Two elements of the Baptist tradition have acted as "buffers" against some of the entanglements of "empire." First, Baptists themselves were the object of substantial persecution in their earliest decades. The tradition was born in England from the rejection of and withdrawal from the "established" church, namely the Church of England. Thus, they were among those who came to be known as "dissenters." Moreover, their rejection of infant baptism meant that their dissenting status was not just ecclesiastical but also societal, for many equated the rejection of infant baptism with a rejection of a de facto social contract to participate in the mainstream of society. Hence, many early Baptists were imprisoned and deprived of livelihoods, and some were martyred.
Second, the Baptist emphasis on individual conscience and local autonomy has meant that Baptists as a whole have often remained detached from formal national institutional structures and institutions. In the United States, the most obvious expression of this is the Baptist commitment to the separation of church and state (though not the separation of all religion from the public square).
Nonetheless, like other religious traditions, Baptists have sometimes allowed their cultural context or the mores of the society in which they live to corrupt their beliefs and conduct. Perhaps the clearest example is the way some Baptists supported the evils of slavery. This was true in Baptist circles both outside and within the United States. For example, having followed British expansionism and conquest of, among other places, the West Indies, Baptist missionaries there followed the Baptist Mission Society stance that missionaries were not to be engaged in politics. Submission to lawfully constituted authorities, even those that enabled the slave trade, was a Christian obligation. Furthermore, while some Baptist missionaries would teach that all human beings are spiritually equal, they would, nonetheless, not conclude from this that slavery should not be tolerated.
In the United States, economics, politics, and religion combined in a mix that led many Baptists to support slavery, and many Christian ministers used the pulpit to oppose abolition and support the institution of slavery. One of the more well-known defenses of it came from Rev. Richard Furman, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1822, Furman preached a sermon in which he proclaimed that the Bible indicates that slaves should be cared for in "Christian" ways, but that it does not, he said, explicitly forbid slavery per se; therefore, slavery itself is not, he indicated, inherently evil.
Supporters of slavery believed so strongly in the correctness of their views that they instigated one of the most severe divisions ever to occur within the Baptist tradition. Some Baptists in the south nominated a slaveholder, James Reeve (1784-1858), for missionary service with the American Baptist Home Mission Society, and when his candidacy was denied most of the southerners in the ABHMS left the Society and participated in the creation of a new denomination that would not oppose slavery, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). (On the 150th anniversary of the infamous Dred Scott Decision by the United States Supreme Court, the SBC passed a resolution that stated, among other things, that they "wholly lament and repudiate the Dred Scott Decision," reaffirm an earlier statement in which they say that they "unwaveringly denounce racism, in all its forms, as deplorable sin," and call on all SBC churches to have and communicate the love of God to all people, regardless of race or ethnicity.)
1. Why were early Baptists persecuted?
2. What is the role of institutional religion within the Baptist tradition? Why does this counter attempts to build an “empire”?
3. Why did some Baptists accept slavery? Why did some reject it?