September 5, 2014

New England Reformed Baptists and the Historical Foundations of American Liberty

By In Articles, Theology

The following was originally published in May, 2014.

“Separating God’s Two Kingdoms”

This year’s Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies (JIRBS) featured an important essay written by Pastor Ronald Baines entitled “Separating God’s Two Kingdoms: Two Kingdom Theology among New England Baptist in the Early Republic.”  The relevance of the essay to this site is profound.  The Two Kingdom/Neo-Kuyperian debate has swept through the Reformed Christian world lately and the impact that this topic has on Christians and their political theory is surely obvious.  This debate is not new.  As Baines shows in the essay, this very struggle among Christians was present during the years contemporary to the birth of the United States.

Baines begins by pointing to the story of “Daniel Merrill, pastor of the Baptist Church in Sedwick, Maine” who was educated as a paedobaptist (infant baptism) and only later, after seeking to refute the credobaptist (“believer’s baptism”) position, became a Regular Baptist (Calvinistic Baptists were called “Regular Baptists” to distinguish them from “General Baptists” who were Arminians).  The reason why Baines starts here is for the purpose of showing the striking difference between the Baptist and the paedobaptist in their understanding of the kingdom of God.  In today’s world, often the difference between the believer’s baptism position and the infant baptism position seems surface level and a bit trivial, a small detail among others.  But one must never fail to look beyond the surface to the underlying foundations of a church sacrament like baptism.  The two positions are not chosen arbitrarily and without purpose.  There is an important and elemental distinction in regards to the nature of God’s kingdom and His covenants with men.

Daniel Merrill changed his position on Baptism because his understanding of the Kingdom of God shifted toward the Baptist view.

That the Regular Baptists emphasized religious freedom in a way that the paedobaptists did not during the years of the early American Republic was not random.  Baines writes: “The kingdom of God as a theological construct framed their understanding of civil liberty and the limits of political power and, therefore, provided the paradigm through which the Baptists advocated what later became known as the separation of church and state.”  For the Congregationalists, who were paedobaptists, the New Covenant included both the elect and the non elect; that is, it was “mixed.”  For the Baptists, the New Covenant was not mixed.  Every member of the New Covenant was elect and every individual who had been elected unto salvation by God was a member of the New Covenant.  The New Covenant, for the Baptists, was made with the Church, which was made up of believers alone.  The Church then for the Baptists, as contrary to the paedobaptists, was strictly a spiritual reality and the Kingdom of God was strictly spiritual as well.  The Baptists held that the paedobaptist’s  (mis)understanding of the kingdom of God as “mixed” were the source of a dangerous unity of Church and State.

Because of Baptist interpretation of the exclusive nature of the Church and the spiritual Kingdom of God, the Church itself must “be separate from the state.”  This was strikingly different than the paedobaptists, protectors of the “standing order,” who sought to maintain unity between ecclesiastical and civil governance.  (Note: This is not in any way to infer that there were no paedobaptists who agree that the role of the state and the Church should maintain separation.  It is a statement of generality.)

The Kingdom of God is not of this world, as Jesus indicated in John 18:36.  Baines noted that this passage “defined the Baptists’ understanding of the separation of church and state.”  He then quotes Regular Baptist Isaac Backus who, opposing the  “interrelation of church and state” of a certain paedobaptist, stated: “Therefore the dignity of [Christ’s] government is maintained not by carnal but by spiritual weapons [italics original –CJE].”  And thus we find here the heart and soul of Reformed Libertarianism: the Kingdom of God is not physical and thus no amount of physical coercion (carnal weapons) will expand it.  The proclamation of the Gospel is the means by which the Holy Spirit takes the message of salvation to the minds of the elect and thus grows the Kingdom of God.

Pastor Baines writes:

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many thought it would be better if the interests of true religion were encouraged, advocated, or even dictated by the civil magistrate.  Should the magistrate not use all the coercive power it could wield to further the kingdom of God?  According to [Daniel] Merrill, the problem with the logic behind such questions, a logic imbedded in the thinking and confessions of the standing order [congregationalism], was a fundamental misunderstanding of the very nature of the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.

Baines quotes Merrill who said:

…the kingdom, which the God of heaven hat set up, has never needed, so has never debased herself by soliciting, the secular arm to enforce the mandates of the Church… Of the civil authority she asks no more, than to have it stand out of her sunshine.  That Cesar, in agreement with the ordinance of heaven, would look well to the management of Cesar’s kingdom, and leave it with the Lord to manage his.

Now, Baines is wise to point out that these Baptists anticipated a few hesitancies to which some might hold.  Baines writes that “it was not that the unbelief… of the citizenry was acceptable to God or the Baptists; rather God had ordained a different means for addressing the unbelief of those outside the church.”  Baines then quotes Backus: “The question between us is not, whether it be the duty [to believe in God]… but it is, whether that duty ought to be enforced by the sword, or only by instruction, persuasion, and good example.”  Baines continues: “The Baptists were hopeful of being left alone and the proclamation of the truth would prevail to win the hearts where the sword could only coerce outward behavior.”  This of course leads to “one of the key features of the Baptist understanding of the kingdom of God [which was] the need for men and women to be free to act according to their consciouses.”

The Vision of the Reformed Libertarian

The Reformed Libertarian vision seeks to expand on the good work of these Christians who maintained that the kingdom of God will not –indeed cannot — be furthered by the use of coercion in society.  The Moral law is the standard by which God, the great and ultimate and holy Judge will measure the righteousness of his human creation.  For those who are not in Christ, judgement is yet to come; and Christ has already received that wrath for all who believe.  Let not the State seek to play the role of Christ by aiming to uphold the Moral Law of God in civil society.  Nor should it uphold Israel’s Judicial Law.  Such would be a theological impossibility.  This is the vision of the Reformed Libertarian.

We do not deny that order in society requires the role of governance (few libertarians do).  Being property-rights libertarians we advocate a property rights order.  The rubric by which we determine the legitimacy of punishment against the criminal is the criminal’s transgression against the person and property of another individual.  Beyond that, in our estimation, the Christian ought to use all sorts of “spiritual weaponry;” that is, we must use persuasion and instruction to speak truth into the life of those around us, especially those in sin.  To use Backus’ vocabulary, “The question between us is not whether it be the duty” to act ethically and obey God’s commands, but rather, the question is “whether that duty ought to be enforced by the sword.”

These New England Baptists were not libertarians; that is, they lived several hundred years before libertarianism was actually defined and extended.  We libertarians today even understand the state differently than “government” (the state has a very distinct nature compared to the Civil Magistrate).  But the roots of liberty can be found in such historical groups.  The Reformed Baptist reader of this article may or may not actually accept the libertarian political theory on the whole.  But it is my hope that he understands it.  We are different than many modern libertarians who have sadly abandoned the narrow premise of the libertarian creed.  Today, all too many libertarians are anti-authority, anti-religion, anti-Truth, egalitarian, moral relativists.  We are not.  We reject libertinism and antinomianism.

Perhaps not all Christians who read this site will agree with us on everything.  But here is my prayer: that the state would never replace Christ the true King who reigns forevermore.  Americans have, in the previous century, put the state on the throne of their lives and worshipped it blasphemously.  But no state exists, not one President is elected, no Congress shows up to the Capitol to continue their dreary work of expanding Federal bureaucracy outside of the definite ordaining will of God who works all things according to His eternal plan.

Perhaps if we considered the weight of God’s sovereignty, the state would never again be treated like the idol it has become.

[pictured is a work by the Baptist Isaac Backus, who was key in challenging the paedobaptist effort to unify ecclesiastical and civil governance]

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • “The role of Isaac Backus (1724-1806) and the Separate Baptists in the development of the American tradition of separation of church and state has not yet been given its due. Yet any careful evaluation of this tradition must acknowledge that neither the position of Roger Williams nor that of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison adequately defines it.”

    Isaac Backus and the Separation of Church and State in America

    William G. McLoughlin

    The American Historical Review
    Vol. 73, No. 5 (Jun., 1968), pp. 1392-1413
    Published by: Oxford University Press

    Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1851375

    You can read it for free with a free account

    • reformedlibertarian

      Thanks for the source!