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  • Obbie Tyler Todd

How Did Early Baptists View the Founding Fathers?



For a denomination that contributed so relatively little to the administration of the young nation, and for a people who were so consistently persecuted by Congregationalists and Episcopalians in America, Baptists placed an extraordinary amount of faith in the men whom they believed that God had appointed to lead them. For example, the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut famously wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1801 that they believed "America's God" had raised him up for the specific purpose of establishing religious liberty. Baptist pastor David Jones, who also lauded Jefferson, named his son after a Revolutionary War general. In fact, Horatio Gates Jones would eventually become ordained in 1800 as a Baptist minister. In the early republic, Baptists had no small amount of reverence for the founders. Even John Leland, who had originally expressed his dismay that the United States Constitution did not explicitly include an article on religious liberty, could speculate in 1829, “Perhaps an assembly of wiser patriots were never collected together, than at the convention in Philadelphia, in 1787.”[1] No doubt the passage of the First Amendment (1791) had given Leland a more cheerful memory of the events of 1787. As the American project continued and greater advancements were made in the realm of religious liberty, the blemishes and shortcomings (and heresies) of the founders began to fade with time. At the First Continental Congress, Samuel Adams had dismissed Isaac Backus and his fellow Baptist delegates as “enthusiasts” and denied the very existence of widespread Baptist persecution. However, just a few decades later, he was canonized as one of the greatest Americans who had ever lived. In 1828, Adiel Sherwood called Samuel Adams and John Hancock “as pure patriots as ever breathed the air of heaven.” He continued, “For these very acts, the whole American people revere their memories, and will hold in grateful remembrance their patriotic virtues as long as this Republic has existence.”[2] Baptists were no less nostalgic of the founders than any other patriots in the new republic.

In Virginia, the Baptist General Association had drawn up petitions and adopted a remonstrance against Patrick Henry’s 1785 general assessment bill which essentially allowed for what scholars have called a “plural establishment” of religion.[3] Instead, they had sided with James Madison, who argued that religion was not within the “purview” of the civil authority, and who later convinced John Leland to support the Constitution.[4] Nevertheless, Baptists eventually chose to remember Henry less as the advocate for multiple tax-supported denominations and more as the hero of the Revolution. John Leland, who initially shared Henry’s suspicion of government power under the Constitution, compared his famous “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!” speech to the book of Job. “As Job was but one to three,” Leland reflected, “it reminds us of Patrick Henry, in the Virginia legislature and convention, combatting the great Dons of that state.”[5] So high was Leland’s esteem for Henry that he concluded that the Virginia governor was the “foremost” of the “first orators that were ever on earth” to “plead the rights of the people.”[6]

Although Deists like Madison and Jefferson vehemently supported the Baptist cause for religious freedom, no founder other than George Washington garnered more respect from Baptists for his combination of virtue and defense of liberty than Patrick Henry. Calling Henry “the Virginia Demosthenes,” Jonathan Maxcy declared in 1819,

the mighty Henry! What dignity! What majesty! Every eye fastens upon him. Firm, erect, undaunted, he rolls on the mighty torrent of his eloquence. What a picture does he draw of the horrors of servitude and the charms of freedom? At once he gives the full rein to all his gigantic powers, and pours his own heroic spirit into the minds of his auditors; they become as one man; actuated by one soul — and the universal shout is ‘Liberty or Death!’ This single speech of this illustrious man gave an impulse, which probably decided the fate of America.[7]

The praises that many Baptists withheld from Jefferson and Madison due to their “infidelity” were not kept from Governor Henry, a friend of both liberty and religion. Baptists even had personal connections to Henry. After the capture of Charleston, Richard Furman and his family fled north to Virginia. Despite the ravage of war, Furman continued to preach in local churches, and Patrick Henry was among his regular hearers. Eventually, the two became such good friends that Henry even gifted Furman with volumes of John Ward’s “Oratory,” a well-known English work on rhetoric.[8] Likewise calling Henry “the Demosthenes of Virginia,” Furman commended his “bold, unconquerable spirit” that “plead the equal rights of conscience” and which “held with integrity the reins of government in a powerful neighboring state.”[9]

Of course, no star rose higher and more brightly in the Baptist mind than George Washington, the man Furman called a “true patriot” and “our beloved patriot.”[10] Washington’s legacy among Baptists was truly of biblical proportions. In fact, Richard Furman invoked seemingly every biblical parallel imaginable with which to compare the American president, likening him to everyone from “Samuel, the Prophet and Judge of Israel” to Elijah, “the chariot and horseman of our American Israel.”[11] No single figure, it seemed, was sufficient to describe Washington’s leadership and his role in delivering the American people. “It is sufficient for America that she had a Washington,” Furman concluded in a funeral sermon in 1800. “Heaven has made him to us both a Moses and Joshua. His example will live, though his body returns to its primeval dust.”[12] Nothing less than God’s own hand had placed just the right man at the helm of government at just the right time. Therefore, at his death, Furman could only point his listeners heavenward: “Washington was to American the valuable gift of God: he had a right to resume his own gift at his pleasure.”[13]

From the beginning of his presidency to his farewell address, Washington had exhibited a kindness to Baptists and a friendliness to religion. When the United Baptist Churches of Virginia wrote to Washington in 1789, congratulating him on being elected to the inaugural presidency, Washington replied with a word of gratitude. In the letter, Washington sought to allay the Baptists’ fears of potential violations of the right of religious conscience under the new Constitution:

If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical Society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the general Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution—For you, doubtless, remember that I have often expressed my sentiment, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.

While I recollect with satisfaction that the religious Society of which you are Members, have been, throughout America, uniformly, and almost unanimously, the firm friends to civil liberty, and the persevering Promoters of our glorious revolution; I cannot hesitate to believe that they will be the faithful Supporters of a free, yet efficient general Government. Under this pleasing expectation I rejoice to assure them that they may rely on my best wishes and endeavors to advance their prosperity.[14]

By promising to protect “the liberty of conscience” from “the horrors of spiritual tyranny,” Washington was identifying himself as a political friend, not a foe, of the Baptists. In Washington’s letter, the Baptists of Virginia received the sweet reward for having fought for liberty in a nation that did not always fight for theirs: Presidential approval. Not only did Washington formally receive their congratulations, he replied with an approbation of Baptist past, present, and future: (1) Baptists had always been “firm friends of civil liberty,” (2) they helped achieve “our glorious revolution,” (3) and they would be “faithful Supporters” of the new American nation. In other words, Baptists were acknowledged patriots in the nascent republic.

The next year, accompanied by Thomas Jefferson, his Secretary of State, Washington visited the College of Rhode Island in Providence, escorted to the campus by the students and President Manning. After Manning paid homage to the “superintending Providence” that had called Washington to “establish, after having defended, our rights and liberties,” President Washington returned thanks to the Baptists for their support in the Revolution: “In repeating thus publicly my sense of the zeal you displayed for the success of the cause of your country, I only add a single suffrage to the general testimony which all, who were acquainted with you in the most adverse and doubtful moments of our struggle for liberty and independence, have constantly borne in your favor.”[15] In Providence, Washington once again attested to the patriotism of Baptists, recognizing not only their love of country but also their desire for education and nation-shaping in the early republic.

While both Washington and Jefferson believed that religion should be free of the state, Washington’s vision of religious liberty in America at least appeared to align more closely with Baptists, as he nevertheless saw religion and government as inextricably linked. In his Farewell Address in 1796, Washington had emphasized religion as essential for civil society. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” he declared, “religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who would labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and cherish them.”[16] Despite his reticence to discuss his personal faith, Washington’s public support of religion even further garnered the respect and the admiration of Baptists, who lauded Washington for his religious character. Thomas Baldwin confessed, “You cannot help, my brethren, observing a coincidence of character and circumstances, between the Jewish Lawgiver and American Patriot.”[17] At least among Baptists, such a comparison would hardly ever have been made of Jefferson. Washington was not only the ideal republican; he gave Baptists hope that America would be a nation of both religion and religious freedom.

Nevertheless, with the death of Washington and the rise of America’s first political parties, Baptists eventually favored those patriots who mirrored their own politics. Just as John Leland extolled his “hero” Jefferson, the militantly Federalist (and anti-Jeffersonian) Jonathan Maxcy favored his own heroes:

No man stands so high in the esteem and veneration of all America as Washington; and yet perhaps, it may with truth be asserted, that the services rendered Adams and Franklin; though less splendid, as from their nature they must be, are nevertheless not less meritorious; not less important, than those performed by Washington. Had it not been for those services, perhaps Washington himself, with all his greatness could not have achieved what he did.[18]

Richard Furman was even more complimentary of his fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton. In a funeral sermon after Hamilton’s tragic death from a now-infamous duel with Aaron Burr, Furman attempted to defend the founder’s legacy. Reminding his audience of Hamilton’s authorship of The Federalist, Furman preached, “His learned comments on [the Constitution] afterwards, and masterly reasoning in its support, are known to have contributed more towards its adoption, than the labors of any other man.” After praising Hamilton’s endeavors in the department of treasury, Furman paid homage to “a man of transcendent genius; a refined scholar; an accomplished gentleman; an eloquent, powerful orator; a profound civilian; a heroic soldier; a great statesman; and, I hope I may add, without exaggeration, or offence to any, a sincere patriot.”[19]

Baptists may have been “the most consistent, the most numerous, and the most effective” dissenters in the fight for a separation of church and state, but the American Revolution reoriented the way that Americans viewed Baptists, and, in turn, the way Baptists viewed their new nation.[20] Although Baptists had been suspected of loyalism during the war due to their protests against religious persecution, and while full disestablishment of religion was a slow, grinding process even in the most liberal of states, Baptists’ ardent patriotism in the War of Independence helped soften the prejudices that had long been carried against them by their countrymen and emboldened their pursuit of religious liberty. America was indeed a home for Baptists, they believed. With the imprimatur of the founders and a solid service record from the war, Baptists wielded their patriotism as political leverage in order to engage their fellow citizens in the nation they had helped create. As a result, the future of the denomination seemed, at least to Baptists, tied to the fate of the American nation itself.

[1] John Leland, “Address Delivered at Pittsfield, Jan. 8, 1829,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, ed. L. F. Greene (New York: G. W. Wood, 1845), 541.

[2] Sherwood, Strictures on the Sentiments of the Kehukee Association, 18.

[3] Esbeck, “Disestablishment in Virginia, 1776–1802,” 157.

[4] Esbeck, “Disestablishment in Virginia, 1776–1802,” 150; Kidd, God of Liberty, 223.

[5] John Leland, “Oaths,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, ed. L. F. Greene (New York: G. W. Wood, 1845), 707.

[6] John Leland, “Parts of a Speech, Delivered at Suffield, Connecticut, on the First Jubilee of the United States,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, ed. L. F. Greene (New York: G. W. Wood, 1845), 518.

[7] Maxcy, “A Discourse, Delivered in the Chapel of South Carolina College,” 283.

[8] A. Friend, “Biography of Richard Furman, Sr.,” in Life and Works of Dr. Richard Furman, D.D., ed. G. William Foster, Jr. (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 2004), 25.

[9] Furman, Humble Submission to Divine Sovereignty, 384.

[10] Furman, Humble Submission to Divine Sovereignty, 372, 379.

[11] Furman, Humble Submission to Divine Sovereignty, 373, 378.

[12] Furman, Humble Submission to Divine Sovereignty, 379.

[13] Furman, Humble Submission to Divine Sovereignty, 378.

[14] “From George Washington to the United Baptist Churches of Virginia, May 1789,” https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-02-02-0309

[15] George Washington, “To the Corporation of Rhode Island College,” in Life, Times, and Correspondence of James Manning, ed. Reuben Aldridge Guild (Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1864), 434–35.

[16] “Washington’s Farewell Address,” The Papers of George Washington, September 19, 1796, http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/washingtons-farewell-address/.

[17] Thomas Baldwin, A Sermon, delivered to the Second Baptist Society in Boston, on Lord’s Day, December 29, 1799. Occasioned by the Death of General George Washington (Boston: Manning & Loring, 1800), 23.

[18] Maxcy, “A Discourse, Delivered in the Chapel of South Carolina College,” 287.

[19] Richard Furman, Death’s Dominion Over Man Considered: A Sermon, Occasioned by the Death of the Honorable Major General Alexander Hamilton, in Life and Works of Dr. Richard Furman, D.D., ed. G. William Foster, Jr. (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 2004), 240–41.

[20] McLoughlin, Soul Liberty, 20.

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