Baptist icon George W. Truett was the focus of a recent high school assembly in Hayesville, North Carolina, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Clay County native’s birth.

An invitation to participate in the event sent me to Keith Durso’s excellent biography, “Thy Will Be Done,” of the Baptist icon of the first half of the 20th century.

Recent efforts by state legislatures to propose and enact “religious liberty” bills also prompted a look back at what is regarded by many as Truett’s landmark address on the topic in May 1920.

Southern Baptists were meeting in Washington, D.C., and the Dallas pastor was asked to offer an extra-agenda address from the Capitol steps.

For more than two hours, a crowd of 15,000 stood and listened to a historical and philosophical review of the principle of religious liberty and its essential place in the nation’s DNA. It was also a celebration of the Baptist contribution to that principle.

The context in 1920 included the emerging fundamentalist response to “modernist” developments in the sciences (Darwin) and the consequent circling of the wagons in a kind of tribal defense against a “war on religious beliefs.” This helped shape the focus of attention to religious liberty.

The context also included the slow start to the Baptist 75 Million Campaign, of which Truett was a champion. This added an emphasis on stewardship to his thinking at the time.

What is striking about these two emphases – religious liberty and stewardship – is not that he was in favor of them. (Who wouldn’t be?) Rather, each one had a depth of focus that gave it special relevance at the time, and perhaps for our more recent time, nearly 100 years later.

Religious freedom for Truett was not limited to its obvious sense of one’s right to one’s own way of believing and living.

There are obligations imposed on a free people, he said. Like the religious teachings he lived by and preached, he believed that one cannot be free and flaunt that freedom without concern for the freedom of one’s companions in life. Freedom must be balanced with a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others.

He was deeply committed to his own beliefs, and he did not hesitate to point out differences he believed were important between him and other ways of believing. However, he was as committed to the religious liberty of people of other faiths and of people of no faith profession as he was to that of his own tradition.

No matter how small a minority or how different another’s beliefs might be, Truett said, “A Baptist would rise at midnight to plead for absolute religious liberty for his Catholic neighbor and for his Jewish neighbor and for everyone else.”

His commitments to his own faith were equaled only by his commitment to community within the larger human family.

In a sweeping gesture to the importance of international relations, he said this in his 1920 address: “God does not raise up a nation to go strutting selfishly, forgetful of the high interests of humanity. National selfishness leads to destruction as truly as does individual selfishness. Nations can no more live to themselves than can individuals. Humanity is bound up together in the big bundle of life. The world is now one big neighborhood. There are no longer any hermit nations. National isolation is no longer possible in the earth.”

Another feature of his perspective is the breadth of his understanding of stewardship.

Often understood as generosity in support of church programs, Truett’s understanding certainly included that; he evidently was a master at keeping the contributions coming in to support his large church.

But he took with him from the farm and family of his childhood the roots of a belief that all of life is a gift and that human responsibility is to be a steward of that gift – not only material resources, but also the grace of human relationships and the keen possibilities of the mind.

Stewardship for him was not a matter just of money, but of the whole person, especially the mind. This is why education was so important to him.

A deeper understanding of freedom and stewardship – a timely task for the 1920s.

Perhaps in our time of “religious freedom” bills designed to protect “believers” from the constraints of laws that protect the rights of citizens, and of the dismantling of protections for the environment from continued abuse, a timely task for us as well.

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

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