WHY LOCAL CHURCHES AND NOT A STATE CHURCH

imgresBy Geo. B. Eager, D. D.
Pastor First Baptist Church
Montgomery, Alabama

Take heed therefore unto yourselves and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. – Acts 20:28.

These things write I unto thee * * * that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. – 1 Tim. 3:14-15.

And Jesus answering said unto them; Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. – Mark 12:17.

THE question is timely. It is old, but ever new. It is brought to the attention of the world now in a most dramatic way by the war with Spain and by the declared purpose of the United States to see to it that the inhabitants of the territory over which Spain relinquishes or cedes her sovereignty shall be secured in the free exercise of their religion. It is a leading issue in England, indeed in all European lands, to-day. The influence of the United States upon other countries where the old order of the union of church and state survives, is incalculable. The ideas or forces that Baptists have stood for conspicuously and immemorially, and which have become dominant here are powerfully operative elsewhere. The Protestant church in Ireland has been set free from the control of the state; Scotland is asking for the application of the same principle of religious equality; the Welsh are seeking the severance of the tie that binds the Episcopal church in Wales to the British Parliament, and all England is at this moment wrestling as in a life and death struggle with the problem of dis-establishment. Indeed, it would seem, as Dr. John Clifford has said, as if the separation of church and state were already an accomplished fact in the habitual thought of the English people. According to the Bishop of Hereford, Episcopalians themselves, are ”already prepared, if not to welcome, yet unfearingly to allow, the total severance of the bond which has bound together for so many centuries the Anglican church and the crown.” In all lands where the church has been dependent on secular authority, as Dr. David J. Burrell, of New York, says, there has been a noticeable spirit of subserviency among ministers of the gospel-as where the chaplain of Queen Anne was required to whistle his prayers through the keyhole of her majesty’s chamber-a continual dwindling and dwarfing of the church’s power, finding expression at length in the complaint, ”O my leanness, my leanness.” Meanwhile in our great republic, which knows no establishment and pensions no sect, the growth of the Evangelical churches and the presence of living and spiritual forms of worship have been beyond all parallel in the former history of the world.

When Pere Hyacinthe was asked to pass judgment on our American institutions, he said: ”Their foundation is the Bible, the living Word of Christ. When I return to my native France I shall say that I have found a land where liberty is associated with Christianity, and have been among a people who do not think that to be free they must necessarily part from God.”

Now, what part have the Baptists played in bringing about this state of things? Well, not to attempt to peer into ”the remotest depths of antiquity,” to go back no further than the emergence of what is technically known as ”Anabaptisin,” which in the crisis caused by the decay of mediaeval institutions arose, ”asserting that Christendom must be renewed in the spirit of its Founder and according to His commands,” they have played a vital and important part, as historians are coming to concede, in this modern ”renewal of Christendom.”

Their uprising, as Richard Heath says, was ”not the outcome of a mere spirit of sectarianism, nor was it at all local, or national, but as worldwide in its aims and sympathies as Christianity itself.” ”It started with the doctrine that the divine was in all men, not produced there by the sacramental efficacy of baptism, or through an act of faith, but by the will of God, who, in creating man, breathed into him a breath of the divine life-a doctrine instinct with the idea of universal love.” (”Early Anabaptism” by Richard Heath, Contemporary Review, April, 1895.) The LutUeran and Zwinglian reformers, it soon became apparent, could not in fact draw any dividing line without taking upon themselves the office of judge and excluding those whom they had already, as a church, declared to be ”children of God and members of the kingdom of heaven.” For all baptized into their particular communion formed the church, all without, the world. ”The Lutheran, Zwinglian and Roman Catholic churches were so broad that they contained not only churches and cathedrals, hospitals and almshouses, but brothels and prisons, scaffolds and barracks. They not only made use of altars and pulpits and communion tables, but also of swords and sacks, gallows and wheels, flaming faggots and red hot pincers. Shambles for Christian and cattle were both to be found within the Catholic, Lutheran, or Zwinglian kingdom of heaven, as in fact in every part of Christendom where church and state were two names for one and the same community.”

Now, the Anabaptists revolted at this. And what, if in doing so they, like Savonarola and every other man and woman of kindred spirit of those dark times who would make no compromise with the world-church, or the church-world, drifted to material and political ruin? Was any other course open to them? ”A conviction born of the conscience and testified to by the prophets of every religion at every period, assured them that such opposition was the only course left to the man who would be true to the divine light within.” Destruction of body or soul-that was the dread alternate offered to the Anabaptist, and he heroically decided to stand by the soul. The churches of the Reformers-reformers that only half reformed-were ”established,” as we know, and their way of thinking of the church became widely triumphant throughout Chrstendom; while the Anabaptists, for a time, went to the wall. But the soul of their contention ”goes marching on.” They ”raised the banner of justice and truth, the banner struck down so many times, and yet still the symbol of a cause impossible to conquer.” To the people, to ”the common man,” whose cause they espoused, they represented their right to manage their own religious affairs, and to preserve their consciences from being enslaved by their masters. The first article in every draft of the demands of the peasants in 1525 was that ”every parish should elect its own pastor, and that he should be one who preached the Gospel.” The Roman church handed over the conscience of the people of Europe to be used for the enjoyment and profit of the world-power with which she had allied herself. Against that enslavement the Anabaptists were the only party among the Reformers who protested. The children of the kingdom in their eyes were free from the service of the kings of the earth. If they paid tribute it must be from motives of love and a desire to be at peace with all men. The King whom they served showed little respect to the church-world in Judea or Galilee. Nor did he stop at words, but cleared His Father’s house of the sacrilegious trades and money dealers by force. Was it altogether strange, then, if they came at last to conceive this to be the way to treat rulers who, calling themselves Christian, were Pagan in spirit and action, and institutions which, though Christian in name, more and more discovered the spirit of Pagan Rome? This position finally led them to the great, sad struggle at Munster. The leaders who stood firmly by the injunction, ”Resist not evil,” had either been put to death, or hurried out of life, and new ones had arisen who took the view that made that struggle possible. More and more they felt, as their successors have continued to feel, that the world they had to deal with was not a pure heathendom governed by Pilates and Gallios, but a world-church in which the powers that ruled were Scribes and Pharisees led by Sadducean princes of the type of Annas and Caiaphas. Of the melancholy details of this struggle, and of how it became the soul of the great struggle for the triumph of social democracy in northwestern Europe, I need not speak. Suffice to say that the tendency of the Anabaptists to unite their fortunes with those of the people, of ”the common man,” as the phrase was, was the natural result of the faith that believed Christ, the light of the world, dwelt in every man. Man as man to them was a sacred being, the tabernacle of God on earth. To oppress man was to oppress God; to defraud man was to defraud God. This view lay in the mind of the Anabaptist of the sixteenth century, not clearly always, but at least in embryo and their earlier and best teachers were the precursors and prophets of an intensely Christian humanitarianism. Moreover it can hardly be doubted that it was the working of this belief in the indwelling divine light that rendered so abhorrent to Anabaptists the imposition on the conscience of human laws and ordinances, or the attempt to enchain it in superstition, or by oaths. Whatever excesses or cruelties of ”the mad mer of Munster” may seem to squint in another direction, the existence of the saving light in every man is the pivot upon which Devack’s whole teaching turns, and it is impossible to resist the conclusion that the Munster theology and excesses were not a natural development of the earlier and true Anabaptist theology.

”The true spirit of Anabaptism,” says Heath, ”was one of tender regard for the conscience as the dwelling place of God. Not only was it the Holy Place where the Shechinah manifested itself, but it was the altar on which lay bound the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” ”God struggling, God crucified, God dying in the human conscience-this is the awe-inspiring- conception which it seems to me lay at the root of the earlier Anabaptist theology.” In any case, the thought of the indwelling God armed the poor Anabaptists with a superhuman courage. A divine companion was in the fires with them. ”In all their affliction he was afflicted,” and in no part of their being was the crime so deeply felt as in their outraged consciences.

”Thus largely as it seems to me,” says the same candid author, ”through their sufferings and testimony, the human conscience, as the dwelling place of God on earth, has been invested with a sacredness unknown in the church of Rome or in the Lutheran, Zwinglian, Calvinistic or Puritan churches. Without in the least derogating from the honor due to the noble army of martyrs who, in all lands and ages, and of all creeds and religions, have practically died for this holy cause, we may claim a leading and definite place for the Anabaptists, since it was they who, first of all Christian people, claimed liberty of conscience as a divine right which no power on earth may deny. And when we think that from liberty of conscience naturally flowed liberty of thought and liberty of worship, free speech and a free press, we may form some faint idea of the debt of gratitude mankind owes the Anabaptists.”

The world is familiar with the memorable words of George Bancroft, the historian, and research only tends to confirm them: ”Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, was from the first the trophy of the Baptists.”

Baptists in Old England, in early New England and in Virginia were of a kindred faith and spirit and were relentlessly persecuted. Everywhere they are found contending for the separation of church and state and for the absolute independence of the individual conscience. In the year 1638, in Rhode Island, according to the Geffeken, Roger Williams, ”founded the first community which recognized that no civil authority had a right to interfere in matters of religion.”

”So let it pass from lip to lip,
And be our boast for aye,
That Freedom’s anchor first took grip
In Narragansett Bay.”

The American Baptist Home Mission Society would seem to have been justified in saying in a memorial to congress adopted at Philadelphia, May 27,1892, ”It is the unquestionable honor of our religious ancestry that, seeing clearly the imperial dignity of the human conscience, as Christ has made it free under his sole and supreme lordship, it has constantly and consistently contended that the right of the state shall pertain to civil things only.” ”I do not know among Christians,” said the eloquent Bossuet, pleading for persecution, ”any but Socinians and Anabaptists who oppose persecution.” It is well known that it was through an appeal to President Washington by the Baptists of Virginia that the immortal “first amendment” to the constitution was suggested, which requires that “congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But why all this? Why this contention of Baptists everywhere and always for independency, for the untrammeled rights of conscience, for the local, rather than the state church? What is it that makes them in this particular most singular and most American of Americans?

The answer is not far to seek. Their immemorial principles have ever required it of them. Their consciences compelled such a course. To them liberty of conscience, liberty to obey their consciences has been from the first, as the old London Confession of 1643 has it,”The tenderest thing,” the thing “most dear unto them,” “without which all other liberties are not worth the naming, much less enjoying;” and they have for the most part, if not always counted him “thrice happy,” to quote the same old confession, “who should lose life for witnessing though but for the least tittle of the truth of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In true Pauline fashion they would still give outline sketches of a divine ideal and glow with hope when writing of the future.

“Still through our paltry stir and strife,
Glows down the wished ideal;
And longing moulds in clay what life
Carves in the marble real.”

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