Early Advocates for Separation

Home Up Join Contents Search


First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 3, No. 1, February 2002

The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United

Early Advocates for Separation of Church & State

In 1784 Patrick Henry offered a bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion in the Virginia state legislature.  1n 1785 James Madison led the opposition to Henry’s bill and wrote his Memorial and Remonstrance to help turn public sentiment against it.  That same year Madison wrote a letter James Monroe identifying sources of support for Henry’s bill:


"The Episcopal clergy are generally for it. . . . The Presbyterians seem as ready to set up an establishment which would take them in as they were to pull one down which shut them out.  The Baptists, however, standing firm by their avowed principle of the complete separation of church and state, (emphasis added) declared it to be "repugnant to the spirit of the Gospel for the Legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion, that no human laws ought to be established for the purpose."  (James Madison, Writings, II, 183-191.)


Madison and his Baptist allies were successful in defeating Henry’s bill and in passing Thomas Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.   These actions in Virginia provide the immediate context and most important historical precedents for understanding the original intention of the framers of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.


Considering where many Baptists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians now stand regarding separation of church and state, some readers may be surprised to learn that Baptists were originally the most ardent champions for religious liberty.   While many Baptists cherish this legacy and consider it their faith’s finest contribution to civilization, others have forgotten their heritage and consider it “a figment of some infidel’s imagination.”  Below are a few quotations from some of the earliest advocates for separation of church and state within the Baptist tradition.  Next issue we will have quotations from early advocates for religious liberty from other faith traditions.

Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528)


Identified with the “Anabaptists,” Hubmaier is considered by some to be the first Baptist theologian because, unlike other more consistently pacifist Anabaptists, he permitted Christians to take up the sword to serve as magistrates and in defense of their country.  He was a leader in the “Radical” Reform movement in South Germany.  On March 10, 1528 he was burned at the stake in Vienna.


“It is well and good that the secular authority puts to death the criminals who do physical harm to the defenseless, Romans 13.  But no one may injure the atheist (gotssfind) who wishes nothing for himself other than to forsake the gospel.”1


Thomas Helwys (c.1570–c.1615)


Founder of the First Baptist Church in England.  In 1612 Helwys penned one of the first treatises calling for complete religious liberty in the English language.  After he sent a copy to King James, he was promptly arrested and imprisoned for the remainder of his brief life.


“Mens religion to God, is betwixt God and themselves; the king shall not answer for it; neither may the King be judg betwene God and man.  Let them be heretickes, Turks, Jewes, or whatsoever, it apperteynes not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”2


Roger Williams (1603-1683)


Founder of the First Baptist Church in America and founder of the colony of Rhode Island.  A century before Thomas Jefferson used the metaphor about a “wall of separation” between church and state, he used the metaphor of a “wall of separation” dividing the garden of the church from the wilderness of the world.  With help from John Clarke, Williams obtained for Rhode Island the first charter in the world that secured full liberty of conscience and religion.


“The church of the Jews under the Old Testament in the type and the church of the Christians under the New Testament in the antitype were both separate from the world; and when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made his garden a wilderness.”3


“The commonweal cannot without a spiritual rape force the consciences of all to one worship.”4



Isaac Backus (1724-1806)


Leader of the Baptists in colonial Massachusetts where the established Congregational Church was using the power of the state to oppress Baptists.  He was head of the Grievance Committee of the Warren Baptist Association when, in 1773, he penned these words in An Appeal to the Public.


“It appears to us that the true difference and exact limits between ecclesiastical and civil government is this, That the church is armed with light and truth to pull down the strongholds of iniquity and to gain souls to Christ and into his Church to be governed by His rules therein, and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed, while the state is armed with the sword  to guard the peace and civil rights of all persons and societies and to punish those who violate the same.  And where these two kinds of government, and the weapons which belong to them are well distinguished and approved according to the nature and end of their institution, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other.  But where they have been confounded together no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.”5


John Leland (1754-1841)


Leader of Baptists in Virginia where the established Church of England used state power to oppress Baptists.  Opposed to a Constitution that made no explicit provision for religious liberty, Virginia Baptists made preparations to nominate and elect Leland instead of James Madison to go to Virginia’s convention for ratifying the Constitution.  Leland withdrew after meeting with Madison and getting assurance from him that he would work to add the First Amendment and a bill of rights to the U.S. Constitution.


“Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let the government protect him in so doing.”6


After the U.S. Constitution was adopted, Leland rejoiced that it would be possible for a "Pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian" to be eligible for any post or office in the government.7



1 William R. Estep, ed.  Anabaptist Beginnings (1523-1533): A Source Book.(Nieuwkoop:  B. de Graaf, 1976), p. 51.


2 H. Leon McBeth, ed., A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage.  (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1990), p. 72.


3 Perry Miller, Roger Williams:  His Contribution to the American Tradition.  Atheneum, 1962, p. 98.


4 Ibid., p. 83.


5 H. Leon McBeth, ed., A Sourcebook for Baptist Heritage.  (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1990), p. 175.


6 L. F. Greene, ed.  The Writings of John Leland. New York:  Arno Press, 1969, p. 184.


7 Ibid., p. 191.


Help us Identify Early Advocates for  Separation of Church and State.

Please send us quotations, references and pictures (if possible) of early advocates for Separation of Church and State from you faith tradition.  We will be publishing such information in future issues of the First Amendment Advocate.


Home ] Up ]


"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

Copyright © 2003 Americans United -- Oklahoma Chapter  P.O. Box 892747 Oklahoma City, OK 73189.   Phone and Fax:  405-632-0037   Send mail to jhuff@auok.org with questions about the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State


Send mail to bprescott@auok.org with questions or comments about this web site.