Whatever words a person uses to describe the daily news, we often think about our political activity in relation to our Baptist beliefs. And when we look at our own history to learn more about a proper relationship with the government, the results can seem daunting. Some Baptists were very involved in political activity; some Baptists had a strong conviction against it.
Why such a big difference? First, differences in thinking have occurred over the centuries and even in our own lifetimes. Second, numerous groups go by the name Baptist. Third, ways to look at political involvement abound, and individuals differ even within the many groups of Baptists.
What has been your history of political involvement or noninvolvement? My foray into politics came when I was in junior high back in 1960. I found myself going into the local Republican headquarters in my Republican hometown for some info, and got inspired to come back each Saturday to help. It was fun! Election night came, and I was eagerly waiting for the returns. But the next day, I returned from school, lay on my bed and “wept bitterly.” Facing a Catholic president, I was sure that life as I had known it in my quiet town had come to an end. It didn’t though, and my involvement in politics over the years, besides “vote and pray,” has been more or less incidental.
Menno Simons and the Anabaptists. Though many Baptists like to trace their origin all the way back to the early New Testament church, I begin during the 1400s and 1500s in Europe, during the era of the Protestant Reformation. Luther and Calvin were covenant theologians and kept the sacramental system of Roman Catholicism from which they came. Many Christians are not as familiar with other reformers who instead went further in doctrinal convictions—“radical reformers” they were called. One was Menno Simons, whose followers became known as Mennonites. He and his group rejected infant baptism and other Catholic teachings and practices. These Christians were given the nickname “Anabaptists” (rebaptizers) because they embraced believer’s baptism rather than infant baptism and rejected the idea that the ordinances had saving merit.
These believers were persecuted severely by both Catholics and Protestants. Many were put to death, often by drowning since they, in the words of their persecutors, “liked water” due to their practice of immersion. They were also persecuted because they did not believe in a “state church.” Bruce L. Shelley wrote in his book Church History in Plain Language, “Christians, they [Anabaptists] claimed, were a ‘free, unforced, uncompelled people.’ Faith is a free gift of God, and civil authorities exceed their competence when they ‘champion the Word of God with a fist.’ The church, said the Anabaptist, is distinct from society, even if society claims to be Christian. Christ’s true followers are a pilgrim people; and his church is a marching demonstration of perpetual aliens. By separating church and state the Anabaptists became the first Christians . . . to preach a thoroughgoing religious liberty: the right to join in worship with others of like faith without state support and without state persecution.”
John Bunyan and early Baptists. In time, Anabaptist movement spread to England, and the simple name “Baptist” emerged. Baptists such as John Bunyan, who wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress in prison, stand out.
“If you ever write an historical essay on early Baptist life in either England or the American Colonies, a good place to begin your research is in the records of court proceedings, search warrants, and prison records,” writes Walter B. Shurden, executive director of The Center for Baptist Studies. “Baptists bled in their earliest years of the seventeenth century, and they remained handcuffed in much of the eighteenth century.” These early Baptists focused their political dissension on the developing concept of religious liberty. Shurden notes, “Baptists, a minority people, grounded their affirmation for religious freedom to some degree in their own historical experience of deprivation.” Shurden describes how Obadiah Holmes, an early Baptist pastor in New England, was publicly whipped on the streets of Boston. His crime? Writing a Baptist catechism to teach Baptist doctrines to children.
Isaac Backus arrived at his Baptist convictions later in life, leaving the Congregational church to plant a new Baptist church in Middleborough, Mass. But the colonial government continued to insist that he pay his tax to the Congregational church. When Backus refused, he was arrested. He was arrested again when he published a book of lessons for children—a book that rejected infant baptism. His experience led him to write “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty.” He would become a delegate to the First Continental Congress and later voted to ratify the United States Constitution at the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention of 1788.
William Wilberforce has lately been in the spotlight through books and even a movie that tells of his involvement with political action. Wilberforce became burdened about the nefarious slave trade business to the point that he declared, “God has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [morals].” As opportunities arose when he became involved in politics, he encouraged King George III to reissue a proclamation “for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue and for the Preventing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality.” Wilberforce also set up groups to address social issues such as justice, drunkenness, lewdness, animal cruelty, and poor literature. Though properly called an English Dissenter (not a Baptist), Wilberforce nevertheless identified with and supported individuals like William Carey, Baptist missionary to India.
So in England and then in the U.S., Baptists often influenced public discourse in their quest for religious freedom. Some pastors even engaged in an active political life, especially regarding issues that conflicted with their core Baptist convictions. But questions persisted. Is there a difference between private political activism and a church’s public ministry? Is there a difference between a pastor’s private convictions and his public pulpit ministry?
William Bell Riley, longtime pastor of First Baptist Church, Minneapolis, was one of many outspoken preachers who did not hesitate to give the public direction on political matters of the early 1900s. In W. B. Riley: Architect of Fundamentalism, C. Allyn Russell notes that “Riley’s significance for both Minnesota and the rest of the nation is being increasingly recognized as scholars gain perspective upon the development of religion in America, especially that phase of it known as the modernist-fundamentalist conflict. His labors as preacher, pastor-evangelist, administrator, debater, author, evangelical educator, civil leader, and social critic led some academicians to hail him as ‘the ablest leader of orthodox reaction during the early part of the twentieth century,’ ‘the ablest executive that fundamentalism produced,’ and founder of ‘the only inclusive fellowship of fundamentalists in America.’ (The latter referred to the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, the organization that retained Bryan for the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925.)
“Riley’s friends went beyond even these accolades to acclaim him as ‘the country’s foremost and ablest controversialist,’ ‘the second Martin Luther of Protestantism,’ and worthy of being compared to evangelical leader Charles H. Spurgeon, ‘in the largeness of his work.’” There was hardly an issue that affected society that Riley did not speak out about—whether liquor issues, evolution, morality, capital punishment, communism, government aid, gambling, prostitution, dancing, theater, divorce, and observance of the Lord’s Day. His efforts in education by beginning his Bible college, Northwestern, made it possible for many other “W. B. Rileys” to influence the country, as well as those who were influenced in other ways by this giant.
As the 1900s continued, the difference between Baptist liberals and Baptist conservatives/fundamentalists became more evident. Both groups began to flex their muscles more and more concerning politics and social issues. German Baptist pastor Walter Rauschenbush is recognized as the main force in the modernist “social gospel” thinking.
Martin Luther King Jr. might also be one of the leading representatives of the liberal side. Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute describes how King “made history . . . [through] his extensive network of contacts in the peace and social justice movements of his time. . . . King’s formative experiences . . . introduced him to the African-American social gospel tradition exemplified by his father and grandfather, both of whom were leaders of the Atlanta branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Depression-era breadlines heightened King’s awareness of economic inequities, and his father’s leadership of campaigns against racial discrimination in voting and teachers’ salaries provided a model for the younger King’s own politically engaged ministry. He resisted religious emotionalism and as a teenager questioned some facets of Baptist doctrine, such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus.”
Jerry Falwell, pastor of the large Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Va., made a “decision to go against the traditional Baptist principle of separating religion and politics . . . when he perceived the decay of the nation’s morality.” He began a series of “I Love America” rallies across the country “to raise awareness of social issues.” Falwell made extensive use of television, radio, literature, and his Liberty University to get his concerns across to the American people, and his influence had a great bearing on Ronald Reagan’s becoming U.S. president in the 1980s. The movement was called “Moral Majority.” As that decade ended, the financial base of the movement declined, but Falwell declared in 1989, “Our goal has been achieved. . . . The religious right is solidly in place and . . . religious conservatives in America are now in for the duration.”
Prior to Falwell, it should be noted, a great movement struck California in the late 1950s and 1960s. While writing this article, I accidentally stumbled upon a new book in my local library titled From Bible Belt to Sunbelt by Darren Dochuk. It details the migration of many fundamental believers from various parts of the country, primarily the South, to sunny southern California and cites the host of religious enterprises, local churches, and preachers that came to greatly influence the region at that time and following, including the “Jesus Movement.” I was surprised to find that one main focus of the book was on the church and its school I taught at following graduation from college! Following an evangelistic campaign, “[Bob] Wells . . . founded Central Baptist and secured a fifteen-acre orange grove. . . . Neighbors recognized Wells’s church as the ‘most rapidly growing church in Orange County.’ . . . Bob Wells expected his charges to remain vigilant in the political realm, and he was determined to do his best to assist them.” Wells did combine strong preaching with political action. The book describes the influence of numerous other fundamental/evangelical groups and individuals in the region too, Baptist and non-Baptist—Tim LaHaye, Henry Morris, James Dobson, radio station KGER, and J. Vernon McGee, to name a few.
What can we learn from our history?
We see that through the centuries, a wide range of political involvement has characterized Baptists—from noninvolvement due to factors like persecution, to championing religious liberty, to very much involvement in more recent days by many. America was founded on Christian principles, but America is such a melting pot that we now live in a country where Muslims, cultists, and other religions demand their freedoms even if it would endanger ours. Humanists, evolutionists, homosexuals, and other blocs of people we believe to be contrary to the Scriptures demand changes in the law to grant their lifestyles and philosophies free reign. So what should we do? Baptists, the champions of individual soul liberty, must answer that question before God. When considering political involvement, we must obey the Scriptures in all areas (Acts 5:29), seek God’s will personally and in our churches, and keep eternity foremost. God has promised never to leave or forsake us. The Bible tells us to watch, to pray, to look up, and to occupy until Jesus comes for us.
Norm Olson is senior editor of the Baptist Bulletin.