The Conscience of a Baptist (continued)

          Baptists practice adult baptism by immersion because of the Bible. The Bible is divinely inspired, Baptists believe, and the ultimate authority for leading a Christian life. Baptists find no scriptural support for infant baptism. The baptisms mentioned in the Bible, for example, of Jesus by John the Baptist and one done by Phillip, were of adults, and there is nothing to indicate that John the Baptist’s other baptisms were not of adults.

          Infant baptisms are a man-made ritual, according to Baptists, and it is not Christian to use man’s rituals over those of the Bible. And while it takes some extrapolation to conclude that immersion is required, the Bible says that Jesus and others came out of the water, and other passages do seem to support that the biblical baptism was by dunking, including the verse–I think it is in one of the Romans–that says baptism symbolizes life, death, and resurrection. Sprinkling or the thumb’s spreading of water on a forehead doesn’t really seem to be a good symbol of that.

          Baptists maintained that the only biblically-based rituals were adult baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  And on the first Sunday of every month we had communion. Little cubes of Wonder Bread and shot glasses of Welch’s Grape Juice were passed around. (As frugal as the church and its congregants were, it might not have been Welch’s, but an off brand.) I did like communion, but it brought some of my first doubts. I was told to take the Bible literally, but our church also commanded teetotaling. When I asked about why no wine, I was told that when the Bible said “wine,” it meant grape juice. Hmmm, I thought to myself.

          Adult baptism and communion and the Bible. Any other ritual or source comes from man and not God. No genuflecting. No stations of the cross. No Book of Common Prayer. No required kneeling. No incense. No icons. No required head covering. No rosary. No “mandatory” church attendance. No prayers other than to the Trinity. No saints. (It still bothers me to hear “The Gospel According to St. Mark.” No, it is the Gospel according to Mark.)

          Baptists are not only separated from other denominations by the lack of much ritual but also by the absence of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. The only kind of churches Jesus and his apostles recognized were no larger than a congregation, and Baptists maintain that is what the Christian church should still be. Nothing is above an individual church. No one imposes a minister, priest, or vicar on a Baptist church; the congregation selects its leader. No bishops; no presbytery. Each congregation is supreme.

          American Baptists did not have saints, but there was a theological progenitor—Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island after he was “asked” to leave Puritan Massachusetts. He established the first American Baptist church in Providence. Williams should be considered one of our most important Founding Fathers, but he seems to be almost unknown today. When I used to walk by the Roger Williams Hotel on Madison and 31st Street in Manhattan, I wondered how many of my fellow passersby had any idea who Roger Williams was. The hotel was built on land leased from the neighboring Baptist church, and, I once heard, was owned by the American Baptist Church. Times change. The hotel was sold, and now has what seems like a brand-tested name, The Roger.

          Williams was a remarkable man. Unlike many of his American contemporaries of the early seventeenth century, he treated the Indians with respect and produced a primer of the complex Algonquian language. (Bill Bryson in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language states that this work “is a feat of scholarship deserving of far wider fame, incidentally.”) But Williams should be better known because so much of his thought, expressed in his voluminous writings, broke from conventional thinking and was the foundation for many of the bedrock principles of this country—sovereignty in the people, equality of people, liberty of individual conscience, and separation of church and state.

          Williams made the radical argument for his time that governments were not divinely inspired. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus pick a government or endow rulers with authority. Instead, Williams contended, sovereignty is with the people. Just as people come together and join with God to form a church and then pick its ministers, the people come together to form a government and grant authority to the rulers.

          This led Williams to reject the common notion of his time that the state must enforce God’s laws to prevent religious errors. Instead, since the state gets its powers from the people, government is invested with all the errors of the people. Any attempt to enforce religion by the state will always be error-filled and will, in essence, be an attempt for people to have sovereignty over God. Thus, long before Jefferson, Williams called for a “wall of separation” between church and state, a wall he called for to protect not the state, but religion. He believed that religion always suffered when it was protected or required by the state. For Williams, the church is sheltered by spiritual weapons and harmed by government efforts to enforce religion. God makes Christians, not a government. When religion and politics are mixed, the result is not true religion, but politics.

(continued June 26)