“The rape of the soul.” That’s how Roger Williams (1603-1683)—at one-time Baptist minister and founder of Rhode Island—described government intrusions into an individual’s religious conscience. In fact, Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because he had left the established church of the colony, believing, instead, that the sanctity of the human conscience demanded a free church in a free state. Although he may be accused of overblown rhetoric, he was making a point he did not want to be misunderstood, viz., forcing a person through the power of the state to violate his or her own conscience was a monstrous harm.
Williams was by no means alone in his advocacy for liberty of conscience. Baptists in England and American were also vocal apologists for religious liberty and freedom of conscience for every person. According to one historian, “Baptists did not turn toward the idea of ‘a free conscience.’ They began in the seventeenth century screaming and agitating for liberty of conscience.” They valued religious freedom because they suffered the pain of persecution in the jail cells, stockades, and whipping posts of Europe.
Thomas Helwys (c 1575-1615), for instance, co-founded the first Baptist church on English soil in the early 17th century in Spitalfields, London. In 1612, he published A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity arguing for liberty of conscience and forwarding a copy to King James I. In his inscription he wrote: “The king is a mortal man and not God, and therefore hath no power over the immortal souls of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them and to set spiritual Lords over them.” Both Helwys and his wife, Joan, suffered for the cause and Helwys died in Newgate Prison at the age of 40.
Like Roger Williams, Obadiah Holmes (1607-1682) was also banished from Massachusetts because of his religious beliefs and settled in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1651, Holmes and two friends, John Clarke and John Crandall, traveled back to Massachusetts to visit an aged and blind friend. After receiving communion in the friend’s home, they were arrested for unlawful worship. They were convicted and sentenced to a fine or whipping.
Clarke and Crandall either paid their fines or let friends pay it for them. Holmes refused to pay his fine, nor would he allow anyone to pay it on his behalf. Thus, he remained in prison. Furthermore, the alternative to payment had to be exacted, namely, the guilty party was to be “well whipped.” On 6 September 1651, Obadiah Holmes, a Baptist glassworker, was beaten with thirty stripes. As his clothes were being stripped from him, Holmes declared, “I am now come to be baptized in afflictions by your hands, that so I may have further fellowship with my Lord. [I] am not ashamed of His sufferings, for by His stripes am I healed.” Following his beating, Holmes turned to the magistrates and said, “You have struck me with roses.” One commentator says he was whipped “unmercifully.” Governor Jenks observed that “for many days, if not some weeks, he could take no rest but upon his knees and elbows, not being able to suffer any part of his body to touch the bed whereupon he lay.” Speaking of his punishment later, Holmes said, “As the strokes fell upon me I had such a spiritual manifestation of God’s presence as the like thereof I never had nor felt, nor can fleshly tongue express; and the outward pain was so removed from me that indeed I am not able to declare it, yea, and in a manner felt it not, although it was grievous, as the spectators said, the man striking with all his strength (yea, spitting in his hand three times, as many affirmed) with a three-corded whip, giving me therewith thirty strokes.”
First century Christians faced a similar dilemma. In Acts 5, we learn that the Apostles were arrested for preaching the Gospel of the Lord Jesus. The authorities strictly ordered them “not to teach in this name . . .” (v. 28). Speaking for the Apostles, Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (v. 29).
These vignettes demonstrate that religious liberty was a hard-won freedom. That’s why it’s almost impossible to imagine that the Obama administration has just handed down a decision that so clearly violates religious freedom. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, “starting next year, health plans, including those offered by religious institutions, must pay for “all FDA-approved forms of contraception,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Employers who fail to provide this insurance will face heavy fines.”
Judging from the lessons of history, he’s right.
BibleMesh aims to help people understand the big picture as well as important facts of the Bible. The first BibleMesh resource is “The Biblical Story,” a course that presents Scripture as a cohesive narrative of God’s work in the world from Genesis to Revelation. It utilizes an interactive quizzing tool that helps people remember what they have learned. And finally, it includes a social networking platform which will allow pastors and church leaders to host their own online Bible studies and contribute their own resources. Forthcoming content will include courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew.