Few people, including most Baptists, are aware that the Religious Liberty clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and ultimately all of the Religious Liberty clauses in the state constitutions, are a tribute to that peculiar Baptist doctrine of “Soul Liberty” which has left a trail of martyr’s blood down through the centuries. Following is a brief account as to how it all came about.
In the latter part of the 18th Century, Baptist Elder John Leland came from Massachusetts to Virginia to preach the gospel and to work for religious liberty. He took up residence and found himself neighbor to two of the most well known Americans of antiquity, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. He not only expressed Baptist views of liberty of conscience, which he had no doubt learned from his forebears such as Roger Williams and John Clark as well as his friend Isaac Backus, but rallied Baptist support for Madison to the Virginia Constitutional Convention and later in his election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Madison had promised the Baptists that, if elected, he would introduce a Bill of Rights early in the first session of Congress. Madison kept his word not only to the Baptists but to other freedom loving patriots by introducing several amendments to the newly adopted Constitution with the approval of President Washington. One of those was the First Amendment, which included the now famous words, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This made the Constitution palatable to the Baptists. So now as Paul Harvey would say, “You now know the rest of the story,” because the First Amendment actually grew out of a conference between Rev. John Leland and James Madison. The state of Virginia has actually marked the historical site of the meeting between those two men by designating a park as the Leland-Madison State Park on State Highway 20 in Orange County, Virginia.
Can there be any doubt that a scant forty-two years later when a twenty-three year old Baptist divinity student sat at his dorm room desk translating from an old German hymnbook that he thought of words like, “Our Fathers God to Thee, / Author of Liberty”? No doubt he thought of that day in 1757 when the old man Daniel Marshall bowed in prayer at a ‘brush arbor’ meeting, breaking the laws of Old Virginia which had a State Church system (Anglican). Or he may have thought of Obadiah Holmes in New England, beaten until he could not stand because he wouldn’t pay taxes for the support of the Congregational Church there, as he continued to write, “Long may our land be bright / With Freedom’s Holy Light.” He may have thought of the Baptist preacher, John Weatherford, in Virginia preaching to his congregation through the grates in the jail, with his Bible laying on the ledge while the jailor slashed his hands and the blood ran down, when he continued to write, “Protect us by Thy Might,” And then it’s very possible that he thought of the Christian and Biblical roots of the Declaration of Independence and the newly formed Constitution that had only been ratified for thirty years when he finished up by writing, “GREAT GOD, OUR KING.”
That young man was Samuel Francis Smith, a student at Andover Theological Seminary in Andover, Massachusetts, and the song is the beloved America. Lowell Mason later set Smith’s words to the same melody used for the National Anthem of Great Britain entitled God Save the King.
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