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Historical Baptist Calls for Religious Freedom

Religious-freedom_by Alejandro Gonzalez, USA Todayby Robert P. Sellers
CPWR trustee

Many persons feel they “know” Baptists as a group because of the unkind words of a few Baptist individuals or denominations.  Indeed, some very public Baptists have made statements highly offensive to persons of other faiths—and, perhaps surprisingly, also disturbing and embarrassing for historic Baptists who remember their roots and denounce such judgmental, unkind sentiments.  Baptists, like adherents of all religions,are a multicultural and wildly diverse lot, exhibiting different personal, social, political, and theological perspectives.

Those Baptists, however, who do recall their historic values[1] will courageously champion religious freedom.  Thomas Helwys (1550?-1616?) sixteenth-century Baptist forebear, opposed the religious and political establishment in England and separated his congregation from the Anglican Church.  In 1612, he wrote that “[James 1] has no authority as a king but in earthly causes . . . [for] men’s religion to god is between God and themselves. . . .  Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”[2]  For his viewpoint, Helwys was thrown into London’s Newgate Prison, in whose damp cell he died around 1616.  His voice had been silenced, but some historians say his pronouncement “was the first statement of radical religious freedom to be published in English.”[3]

Roger Williams (1603?-1683), another English cleric, “campaigned against the enforcement of religious conformity by civil authorities”[4] in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but in 1635 was exiled “under pain of death for his religious convictions.”[5]  Establishing the first Baptist church of America in the colony of Rhode Island, he wrote a tract in 1652 that inquired “whether or not such as may hold forth other worships or religions, Jews, Turks, or anti-Christians, may not be peaceable and quiet subjects, loving and helpful neighbors, fair and just dealers, true and loyal to the civil government.”[6]  The question was rhetorical, because Williams believed all persons could be peaceful, loving, helpful, just, and loyal neighbors.

Eighteenth-century Baptist Isaac Backus (1724-1806) lobbied the first Continental Congress in 1774 and came away with a resolution, signed by John Hancock, that “acknowledged the Congress’s ‘sincere wish’ to extend ‘civil and religious liberty’ to every denomination.”[7]  John Leland (1754-1841), a fellow Baptist New Englander,[8] “at a legendary meeting near Orange, Virginia, . . . threatened to oppose [James] Madison as a candidate for Virginia’s ratifying convention and agreed not to do so only after extracting a promise that Madison would pursue explicit protection for religion in the Bill of Rights”[9]—a pledge that led to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[10]  Honoring this spirit of freedom, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty—begun in 1936 in Washington, D.C. and funded by 14 national Baptist bodies—operates today as the “best-known Baptist agency lobbying in behalf of religious liberty.”[11]

Today many Baptists who perceive themselves as “free and faithful” Baptists in this historic way are involved in interfaith dialogue, cooperation, and friendship.  In Phoenix, for example, Paul Eppinger creatively guides the Arizona Interfaith Movement,[12] an organization of 21 religious groups that convenes Faith Forums on topics like “forgiveness and reconciliation” or “texts of terror in scriptures of faith,” hosts multi-religious artists in Voices of Faith Concerts, builds Habitat for Humanity interfaith houses, and sells Golden Rule interfaith Arizona license plates.

In Nashville, visionary Robert Parham directs the Baptist Center for Ethics,[13] an agency that has recently produced two highly-regarded documentary films that tell important stories of interfaith engagement: Different Books, Common Word, which recounts five examples of Baptist-Muslim relationship-building in America after 9-11, and Sacred Texts, Social Duty, which focuses on various Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives of Chicagoans who discuss government taxation.

In addition to individual Baptists like Eppinger and Parham who value our pluralistic society, “free and faithful” Baptist congregations across the country are reaching out to persons across religious boundaries.  Members of First Baptist Church, Seattle, have worked alongside Ahmadiyya Muslims to feed the homeless in their community, and were invited guests at the opening of a new mosque in Redmond, California.  Parishioners of Wilshire Baptist Church and Temple Emanu-el in Dallas have a decade-long relationship of worship pulpit-exchange and congregational shared meals, and are embarking on a Jewish-Baptist exploration of the Holy Land in April 2012 co-led by their rabbi and pastor.  In Norman, Oklahoma, when local Muslims were afraid after 9/11 that violent reactions might be aimed at their mosque or families, Baptists from North Haven Church offered them protection, comfort, and even rides to the supermarket for Muslim women who felt too intimidated to go outside of their houses alone.

Beyond these local instances of neighborliness and solidarity there are also institutional expressions of Baptist interfaith commitment.  Five North American Baptist conventions joined with the Islamic Society of North America to co-sponsor the first National Baptist-Muslim Dialogue in Boston in January 2008, and the second national conference and a series of regional workshops are being projected for 2012.  Finally, the Baptist World Alliance[14],which represents 218 member Baptist bodies in 120 countries, was so struck by the peaceful initiative of 138 global Muslim scholars who in 2007 crafted A Common Word between Us and You that they not only sent a very thoughtful response that appears on the official website of A Common Word,[15] but also established a permanent Commission on Baptist-Muslim Relations.

It cannot be denied that Baptists on the whole still have many sins of intolerance and unkindness for which to repent.  Nonetheless, there are historic Baptists who treasure their heritage of religious freedom and whose efforts to relate to and learn from persons of other faiths should be recognized.  It is the stories of these good neighbor Baptists that I hope will be told and remembered.

Robert P. Sellers is professor of missions and theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and represents Cooperative Baptist Fellowship on the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches, USA.  He is a member of the Board of Trustee of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Notes on Sources

[1] The historical information in this paragraph was originally published in Robert P. Sellers, “What Baptist Traditions Teach Us about Loving our Neighbors,” American Baptist Quarterly 223 (Spring 2009): 113-115.

[2] Thomas Helwys, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, quoted in William H. Brackney, A Genetic History of Baptist Thought  (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2004), 17.

[3] Bill J. Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2003), 9.

[4] Robert Jewett, Mission and Menace: Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 21.

[5] Daniel L. Buttry, Interfaith Heroes (Canton: Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, 2008), 33.

[6] Roger Williams, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Discussed, quoted in Leonard, Baptist Ways, 76.

[7] Ibid., 124.

[8] Brent Walker, Church-State Matters: Fighting for Religious Liberty in our Nation’s Capital (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2008), 15.

[9] Joseph M. Dawson, Baptists and the American Republic, quoted in Ibid.

[10] The U.S. Constitution, accessed at

[11] Leonard, Baptist Ways, 409.

[12] Discover information about Paul Eppinger and the Arizona Interfaith Movement at

[13] See for more about the work of Robert Parham and the Baptist Center for Ethics.

[14] Statistics on the membership of BWA can be found at

Council Welcomes New Trustees

In a commitment to extending its reach to diverse religious and spiritual communities, the Board of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, at its October 24-25, 2010 meeting, elected seven new Trustees for a three-year term:

Ms. Anju Bhargava (Hindu)
Mr. Kirit Daftary (Jain)
Dr. Robert Henderson (Baha’i)
Ms. Mary Nelson (Christian)
Mr. Christopher Peters (Native American)
Dr. Anantanand Rambachan (Hindu)
Mr. Kuldeep Singh (Sikh)

The Council also welcomed to their inaugural meeting four Trustees who were elected in April 2010:

Mrs. Ginny K. Jolly (Sikh)
Dr. Leo D. Lefebure (Catholic)
Rabbi Brant Rosen (Jewish)
Dr. Robert P. Sellers (Christian)

(For more detailed bios, please see below)

The roots of the Council go back to the historic 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, hosted in conjunction with the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, marking the first time in history the traditions of East and West met for formal interreligious dialogue.

Chicago was the site for the centennial celebration of this event with the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in August of that year. Subsequent Parliament events have been held in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999, Barcelona, Spain in 2004, and most recently, Melbourne, Australia in 2009.

Parliaments of the World’s Religions are the largest and most diverse interreligious gatherings in the world. 6,500 participants from over 80 countries representing over 200 religious, spiritual and traditional communities attended the most recent Parliament in Melbourne.

The Council is also establishing a network of locally based interreligious movements in over 70 cities worldwide.

The Council is governed by a board of 35 Trustees, with persons of Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Jewish, Hindu, Indigenous, Pagan, Sikh, Zoroastrian, and humanistic traditions.


Elected October 2010

Ms. Anju Bhargava (Hindu)

Anju Bhargava is a Strategic Business Transformation and Risk Management professional and management consultant. She has provided thought leadership in the public and private sectors, published papers and received many awards.  She is the only Hindu American appointed to President Obama’s Inaugural Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and was the only Indian-American to serve in the Community Builder Fellowship, President Clinton’s White House initiative.  She is the Founder of Hindu American Seva Charities, which is now a national movement for Hindu faith-based community service programs addressing social issues.  For more than twenty years she has been a Hindu representative to the Interfaith Clergy Association of Livingston, New Jersey.  An ordained pujari, she strives to combine philosophy and practice from a contemporary view and is active in Hindu education. She blogs “On Faith” for the Washington Post.  She was a founding member of the New Jersey Corporate Diversity Network and is the President of Asian Indian Women in America (AIWA).

Mr. Kirit Daftary (Jain)

Kirit C. Daftary is a leader in the North American Jain community and is active in a number of organizations including the Jain Association of North America (JAINA) which he has served as president and the local Jain Center of North Texas of which he has also been the head.  Currently, he is the President of Anuvibha of North America, a UN/NGO organization based in India and spiritually guided by Acharya Mahapragya Ji, the disciple of Acharya Tulsi. Kirit has a passion for the message of non-violence and the promotion of peace and harmony and is a frequent speaker including at universities. Since 2006, he has been associated with Parliament activities and was an Ambassador of the 2009 Parliament as well as active in the site selection process for 2009. He is a metallurgical engineer and received and M.B.A. and an M.A. from Wayne State University. He currently owns a successful import company dealing with India, China and Korea.

Dr. Robert C. Henderson (Bahá’i)

Robert C. Henderson is a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, the national governing body of the American Bahá’í community. He has extensive experience in the fields of business, government, and education. He co-founded Henderson Zorich Consulting, which specializes in management consulting and leadership and diversity training, with his daughter, Dr. Camille Henderson. His clients have included such Fortune 100 companies as Amoco, AT&T, General Electric, Hallmark, Mobil, United Technologies, and Xerox, as well as the Chicago White Sox. Dr. Henderson served as a Federal Commissioner of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday Commission and designed and led meetings of California Supreme Court members, judges and lawyers to establish a California State Supreme Court Commission on Race and Ethnic Bias.  Dr. Henderson’s public speaking engagements are numerous; highlights include a plenary address given at the invitation of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to the international conference, “Educating Girls: A Development Imperative,” and an address to an “Education Against Hatred” Seminar at Haifa University sponsored by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.  He was invited by President Clinton’s Advisory Board on Race to participate in the religious forum held in Louisville, Kentucky. Robert Henderson holds a doctorate in Education from the University of Massachusetts (1976).  He has published several articles and books on management systems and in-service training programs.

Ms. Mary Nelson (Christian – Lutheran)

Mary Nelson has spent the last forty years working in faith-based community development on the west side of Chicago, seeking to carry out the asset based community development principles in concrete ways through her leadership of Bethel New Life, Inc.  She received an MAT from Brown University and a PhD from Union Graduate School.  Her focus has been community based planning and development, and Bethel New Life, under her leadership, grew from an all-volunteer organization to a nationally recognized community development corporation. Mary transitioned in 2006 from the leadership of Bethel New Life into a senior associate/President Emeritus position. She is former chair of the Board of Mid American Leadership Foundation, Woodstock Institute and National Congress for Community Economic Development. She is on the national Boards of Sojourners (currently as Chair) and Christian Community Development Association.  She has also had a number of government appointments.  Mary has been teaching graduate university courses for over fifteen years and does workshops on community development and faith based community development all over the world.  She is currently the coordinator of the Loyola University (Chicago) Institute of Pastoral Studies (IPS) Masters in Social Justice and Community Development.

Mr. Christopher Peters (Native American)

Christopher Peters (Pohlik-lah/Karuk) was born and raised on his people’s territories in northwestern California. He is President and CEO of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, a Native led Indigenous Peoples public Foundation which supports grassroots Indigenous communities in the Americas and beyond. For more than thirty-five years his work has focused on grassroots social justice organizing, protecting sacred sites, working for holistic community renewal, rebuilding traditional economies, and supporting cultural revitalization efforts. Chris is a well-known and leading advocate for the protection of Native American prayer places and ceremonial life with long experience and expertise on the legal aspects of these issues. He has fought on the frontlines of environmental justice struggles to protect aboriginal ecosystems from the devastating effects of clear-cut logging, dam development, mining, recreational development and the negative impacts that the nuclear industry and globalization has inflicted upon Indigenous Peoples and homelands. Chris has a B.S. degree from the University of California, Davis, and an M.A. degree from Stanford University.

Dr. Anantanand Rambachan (Hindu)

Anant Rambachan, an internationally known scholar of Hinduism, is Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of Religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he has taught since 1985. A native of Trinidad, he received the M.A. and Ph. D. from the University of Leeds, England. He is the author of many books including The Hindu Vision (1992), Gitamrtam: The Essential Teaching of the Bhagavadgita [Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993), and The Advaita Worldview: God, World and Humanity (2006). He has been active in interfaith programs with the World Council of Churches as well as the Vatican for twenty-five years as well as in the local setting in Minnesota. He is widely respected as a spokesperson for Hinduism and a bridge-builder between Hindus and other religious communities.

Mr. Kuldeep Singh (Sikh)

Mr. Kuldeep Singh has lived in the US since 1971 and “is probably known to and respected by nearly every Sikh in the United States,” according to Tarunjit Singh Butalia. He is currently President of Sikh Youth Federation-USA, established in 1968. He was Chairperson (1998 -2001 and 2003 -2004) of the World Sikh Council-America Region, which is the representative body of Sikh Gurdwaras and other Sikh institutions in the USA. He actively participated in the formation of the World Sikh Council and in 1996 was unanimously selected as the founder-coordinator of the World Sikh Council-America Region. He has organized Sikh youth camps in the summer for the last thirty-seven years for Sikh youth from across the US and Canada. He is an able fundraiser within the Sikh community. He is a sought-after speaker and has spoken at nearly every national and international Sikh conference and seminars and also organizes many such events.  He helped organize the Sikh presence at the Chicago 1993 Parliament and provided assistance in encouraging Sikhs from across the world to attend the Melbourne 2009 Parliament, at which he was a major speaker.

Elected March 2010

Mrs. Ginny K. Jolly (Sikh)

Ginny K. Jolly is on the board of FATEH (Fellowship for Activists To Embrace Humanity) a nonprofit organization involved in service projects for the community.  She has been instrumental in aligning with other organizations like Habitat for Humanity, March of Dimes, and Make a Wish Foundation to arrange many service projects in the Chicago community. To give something back to the community, which she strongly promotes, she has adopted a special needs child from Vietnam.  She is using her Masters of Nutrition education in effectively managing two GNC stores and helping clients in their health needs. An aspiring Sikh, and proud mother of three, Jolly was on the PTO for Willow Creek School for four years in charge of the school’s cultural programs.

Dr. Leo D. Lefebure (Catholic)

Leo D. Lefebure is the Matteo Ricci, S.J., Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of four books, including Revelation, the Religions, and Violence and The Buddha and the Christ. His next book will be Following the Path of Wisdom: a Christian Commentary on the Dhammapada, which is co-authored with Peter Feldmeier. He is an honorary research fellow of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Rabbi Brant Rosen (Jewish)

Rabbi Brant Rosen has served as rabbi of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston, IL, since 1998. A long-time activist for peace, social justice and human rights, Rabbi Rosen is the co-founder of Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza serves as the co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbnical Council. Rabbi Rosen’s writings appear regularly in his blog, Shalom Rav, and he has published articles for the Huffington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Jewish Week. In 2008, Rabbi Rosen was honored by Newsweek magazine as one of the Top 25 Pulpit Rabbis in America.

Dr. Robert P. Sellers (Christian – Baptist)

Dr. Robert P. Sellers is Connally Professor of Missions at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas. In the graduate seminary program, his classes emphasize cross-cultural living, the Global Church, Two-Thirds World and liberation theologies, world religions, and interreligious dialogue. He’s taught in Canada and Mexico, Great Britain, Eastern and Western Europe, Eastern and Southern Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. Along with Muslim and Baptist partners, Rob plans periodic national conferences. He also is active nationally as a member of the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches and internationally through the Baptist-Muslim Relations Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.