Friday, February 09, 2007

Wake Forest University and Baptist History: A Matter of Conscience?

The following address was given by Bill Leonard, the dean of the Divinity School, at the spring convocation. I think it is something that all Baptists should read.

On the eve of the American Revolution, Anglican Parson Charles Woodmason described the carryings on among the people called Baptists in the "Carolina backcountry". He wrote:

They don't all agree in one Tune. For one sings this Doctrine, and the next something different---So that people’s brains are turn'd and bewildered. And then again to see them Divide and Sub divide, split into parties---Rail at and excommunicate one another---Turn (members) out of one meeting and receive (them back) into another. And a Gang of them getting together and gabbling one after the other (and sometimes disputing against each other) on abstruse Theological Questions. . .such as the greatest Metaph[ys]icians and Learned Scholars never yet could define, or agree on--To hear Ignorant Wretches, who cannot write . . .discussing such Knotty Points for the Edification of their Auditors. . .must give High offence to all Intelligent and rational Minds.1

Woodmason was as correct as he was condescending. Indeed, many 21st century observers would concur that contemporary Baptists still give “high offense” in the church and the public square. When a Virginia congressman calls Americans to tighten immigration laws in order to keep out Muslims who MIGHT be elected to high office and take the oath of office on the Koran, didn’t he just have to be a Baptist? When members of a stem family church in Kansas show up at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, and shout that such deaths are the result of God’s judgment on the nation, don’t they just have to be Baptists? And then there are all those internecine “Baptist battles” fought incessantly in the pew and the press. Take Southern Baptists, at 14 million the largest sub denomination of the 30 million Baptists in the U. S. For almost three decades Southern Baptists have attacked each other over the bible, ordaining women, control of Baptist related schools, public schools, private school vouchers, trips to Disneyworld, glossolalia, praise choruses, baptizing homosexuals, rebaptizing Presbyterians, salvation for Jews and Muslims, the “rapture,” drinking wine at communion or at dinner, and the gospel benefits of “Christian heavy metal” music. When 21st century Baptists “divide and sub divide, split into parties, rail at and excommunicate each other,” not just in the “Carolina back-country,” but on CNN, wouldn’t any self respecting national university want to distance itself from its Baptist origins as quickly as possible?

Indeed, Baptists then and now seem a community of unending dissent, declaring themselves as divisively and at times disgustingly as did their frontier forebears. Publicly and privately, Baptists remain an unruly lot, given to unceasing pontification on assorted theological, ethical and political issues. Truth is, being Baptist was never all that respectable. As their earliest critics saw it, Baptists demonstrated bad theology, bad citizenship, and bad manners every time they opened their mouths. They were heretical, underclass peasants who held erroneous religious opinions and lacked the educational sophistication to articulate them appropriately.

Even the purportedly “progressive” Baptists, who founded Wake Forest College in 1834, reflected various ideas and practices no longer acceptable in the university. Almost en mass, they accepted slavery as a social given, insisting that it was sanctioned in the infallible text of Holy Scripture. In 1822, little more than a decade before Wake Forest began, Richard Furman, pastor of First Baptist Church, Charleston, declared before the South Carolina legislature: “Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles, who feared not the faces of men, and were ready to lay down their lives in the case of their God, would have tolerated it, for a moment, in the Christian Church.” Furman concluded: “In proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions.”2 Likewise, women were refused admission to Wake Forest for over a century; and African Americans were kept out until 1962. The 19th century founders would never have imagined a Wake Forest without required chapel, and preferred a campus at least 50 miles from the nearest sin.

So here we sit “in the year of our Lord,” no, the Common Era 2007, asking why in the world would Wake Forest University want to reference, even privilege, a questionable, often embarrassing, past on the way to an enlightened future. Given Baptist behavior past and present, should the university bother to own its Baptist origins henceforth and forever? After all, Wake Forest University is not Baptist any more. In 1986, the university trustees cancelled the school’s Baptist affiliation, insightfully reading the signs of the times, saving Wake Forest from a far-right takeover that continues to haunt Baptist-owned undergraduate institutions in North Carolina. It was a profound and essential action, the final break in a love/hate relationship that existed almost from the beginning.

While 19th century Baptists desperately wanted their children to receive the intellectual and economic benefits of higher education, many feared that it would somehow “steal their faith” and after 4 years at Wake Forest they’d never go to prayer meetin’ again. Preachers were particularly in danger. As one old Baptist preacher allegedly fretted: “We don’t really favor an educated ministry, we saw what it did to the Presbyterians.” The teaching of evolution, hard fought in the early twentieth century by the likes of President and scientist William Louis Poteat, illustrated the distance that readily developed between Wake Forest and its Baptist constituents. Given those disconnects, as we now engage in strategic planning with a new administration—the first to begin without a formal connection to any Baptist organization—perhaps it is important to ask one more time what we want to do with our Baptist parents—own them, warts and all, on the way to a new academic and religious future, or lock them away like mad men and women in the attic, arcane anachronisms as embarrassing in the present as in the past.

As a historian who happens to be a Baptist, I would suggest that aspects of the Baptist past are worth considering whether we use the infamous “B” word in our public statements or not. The thesis goes like this: Wake Forest University was founded by North Carolina Baptists in a relationship that lasted from 1834 to 1986. It is not now nor will it ever again be Baptist-related. Rather than excise or exorcise all remnants of Baptistness from its past, however, are there segments of that heritage worth acknowledging that continue inform the future at Wake Forest? To own the best contributions does not require claiming the entirety of Baptist history, nor does it mean scrambling to find something worth retaining in order to be historically correct. Rather, we could be intentional about revisiting the university’s past with appropriate research before we jettison uncritically the movement that birthed the college that became a nationally ranked university. What in the Baptist vision offers insight toward the future whether we reference these embarrassing forebears or not?

My own reading of Baptist history compels me to encourage a reexamination of what seems to me the heart of Baptist identity in the modern/postmodern world: the importance of uncoerced faith grounded in the power of conscience and the inevitability of dissent. My arguments today are all too brief, but are documented in two recent books: Baptist Ways: A History (Judson Press, 2003) and Baptists in America (Columbia University Press, 2005). The latter volume is the reason for my participation in the New Horizons in Religion series sponsored by the Religion and Divinity faculties. The people listed in your programs will, throughout the semester, provide lectures from recently published monographs. We hope you will join us for the series.

Early Baptist identity was characterized by emphasis on biblical authority, regenerate church membership, believers’ baptism by immersion, congregational church polity, religious liberty, and the priesthood of all believers. Amid those essentially sectarian characteristics, an enduring legacy, worth claiming I believe, involves (to repeat) the importance of uncoerced faith grounded in the power of conscience and the inevitability of dissent. Make no mistake about it; those who founded the first Baptist church in Amsterdam in 1609 began as an unashamed Christian sect, born of the idea that the church should be composed only of believers, those who could testify to a work of grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Baptists understood conscience and dissent in light of the need for sinners to be “regenerated” made new through conversion to Christ. Yet in their assertion that conscience could not be compelled by either state-based or faith-based establishments, they flung the door wide for religious liberty and pluralism in ways that even they may not have fully understood. By regeneration, they meant, in the words of a 1679 confession (the Orthodox Creed): “those who are united unto Christ by effectual faith, are regenerated, and have a new heart and spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ his death, resurrection, and intercession, and by the efficacy of the holy spirit, received by faith.”3 Conscience and religious liberty were not based on secular theories (although they would impact them) but on the necessity of uncoerced faith mediated through a congregation of Christian believers. A commitment to freedom of conscience led Baptists to oppose religious establishments and develop principles of religious liberty that anticipated modern pluralism.

Baptists began as a community of dissent. They challenged political and religious establishments in a variety of ways. First, they were non-conformists who often refused to abide by the rules of religious uniformity demanded by the state-based churches of their day. Second, they rejected any laws of church or state that compelled financial or devotional support for a religious communion in which they had no VOICE. Third, they defied any church that legislated belief by virtue of birth, economic status, or culture privilege; and sought to separate from it.

Anglican priest Daniel Featley’s description of seventeenth century Baptists illustrates the basis of their radical non-conformity. His list of Baptist teachings is clearly an establishmentarian nightmare. It also provides insight into how seventeenth century dissenters were perceived by their religio-political enemies. Featley described Baptists’ beliefs as follows:

First, that none are rightly baptized but those who are dipt. [They rejected the socially mandated mode of baptism.]
Secondly, that no children ought to be baptized. [They cast aside the link between baptism and citizenship—i.e. to be born into a “Christian” state required immediate baptism into the Christian Church.]
Thirdly, that there ought to be no set form of Liturgy or prayer by the Book, but onely by the Spirit. [They demanded the freedom to determine their own spirituality apart from government enforced prayer.]
Fourthly, that there ought to be no distinction by the Word of God between the Clergy and the Laity but that all who are gifted may preach the Word, and administer the Sacraments. [They challenged the status of a privileged religious class that controlled theology and admission to the sacraments.]
Fifthly, that it is not lawful to take an oath at all, no, not though it be demanded by the magistrate. [The oath reflected the loyalty of citizenship. Baptists would swear only to God, not governments.]
Sixthly, that no Christian may with good conscience execute the office of civil magistrate.4 [They knew, didn’t they?]

Every article in this fascinating list reflects degrees of both political and religious non-conformity among Baptists theologically, liturgically and politically. Their dissent had clear political and religious implications.

Such dissent was soon evident in New England in conflicts between Baptists and the Puritan establishment. Roger Williams, the brilliant proto-Baptist, was exiled into the “howling wilderness” of the New England in 1636 for preaching “the same course of rigid separation and anabaptistry” as the Baptists in “Amsterdam had done.”5 He made it worse by insisting that the Native Americans were the owners of the American land and should be justly compensated for it. In exile, Williams purchased land from the Narragansetts, writing: “I having made covenant of peaceable neighborhood with all the sachems and natives round about us, and having, in a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress, called the place Providence, I desired it might be for a shelter for persons distressed of conscience…. I communicated my said purchase unto my loving friends … who then desired to take shelter here with me. . . . .”6

Williams anticipated pluralism, suggesting that non-Christians were effective citizens of the new world. He asked “whether or no such as may hold forth other worships or religions, Jews, Turks, or anti-christians, may not be peaceable and quiet subjects, loving and helpful neighbours, fair and just dealers, true and loyal to the civil government.” He concluded that, “It is clear they may, from reason and experience in many flourishing cities and kingdoms of the world.”7

Dr. John Clarke, Williams’ contemporary and the founder of the Newport colony, was also an outspoken proponent of freedom of conscience and its implications for religious liberty. In a treatise known as Ill Newes from New England; or, a Narrative of New-Englands Persecution, Clarke declared: “No such believer, or Servant of Christ Jesus hath any liberty, much less Authority, from his Lord, to smite his fellow servant, nor yet with outward force, or arme of flesh, to constrain, or restrain his Conscience, no nor yet his outward man for Conscience sake.”8

Baptists in England and America insisted that God alone was judge of conscience, and therefore no religious or political establishment could judge the non-conformist, the heretic or even the atheist. The Baptist-authored charter of Rhode Island declared:

No person within said Colony, at any time hereafter, shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences of opinion in matters of religion, . . . but that all and any persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concernments throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned.9

Conscience and religious liberty did not mean silence or a nebulous syncretism, however. Baptists argued unashamedly with their opponents (and each other). They spoke their views freely and passionately, but asserted the right of others to do the same. They insisted that it was only through religious liberty was such debate possible, since there was a thin line between disagreeing with persons and silencing them in the name of God or government. For these early Baptists, dissent was grounded in the freedom of conscience, individual and communal. Indeed, references to conscience as a foundation of dissent abound in 17th century Baptist documents. Baptist leader Leonard Busher wrote 1614 (Religions Peace: or, A Plea for Liberty of Conscience): “And as kings and bishops cannot command the wind, so they cannot command faith; You may force men to church against their consciences, but they will believe as they did afore, when they come there; for God giveth a blessing only to his own ordinance, and abhorreth antichrist’s.”10 “Bishops,” he said, “should know that error and heresy cannot be killed by the fire and sword, but by the word and Spirit of God.”11 Baptist literature provides a fascinating commentary on the role of conscience as enlivened by an individual’s faith commitments.12

Thomas Helwys’ classic work, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity (ca. 1612) was perhaps the earliest Baptist document to articulate issues of conscience directly. One of its most widely quoted passage begins: “Let the King judge, is it not most equal that men should choose their religion themselves, seeing they only must stand themselves before the judgment seat of god to answer for themselves, when it shall be no excuse for them to say, we were commanded or compelled to be of this religion by the king or by them that had authority from him.”13 True faith was grounded in freedom to choose or reject God’s gift of grace.

Thomas Helwys extended liberty of conscience to non-Christians and atheists alike. He wrote: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”14 Baptist founders insisted that religious liberty was essential as a means of freeing individuals to follow their own consciences even when they chose not to be Christians.

Similar phrases are utilized in the so-called Orthodox Creed of General Baptists in 1679.15 It states:

And the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute blind obedience, destroys liberty of conscience, and reason also, it being repugnant to both …16

The call to uncoerced faith produced the necessity of dissent.

As Baptists moved South in the Revolutionary era, they continued to press their radical understanding of conscience. Baptists in Virginia challenged the Anglican religious establishment and were fined or imprisoned for refusing to secure preaching licenses from the state. John Leland, friend of Madison and Jefferson, rejected any suggestion that America was a “Christian nation,” writing: “The liberty I contend for, is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration, is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest, to grant indulgence; whereas, all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians. Test oaths, and established creeds should be avoided as the worst of evils.”17 Leland wrote: “Whether, therefore, the Christian religion be true or false, it is not an article of legislation. In this case, Bible Christians, and Deists, have an equal plea against self-named Christians, who . . . tyrannize over the consciences of others, under the specious garb of religion and good order.”18

Later Baptists were not always so decisive. As Baptists gained numerical strength, many joined the de facto Protestant majority and its religio-cultural hegemony, especially in the South. Like other Protestants, many 19th Baptist leaders viewed the immigration of Jews and Catholics American political and moral stability. Baptist reassertion of religious liberty and the “separation of church and state” paralleled their concerns that Catholic parochial schools were after government funding in some form or another. As religious pluralism has expanded with the immigration of non-Judeo- Christian communions and the rise of a variety of so-called “New Age” religions—Wiccans, Scientology, Transcendental Meditation and the like—and as secularism has gained prominence in the culture, many Baptists and other Protestants are deeply divided over the meaning of religious liberty and the influence of the church in political and public society.

Given these historical and contemporary realities, how might Baptist progressivism on matters of conscience and dissent inform the future of this or any “no-longer-Baptist-university?

First, in what ways might a university become, in the words of Roger Williams and John Clarke, “a shelter for persons distressed of conscience” AND an academic community that would itself distress the consciences of faculty and student alike in response to the great issues, ideas and injustices of our times? How might we determine to nurture a safe environment where consciences are enlivened even as they collide? Second, in a university environment where pluralism and uncoerced faith are taken for granted, how do we speak about faith, sectarian or secular? In a religiously volatile world, is it still important to discern, if not challenge, those implicit or explicit religio-political establishments that seek privilege and entitlement through sectarian or secular hegemony over politics, religion, educational institutions and economics, economics, economics? Third, might their radical understanding of conscience encourage us to an equally radical concern for VOICE—an environment in which everyone can speak even when the differences are vast and irreconcilable? (Roger Williams, for example, not only called for fair payment to Natives for their land, but wrote the first native language lexicon, giving them voice to their new invaders.) Finally, with the Baptists might we explore more explicitly the nature and boundaries of dissent in the face of such issues as mass culture, media religion, and the struggle for global resources. Such dissent might compel US to take a chance—stake our lives—on ideas that inform and overpower, even when we know they will never secure majoritarian approval.

As a historian, I am impressed by the early Baptist courage and dissent in behalf of uncoerced faith, freedom of conscience, and religio-political dissent, and I hope that Wake Forest University will find ways to own its Baptist roots, even if they bear witness to only a tiny spark of progressivism. We owe it to ourselves to reference the identity of those 16th and 17th century dissenters obsessed with conscience and voice for heretic and atheist alike and their successors in 1834 who hoped against hope that the little “normal school” in that little North Carolina town would impact a region and ultimately a nation. Amid historic and contemporary embarrassments, their monumental commitments and sacrifices should not be forgotten. Indeed, a university hesitant to own its past may have difficulty articulating its future.

As a Baptist, however, I think it might be just as well to strike the Baptist references from the university’s mission statement all together. As a religious community, Baptists have never done well with privilege, whatever form it takes. Parson Woodmason was right then and now, we don’t all “agree in one tune,” you see, it's a matter of conscience.



  • 1Richard J. Hooker, ed. The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953), 109. See also John G. Crowley, Primitive Baptists of the Wiregrass South 1815 to the Present (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1998), 8.
  • 2Richard Furman, "An Exposition," (1822) in Bill J. Leonard, Early American Christianity (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1983), 382-383.
  • 3William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 316.
  • 4Daniel Featley, The Dippers Dip, or, the Anabaptists Duck'd and Plung'd over Head and Eares, at a Disputation at Southward, 36.
  • 5Isaac Backus, Church History of New England, from 1620 to 1804 (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1844), 43.
  • 6Isaac Backus, A History of New England, with Particular Reference to the Baptists, 2nd ed. (1871; reprint, 2 vols. In 1, New York: Arno Press, 1969), 1:75.
  • 7Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience Discussed e. A. C. Underhill (1644; reprint, London: Hanserd Knollys Society, 1848), 112-113.
  • 8Ibid, 1:168.
  • 9O. K. Armstrong and Marjorie Armstrong, The Baptists in America (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1979), 71.
  • 10Ibid, 17-18.
  • 11Ibid, 22.
  • 12Ibid, 30; see also Bill J. Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History 26-27; and B. R. White, "Early Baptist Arguments for Religious Freedom: Their Overlooked Agenda," Baptist History and Heritage 24 (October 1989): 6-7.
  • 13Thomas Helwys, The Mystery of Iniquity, cited in W. T. Whitley, A History of British Baptists, rev. ed. (London: Kings gate Press, 1932), 33.
  • 14Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of The Mystery of Iniquity, edited by Richard Groves (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998), xxxii.
  • 15Ibid, 296.
  • 16Ibid, 331-332.
  • 17John Leland, The Writings of John Leland, L. F. Greene, editor 1845; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1969) 118; and Bill Leonard, Baptist Ways, 130-131.
  • 18Ibid, 294.

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