Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Read Some Original Baptist Sources

Over the weekend Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, commented on my blog about the "Misguided Rhetoric at First Baptist Dallas." Jeffress quotes a commentary from former Supreme Court justice Joseph Story (1779-1845) as an authoritative interpretation of the original intention of the U.S. Constitution.

Associate Justice Story was a child when the Constitution was being written and was merely ten years old when it was adopted (1789). Undoubtedly, his understanding of the intentions of our nation's founders was from second-hand sources and hearsay evidence that would not bear scrutiny in a court of law.

Furthermore, Story was from Massachusetts, the state that was the very last state to disestablish the church and bring its state constitution into line with the federal constitution. Massachusetts did not disestablish its church until 1833 -- the same year that Story's commentary was published. On the topic of church-state separation, both Story and his native state were obviously out-of-step with the rest of the people in the country.

I've been suggesting to Jeffress that he read source documents instead of second-hand documents for his understanding of the intentions of the founding fathers and the mindset of revolutionary America. The primary source to read is James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance. Madison is the primary author of the Constitution and of the Bill of Rights.

Jeffress would know that if he knew his Baptist history. It was Baptist evangelist John Leland and the Baptists in Virginia who convinced Madison that he had better add the First Amendment if he wanted to get the Constitution ratified in Virginia. After the U.S. Constitution was adopted, Leland wrote a pamphlet entitled "The Rights of Conscience Inalienable" (1791) that explained the intention of the First Amendment and Article VI of the Constitution:

"The federal constitution certainly had the advantage of any of the state constitutions, in being made by the wisest men in the whole nation, and after an experiment of a number of year's trial upon republican principles; and that constitution forbids Congress ever to establish any kind of religion, or to require any kind of religious test to qualify for any office in any department of federal government. Let a man be Pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian, he is eligible to any post in that government."
(L. F. Greene, ed. The Writings of John Leland. New York: Arno Press, 1969, p. 191)

Regarding the inequities of the state constitution in Massachusetts, here's what Leland said to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1811:

Government should be so fixed, that Pagans, Turks, Jews and Christians, should be equally protected in their rights. The government of Massachusetts, is, however, differently formed; under the existing constitution, it is not possible for the general court, to place religion upon its proper footing. (p. 358)
In times past I could only quote the references and hope that readers would be able to find a copy of Leland's writings in a local library. Today, anyone can download the book from Google Books and check the reference for themselves at their leisure both online and on their own laptops and computers. So there is no longer any excuse for Baptists to not be familiar with the writings of the Baptist leaders who led the struggle for religious liberty in America.

Here's a link to "The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland." (1844)

Here's a link to Massachusetts Baptist leader Isaac Backus' "Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty: Against the Oppressions of the Present Day" (1773).


Asinus Gravis said...

I'm a bit surprised that Jeffress bothered to respond to your piece. I'm not surprised that it was far from intellectually responsive.

His "Christian Nation" BS is not the only issue on which he is woefully misinformed while preaching without theological or intellectual warrant.

He is a disgrace to any denomination that claims to be Christian.

That Baptist Ain't Right said...

Really sad that a pastor would do such shoddy research as to make the claim we were founded as a "Christian Nation." Perhaps he is simply misinformed as anyone who has taken a Baptist History class at any of the seminaries would know that it was the Baptists who championed the separation of church & state.

I also see that Jeffress probably has done little reading in the SBC Faith & Message. It is expressly clear in article 17 when it says: "... Church and state should be separate.... The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work. The gospel of Christ contemplates spiritual means alone for the pursuit of its ends. The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion..."

Good post, btw.

Big Daddy Weave said...

I don't particularly care for how the BFM section on Religious Liberty is worded at this point:

"In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others."

This sentence, I believe, could be used to justify extensive accommodationism - government accommodations that Baptist separationists would not be comfortable with.

When it comes to the Baptist witness, I'm confident that Baptists have for 400 years intended to keep church and state truly separate in order to protect the individual conscience.

However, when it comes to the Founding Fathers and original intent arguments, I'm not so comfortable. The David Barton "Christian Nation" argument is a joke, based on terrible history. As a doctoral student studying Church-State, I've encountered quite a few academics who are accommodationists but no serious scholar in the academy takes David Barton seriously.

But, I'm not comfortable when we focus solely on the "original intent" argument of the Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers obviously expressed diverse viewpoints. It's clear that nonpreferentialism was rejected. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the Founders intended for separationism (what type of separationism?) to be embraced. Some did. Some did not. Theories that focus on the "intent" of a person are just extremely problematic.

I prefer the writings of Jefferson and Madison and Hugo Black. They articulate, in my opinion, the best understanding of how church and state should remain separate.

But the pastor at FBC Dallas does need to study up. If you're going to be an accommodationist, at least be an intellectually respectable accommodationist. Intellectually respectable and David Barton are like oil and water. The two don't mix.

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...


The entire debate over "original intent" is a dead end. There is no way to definitively settle the issue. The founders are dead. All that remains are their writings and no matter how clearly and forcefully they expressed themselves, a conflict of interpretations over the meaning of what they wrote will always be possible.

Robert Jeffress said...


Before disparaging Chief Justice Story's understanding of the First Amendment, remember that he was appointed to the Court by James Madison, whom you correctly identify as the architect of the Constitution. Apparently, President Madison had more confidence in Story's understanding of the Constitution than you.

As for your readers' charges of "shoddy research", if they would take time to listen to my message (available free at firstdallas.org) they would realize that the claim that Christianity is the established religion in America comes from the Supreme Court, not from David Barton. Of the numerous responses to my message, not one person has been able to cite one substantive error.

I would suggest that your readers quit relying on history classes at Baptist colleges and the Baptist Faith and Message and do some investigation of their own. They might be surprised by what they discover!

This will be my last response, but it's been fun! Thanks, Bruce.

Robert Jeffress

Dr. Bruce Prescott said...


It is ridiculous to pretend that Associate justice Story was a puppet who merely wrote opinions consonant with those of Madison.

Madison and Jefferson's opinion regarding the First Amendment are clear to any one who cares to read their writings.

Justice Story's opinion is merely one opinion in the history of constitutional law. His opinion clearly does not reflect the original intentions of the Founding Fathers.

As you are well aware, the Supreme Court has overturned Story's opinion.