Russ Moore’s Soul Freedom: An Idea as Old as Baptists Themselves

John Leland, Baptist MinisterA video of Russel Moore’s response to a question at the SBC Convention has made the rounds today. It is a video of Moore’s response to a question from John Wofford of Armorel Baptist Church, Blytheville, Arkansas. Generally questions from SBC messengers or members are not worthy of re tweeting or posting on some social video site, but Wofford’s question strikes a chord with many conservative Americans, and Moore’s answer (to which I agree) ruffles the feathers of many of the same. Watch the video below for Wofford’s question and Moore’s response:

One can understand Wofford’s question in light of the atrocities that have happened on American soil and abroad at the hands of Islamic extremists. But, denying Muslims in America the right to build mosques is to undercut the very religious liberty Baptist enjoy – the very religious liberty every religion in America enjoys. The government is to extend to every individual right of “soul freedom” – the right to choose to worship their religion without interference from the government. That is, the United States government should not dictate who is able to build a house of worship and who is not. The government should not dictate who can worship their religion and who cannot. Religious liberty is extended to every individual and guarantees that the government will not interfere.

The idea of “soul freedom” is not unique to Moore, nor is it an idea that has been birthed by the recent clash with militant Islam. Rather, it’s an idea that has been around as long as Baptists have been around.

John Leland (1754-1841) was a Baptist minister in early America, having served churches in Virginia and Massachusetts. What Leland is perhaps most known for is his fight for religious liberty. Robert G. Torbet, in his A History of the Baptists, says Leland was “leading Baptist spokesman in behalf of religious freedom.”[1]  Leland states in his An Address Delivered at Westfield, March 4, 1833, that “next to the salvation of souls, the civil and religious rights of men have summoned my attention, more than the acquisition of wealth or seats of honor.”

Leland’s view on religious liberty directly flows from how he understood the relationship between church and state. Leland believed that “government has no more to do with religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics.”[2]  So strongly did he believe in a strict separation of Church and State, that any idea of a Christian commonwealth (i.e. State) “should be exploded.”[3] 

Government, when rightly formed, embraces Pagans, Jews, Mahometans and Christians, within its fostering arms – prescribes no creed of faith for either of them – proscribes none of them for being heretics, promotes the man of talents and integrity, without inquiring after his religion – impartially protects all of them – punishes the man who works ill to his neighbor, let his faith and motives be what they may.[4] 

Note again: “Government, when rightly formed, embraces Pagans, Jews, Mahometans [i.e. Muslims] and Christians, within its fostering arms.” Baptists, for over 200 years, have championed religious freedom not just for Baptists alone, but also for Muslims, that they too may have the liberty to practice their religion (even build their own mosques) in America.   All civil laws should recognize all individuals of all religious backgrounds as citizens and should protect their rights.[6] 

Baptists, and all other faiths, in America are in debt to Leland and his tireless work (along with other Baptists like Isaac Backus) to ensure religious liberty is extended to all religions in America.  May we as Southern Baptists today continue to champion religious liberty for all – even to Muslims who are here on our soil.

Post Script: I encourage you to read Russ Moore’s post dated June 8, 2016, titled “Is Religious Freedom for Non-Christians Too?” Moore provides excellent insight into a difficult issue, but one that we must face in today’s turbulent times. Though we as Christians are rightly troubled and angered by the actions of Muslim extremists, we live in a country where one religion is not to be favored over another by the state. The federal government is not to endorse one religion over all others; in particular, our government is not a Christian government. We are not in a Christian nation. Rather, we live in a nation where religious freedom is extended to all – even though with whom we are at odds.

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                [1] Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptist (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2000), 241.

                [2] Isaac Backus, A Fish Caught In His Own Net, in Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism [Works], ed. William G. McLoughlin (Boston: Edes and Gill, 1768; reprint, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1968), 190-1.

                [3] John Leland, The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland [Works], ed. Miss L. F. Greene (New London: 1791; reprint, New York: G. W. Wood, 1845), 184.

 

                [4] Leland, The Virginia Chronicle, Works, 107.

 

                [5] Leland, Short Essays on Government, Works, 476.

                [6] Leland, Letter to the Rev. O. B. Brown, Works, 608-10.

Augustine on State Coercion Against Church Schismatics and Heretics

The early period of Augustine’s bishopric in Hippo was largely spent embroiled in dealing with the Donatists – a schism from the Catholic Church that dominated many cities throughout North Africa (for a short summary, see CARM’s post on Donatism).  Augustine initially sought to deal with the Donatists and to bring them back into the fold of the Church through the use of argument and persuasion and the “attraction of the majestic Catholic Church,” for one cannot be a Christian against his will via coercion.[1] (It should be noted here that the use of “Catholic” is not as we understand the term today in reference to the Roman Catholic Church; rather, the term as used by Augustine and the Patristic Fathers stands for the church universal – the body of believers who has been redeemed unto God by faith in Christ Jesus.)

For instance, in a letter dated around 396 (Letter 34), Augustine says of Proculeian, the Donatist bishop of Hippo,

Or if he agrees that we peacefully deal with this whole question of our division, in order that the error, which is already evident, may become more evidently known, I gladly agree. For I heard what he proposed, namely, that without turmoil among the people ten serious and honest men from each side be present with us and that we investigate in accord with the scriptures where the truth is to be found.[2]

Despite the best intentions of Augustine and fellow Catholic bishops/priests, reasoning and dialoguing with the Donatists did nothing in bringing the Donatists closer to the fold of the Church; instead, persecution of the Catholics by the Donatists, particularly by the Circumcellions, continued at various levels of intensity across North Africa.

But, at some point between 396 and 407/8, Augustine’s view on the issue of state coercion in Church matters, particularly in the dealing with heretics and schismatics, significantly changed.  In Letter 93 (dated around 407/8) addressed to Vincent, a Rogatist bishop (Rogatists were a schism from the Donatist church), Augustine states that “this opinion of mine [of being against coercion] was defeated not by the words of its opponents, but by examples of those who offered proof.”[3]  Augustine explains,

the first argument against me was my own city [Thagaste]. Though it was entirely in the Donatist sect, it was converted to the Catholic unity out of fear of the imperial laws, and we now see that it [the Donatist sect in Thagaste] detests the destructiveness of this stubbornness of yours so that no one would believe that it was ever a part of it. And it was the same with many other cities, which were reported to me by name, so that I might recognize by the very facts that one could correctly understand the words of scripture as also applying to this case.[4]

Though it was at one time his understanding of scripture (i.e. the example of Christ) that kept him from appealing to coercion against the Donatists, it was not scripture that convinced him of the rightness of state coercion; rather, it was the result of coercion itself. From the point at which Augustine saw the validity of appealing to state coercion, he did not fail to point out to Donatists that not only was the imperial law set against them,[5] but he also argued from scripture why the Catholics sought to coerce the Donatists back to the Church.

On the surface, it seems that Augustine bases his support for state coercion solely upon the results of examples presented to him by fellow bishops—the end justifies the means.   And by making this switch, Augustine set a precedence that has had regrettable consequences throughout the history of Christianity.  Upon a deeper look, however, Augustine’s switch may have been a long time coming.  In subsequent posts, I’ll present some potential reasons that may underlie Augustine’s move to support state coercion in church matters, followed by how this lesson in history can be of great value for Christians today.


[1] Geoffrey Willis, Saint Augustine and the Donatist Controversy (London: SPCK, 1950), 127-128.

[2] Augustine, Letter 34 in The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century Letters 1-99, Part II/1, trans. Roland Teske (New York: New York City Press, 2001), 120.

[3] Augustine, Letter 93 in The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century Letters 1-99, Part II/1, trans. Roland Teske (New York: New York City Press, 2001), 387.

[4] Ibid, 387.

[5] According to the translator’s note 27 in Letter 93, imperial laws against the Donatists were passed in February  405, which was followed by a mass conversion of Donatists to the Catholic church.