The Baptist Principle of Religious Liberty
How many times have you heard it said, in conversation, that all religion should be banned for it is always at the root of starting wars? There is an element of truth in the fact that religion often is the root cause of armed conflict, such as is currently happening in parts of the middle east, religion was the cause of armed conflict in Northern Ireland and in many other places, throughout history, religion has never been far away from trouble and strife. But does this warrant barring all, or even some, religious beliefs and practices?
It often comes as a surprise to people that Baptists have historically held a conviction that there should be ‘religious liberty for all.’ In 1612 Thomas Helwys, an early dissenter, and a founder of the first Baptist church in England, wrote the Short Declaration of the Ministry of Iniquity, The King, he said, should only be responsible for earthly affairs and everyone should be free to enjoy freedom of conscience:-
Let them be heretiks, Turcks, Jewes, or whatsoever, it appertynes not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. (Helwys spelling – not mine!)
It should be made clear that not all Baptist thought this way but for Helwy’s followers, who were General Baptists, those who believed that free will was involved in conversion, this freedom became important as they argued that, if the state, or any form of church government, imposed a particular form of religious practice then they were in danger of making people hypocrites if they converted under pressure.
No doubt the fierce persecution that many dissenters such as Puritans and Baptists received influenced them as such that they would not treat others as they had been treated. They carried their conviction over to America, as pilgrim-fathers, and according to historian Ian M. Randall there was a strong movement of Baptist fighting for religious freedom across Europe peaking throughout the 1840’s – 1930’s, again through times of fierce persecution.
It strikes me, that at a time when we hear a lot in political campaigning about restricting the movement of people across Europe and from Africa, we have to be careful. Careful also, when we hear calls for banning faith schools e.g., careful, whatever our own political persuasion is, to give people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, the right to religious liberty even if we do not agree with them. Banning religion never usually works. Converting souls to Christ changes people forever. Let’s pray that it may be so.
A Prayer for All Humanity
O God of love, we pray thee to give us love:
Love in our thinking, love in our speaking,
Love in our doing, and love in the hidden places of our souls;
Love of our neighbours near and far;
Love of our friends, old and new;
Love of those with whom we find it hard to bear,
And love of those who find it hard to bear with us;
Love of those with whom we work,
And love of those with whom we take our ease;
Love in Joy, love in sorrow;
Love in life and love in death;
That so at length we may be worthy to dwell with thee,
Who art eternal love.
William Temple, 1881-1944
 David W. Bebbington, Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People, (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010), 198
 Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (1612; repr., London: Kingsgate Press for the Baptist Historical Society, 1935), 69, cited in, David W. Bebbington, Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People, (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010), 199
Ian M. Randall, (Oxford: Whitley Publications, 2012), 1-5
 Bebbington, Baptists Through the Centuries, 198-200
 Ian M. Randall, The Whitley Lecture 2012: Religious Liberty in Continental Europe, Campaigning by British Baptists, 1840’s-1930’s (Oxford: Whitley Publications, 2012), 1-5