Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series in which Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, examines the future of Baptist identity.
At the CBF General Assembly last July, Bill Leonard, dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University, said: “If Baptist identity is to be carried beyond mid-century, it must be reasserted and reinterpreted and reformed immediately.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Leonard’s concerns about the Baptist movement, but I was too busy preparing for the Norman New Baptist Covenant meeting to respond with my suggestions for Baptist identity in the 21st century.
I would begin by reasserting the Baptist emphasis on liberty of conscience. Baptists began by dissenting from the established church and asserting their right to a free conscience on matters of religion. Our appeals for liberty of conscience were made on behalf of all people and not for ourselves alone. Seventy-eight years before the enlightenment philosopher John Locke wrote his first “Letter Concerning Toleration,” Thomas Helwys was writing:
“Men’s religion to God is between God and themselves; the king shall not answer for it, neither may the king judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”
Forty-five years before Locke said it was “necessary above all to distinguish between the business of civil government and that of religion, and to mark the true bounds between the church and the commonwealth,” Roger Williams warned that whenever “a gap” was opened “in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself … and made his garden a wilderness.”
While Locke could never bring himself to extend religious toleration to Catholics and atheists, revolutionary-era Baptist evangelist John Leland boldly asserted: “Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three gods, no god, or twenty gods, and let government protect him in so doing.”
Baptists were at the forefront of the movement that led Western civilization from intolerance and religious persecution to enlightened religious liberty. Twenty-first century Baptists should be at the forefront of a movement that will lead the world from a religiously suffused clash between Eastern and Western civilizations to a peaceful global civilization that respects liberty of conscience for all peoples.
More than anything else, liberty of conscience for all people is the bedrock belief undergirding Baptist identity that needs to be reasserted in our time.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.