Baptists Yesterday  |  Bruce Gourley

Bruce Gourley, online editor for Baptists Today and Executive Director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, provides observations about Baptists of yesterday that can benefit Baptists today.


Sunday Mail Delivery

In our technologically-evolving twenty-first century world, a centuries-old communications medium is suffering: postal mail delivery this year continues a decades-long pattern of slumping volume and declining revenue. While able to withstand and thrive through changes in modes of mail transportation over the centuries - from horse to automobile, boat to airplanes - the challenges facing today's postal service come in the form of tiny electronic bytes that collectively make first class letters increasingly rare.

One proposed solution to restoring profitability to the U.S. Postal Service is the cessation of Saturday mail delivery. The concept seems to be gaining little traction thus far.

Two hundred years ago this year, the Post Service faced a different weekend problem: Sunday mail delivery.

At the time of America's founding, Sunday mail delivery was common practice. In a nation separating church from state, Sunday was treated like other days from the perspective of government. Post offices - first established in 1775 in the Second Contintental Congress - were typically open for at least part of the day both Saturday and Sunday. Mail sorting and delivery was a seven-day-a-week job, and it was not uncommon for church folks to drop by the post office after church on Sunday to pick up their mail.

During the 1780s, few Americans actually attended church. Historians estimate that roughly 7-10% of Americans were church folk, a trend that did not change until after the beginning of the Second Great Awakenining at the turn of the nineteenth century. The revivals characterizing the Awakening, made possible by the free marketplace of religion ensured by religious liberty for all and the separation of church and state, increased public interest in Christianity. At the same time, this newfound religious fervor provided an opportunity for Christian leaders - many of whom remained angry over America's founding as a secular nation - to Christianize the culture in a way that the government refused to do. 

Against this backdrop of revivals seeking to Christianize American culture, in 1809 in Washington, Pennsylvania, a Presbyterian elder was expelled from his church. Just what was Hugh Wylie's sin? As the town postmaster, he followed the custom of Sunday mail delivery.

Wylie's expulsion from church signaled the first popular backlash against Sunday mail delivery, with Presbyterians at the forefront of the charge. None other than Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University and one of the most prominent Presbyterians in America, had stirred up the sentiment that led to the 1809 incident.

In order to quell the controversy in Washington, Pennsylvania from spreading, U.S. Postmaster General Gideon Granger in 1810 enacted federal legislation officially forbidding the nation's 2,300 post offices from closing on Sundays.

Yet instead of putting a stop to the controversy, the 1810 Postal Service act eventually unleashed the anger of many more Christians. By 1815, the government had received over one hundred petitions from angry Christians demanding the cessation of Sunday mail delivery. While the petitions were relativley few in number at that time, they typically voiced a new - and false - argument kindled by the revival fervor of the early nineteenth century: America was a Christian nation, and the U.S. government a Christian government.

As revival fires spread throughout New England, upstate New York and to the Western frontier, church attendance increased dramatically, while opposition to Sunday mail delivery grew proportionally. In 1828, the General Union for the Promotion of the Christian Sabbath was formed in New York City for the purpose of boycotting businesses that operated on Sundays. Within a year, nearly 500 petitions against working on Sundays had been submitted to Congress.

Politicians and many citizens, alarmed by the religious backlash, charged that a new Christian political party was forming with the intent of seizing control of the government and making America a Christian nation. Congress felt the heat, and by 1830 individual states began filing petitions opposing a repeal of the 1810 Sunday mail delivery act.

Ultimately, a combination of state petitions and the strong leadership of a few notable Baptists helped provide the U.S. Congress with the fortitude to stand up to the anti-Sunday mail delivery crowd. The Chair of the Senate Committee on the Post Office and Post roads was none other than General Richard M. Johnson, a national hero of the War of 1812, and a committed Baptist. In January 1829, Johnson and fellow minister Obadiah Brown - pastor of Washington's First Baptist Church - led in the formation of the Senate's "Report on the Transportation of Mails on Sunday." The report opposed efforts to repeal the 1810 law, and reiterated the nation's founding upon a secular Constitution and the strict separation of church and state.

In part the Report declared:

"What other nations call religious toleration, we call religious rights. They are not exercised in virtue of governmental indulgence, but as rights, of which government cannot deprive any portion of citizens, however small. Despotic power may invade those rights, but justice still confirms them. Let the national legislature once perform an act which involves the decision of a religious controversy, and it will have passed its legitimate bounds. The precedent will then be established, and the foundation laid for that usurpation of the Divine prerogative in this country, which has been the desolating scourge to the fairest portions of the old world. Our Constitution recognises no other power than that of persuasion, for enforcing religious observances. Let the professors of Christianity recommend their religion by deeds of benevolence -- by Christian meekness -- by lives of temperance and holiness. Let them combine their efforts to instruct the ignorant -- to relieve the widow and the orphan -- to promulgate to the world the gospel of their Savior, recommending its precepts by their habitual example: government will find its legitimate object in protecting them. It cannot oppose them, and they will not need its aid. Their moral influence will then do infinitely more to advance the true interests of religion, than any measures which they may call on Congress to enact."

Thanks in large part to Johnson's leadership at a pivotal time in 1829, United States postal operations continued for many more decades, with the Sunday movement of mail continuing until after the Civil War and Sunday post office operations continuing until 1912. Brought about because of opposition from a coalition of non-Baptist ministers and postal clerks who wanted one day a week off of work, the 1912 closing of all post offices on Sundays precluded a new era of Civil Religion in the decades following.


On Not Forgetting: Edwin S. Gaustad

Edwin S. Gaustad, one of the premier historians of American religion in the twentieth and early twenty-first century, died last month. His passing has been noted and his life remembered by Baptist news services and historical organizations, as well as the New York Times. Gaustad himself was a Baptist who was appreciative of his faith roots.

A prolific author, his books have been read by many. Much of his work focused on the colonial era in American history, and Gaustad relentlessly reminded us of the importance of religious dissent. Central to the narrative of dissent is the story of Baptists. From Roger Williams (first Baptist in America and founder of Rhode Island) to John Leland (national Baptist leader in the late eighteenth century), Baptists' refusal to conform to approved orthodoxy and the will of colonial theocratic communities bore fruit in the birth of America as a nation of religious liberty and separation of church and state.

A national teacher, Gaustad's influence extended far beyond the classroom. He taught America about herself, and reminded Americans of the best of their heritage - liberty and freedom. At the same time, he reminded Baptists to be proud and protective of their contributions to the American story.

Thanks to Edwin Gaustad, countless Americans today realize that our nation's history cannot be fully understood apart from the religious dimension - both the good and the bad. May we never forget this truth.

Thanks to Edwin Gaustad, we are less likely to forget who we are. His is a legacy of remembering.


Thomas Jefferson and Baptists: Today and Yesteryear

Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, vexes modern day American evangelicals, including many Baptists.

Which of the following are many modern day evangelicals attributing to the third president:

A. Thomas Jefferson was an evangelical, orthodox Christian.

B. Thomas Jefferson was neither evangelical nor orthodox, but was clearly a Christian.

C. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist and is to blame for the erroneous concept of separation of church and state, which is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution, but rather is a phrase invented by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in a letter to Danbury Baptists.

D. Thomas Jefferson was a Christian (at least kinda) but is to blame for the erroneous concept of separation of church and state, which is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution, but rather is a phrase invented by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in a letter to Danbury Baptists ... but he really didn't mean what he said, because he wanted America to be founded upon evangelical Christian theology.

If you answered "all of the above," you've obviously noticed the modern confusion regarding Jefferson.

In short, Christian Nationalists of the 21st century, in attempting to reconstruct history in order to posit the United States' founding as a Christian nation, face the slippery task of bathing all of America's Founding Fathers as orthodox Christians, while at the same time blotting from history the Founding Fathers successful efforts to establish America as a secular nation.

In the midst of this mix is none other than Thomas Jefferson, who must be embraced (as a Christian), dismissed (because of his insistence upon the separtion of church and state), or reminded of what he really meant to say.

Too many modern Baptists have gotten caught up in the fight to tell Jefferson who he is and what he said.

Yet Baptists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were quite clear as to their understanding of Thomas Jefferson: although not a Christian in any conventional sense, Jefferson was embraced by Baptists of his era as a fellow champion for the separation of church and state, and was beloved by Baptists.

Virginia Baptists enthusiastically sided with Jefferson in the 1780s and 1790s in the fight for separation of church and state. And here's what one North Carolina Baptist association wrote to Jefferson in 1806 (their words indicative of widespread Baptist views of Jefferson at the time):

"... we have felt the deepest gratitude to be due for the civil and religious liberties we enjoy under the administration of the government over which you, Sir, at present preside: for which liberties our fathers have, in times past, suffered at the stake and have bled and died.

The sense of contrast between the present moment and a late period when we were feelingly alarmed at the threatened invasion upon the general toleration of a free conscience in the worship of the God of our Fathers; we have now great reason to shout with loud acclamations of joy and praise that we now live under our own vine and under our own fig-tree in peace. And while we pray that the sons of liberty may be long held at the helm of government, to rule and govern these United States, we feel the strongest emotions to be thankful that under your patronage and administration, there is none shall make us afraid.

Living under a government of our own choice where the rights of men feel an equal and impartial distribution, how much ought we to rejoice at the envied happiness and freedom of our fellow-citizens throughout these States unrivalled and unequalled by any nation on this terrestrial globe, and in the midst of national wealth, prosperity and peace, added to extent of empire under the wise policy of your administration, we feel no danger of your violating your trust or attempting to endanger the happiness of the people who have chosen you as their Chief and Head. And while our prayers and praises are due to the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe, who has made you an instrument in his hands to give such blessings to such a people, we pray that the God of Battles may be your sun and shield; that he may give you grace and glory; and that he may withhold no good thing from you. And may we devoutly be permitted to add our prayers to the great Disposer of events, if it is His will, that that life devoted to public good from the commencement of our glorious Revolution to the present day, may be prolonged with blessings to yourself and common country.

Many other Christians in the early 19th century, however, were not fans of Jefferson. Many spiritual descendants of the colonial established churches resented Jefferson's role in separating church from state, and he was commonly derided as a heretic, infidel, and even an atheist. One biographer of Jefferson notes that as late as 1830, the Philadelphia public library refused to carry books about Jefferson because the former president was yet viewed by many as an anti-christ.

Indeed, Jefferson's handling of the Christian Bible reveals that he was far outside the parameters of what most any Christian of his era would have considered "Christian."

Thus, while Thomas Jefferson is a stumbling block to many modern evangelicals (Baptists and otherwise), he was an important ally with - and much appreciated by - Baptists of an earlier era.

For More Information:

The Story of the Wall of Separation Between Church and State
Thomas Jefferson, Baptist Ally, An Atheist?
North Carolina Chowan Baptist Association Letter to Jefferson (1806)

Note: Thomas Jefferson did not originate the phrase "wall of separation" to describe the proper relationship between church and state. Rather, American Baptist founder Roger William coined the phrase in the 17th century.



Should Baptists be Offended?

Alongside the rise and growth of the Christian Nationalism movement in America, the story of Baptists has essentially been shoved aside. So effectively have Christian Nationalists pitched phony history, that they have ensnared many unsuspecting Americans into believing their false claim that "the separation of church and state is a myth."

Many, perhaps most, Baptists in America today do not know their own faith history. And many Christians in America do not know their nation's true religious heritage.

In reality, church state separation is central to the Baptist story and to America's founding principles and faith heritage.

In 1644, American Baptist founder Roger Williams (persecuted by "Christian" colonial theocrats, who considered Baptists heretical) called for a "wall of separation" between church and state. Baptists' "wall of separation" would prevent government from interfering with the free exercise of religion, and prevent government from incorporating religion into governance.

Generations of Baptists were persecuted, and shed blood, in the fight (against colonial theocracies) to separate church and state. Their triumph finally came in the enactment of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, establishing the Baptist vision of a "wall of separation" between church and state.

Deniers of church state separation often respond that the phrase "wall of separation" is not in the U. S. Constitution, and was not introduced until 1802, by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Danbury Baptists.

The claim that Jefferson created the "wall of separation" language to describe church state separation is clearly false and reflects a lack of historical knowledge. As to the contention that the phrase is not in the U. S. Constitution, the concept clearly is in the Constitution. By way of comparision, the word "Trinity" is not in the Bible, yet most deniers of church state separation probably believe in the Trinity (and would argue that belief in the Trinity is fundamental to a biblical faith).

More importantly, Christians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries clearly understood that the First Amendment wording - "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" - separated church from state. Their testimony bears much more weight than the fabricated history loved by many modern conservative Christians and politicians.

In short, denying church state separation mocks our nation's founding principles and faith heritage. Church state separation was good for America in 1791, and it is good for America now. To see the problems of merging church and state, look to the Middle East, where conservative religious law (Sharia Law, rooted in the biblical Old Testament) rules.

Church state separation is our Baptist heritage. It is also an American moral value of which we all can be proud. Twenty-first century Baptists should be offended that Christian Nationalists have removed our story from the historical record in order to further advance their phony, self-serving "history."

For More Information:

Outline of Baptist Persecution in Colonial America

Historical Baptist Quotes on Separation of Church and State

The Story of the American "Wall of Separtion" Between Church and State

Religion and State Governments (Library of Congress)

Baptists on Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State (Walter B. Shurden)

The Top Five Myths of the Separtion of Church and State
(Brent Walker, BJC)

Three More Misguided Myths About Church State Separation
(Brent Walker, BJC)

History of Religious Liberty in America (Charles Hayne, First Amendment Center)


King James and Baptists: Not a Love Story

This year - in case you've not already noticed - is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. And the KJV's 400th anniversary follows closely on the heels of the 400th anniversary of Baptists, celebrated a mere two years ago.

So, was there a connection between Baptists and King James I those four centuries ago?

Indeed. And the connection may surprise most Baptists today.

In brief, the story goes like this: Baptists were birthed advocating separation of church and state, a heretical concept that enraged King James. Before Baptists appeared, the King thought he had put together an excellent plan for preventing heresy and ensuring church/state union. The plan was called the Authorized Bible (later known as the King James Bible). By controlling the Bible that his subjects used, the King could control his subjects.

The upstart Baptists, however, proved to be a burr on the seat of the King's throne. One year after the Authorized (King James) Bible debuted, Baptist co-founder Thomas Helwys, a vocal advocate of the separation of church and state, openly scolded James. Here's what Helwys (partially) said (the illustration herein):

"The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal soul of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for then and to set spiritual Lords over them."

For his treason, Helwys was cast into Newgate Prison (the Alcatraz of that day), where King James held him until Helwys died about four years later, becoming a Baptist martyr for his unwavering commitment to the separation of church and state.

James' hatred for Baptists continued, and he sought to "harrow out of England" the troublesome heretics. Although never fully realized, his crusade against Baptists did result in severe persecution of the sect throughout England.

Ironically, the Bible that was intended by a hater of Baptists to be a weapon against heretics such as Baptists - is today considered, by some Baptists, as the only true translation of scripture.