what would roger do?

On Monday, April 4, the Tennessee legislature approved a bill making the Holy Bible the official state book of Tennessee. At least two other states (Louisiana and Mississippi) had talked about it, but Tennessee was the first to actually approve such a measure. The bill now goes to Governor Bill Haslam, who has questioned its constitutionality but still might sign it into law. If that happens, the Bible will join the Channel Catfish, the Eastern Red Cedar, and the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly as an official state symbol of Tennessee.

The bill was introduced in the House by Jerry Sexton, a former Baptist minister. Its Senate sponsor was Steve Southerland, a member of Morristown’s Buffalo Trail Baptist Church.

The statue of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University
The statue of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University

With the bill’s Baptist background, I naturally started thinking about Roger Williams, the founder of the Baptist tradition in America.

Williams, originally a Puritan minister in the colony of Massachusetts Bay, got into trouble in the 1630s. The problem wasn’t that he was irreligious (the historian Perry Miller called Williams “the most passionately religious of men”) or that he held unorthodox theological beliefs (he was as good a Calvinist as any); what got Williams into trouble was that he didn’t want others telling him what to believe or how to worship, and he told the colony’s leaders that a man’s religion was his business, not theirs.

Forced to leave Massachusetts for preaching the message of religious toleration, Williams went south and founded Rhode Island, a colony based on the idea that “a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with a full liberty in religious concernments.” Governments “are essentially civil,” Williams wrote, “and therefore they are not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.” Or, as he said in his most memorable statement on the topic, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

In 1639, Williams established the first Baptist church in America, based on the principle of “soul liberty,” the idea that God instilled within everyone the freedom to make his or her own decisions in religious matters. No one has the right, Williams said, to impose a particular faith on another. This is why Baptists reject infant baptism: baptism must wait until children are old enough to decide religious questions for themselves.

For most of their history, Baptists have been among the nation’s most ardent defenders of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. A number of Georgia Baptists of the mid-nineteenth century were strong temperance supporters, but at the same time they were strong opponents of prohibition—their personal opposition to alcohol did not lead them to support government restrictions on drinking. By the end of the century, they jumped on the Prohibition bandwagon, but for several decades, the Baptist idea of keeping morality and state action separate had persevered.

We can see this same idea on a more surprising issue: abortion. As late as 1979, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), at its annual meeting, approved a resolution “affirm[ing] our conviction about the limited role of government in dealing with matters relating to abortion, and support the right of expectant mothers to the full range of medical services and personal counseling for the preservation of life and health.” Southern Baptists were emphatically anti-abortion, but they were also pro-choice. Historically, that has been the Baptist way.

(A year later, in 1980, the Convention approved another resolution: “We favor appropriate legislation and/or a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother.” The whirring sound you hear is Roger Williams spinning in his grave.)

Roger Williams, the original American Baptist, was one of the first and strongest Americans supporters of the separation of church and state. Williams imagined Rhode Island as a land where freedom of conscience would exist for everyone—including nonbelievers. He would not have looked kindly on the efforts of Baptists, in Rhode Island or Tennessee, to declare the Bible the “official state book.”

The Bible bill passed the Tennessee Senate by a vote of 19-8. (The House approved the bill in 2015 by a vote of 55-38.) Of the self-identified Baptists in the Senate, none voted against the bill. The three Baptist “Yes” votes were joined by those of Methodists, Presbyterians, and others, so this was hardly a Baptist measure.

Still, one is tempted to say that the next time Baptist legislators in Tennessee get the idea to introduce or sponsor a bill, they should ask themselves: What Would Roger Do?

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Image: The statue of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University - photo by Notyourbroom via Wikipedia.org and used under a Creative Commons license.
David Parker

David Parker

David B. Parker, a native of North Carolina, is Professor of History at Kennesaw State University. He has written on humorist Bill Arp, evangelist Sam Jones, novelist Marian McCamy Sims, and other southern topics.