From the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD and until the 1600’s religion was always connected with government. Every country in Europe was run by a state church. Some were protestant and some were Catholic but to be a member of the nation meant to be a member of their church. It was against the law to worship contrary to the state. Baptism as an infant not only gave you membership into the church but was also your membership into the nation. As people fled Europe, in part because of religious persecution, they founded colonies in America under their preferred denomination. It was not until 1635 when Roger Williams was banished from Massachusetts for his religious beliefs that he went and founded Rhode Island as the first colony with no established church and granted liberty of conscience to everyone.
Williams was trained as a Puritan minister and theologian. He advocated for religious freedom and the separation of church and state which was a revolutionary concept. After starting the colony of Rhode Island, Williams and 12 others were scripturally baptized and formed the first Baptist church in America. Williams was a friend to the Native Americans and was seen as the most trusted colonist. This had him at odds again with other colonies and caused him to have to travel to England to fight for a charter for his colony. Rhode Island became an official colony and was influential in the eventual granting of religious liberty and the separation of church and state into the founding documents of the United States of America almost a 150 years later.
The Separation of Church and State has been a fundamental doctrine of Baptist life. However, as we find ourselves another 250 years removed from the debates of our founding fathers, we have lost the historical significance of this belief. Secularists in America use it as a way of completely removing all Christian influence from our government. That which was designed to keep the church from being controlled by the state has come to be a way to kick Christianity out of all public life. That which gave freedom of conscience has been used to take away freedom of practice. As America continues its slide to a post-Christian society the dangers of this way of thinking threatens the very freedoms it was meant to protect. Williams never could have dreamed that his revolutionary idea of religious freedom would be used as a tool to suppress religious expression.
Baptists have a great heritage of defending religious freedom for all. However, we should be alarmed that there are those in government who want to use separation of church and state to suppress our ability to communicate the gospel and give people the knowledge necessary to choose. Do not let this misunderstanding create a fear in us of sharing the truths of the gospel with those around us. The greatest tragedy would be for us to not take advantage of the freedoms our forefathers fought for. Separation of church and state is important to keep the state from forcing a religion upon its citizens, however let us not take the current misunderstanding and use it as an excuse for not sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.