Americans had won the war with England, written a Constitution under which they would be governed and eleven states had approved it. Virginia and New York approved it with the understanding that a Bill of Rights would be added. The Baptists in those states were the major promoters of a Bill of Rights to guarantee them and others added protection that they believed was missing from the Constitution.
The two recalcitrant states were North Caroline and Rhode Island who rejected the Constitution. In fact, neither state joined the Union until the new government was in operation (under the new Constitution). It took threats from Congress (that the two states would be treated as foreign nations and forced to pay duty on trade items) that made them “see the light” and brought them into the Union.
This young Republic was small with fewer than four million souls, 95 percent of whom lived on farms. America stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and from Canada to Florida. We weren’t an awesome power yet, but we had made a believer out of King George III who was still licking his wounds, and trying to pay his war bills.
In keeping with various states’ desires and demands, the Bill of Rights was finally added to the Constitution, and therein lies an exciting tale. The fact is, we would not have the First Amendment (and probably the other nine) if it were not for the Baptists, especially those in Virginia and Massachusetts.
Thomas Jefferson prepared his Act for Religious Freedom which passed the Virginia General Assembly in 1786 and the Establishment fell! The Church of England lost its stranglehold on Virginia. Dr. Hawks, the historian of the Episcopal Church (Church of England) wrote in his Ecclesiastical Contributions: “The Baptists were the principal promoters of this work, and in truth aided more than any other denomination in its accomplishment.” Not bad when your “enemy” gives you credit for religious freedom!
Virginia Baptists sent Pastor John Leland to New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and other states to preach religious liberty and raise support for the Bill of Rights to be added to the Constitution. Madison was a strong proponent of the Constitution but was not convinced of the need for a Bill of Rights until confronted by the Virginia Baptists. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives after pledging to support the Baptist position.
After Madison’s election, he suggested that the Baptists consult President Washington on their chief concern, the need for the Bill of Rights. The Baptists met in Richmond on August 8, 1789 and sent Washington a lengthy commendation for his service and a request for support of their cause.
They wrote in part: “When the Constitution first made its appearance in Virginia, we, as a society, feared that the liberty of conscience, dearer to us than property or life, was not sufficiently secured. Perhaps our jealousies were heightened by the usage we received in Virginia, under the regal government, when mobs, fines, bonds and prisons were our frequent repast….” (Notice that they said that liberty of conscience was more important than their property or life. It is my opinion that most Christians do not believe that today.)
President Washington sent a gracious reply saying: “I have often expressed my sentiments that any man, conducting himself as a good citizen and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.” He then promised his “endeavors to advance their prosperity.”
James Madison submitted twelve Constitutional amendments to the Congress about a month after Washington promised his help to the Baptists. Two amendments were rejected but the ten original amendments were approved on September 23, 1789 after much opposition and were then submitted to the states for ratification.
The eleventh state had approved them by December 15, 1791 and America became the most unique nation on the face of the earth! We became a nation that guaranteed the people their God-given rights and limited the power of government, and we did it with a written Constitution and Bill of Rights.
When Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, etc., pass a Baptist church, they should doff their hats in respect and whisper a word of thanks for the freedom everyone is guaranteed because of our Baptist forefathers. Even non-Baptists agree that the Bill of Rights was a fantastic achievement in the annals of government.
Cathcart tells us in his Centennial Offering that “Denominationally, no community asked for this change in the Constitution but the Baptists….The Baptists asked for it through Washington; the request commended itself to his judgment and to the generous soul of Madison; and to the Baptists, beyond a doubt, belongs the glory of engrafting its best articles on the noblest Constitution ever framed for the government of mankind.”
Bacon, in A History of American Christianity, wrote of the Baptists: “….that we are chiefly indebted for the final triumph, in this country, of that principle of the separation of church and state, which is one of the largest contributions of the New World to civilization….” High praise indeed and well deserved.
The smallest Baptist church in America can swell with justified pride and appreciation of Baptist forefathers who believed in personal liberty for everyone–even the right to be wrong!