Joseph Martin Dawson

2012-06-11 13:43:54

Joseph Martin Dawson, ordained Baptist minister and advocate of religious liberty and church–state separation, was cofounder of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, for which he served as first acting director and executive secretary (1947–1948). The first full-time executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (1946– 1953), Dawson left an indelible mark on Baptist social thought, linking it for decades with a brand of church–state separationism that shaped a generation of American jurists, including Justice Hugo Black.

Born in 1879 near Waxahachie, Texas, Dawson was a natural leader with a passion for writing and preaching, which served him well throughout his career as a champion of religious liberty. A graduate of Baylor University (1904 valedictorian), Dawson was founding editor of the school’s student paper, The Lariat. During and after college, Dawson served as pastor at several Texas churches, including a thirtyone- year stint (1915–1946) at the First Baptist Church of Waco.

Under the influence of the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, Dawson incorporated elements of the ‘‘social gospel’’ in his sermons and publications. An opponent of racial prejudice, Dawson once publicly condemned the Ku Klux Klan from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church to an audience consisting almost entirely of Klan members.

Dawson opposed government funding of religious institutions, including hospitals and schools, as well as the use of public schools to teach religious doctrine. As Dawson writes in Journal of Church and State, ‘‘What the Constitution of the United States forbids and what the constitutions of all the states forbid . . . is the making of any law or the action of any government authority in pursuance of any law that involves the interlocking of the official functions of the state (or any of its agencies) with the official functions of any church.’’ This view, according to Dawson, is consistent with military chaplaincy and clergy offering invocations at legislative sessions because, in both cases the government is not making an agreement or contract with a religious organization, but rather, with ‘‘an individual qualified to perform the services asked for.’’ Ironically, many contemporary separationists disagree.

In 1951, Dawson was instrumental in helping to convince President Harry S. Truman not to assign a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Dawson found common cause with nativists and secularists in their suspicion of the influence of Roman Catholic immigrants on American public life. But what some considered a legitimate concern to preserve American democracy, others saw as religious bigotry. Writes Dawson in Separate Church and State Now: ‘‘The Catholics . . . would abolish our public school system which is our greatest single factor in national unity and would substitute their old-world, medieval parochial schools, with their alien culture.’’ This sentiment, however, was widely helped by pre-Vatican II American Protestants, including conservatives, liberals, and moderates.

In 1957, Baylor honored its distinguished alumnus and former trustee by founding the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church–State Studies, which began publishing the Journal of Church and State in 1959.


References and Further Reading

  • Dawson, Joseph Martin. Christ and Social Change. Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1937.
  • ———. Separate Church and State Now. New York: R. R. Smith, 1948.
  • ———. America’s Way in Church, State, and Society. New York: Macmillan, 1953.
  • ———. Baptists and the American Republic. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1956.
  • ———. ‘‘The Meaning of Separation of Church and State in the First Amendment.’’ Journal of Church and State 1 (1959):37–42.
  • ———. A Thousand Months to Remember: An Autobiography. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 1964.
  • Dunn, James. ‘‘The Ethical Thought of Joseph Martin Dawson.’’ Th.D. diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1966.
  • Hamburger, Philip. Separation of Church and State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Reynolds, J. A. ‘‘Dawson, Joseph Martin.’’ In The Handbook of Texas Online, handbook/online/articles/print/DD/fda52.html.
  • Summerlin, Travis L. ‘‘Church–State Relations in the Thought of Joseph Martin Dawson.’’ Ph.D. diss., Baylor University, 1984.

See also Americans United for Separation of Church and State; Baptists in Early America; Catholics and Religious Liberty; Wall of Separation