scholars, and while the Providence Church was associated with the establishment of Brown University, the predominance of Baptists—along with Methodists and Presbyterians—in the Second Great Awakening drastically changed the character of American Baptists.
The Second Great Awakening was a religious revival, principally on the American Frontier, in the last years of the 18th century and the first three decades of the 19th. The insufficient numbers of trained clergy to meet the spiritual hungers of the rapidly expanding frontier led to a predominance of lay preaching which replaced a biblical literalism for the more intellectually sound biblical theology of classic Protestant thought. Indeed, the revival marks the triumph of raw religious emotionalism over intellectual integrity in a way that would only appall Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and the other Reformation Fathers. The Bible came to mean whatever the preacher wanted it to mean, regardless of the eighteen hundred years of Christian prayer, reflection, and study that had gone before. This fell right in line with the radical individualism that had blighted Protestantism since Luther’s profound conviction that Christ had died “for me” overshadowed the classic doctrine that Christ had “died for humankind.” This emphasis on individual belief and individual salvation continues to undermine sound ecclesiology in modern America where even we Catholics tend to exalt individual opinion over adherence to a common creed.
Contemporary Baptists range from the theologically sophisticated like Harvey Cox, Amy Butler, the late Warren T. Carr, Robert Bernard or Dale Wood Peterson to the self-anointed mad men at the other end of the spectrum such as the late Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. Unfortunately, the anti-intellectual approach of Biblical fundamentalism that totally ignores the biblical scholarship of the last two centuries tends to predominate among Baptists giving a rather dunce-like cast to their reputation. Preachers like Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and the late Gerry Falwell have not helped improve the reputation.
Franklin Graham’s father, The Reverend Doctor Billy Graham, was no bright light of Christian academia, but much like such Catholic figures such as Mother Theresa or Dorothy Day he exercised such a strong example of an applied Christian Faith that he has had an unparalleled moral influence on American life, a stronger influence than any theologian. Other contemporary “evangelists” have often proved to be at best entrepreneurs, and too often just plain charlatans but Billy Graham is a true American icon. Unfortunately his son and others have done much to dismantle the Empire of Christian credibility that Billy Graham built by his decades of walking the walk as well as talking the talk.
A common Texas expression “A Baptist Bar,” for a bar concealed behind panels in a wall when fellow churchies come to visit, has come to typify “evangelical morality” which is seen to emphasize a public righteousness that conceals private iniquity. Frankly in this 21st century all Christians of any and all denominations need to clean up our act where we flaunt virtues that are no more than a phony veneer that make us appear more upright than we truly are. Whether it is the sex scandals in our (and others’) church, the inordinate salaries and lifestyles of some preachers , the fiscal fleecing of the flocks entrusted to our care, or the just general dishonesty that is an universal after-effect of original sin, we need to do some repairs on our own houses before we start throwing stones at the unchurched.