Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part excerpt of a presentation made at the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in Santiago, Chile.
What Baptists need to know is that Richard Overton – the father of the tradition of human rights – was a Baptist.
Overton was a member of that group of the very first Baptists, who, with John Smyth, joined the Waterlander Mennonite Church in Holland in 1615.
To join that church, he wrote out his confession of faith. It contained themes that later led him to become the father of human rights:
â— all humankind is created in the image of God and Jesus Christ died for all humankind;
â— Christ, and not the traditions of the hierarchy, is the norm for the church; and
â— with the Baptist confession of 1612, freedom of conscience, independence of church from state, religious liberty, nonviolence, and serving the needs of the poor are faithful to Jesus.
Like those very first Baptists, he, too, wrote that Jesus made disciples by teaching, not by religious persecution.
Like them, he, too, wrote that Jesus taught we should let the wheat and the weeds grow side by side, and not uproot them by force and violence.
So his doctrine of the human right of religious liberty was deeply grounded in Jesus, the Bible, and the Baptist tradition from the start.
During the Puritan Revolution in England, Overton was a champion of religious liberty. He was the best writer of the Leveller Movement, championing human rights and religious liberty.
He was a printer, publishing his own books, even though it was illegal to print books not approved by the government.
For that he was jailed, but his wife kept up the printing, until even she was jailed, with her tiny baby.
The human right to freedom of the press became part of his doctrine of human rights.
I have read his books in the rare books archive of Union Theological Seminary.
It was a religious experience, to be able to hold the very books in my own hands that the great Richard Overton had written, printed and held in his own hands.
He was a biblical Christian, a Baptist. He had a strong commitment to justice for the poor.
He based his commitment to the human right to the basic needs of life for all people, including the poor, on many teachings of Jesus and the Bible about justice for the poor.
While he was in jail for printing treatises advocating human rights, he got to know poor people who were starving in jail because they could not pay their debts. So he advocated for the human right to life and to the basic needs of life.
Published in 1647, his comprehensive doctrine of human rights still fits what most church denominations have said when they have affirmed human rights:
- The right to religious liberty and civil liberty – freedom from coercion in religion, from governmental establishment of religion, and from taxation for religion; freedom of the press; the right of prisoners not to be tortured, starved or extorted; the right not to be arbitrarily arrested nor forced to incriminate oneself; the right to a speedy trial; the right to understand the law in one’s own language; and equality before the law.
- The right to life, including basic needs of life – such as a free education for everyone; housing and care for poor orphans, the widowed, the aged and the handicapped; the right of the poor to maintain their portion of land and not be imprisoned for debt; the right to trade internationally without restrictions by monopolies.
- The right to dignity in community, with rights of participation for all in a church of their free choice, and in voting for a government that is responsive to the people and the common good, and participating in government regardless of one’s beliefs; and the right to petition Parliament.
Striking for our time is that Overton argued for religious liberty for Catholics, Protestants, Jews and “Turks,” by which he meant Muslims.
Baptists need to know that Richard Overton, an Anabaptist Baptist, wrote the first comprehensive doctrine of human rights.
Historian of philosophy, Richard Tuck, says so.
William Haller, the great historian of Puritanism, says so: “The task of turning the statement of the law of nature into a ringing declaration of the rights of man fell to Richard Overton.”
Michael Westmoreland White says so in his “Setting the Record Straight: Christian Faith, Human Rights, and the Enlightenment.”
Overton’s “An Appeal to the Free People” (1647) is in print for everyone to see.