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Baptist Bites: Theocracy and Persecution in the New World
Our discovery of Baptist origins, beliefs and history has so far taken place on the continent of Europe. Over four hundred years later, it’s also important for Baptists in America to grasp how we made the jump to the New World. To begin, let’s go back to the very early days, to the dawn of the 1600’s. I hope you’ll remember that in 1608, a group of Separatist believers fled England under threat of persecution by King James I. The Separatists saw the writing on the wall and emigrated to the Netherlands.
We’ve covered two church leaders, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. It was from their congregation that the Baptist movement developed. But we didn’t talk about another pastor, John Robinson. The group of Separatists who came to the Netherlands was large enough that they decided to split into two congregations, one led by Smyth and the other by Robinson. Robinson’s group formed their own church in the city of Leyden. The church grew along its own path; Robinson and his congregation did not agree with Smyth’s developing Baptist views and continued in their Puritan traditions. Knowing they’d never be accepted back in their homeland, they ultimately decided to establish a new one of their own. In 1620, this church took passage on a ship called The Mayflower and sailed for the New World. That’s right—this is the group we’ve come to know as “the Pilgrims,” and they established a new, theocratic society known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Having been exiled under the threat of persecution, anyone might think that this new, Christian colony would be sensitive to the issue of religious freedom. But that wasn’t the primary issue for them. Nothing was more important than believing and worshipping according to their reading of the New Testament. They condemned the Church in Rome over what they saw as blasphemous heresies, and they separated from the Church of England because it was the daughter of the Catholic tradition. It too retained corruptions of the true, Biblical faith. They sought to codify a theology and worship that was absolutely faithful to their reading of Scripture. To tolerate any deviations would be to invite God’s righteous wrath upon them all. They intended their new colony to be a theocracy—ruled by God through following His revealed Word. In the Old Testament, God had made it clear that He expected Israel to cast out any among them who did not faithfully follow God’s covenant. This might help us understand why they were so zealous to require all members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to behave, believe and worship according to the way they read as truly faithful to God. Any who did not follow in this way were to be admonished and corrected. If they did not submit, they would be banished from the Colony or worse. This was possible because in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, civil authority and church authority were bound tightly together. If an individual refused to conform to the teachings of the church, the State stepped in to levy civil penalties on that person.
The thing about strict, legalistic rules and persecution, though, is that they often have the opposite effect from what was intended. When even minor questions or disagreements arose in the Colony, the dissenters received excessive backlash that actually radicalized them further. They were driven by harsh church and state officials to reexamine the entire Puritan system of belief. One example was Anne Hutchinson, who was arrested and banished from the Colony for questioning its hard-line Calvinist beliefs. Another was Roger Williams, who contended that the State had no right to compel the consciences or spiritual beliefs of others. We will begin examining Williams’ life next month.