Religious liberty has never come cheap to Baptists.

In The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness, Baptist historian and professor Leon McBeth tells us of the lengths to which 17th-century Baptists in England had to go just to be able to worship together. Using the Broadmead Church in Bristol as a prime example, McBeth tells us that the late 1600s brought “waves of persecution. . . . Rarely could the church keep a pastor any length of time without losing him to imprisonment. . . . such pastors almost invariably called a church meeting and preached on the very day of their release.”

They appointed young men to stay just outside the door to be on the lookout for any “informers or officers”; upon spotting such an authority, one of the young men would run inside and alert the congregation. They eventually started meeting for worship by crowding into stairwells to ensure that “informers might not too Suddainely come in upon us.”

Other English Baptists of those early times “met in private homes which were equipped with trap doors leading to concealed basement rooms.” McBeth cites a record of a church meeting in July 1675, in which authorities broke in on the gathering, but they were unable to arrest the preacher, because he had escaped through a trap door hidden by a pew.

Some Bristol Baptists, McBeth tells us, devised a strategy in which the congregation would gather for worship at one house, but the pastor would preach from an adjoining house. They set flexible schedules – constantly switching the meeting time and place. Eventually, “the Bristol Baptists had to abandon for a time the meetings of the entire church. Instead, they broke up into little groups . . . each group under the guidance of a lay leader.”

Religious liberty? The early Baptists could barely imagine such a concept!

So was it any better when they came to America? Roger Williams, McBeth tells us, sailed from Bristol to Boston, arriving on February 5, 1631. By 1635, he was being brought into court. One of the charges against him was that he had been teaching that the civil magistrates had no authority over the individual conscience.

No, religious liberty didn’t “just happen” in the New World. McBeth records that, in 1769, Baptists in New England formed the first “specific organization to give a united voice and concerted action to the struggle for liberty. . . . the Warren Association formed its famous Grievance Committee to direct the Baptist struggle for freedom. . . . The Grievance Committee gathered data on Baptist sufferings, presented petitions for redress to various courts and legislatures, and pushed for legislation to alleviate religious discrimination. . . .the first organized religious lobby in America. Baptists in America have a tradition not only of preaching and practicing religious liberty but also of monitoring government legislation to protect the interests of Baptists and others.”

In colonial America – what “liberty” existed was considered “toleration” by the state, not a God-given right. But the “toleration” had its limits. “Baptist preachers subject to arrest . . . those who allowed them to preach on their property could also be subject to heavy fines.” James Ireland, arrested for preaching, wound up preaching through the bars of his jail cell to “crowds of listeners.”

In 1788, as the new nation’s Constitution was being discussed and formed, Virginia Baptists – led by a courageous preacher, John Leland – objected to the absence of any protection for religious liberty. “Some accounts say John Leland entered the race for election to the ratifying convention . . . . Leland wrote a list of Baptist objections to the Constitution. . . ., centering around the lack of a bill of rights and written guarantees of religious liberty.”

McBeth, citing Reuben E. Alley’s A History of Baptists in Virginia, tells of James Madison’s visit to John Leland’s home, “where the two men discussed the Constitution for several hours. . . . Leland withdrew from the race for the ratification convention and threw Baptist support to Madison. In return, Madison agreed to introduce amendments to the constitution, spelling out the freedoms which Baptists desired.”

The jewel of religious liberty that resulted from that agreement, of course, rests in 16 precious words contained in the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It has two parts: first, the Establishment Clause; and second, the Free Exercise Clause. Both clauses – both concepts – are essential to religious liberty.

But the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee religious liberty. It merely stipulates the God-given right to also be a legal right. Guaranteeing religious liberty, however, is something that only we can do – as Americans and as Baptists. Every generation is called upon to defend religious liberty against grave threats. Tragically, recent generations have witnessed Baptists who have threatened – and continue to threaten – religious liberty. Fundamentalists have sought to control the thought and practice of Baptists while also seeking to unite church and state, violating both the guarantee of Free Exercise and the prohibition against Establishment.

But these same generations have also witnessed Baptists who have stood vigilant in defending religious liberty. At the forefront, for over 70 years now, has been the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Since Texas Baptists Committed was formed over 20 years ago, the Baptist Joint Committee – then led by James Dunn and, for the past 9 years, by Brent Walker – has been a trusted friend and partner.

Present-day heir to the Warren Association Grievance Committee, the Baptist Joint Committee fights your battles on Capitol Hill, defending your liberties, including the right to worship according to the dictates of your own conscience; to support your own faith freely; and to not have your tax dollars used to support the faith of others. But it fights these battles on behalf of not only Baptists but on behalf of the religious liberty of all people.

During discussion preceding a key vote at a BGCT Annual Meeting a few years ago, TBC Executive Director David R. Currie went to a microphone and said to those assembled, “If we lose religious liberty, we lose America.” The Baptist Joint Committee is our voice on Capitol Hill, defending our precious religious liberty.

Yet, after 70 years, the Baptist Joint Committee still works out of rented offices in a Washington, D.C. office building. But Brent Walker had a dream – of a Center for Religious Liberty that would expand the Baptist Joint Committee’s presence on Capitol Hill. As Brent wrote in a Baptist Reflections column we published earlier this month:

Located within only a few blocks of the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court, the Center will do the following:

Brent’s vision is approaching realization, but your help is needed to take it the rest of the way. More than half of the $5 million goal of the Capital Campaign has been pledged or given. You have the opportunity to be a significant part of reaching the goal. Today is the last day for you to “double your money,” as Brent puts it. Patsy Ayres, a member of First Baptist Church, Austin, pledged – a few months ago – to match every dollar, up to $300,000, given to the Capital Campaign for the BJC Center for Religious Liberty, through October 31.

As of Thursday, $241,000 had been given to this “matching campaign.” The BJC needs another $59,000 in pledges or donations – by midnight tonight – to make the most of this generous offer by Patsy Ayres. To make your pledge today, email Kristin Clifton at; call 202-544-4226; or go to and click the Donate Online link on the right side of the BJC’s home page.

Please don’t miss out on this opportunity. I’ve made my pledge and sent in my first donation. Won’t you join me?