Baptist History Homepage

Baptist Principles, Practices and Polity
Their Soundness Vindicated by Their Natural
Results and Logical Consequences
By Rev. T. S. Dunaway, D. D., 1882
      GLADSTONE, in his work, "The State in its Relation with the Church," says: "I do not scruple to affirm that if a Mohammedan conscientiously believes his religion to come from God, and to teach divine truth, he must believe that truth to be beneficial beyond all other things to the soul of man; and he must, therefore, and ought to, desire its extension, and to use for its extension all proper and legitimate means; and that if such Mohammedan be a prince, he ought to count among those means the application of whatever influence or funds he may lawfully have at his disposal for such purposes."

      Macaulay, in his review article, "Church and State," in reply to this declaration of Mr. Gladstone, says: "Surely this is a hard saying. Before we admit that the Emperor Julian, in employing his power for the extinction of Christianity, was doing no more than his duty; before we admit that the Arian Theodoric would have committed a crime if he had suffered a single believer in the divinity of Christ to hold any civil employment in Italy; before we admit that the Dutch government is bound to exclude from office all the members of the Church of England; the king of Bavaria to exclude from office all Protestants; the Great Turk to exclude from office all Christians; the king of Ava to exclude from office all who hold the unity of God we think ourselves entitled to demand very full and accurate demonstration. When the consequences of a doctrine are so startling we may well doubt the soundness of the doctrine itself."


[p. 288]
      This proposition laid down by Macaulay seems to be sound, and the converse of the proposition must be equally sound. When the consequences and natural results of principles and doctrines are uniformly beneficial and benevolent, we have at least prima facie evidence of their correctness and soundness. In this article the aim will be to vindicate the soundness of Baptist principles, practices, and polity, not by an appeal to Scripture, but by an argument drawn from their natural results and legitimate and logical consequences.

      The principles, practices, and polity of the Baptists are too well known and understood to require any elaborate statement of them here, and yet it may be well to state them in brief.

      Agreeing with other denominations in all the principles of evangelical religion, the Baptists have peculiar views of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper. They hold that only believers are proper subjects of baptism; that only immersion is baptism; that baptism is a prerequisite to Church membership, and the Lord's Supper, which is a symbolic feast never to be observed except by a Church in its corporate capacity, and for no purpose except to promote the spiritual good of the communicant and the glory of the Redeemer.

      They hold that a visible Church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, voluntarily associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the Gospel, observing the ordinances as once delivered to the saints, rendering obedience to the laws of Christ, and spreading the Gospel throughout the world. A true Church of Christ is an association of regenerated and baptized believers, united on spiritual principles for spiritual ends, and in the use of spiritual means. All the Churches organized after the apostolical models must be voluntary and independent organizations, managing their own internal affairs, recognizing no human authority outside of themselves, civil or ecclesiastical. The Baptists have always believed that the sanctity


[p. 289]
of the body of Christ is personal and not corporate; that the work of the Holy Spirit in the individual heart is indispensable, and must be experienced before any of the ordinances can be attended to or any of the privileges of God's house enjoyed; and that the Churches are not, as it were, nurseries designed to raise up such as are born in them, or enter them for the spiritual and invisible kingdom; but that they must be members of the mystical body of Christ before they are eligible to a place in the visible, local Church.

      The doctrine of the spirituality of the Church, and that all the members are supposed to be "lively stones built up into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ," is utterly inconsistent with an ecclesiastical hierarchy, infant baptism, a mixed membership, and a sacerdotal ministry. No priest intervenes between the believer and the Father of mercies. The personal union of the believer with Christ is too close and intimate for any medium of intercourse. The believer is in Christ and Christ in the believer.

      Having thus briefly glanced at the principles, practices, and polity of the Baptists, let us now look at their natural and necessary tendency toward certain other doctrines and principles which, in turn, verify their correctness and soundness. If their tendency be uniformly salutary and beneficial, it forms a strong presumption in favor of their correctness and Scripturalness.

      I. As a natural and logical consequence of lhe principles, practices, and polity of the Baptists, they have been the friends and champions of religious-freedom or soul liberty for all peoples in all ages.

      Dr. Foote, the Presbyterian historian, very justly says, "Religious liberty is not the offspring of mere greatness of mind or of political sagacity. It was a child of principle, cradled in suffering and fed on tears." By religious liberty is meant something more than, indeed something entirely different from, religious toleration. Paine, in his "Rights


[p. 290]
of Man," says, "Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance, but it is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, and the other of granting it."

      Toleration is mere permission, sufferance, and endurance, and implies the right to withhold or grant, to control or regulate. Soul liberty is not mere permission to enjoy religious opinions, doctrines, and worship, but it is the right of conscience responsible only to God, and beyond the control or regulation of any human being or government. For this reason the true friends of religious freedom for all peoples, as an inalienable right, have always repudiated religious toleration, and fought against it as a usurpation and despotism, enslaving, while it professes liberation.

      That the Baptists have been the pioneers and peculiar champions of religious liberty is a fact admitted and established by historians of other denominations. Bancroft says (Vol. II, page 66), "Freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind was, from the first, a trophy of the Baptists." And John Locke, to whom Lord Chancellor King attributes the doctrine of religious liberty, says, in his "Essay on Toleration," "The Baptists were the first and only propounders of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty." The first modern treatise ever written on the subject of religious liberty was by Leonard Busher, a Baptist, in 1614. It is entitled, "Religious Peace, or, a Plea for Liberty of Conscience." It was no plea for mere toleration, but for liberty of conscience in matters of religion for every human being. Here are some of its words: "That it may be lawful for every person or persons, yea, Jews and Turks, Pagans and Papists, to write, dispute, confer and reason, print and publish, any matter touching any religion, either for or against whomsoever." The Baptist "Confession of Faith," which was published in 1611 declared, "We believe the magistrate is not to meddle with religion or matters of conscience, nor compel men to this or that form of religion, because


[p. 291]
Christ is the king and law-giver of the Church and the conscience."

      The first treatise written on this continent, claiming full religious freedom, was by Roger Williams, in 1644. Having been banished from Massachusetts, in the Spring of 1636, he founded the city of Providence, Rhode Island. Southey says: "This was the first commonwealth and civil government in the world that gave to all equal liberty of conscience." And Bancroft says: "Roger Williams was the first in modern Christendom to assert, in its plenitude, the doctrine of liberty of conscience." He seized the first occasion offered, when Baptists could practice in this regard their principles, in giving to others soul liberty, while they claimed it for themselves. From the very first Rhode Island was free from all constraint of the religious conscience, and any man, with or without any religious belief, could come and remain in the colony without molestation for his religious views.

      But if we turn our thoughts particularly to Virginia, we shall see what a noble work our Baptist Fathers did, in securing for that State and the whole country religious liberty.

      The charter of Virginia, in 1606, established episcopacy as the exclusive religious system in the colony. Under that charter many rigid and oppressive laws were passed. One in 1611 required every person arriving in the colony to go to an Episcopal minister and give an account of his religious views. For the first refusal he was to be whipped. For the second, whipped twice. And, for the third, whipped every day till he would go to the confession. None could legally meet for worship except the members of the established Church. The clergy were supported by taxes levied on every man's goods, property, and crops. And glebes or parish farms were purchased for them in the same way. Non-conformists, or all except those who would submit to episcopacy, were to be fined, imprisoned, and banished. Each person staying away from "service" was


[p. 292]
subject to a fine of fifty pounds of tobacco for one Sunday, and twenty pounds in money for one month. Two thousand pounds of tobacco was the fine for refusing to have a child christened in the Episcopal Church. And the law required every one to be married and buried by the parson of the parish. These are but samples of the laws passed from time to time. The people were taxed to support a religion that, in many cases, had not the assent of their judgment or conscience. And not a few Baptist ministers were whipped, fined, and imprisoned for no other offense than that they preached the Gospel to the people.

      That the Baptists of Virginia, at that time, were mainly instrumental in putting down the establishment, repealing these odious and cruel laws, and -securing full religious liberty, is abundantly proved by Church historians of other denominations, public records of legislatures, conventions, and congresses, with appeals, remonstrances, petitions, letters, and addresses, now of record. Campbell, in his "History of Virginia" (page 555), says: "The Baptists having suffered persecution under the establishment, were, of all others, the most inimical to it, and the most active in its subversion."

      Bishop Meade, in his "Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia," says (Vol. I, page 52): "The Baptists took the lead in dissent, and were the chief object of persecution by the magistrates, and the most violent and persevering afterward in seeking the downfall of the establishment." And elsewhere the same author says: "The crisis came at last, and on the 12th of January, 1802, the Legislature passed the law by virtue of which the glebes of Virginia were ordered to be sold for the benefit of the public. The warfare begun by the Baptists seven and twenty years before was now finished. The Church was now in ruins, and the triumph of her enemies was complete."

      What a statement! The Baptists were accounted the "enemies" of the Church because they would not slavishly submit to fines, imprisonment, and stripes, which she imposed


[p. 293]
for non-conformity, and because they claimed freedom of conscience in matters of religion. The Church was in "ruins" because she could no longer tax an unwilling people for her support and the maintenance of the Episcopal clergy. And now the fact being established beyond all successful contradiction, by impartial history, that the Baptists have been at all times, and in all places, the champions and defenders of soul liberty in the language of Bancroft "freedom of conscience, unlimited freedom of mind, being, from the first, a trophy of the Baptists" the inquiry naturally arises in the mind of the thoughtful man who looks at things in the relations of cause and effect, Why is this so? Why do Baptists stand out before an impartial world as entitled to this honor and pre-eminence? Was it because through all the centuries in which they were engaged in the struggle for religious liberty, they were themselves almost everywhere a persecuted people? This could not be so, because their persecutions were a result rather than a cause. They were persecuted because of their principles, practices, and polity, because of their views and conduct respecting liberty of conscience. Nor were they the friends and defenders of soul liberty because of any local, accidental, or adventitious surroundings or circumstances, for everywhere, in all countries, under every form of government, and every variety of circumstance, they have held the same views and struggled for the same religious liberty. Nor can the honor be claimed for them on the score of their superior piety, learning, forecast, or statesmanship. How then may we account for the religious and historical fact, that the Baptists have been the special friends and advocates of soul liberty? Dr. Foote has satisfactorily answered the question in these words, "Religious liberty is not the offspring of mere greatness of mind or political sagacity. It was a child of principle." What principle? The far-reaching and widely applicable principle held by the Baptists, that the Church of Christ is, in the highest possible sense, a spiritual organization, voluntary associations
[p. 294]
of regenerated people, united on spiritual principles, for spiritual ends, and in the use of spiritual means. The Baptists have always held, as taught by the Word of God, that in all matters of religion "we ought to obey God rather than man," that the "kingdom of Christ is not of this world," and that "the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds." Such being the principles and polity of the Baptists, they have everywhere, and at all times, opposed the unholy and unscriptural alliance of Church and State.

      II. The principles, practices, and polity of the Baptists, in their natural results and logical consequences, tend to promote and develop the highest type of civil liberty and the best forms of human government.

      It is a matter of history that such statesmen as Jefferson, Madison, and Bancroft have discovered in the polity of the Baptists the principles which should be organized into free democratic governments. So, too, according to Neander, monarchy and aristocracy do not harmonize with the spirit and genius of Christianity. Bancroft, the great historian, says of the Baptists, "Naturally their paths are paths of freedom, pleasantness, and peace." It was the matured conviction of Mr. Madison, as may be seen from Rives's "Life and Times of Madison" (Vol. I, page 43) that "if the Church of England had been the established and general religion of all the colonies, as in Virginia, that slavery and subjection would have been gradually insinuated throughout the country." This belief and expressed opinion of Mr. Madison was- not due to any prejudice against the Episcopal Church, for he himself was a member of that communion; but it was based on the broad ground, as he proceeds to say, that "union of religious sentiment begets surprising confidence, and ecclesiastical establishments tend to great ignorance and corruption, all of which facilitate the execution of mischievous projects. Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise and every


[p. 295]
expanded prospect." There is no form of slavery so objectionable and no tyranny so revolting as that exercised over the mind and conscience, especially in the matters of religion.

      The opinion expressed by Mr. Madison, that if the Church of England had been the generally established religion in all the colonies, the ultimate loss of liberty would probably have ensued, deserves to be attentively considered, as it embraces a great principle which may be said to have been the corner-stone of that great statesman's political creed. The remark of Mr. Rives is probably just when he says: "There was nothing in the constitution of the Church of England which Mr. Madison deemed intrinsically deleterious to the public liberty, but it was the union of religious sentiment, enforced by law which the general establishment of that or any other form of religion in the colonies would have produced, that he deprecated as dangerous to liberty." The unfettered and spontaneous diversity of opinions, sects, parties, and interests in religion, as well as politics, he held to be the only practical security for the equal liberty of all. And this has always been the belief and polity of the Baptists. In Rhode Island, where they had undisputed sway and power, they were as much opposed to a union of Church and State as they were in Virginia, where they were powerless and persecuted.

      While, from deep religious conviction they have been invariably and unalterably opposed to any alliance between Church and State, the Baptists have never assumed an unfriendly or antagonistic attitude toward civil government, but have ever been ready to "render unto Caesar the things that be Caesar's, as well as unto God the things that be God's." They have ever believed that civil government has in its own name an indefeasible right to existence, and that its foundations are firmly laid in the Scriptures as well as in the social and political necessities of mankind. They hold that the civil magistrate, in the exercise of his


[p. 296]
and minister of God. Holding these views, they have always been the friends and promoters of civil liberty and good government. Washington wrote: "The Baptists, throughout America, were uniformly the promoters of the glorious American Revolution in behalf of civil liberty."

      History shows that they also exerted a mighty influence and acted an important part in the English Revolution of Cromwell's time in "shoving up the falling liberties of England, and infusing new vigor and liberality in her constitution." Well did the great historian say of the Baptists, "naturally their paths are paths of freedom," for they have always been the warm advocates and defenders of both civil and religious liberty.

      III. And yet another result or consequence of the practical theology and polity of the Baptists is, that it does not tolerate religious persecution, but strikes a fatal blow to it.

      They believe and teach that faith can not be forced; that obedience to Christ and his ordinances, in order to be valid, must be voluntary; that all the subjects of Christ's kingdom are willing subjects; and that persuasion and not power is the only means of influencing men to follow the truth; and that the sword of the Spirit, and not the sword of the soldier, is to be used in forwarding the kingdom of Jesus. Now these articles of faith and these principles are at war with a persecuting spirit. If none are permitted to come into the Church except such as make a voluntary profession of faith in Christ, and are voluntarily baptized; if the principle of voluntariness in all matters of religion underlies the system of Baptist polity and practice, then persecution for religious belief or unbelief is simply logically impossible. If a Church should begin persecution on account of religious belief or practice, it would by that very act cease to be a regular Baptist Church, because it would subvert the very principles and practices of the denomination. It would be no more absurd for a man to claim that he was a republican, while sitting on a throne, wearing a crown and wielding a scepter of imperial


[p. 297]
power, than for a Church to call itself Baptist, while indulging an intolerant and persecuting spirit. Such is our reasoning, which is abundantly sustained by the facts of history. Ours is the only body of Christians (the Quakers perhaps excepted) whose origin dates back of the eighteenth century, who have never persecuted others on account of their religion; but who, in practice as well as in theory, have claimed for all others, as well as themselves, full religious freedom for Romanists and Protestants, for Jews and Gentiles, for Pagans and atheists. If it be said they never persecuted because they never had the power or opportunity, then history denies the truth of the statement, for in Rhode Island they had undisputed and unlimited power. It has sometimes been charged by their enemies that they did in that colony persecute the Quakers; but Bancroft says (Vol. II, page 67), with respect to this charge, "The calumny has not even a plausible foundation." Had Baptist principles, practices, and polity prevailed in all the past and in all countries, then there had never been known to history persecution on account of religion, holy wars, so-called, inquisitions, crusades, and martyrdoms on account of religious belief and practice. It is surely benevolent to express the wish that at least this feature of Baptist polity may soon prevail the world over, when every one can worship God according to his own conscience, without let or hindrance.

      IV. And yet another result or consequence of the practical theology and polity of the Baptists is the development of the individual piety of believers, and the promotion of the general cause of religion.

      The Scriptural doctrine, which may be regarded as the foundation principle of our theology and polity, and which is enunciated in the words of the apostle, "ye also as lively stones are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ," is well adapted to promote personal piety; to foster the sentiment of individuality and personal responsibility;


[p. 298]
to deepen the currents of religious feeling and life; to raise the entire membership of the Churches to higher planes of thought and action; and to make the whole body of Christ more active and aggressive. This doctrine makes each member of the Church a priest, whose duty and office it is to offer up spiritual sacrifices; and each believer, by reason of his priestly character, is summoned to the altar and the mercy-seat.

      In those countries where birth gives to every one a title to Church membership; and in those denominations or Churches where persons are brought into the Church in infancy, and, of course, unconverted and without their consent, the lines between the Church and the world become more or less vague and indistinct, and there is a natural tendency to lessen the piety of Church members on the one hand, and on the other to render the unbelieving less vulnerable to the truth, and less likely to heed the warnings and exhortations of God's ministry. Among Baptists and others who adopt, in some measure, their theory of a purely converted membership, those who voluntarily make public profession of religion feel that they bring themselves under such restraints as comport with their voluntary professions and vows. They must feel the obligation to be a "peculiar people zealous of good works." And this sense of their obligations thus to live is heightened by the consciousness that they are closely observed by the Church and the world. The criticism, friendly and unfriendly, of the private conduct of Christians, and the knowledge that the world is expecting them to live consistently with their voluntary religious vows, is a most wholesome discipline, and is adapted to promote individual' circumspection, piety, and activity. The advancing of the divine kingdom and the diffusion of the Gospel among the heathen, is felt to be the duty, not of a select few, but of the entire priesthood or membership. Hence we see in all Baptistic efforts for Church extension, ministers and laymen go forth together to labor. And thus is produced a consciousness of individuality,


[p. 299]
personal worth, and personal responsibility, that is most wholesome to the believer and most beneficial to the cause of Christ. Here, too, do we see the origin of that self-confidence and self-assertion which impels to great and difficult enterprises, and that Christian activity and aggressiveness which has wrought so much of good to the world. And here, again, the facts of history confirm our reasoning. As a logical consequence of Baptist principles and polity there has been produced among them so much of individuality, personal independence, zeal, and energy, that we find them the originators and projectors of many of the greatest religious enterprises that have blessed the Church and the world.

      Among the Baptists were the originators and projectors of many noble reforms and permanent advances of evangelical Christianity, such as giving the Bible to the masses, modern missions, religious liberty, and the divorcement of Church and State. William Carey first aroused the Churches on the great subject of modern missions. He was himself the first modern missionary to the heathen. William Hughes, a Baptist, first conceived the idea of establishing a great society for the purpose of giving the Bible to the world. He was the founder and first secretary of the British and Foreign Bible Society. The Baptists furnished the first translations of the Scriptures into the heathen tongues, and they have rendered the Bible into more languages than any other people. The first modern evangelical missionary society for sending the Gospel to the heathen was organized by Baptists in 1793. By them the first Christian Churches were planted in India, Burmah, and China. And when, by the loss of the temporal power of the pope imperial Rome was opened to a free Gospel, the Baptists were among the first to enter the city of the Caesars and the citadel of antichrist, carrying there the pure Word of Life, and preaching under the very shadow of the Vatican the same Gospel of which Paul said he was not ashamed, and which he said he was "ready to preach at Rome also."


[p. 300]
      Indeed, the history of the Church and the progress of Christian civilization for centuries past could not be truthfully written without making frequent mention of the conceptions, enterprises, and achievements of the Baptists. And while, as a denomination, they have never demanded any given measure of linguistic or scholastic learning as an essential prerequisite to entering the ministry, they have ever been the advocates of liberal education. On their rolls may be found the names of some of the brightest and most highly cultivated intellects of modern times. The distinguished Dr. Chalmers has said, "The Baptists of England have enriched the literature of that country with an authorship of the first talent and eloquence, and there is not in the kingdom a body of ministers who are more intellectual, or who have put forth more mental power and activity." And Dr. Baird has said, substantially, very much the same of the Baptists of America. They have propagated principles and achieved triumphs for the truth which must ever be remembered, for they have left indelibly their impress on the literature, the civilization, and the civil and religious polity of the world, especially of our own country. For it is manifest that no agency is more potent in shaping the opinions and giving direction to the spirit and temper of the masses than the religious beliefs they embrace and the ecclesiastical institutions they live under. The characteristics of nations, as well as of individuals, are molded by the conditions and institutions, material, intellectual, and religious, that surround them.

      In the single thing of preventing a state religion in this country, and thus averting the many evils, religious and political, consequent upon an establishment, it is manifest that the impress of the Baptists on the American people is deep and widely felt; and their share in the development of our present culture and national growth and prosperity is by no means inconsiderable. The intelligent and fair minded of other denominations know and acknowledge the beneficial influence and effects of Baptist principles, practices,


[p. 301]
and polity on the world, especially on American culture, institutions, and government.

      A few years ago, during the great Memorial Movement in Virginia, the New York Independent, a Congregationalist paper, said, editorially: "The services of the early Virginia Baptists in the cause of religious liberty are remarkable. They ought to be more widely known and acknowledged. All the States now guarantee and enjoy this liberty. We are prone to forget how recently it was far otherwise. At least we are too often insensible of the debt we owe the Baptists for this boon. We have the highest respect for our Baptist brethren. Their grand defense of religious liberty, their fidelity, and industry in the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, their missionary zeal, and all the sturdy warfare in the good cause which we all have at heart entitle them to no small measure of our Christian regard."

      Pursuing our train of thought just one step further, do we not see in the great underlying principle of Baptist polity and theology, the true reasons for, as well as the essential elements of, that rapid growth and prosperity which has marked our denomination for the last century and more? It is obvious to the most superficial thinker that a denomination of Christians holding the faith and principles for which we contend must be popular with the masses of the people? The growth of the Baptists in this country has been wonderful, and far more rapid than the increase of the population of our prosperous and rapidly growing country. It has risen from one in ninety-four in 1782 to one in twenty-three or four in 1882. In Virginia, in the last fifty years it has risen from one in twenty-six to one in eight of the entire population.

      In view of God's goodness to us as a people we set up our Ebenezers and say, "Hitherto the Lord hath helped us." Ought we not to take encouragement from the past history and progress of our principles? They have lived and spread from time immemorial in spite of all opposition,


[p. 302]
and in the face of fines, imprisonments, stripes, fires, and martyrdoms. Principles which have made such wonderful progress in the face of such difficulties must be vital, vigorous, and aggressive, promising far greater progress, and far more brilliant triumphs in the future than in the past. Surely, if we can in any degree interpret the Word and providence of God, the Baptists have a great mission in the world. They are God's witnesses to bear testimony to the truth, and against the perversion and corruption of the ordinances, and to restore them as they were once delivered by the apostles to the Churches.

      Let the Baptists, then, awake to their solemn responsibility. God has called them to a great work, opened to them a wide sphere of usefulness, and laid upon them solemn responsibilities. If we would fulfill our great mission, we must be faithful, active, and aggressive against all forms of error. Let the great Baptist brotherhood of our country, North and South, heal all dissensions, close up the ranks, and present to our opponents an unbroken front. Under the inspiration of the elbow touch let us, as the soldiers of the cross, animated by one spirit, even that of the Master, in solid phalanx, march forward to battle and to victory, till our principles, practices, and polity shall bless and gladden the world.

============

[From The Baptist Quarterly Review, 1882, pp. 287-302. Document from Google Books. Formatted by Jim Duvall.]



American Baptist Church Histories
Baptist History Homepage