In 1801, the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, penned a letter to the newly elected president, Thomas Jefferson, to declare their belief “that America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of State out of that good will which he bears to the Millions which you preside over.”1 In their view, Jefferson was a divine instrument for the purpose of securing and safeguarding religious liberty. The Danbury Baptists were speaking on behalf of thousands of Baptists in the early United States who still endured the weight of religious intolerance by their respective state churches. But the Danbury Association did not speak for all Baptists.
Jefferson’s famous reply, in which he referred to the First Amendment as erecting “a wall of separation between Church & State,” has led many historians to frame virtually all Baptists as Democratic-Republicans who shared a similar view.2 However, most Baptists did not define religious liberty in such strict separationist terms. In fact, many believed that Jefferson’s ideas about God and government were harmful to society.
In an era of American history in which certain states still boasted a tax-supported church, many Baptists partnered politically with actual Christian nationalists to realize their own vision of an America where religion was not established but still encouraged.3 They locked arms with Congregationalists and Episcopalians, denominations that traditionally opposed disestablishment, to promote various moral and social causes, and to regulate matters like immigration and the influx of foreign (i.e., French) ideas. Like many Baptists today, they emphasized freedom of conscience and the importance of the Bible to shape the minds and morals of citizens.
These Baptists help to expose two myths about religion in America: (1) The earliest Baptist supporters of the First Amendment intended a “wall” between church and state. (2) Baptists in the early United States agreed upon a universal definition of religious liberty.
Four Kinds of Baptists
The ultra-Jeffersonian Baptist John Leland (1754–1841) once called religious liberty the “polar star” of Baptist politics.4 However, to borrow a biblical analogy, in their pursuit of the “polar star” of religious freedom, Baptists did not always arrive in the same Bethlehem.
“Many Baptists believed that Jefferson’s ideas about God and government were harmful to society.”
Although Leland has become somewhat famous for wheeling his 1,235-pound cheese to the White House as a gift to his “hero” Jefferson, not every Baptist was a self-professed “dyed-in-the-skin” Democratic-Republican.5 On one hand, due to their common cause in disestablishing religion, there is a sense in which every Baptist in the early United States was “Jeffersonian.” On the other hand, most Baptists were not willing to remove religion from government in the same way that Jefferson wished to extricate government from religion.
In fact, there were at least four kinds of Baptists who qualified their Jeffersonianism: (1) those Democratic-Republicans who supported Jefferson but did not share his view of religious liberty, (2) Federalists who applauded Jefferson’s push for religious liberty but who partnered with establishmentarians due to a common belief in the importance of Christianity as the basis for good government, (3) anti-Jeffersonians who believed Jefferson’s ideas were dangerous and undermined public morality, and (4) those who were so disillusioned with party politics that they chose not to support any candidate, including Jefferson. Like their spiritual descendants today, Baptists in the early republic were a diverse bunch.
Democratic-Republican but Not Separationist
Isaac Backus, pastor of Middleborough Baptist Church in Massachusetts, had every reason to be a Jefferson man. At the Continental Congress in 1774, John Adams dismissed the former Congregationalist when the latter contended for “the liberty of worshipping God according to our consciences, not being obliged to support a ministry we cannot attend.”6 Like most Separate Baptists, Backus had experienced the hostility of the so-called “Standing Order” clergymen in the Federalist Party. As the chairman of the Grievance Committee in the Warren Association, he documented complaints of religious persecution by Baptists.
But Backus was not interested in building a wall between church and state. He believed in the “sweet harmony” between religion and civil government, and he also did not object to compulsory attendance at public worship, teaching of the Westminster Confession in New England schools, and strict observance of the Sabbath.7 Backus once referred to Roger Williams’s Rhode Island as an “irreligious colony,” bristling at the thought of a more secular America where Christianity was removed from the public square.
Thomas Baldwin defended Jefferson publicly after his election in 1800. However, as pastor of Second Baptist Church of Boston and as chaplain of the General Court of Massachusetts, Baldwin was on friendly terms with Federalists. In the so-called “benevolent empire” that arose in the early republic, Baldwin worked with Congregationalists in various moral and missionary endeavors.8 Of Baldwin it was said that “no important association seemed complete unless it had enrolled him as its President.”9
However, Baldwin’s vision of America included more than voluntary societies. He also campaigned for publicly funded biblical education. In a sermon delivered before the Federalist governor of Massachusetts in 1802, Baldwin insisted that there was cause “no more deserving of legislative attention, than the education of youth and children.” Without the “religion of the Bible,” he argued, America would certainly lose its most basic liberties. Sensitive to the “irreligion” sometimes associated with the “Republican name,” Baldwin’s response to the First Amendment wasn’t to keep Bibles out of schools, but to teach children “the essential articles of the ‘Faith once delivered to the Saints.’”10
Federalists Who Appreciated Jefferson
The second group of Baptists who did not adopt Jefferson’s “wall” metaphor were not Democratic-Republicans at all. These Baptists affiliated with the Federalist party not because they believed that religion should be wedded to the state, but because they feared the tyranny of a state completely divorced from religion.11
Charleston Baptist Richard Furman honored Jefferson as a founder of the nation, but he aligned with Federalists because they shared his ideal of a Christian citizenry. Furman was vice president of the Charleston Bible Society, which met in the home of his friend and vice-presidential candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Furman’s Southern network included Episcopal and Presbyterian pastors, and his favorite American theologian was Yale President Timothy Dwight, the leading clergymen of the “Standing Order” and the grandson of Jonathan Edwards.12 He also partnered with the most notable Federalists in the South when he led in the formation of a “Society” in Charleston “for encouraging Emigration of virtuous citizens from other countries.” According to his own combination of religious liberty and religious nationalism, Furman, a slaveowner, sought to regulate the influx of “those about to leave Europe” whom he deemed injurious to American society.13
There were, in fact, a host of Baptist Federalists in the early republic, men who did not excoriate Jefferson publicly but who were suspicious of his beliefs. These men included Hezekiah Smith, Oliver Hart, Morgan Edwards, James Manning, and Henry Holcombe. John Mason Peck named his youngest son after John Adams.14 Not surprisingly, they were proponents of education and moral improvement, causes they believed to be impossible with a “wall” separating church and state. To reach the poor and spread the gospel, these men worked with all sorts of Protestant denominations — and sometimes with Roman Catholics. In New Orleans in 1817, the young Federalist William B. Johnson was even asked to preach at St. Louis Cathedral for a benefit for the Poydras Orphan Asylum. Father Anthony of the local diocese approved of the homily, but he requested to “see his sermon before he preaches it.”15
The third group of Baptists who opposed Jefferson’s “wall” were in fact Jefferson’s most bitter opponents. These Baptists defy the stereotypical Lelandian caricature of Baptists who praised “America’s God” for raising up Jefferson. In fact, they were anti-Jeffersonian.
Jonathan Maxcy was a brilliant college President who served at three different institutions. He spent most of his career in New England and South Carolina, two hotbeds of Baptist Federalism. Maxcy was judged by some to be a “violent politician” whose “sarcasms against the Anti-Federalists” were viewed as incompatible for a man of his office. The year before “the revolution of 1800,” Maxcy warned his audience of “foreign foes and domestic traitors” in America who were “continually advancing opinions and doctrines which tend to its subversion.” The nativistic Maxcy believed that Jefferson posed a threat to religious liberty with his “foreign influence and foreign intrigue” and his “utmost efforts to ruin our government.”16 His case against a Jeffersonian wall was simple: “The most salutary laws can have no effect against general corruption of sentiments and morals. The American people, therefore, have no way to secure their liberty, but by securing their religion.”
Samuel Stillman, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Boston, launched the same kind of verbal assaults in Jefferson’s direction. In 1795, he warned his hearers of “men of boundless ambition, who become heads of parties, and spare no pains to get into place.”17 These kinds of thinly veiled shots at Jefferson were not uncommon in New England, even among Baptists.
Neither Democratic-Republican nor Federalist
Stillman was a personal friend of John Adams. However, the last group of Baptists who opposed Jefferson were friends of neither Adams nor Jefferson. Some, like Georgia Baptist Jesse Mercer, simply did not vote, “for he said all parties had aberrated so far from the constitution, that he could not conscientiously vote for the candidates.”18 In 1798, Mercer wrote the article of the Georgia constitution guaranteeing religious liberty. However, at least by the end of Jefferson’s presidency, Mercer no longer identified with the principles that Jefferson had bequeathed to the Democratic-Republican party.
“Religious liberty has always united — and to some extent divided — Baptists in America.”
A closer look at the political leanings of Baptists in the early United States reveals a people who were remarkably similar to Baptists and other evangelicals today. They wrestled with the influence of ideas on society, the importance of shaping children’s minds, the responsibility of Christians to practice their faith, the relationship between religious liberty and nationalism, and the inherent tension of supporting political parties led by men who denied some of their most basic convictions. There is truly nothing new under the Baptist sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
By examining our Baptist ancestors, we are reminded that religious liberty has long united — and to some extent divided — Baptists in America. However, within this spectrum of views, it is doubtful that the majority of Baptists, including the Danbury Association, ever intended to build a “wall” between church and state.19