Baptists in Early America

From the time in the early 1600s that some of the early Puritans came to believe that infant baptism could not be justified on biblical grounds, to the final abolition of the last remaining compulsory religious taxation system in Massachusetts in 1833, the Baptists bore the brunt of the religious persecution and discrimination meted out in early American communities. The Baptists countered by waging a struggle against governmental support for established religion more persistently and effectively than any other dissenting group. While they could not have prevailed in this struggle without significant assistance from other quarters, the Baptists are to be credited with exerting unsurpassed influence on the pace and course of the emergence of religious liberty in America.

The Baptists’ struggle began in the New England colonies, whose Puritan founders believed themselves to constitute the vanguard of a ‘‘New Reformation’’ that would complete the work that Luther and Calvin had begun by restoring the purity of the early church. The Puritans believed that theirs was the one and only true church and faith, and all New England colonists were expected to support the New Reformation project by supporting the Puritan congregations in their local communities. Any who could not bring themselves to do so were free to leave, in the eyes of the Puritan leadership. Any who would not leave were to be punished, in an effort to force the dissenters to abandon their ways and return to living in conformity with Puritan beliefs and expectations.

New England colonists who came to believe that infant baptism was illegitimate would become known to the civil authorities when they would refuse to have their own children baptized, and either turn their backs when the children of other families were being baptized or walk out of the church to avoid participating in such ceremonies. These early Baptists were then hailed into court, where they were warned, fined, or even whipped if they gave any indication that they would repeat their offending behavior. Those who refused to pay the fine were imprisoned for an indeterminate period. Church authorities would inflict a parallel process of warnings, censure, and ultimately excommunication. These early Baptists were considered social pariahs, subjected to harassment and ostracism, and they were denied the right to vote or hold office. Most either left the colony as quickly as they could or decided that they would henceforth refrain from disrupting baptism ceremonies and keep their views to themselves. To worship openly together, much less organize formally as a church, was completely out of the question.

The Puritans were committed to maintaining some connection to the Church of England, in the hope of reforming it. Roger Williams, the pastor of the Puritan church at Salem, Massachusetts, came into conflict with Puritan officials when he advocated the view that the Church of England was a false church, and that the Puritans should separate themselves from it. Although the Puritans would become known as Congregationalists for their rejection of the Church of England’s system of Episcopal authority over the local congregation, they could not accept Williams’s call to break from the Church of England completely. The authorities banished Williams from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, and the next year he and some friends from the Salem church founded the colony of Providence Plantations, just to the south. After a number of English Baptists migrated to Providence between 1636 and 1639, Williams and his friends re-baptized themselves by immersion and formed the first Baptist church in America, in Providence. Although Williams would himself remain a Baptist for only a few months, the church continued on after him, and a second Baptist church was founded in nearby Newport by 1644.

In 1651 John Clarke, the pastor of the Newport church, and two of its members traveled to Lynn, Massachusetts, to preach in a private home. Massachusetts authorities arrested, tried, and gave them the choice of paying a fine or being whipped. Clarke and one of the others paid the fine, but the third, Obadiah Holmes, refused. He was tied to a stake on Boston Common, stripped to the waist, and given such a severe whipping that he was unable to leave Boston for several weeks. Clarke’s account of this incident was published in London a year later in an unsuccessful effort to persuade Parliament to require New England colonies to tolerate dissent.

Baptists persisted in Massachusetts, despite the persecution that they faced there. In 1654, the president of Harvard College, Henry Dunster, shocked his community when he refused to have his child baptized and publicly declared his opposition to infant baptism. When church leaders tried to persuade him of his error, Dunster responded that no support can be found for the practice of infant baptism in either the Bible or the practice of the early church. The Massachusetts legislature responded by passing a law stating that all dissenters should be removed from teaching positions at Harvard and in the public schools. Dunster was publicly admonished, required to give bond ensuring his future good behavior, and forced to resign from Harvard.

By 1665, Boston Baptists were worshipping in the home of their pastor, Thomas Goold, who along with other members of the Boston church was arrested and disenfranchised, and later imprisoned and sentenced to be banished. One of the first openings toward religious liberty in Massachusetts followed, when sixty-six residents submitted a petition asking the authorities to free and tolerate him and the others. Instead, the authorities gave Goold only a three-day release to attend to some private business. While out of prison on leave, Goold slipped away to an island where he could conduct services unmolested, until a more tolerant governor came into office in 1673, which enabled Goold to return openly to the Boston Baptist community.

When the authorities learned in 1679 that Boston’s Baptists had secretly built and begun to assemble in a meetinghouse, however, the legislature passed a law making it illegal to build any church structure without its permission. The Baptists agreed to stop using their building until later that year, when a letter arrived from King Charles II expressing his support for ‘‘freedom and liberty of conscience’’ for all non-Catholic Christians. From that point on, the Boston Baptist church was never bothered again, and no Baptist was ever again indicted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Although the overt persecution of Baptists had ended in the colony, its system of collecting taxes to support Congregationalist ministers and erect church buildings for each settlement remained in place. When Baptists would refuse to pay the tax, they were subject to imprisonment, and some of their property (for example, livestock) could be seized and sold at auction to pay the bill. In 1708, three local tax collectors (two Quakers and one Baptist) from Dartmouth were imprisoned for refusing to collect the religious tax. The governor intervened to secure their release, but when the problem erupted again in Dartmouth the Quakers presented a petition to the King and the Privy Council, which responded by exempting the residents of Dartmouth from the tax. The Privy Council decision prompted the adoption of a series of laws in Massachusetts and other New England colonies designed to exempt dissenters from the religious tax.

By 1735, the Baptists and other dissenters were more fully tolerated in New England than in England or in the southern colonies, where Anglicanism was legally established. Had the Great Awakening not burst on the New England scene in 1740, the Baptists might have remained content indefinitely with the legal status that they had achieved. The Great Awakening, however, split New England’s established churches between the New Lights, who were filled with evangelical fervor, and the Old Lights, who wished to retain prevailing styles of worship and beliefs. Over a period of years, many of the New Light Congregationalists who had separated from the established churches (who thus became known as Separates) adopted the Baptists’ belief that infant baptism is illegitimate, and eventually were absorbed into the Baptist denomination (and became known as Separate-Baptists). In a series of cases during the first three decades after the Great Awakening, Massachusetts authorities cited legal technicalities in an attempt to prevent the Separate-Baptists from availing themselves of the existing exemption for Baptists from local religious taxes.

Meanwhile, beginning in about 1765 the Separate-Baptists began sending a number of evangelists into the South, especially North Carolina and Virginia. In Virginia, the authorities had been granting dissenting congregations a limited number of licenses. The Quakers, Presbyterians, and Baptists who were in Virginia prior to the Great Awakening generally complied with this law. The Separate-Baptists refused, and as a result from 1768 to 1775 about forty Separate-Baptists were jailed for preaching without a license.

The young James Madison was horrified at what he saw, but he saw little hope of redressing the situation through Virginia’s colonial legislature. With the approach of the Revolutionary War, however, the tide began to turn. In 1775, with the assistance of Patrick Henry, the Virginia Baptist Association successfully petitioned for the right of Baptist ministers to minister to Baptist soldiers. In 1776, Virginia’s Revolutionary Convention adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights that, under Madison’s influence, guaranteed to all ‘‘the free exercise of religion.’’

When war came, tax support for the Church of England was halted, and after the war the Baptists argued against the adoption of a tax system that would support religion in general. Their former ally, Patrick Henry, now led the effort to have such a system adopted. Madison credited the persuasiveness of his ‘‘Memorial and Remonstrance’’ for defeating the general religious assessment measure, but the signatures on petitions against the measure submitted by evangelicals, principally Baptists and Presbyterians, outnumbered those on Madison’s document by five to one.

Seeing a valuable ally in Madison, John Leland, the leading Virginia Baptist champion of religious liberty, supported Madison’s election to Virginia’s convention to ratify the federal constitution and later to the U.S. House of Representatives in exchange for Madison’s promise to secure an amendment to the federal constitution guaranteeing religious liberty. Once this was achieved, Virginia’s Baptists then turned to the question of what was to be done with the property belonging to the former Church of England, now the Protestant Episcopal Church, which had been used to support its clergy. In a typical parish, this might include the parsonage and hundreds of acres of land. For over a decade, Baptists petitioned Virginia’s legislature, arguing persistently that this property belonged to all Virginians. By 1802, they had persuaded the legislature to create a system whereby this property would revert to the state as Episcopal clergy changed churches, retired, or died. This was the most sweeping social change that took place in Virginia during the Revolutionary era.

In Massachusetts, the laws exempting Baptists from religious taxation were widely accepted until 1773, when the regional Baptist association endorsed Separate-Baptist leader Isaac Backus’s call for the total abolition of the religion tax system. When Backus’s efforts failed to prevent Massachusetts from incorporating its religious tax system into the state constitution that it adopted post-independence to replace its colonial charter, the Baptists were left with challenging the system in court. In 1782, the Baptists succeeded in having a Bristol County court declare that the religious taxation system violated the state constitution, and by 1800 very few dissenters— whether Baptist, Universalist, Shaker, or Methodist—were being prosecuted for nonpayment of religious taxes.

The Baptists took the lead in persuading Vermont’s legislature to abolish its religious tax system in 1807, and Connecticut and New Hampshire followed suit in 1818 and 1819, respectively. In Massachusetts, the Baptists had largely turned their attention away from religious liberty concerns to an ambitious program of mission and social reform efforts. In 1820, when Massachusetts called a constitutional convention to resolve the legal issues arising from the separation of Maine from Massachusetts in 1819, Baptists sought to remove the religious taxation provisions from the Massachusetts Constitution, but in the old Congregationalist elite’s last stand they blocked the Baptist effort. It would be the Universalists who would eventually succeed in pushing for the abolition of Massachusetts’ religious tax system in 1833.

DAVID T. BALL

References and Further Reading

  • Buckley, Thomas E., Keeping Faith: Virginia Baptists and Religious Liberty, American Baptist Quarterly 22 (2003): 421–33. 
  • Isaac, Rhys, Evangelical Revolt: The Nature of the Baptists’ Challenge to the Traditional Order in Virginia, 1765 to 1775, William and Mary Quarterly 31 (1974): 345–68. 
  • McLoughlin, William G. New England Dissent, 1630–1833: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State. 2 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

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