Baptist influence on history of U.S., world a mixed bag, historians say

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Baptists’ signal contribution to American and world history and political thought, historians almost unanimously agree, is their uncompromising emphasis on religious liberty.
But, they hasten to add, the doctrine of soul freedom that grounds Baptists’ belief in religious liberty is the very reason Baptists of varying stripes have been found on both sides of subsequent political and social controversies.
“Baptists were among the first—if not the first—to say in English certainly by 1612 that God alone is judge of conscience, and therefore neither the government nor a religious establishment can judge the conscience of the heretic—the people who believe the wrong things—or the atheists—the people who don’t believe at all,” said Baptist historian Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School.

Baptists, Leonard said, “are really among the inventors of modern religious pluralism. They step way beyond mere toleration of second-class religious ideas to call for a full-blown religious pluralism.”
But it wasn’t out of a belief that all religions are equal. From their earliest roots, Baptists “continued to assert the uniqueness of their vision of the truth of not only Christianity, but their particular vision of the gospel,” Leonard said. He noted, for example, in theological debates early Baptists “fought the Quakers as readily as they did atheists.”
Nonetheless, in civil matters, Baptists “said everybody has the voice, and they said (neither) the state nor an official church can privilege a particular voice.”

Primacy of the individual conscience

Historian Walter Shurden, retired director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University, said this belief in the primacy of the individual conscience is what animated early Baptists’ advocacy for religious freedom.

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