Is There a Baptist Contribution to Political Theology?

Editor’s Note: This is part 3 in our Lyceum Disputation series considering Baptists, Religious Liberty, and the State. Stay tuned for further installments. As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

The question that guides this essay could be answered from a variety of perspectives. We could survey Baptist thought from its inception in the early seventeenth century to today, or we could choose representatives from different periods in Baptist history and compare their thought. Alternatively, we could take a more explicitly biblical and theological approach, asking how Baptist theologians have supported their positions on political theology from Scripture and in relationship to the Christian tradition. Each of these approaches would be fruitful, and ideally a full-throated answer to the question would consider them all collectively. Due to limited space, though, our modest approach in this essay is to survey English Baptist confessions[1] from the seventeenth century, the beginning of Baptist thought, and categorize the political theology found there. This approach is important for at least two reasons. First, it gives us a sense of how Baptists at the inception of our tradition thought about political theology, and especially how they conceived of that political theology as distinct from both Anabaptists and Separatists in particular. Second, both Baptists and non-Baptists have shifted in their political theology over the last four centuries, with Baptists sometimes departing from their long-held commitments and non-Baptists adopting what were historically and predominantly considered Baptist principles (e.g. religious liberty). While the early Baptists are not theologically perfect, their confessions do give us a good idea of what they felt was properly distinctive about the Baptist movement, including in the realm of political theology.

Our inquiry will focus on the Baptist confessions of faith written in the seventeenth century, both in their explicit articulation of political theology and in comparison to Anabaptist confessional statements about political theology. Many times, this two-pronged approach will overlap, as early Baptists were intent on distinguishing themselves from Anabaptists, and especially in the arena of political theology. To anticipate our conclusion, early Baptists viewed their political theology as distinct on two fronts. First, in distinction from the Anabaptists, early Baptists (mostly) viewed political involvement as appropriate for Christians.[2] Second, in distinction from English Separatists, as well as from the Church of England and “the papists,” early Baptists articulated a strong sense of religious liberty,[3] and pushed for what we now call separation of church and state, even while that term was not yet coined. In addition to these distinctives, we should add a third important component of early Baptist political theology, namely that they viewed political participation and subjection as appropriate but also as limited by certain ethical and theological boundaries.[4]

General Baptist Confessions of Faith[5]

The English Declaration at Amsterdam, commonly acknowledged as “. . . the first English Baptist Confession of Faith,”[6] is also by default the first General Baptist Confession. Thomas Helwys and, perhaps, some of the others in his group that broke away from John Smyth in Amsterdam wrote it. Demonstrating the difference between their group and Smyth’s group appears to have been one of the primary impetuses for the confession, and in this regard it was particularly with respect to “. . . rejecting the Mennonite prohibitions against oaths, the bearing of arms, [and] participation in government . . . .”[7] In other words, one of the earliest distinguishing features of Baptist thought in general, when compared to their close kin, the Anabaptists, is in the area of political theology. But while these earliest General Baptists wanted to distinguish themselves from Anabaptists, this polemical rationale is not the only piece of political theology evident in the English Declaration. First, Article 9 declares that,

Off his church, he also being the onely Law-giver, hath in his Testament set downe an absolute, and perfect rule off direction, for all persons, at all times, to be observed; Which no Prince, nor anie whosoever, may add to, or diminish from as they will avoid the fearful judgments denounced against them that shal so do. Revel. 22.18, 19.

This brief statement contains the seeds of the fuller account of religious liberty given by Baptists later in the seventeenth century. The declaration that Jesus is “the onely Law-giver” and, a sentence earlier in Article 9, “the onely KING (Luke 1:33)” is foundational for disestablishment ideas that flowered among Baptists over the next two centuries.

Finally, Article 24, though primarily intended to distinguish early Baptists from Anabaptist political separation, is clear that political involvement by Christians has its limits. Citing Romans 13, 2 Pet. 2:10, and 1 Tim. 2:1–4, the article begins by commending the office of “Magistracie” as “a Holie ordinance off GOD, that every soule ought to bee subject to it not for feare onelie, but for conscience sake.” The article goes on to call magistrates “ministers off GOD,” both “for our wealth” and “to take vengeance on them that do evil.” For this reason, the authors state that Christians should not speak evil of them, should not despise government (perhaps an obvious allusion to the Spiritual Anabaptists), should pay taxes, and to pray for those in government and particularly that GOD would “have them saved and come to the knowledge off his truth.” Because, then, government is ordained by God, Christians are able to serve in the government and be members of Christ’s Church at the same time. All of this is intended to distinguish these early Baptists from their Anabaptist counterparts.

But the article goes on to put explicit limits on Christians’ affirmation of the government, limits that were implied earlier in the article via references to the “conscience” of those who submit, restraint from speaking ill of governments that operate “in dignitie,” and multiple invocations of God’s standard for justice. The final clause of the article says,

They [Christians in the Magistrate] beare the sword off GOD, – which sword in lawful administracions is to bee defended and supported by the servants off GOD that are vnder their Government with their lyves and al that they have according as in the first Institucion off that Holie Ordinance. And whosoever holds otherwise must hold, (iff they understad themselves) that they are the ministers of the devil, and therefore not to bee praied for nor approved in anie off their administracions, – seing all things they do (as punishing offenders and defending their countries, state, and persons by the sword) is vnlawful.

In other words, there are limits to Christians’ obligations to pray for and support the Government, namely oppression of individual conscience (made more explicit as the seventeenth century confessions multiply[8]) and a lack of morality in Magistrates and the laws they enact. According to English Declaration Article 24, even if a Government does something “good,” it is deemed “vnlawful” if that Government acts or speaks in a way contrary to God’s law.[9]  Thus while these early General Baptists affirmed the need for temporal governments to reflect God’s law in both state legal code and action in Article 24, they nevertheless rejected an established state church in Article 9.

The first confession published by the General Baptist Association (1651) has little to say about politics aside from a postscript that affirms the existence and authority of “good” government officials so that “Righteousness may reigne, and Vice may be overthrown . . . .”[10] Another General Baptist Confession, The True Gospel Faith (1654), only briefly addresses politics, saying in Article XVIII, “That they ought to be obedient to the Magistrates in all things that are right, Rom. 13.1; 1 Pet. 2.13,14.”[11] Although both of these statements are short, they indicate that General Baptists wanted to leave room for dissent. Government was given by God, but it was not to be followed or seen as a legitimate vocation if and when it departed from “all things that are right.”

The Standard Confession (1660) has quite a bit more to say about politics. First, in the preface it twice notes that its purpose is to distinguish the authors from Anabaptists. While this could be a reference to some Anabaptist tendencies toward Hoffmanite Christology, given the persecution context of the time it is more likely an attempt to differentiate themselves from Anabaptist views of governmental involvement (and especially from the Münsterites). Articles XXIV and XXV[12] formulate the General Baptists’ views on politics. The former argues for freedom of conscience in belief and practice, while the latter details the authors’ views on the Magistracy. Once again we find affirmation of the office and of Christians’ ability to participate in it. 1 Pet. 2:13–14 is again deployed in support, and once again there is an emphasis on Governments that exist “for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well” (1 Pet. 2:14). But as with the earlier General Baptist confessions, the Standard Confession also clearly states that

. . . in case the Civil Powers do, or shall at any time impose things about matters of Religion, which we through conscience to God cannot actually obey, then we with Peter also do say, that we ought (in such cases) to obey God rather than men; Acts 5.29. and accordingly do hereby declare our whole, and holy intent and purpose, that (through the help of grace) we will not yield, nor (in such cases) in the least actually obey them; yet humbly purposing (in the Lord’s strength) patiently to suffer whatsoever shall be inflicted upon us, for our conscionable forbearance.

In a subsequent epilogue the authors again affirm their resolve “. . . (through grace) to seal the truth or these things in way of suffering persecution, not only to the loss of our goods, freedomes, or liberties, but with our lives also (if called thereunto).”[13]

Although not as influential on subsequent generations of General Baptists as The Standard Confession, one final General Baptist confession from the seventeenth century deserves consideration: The Orthodox Creed (1678). In Article XLV, the authors state that God has “. . . ordained civil magistrates to be under him, over the people, for his own glory, and the publick good.” Christians are therefore able to hold the office of magistrate “when lawfully called thereunto,” and God has given all magistrates the “power of the sword” for the purposes of “defence and encouragement of them that do well, and for the maintenance of justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each kingdom, and commonwealth, and they may wage war upon just and necessary occasions.” All citizens owe magistrates “. . .subjection in the Lord in all lawful things commanded by them, for conscience sake, with prayers for them, for a blessing upon them, paying all lawful and reasonable custom, and tribute to them, for the assisting of them, against foreign, domestical, and potent enemies.” There is thus a strong sense of the government’s place in God’s rule over particular countries, but one that emphasizes the need for those governments to be subject to God’s law.

That last caveat is why Article XLVI, “Of Liberty of Conscience,” is added. It begins with this strong statement: “The Lord Jesus Christ, who is king of kings, and lord of all by purchase, and is judge of quick and dead, is only Lord of Conscience; having a peculiar right so to be [by virtue of his death for sinners and resurrection from the dead].” Because Jesus is the only Lord of individual consciences, “. . . he would not have the consciences of men in bondage to, or imosed upon, by any usurpation, tyranny, or command whatsoever, contrary to his revealed will in his word, which is the only rule he hath left, for the consciences of all men to be ruled, and regulated, and guided by, through the assistance of his spirit.” Further requiring an “implicit faith” or “blind obedience” destroys both “liberty of conscience” and “reason.” For these reasons Christians cannot “. . . make that action, obedience, or practice, lawful and good, that is not grounded in” or agrees with Holy Scripture.

Particular Baptist Confessions of Faith[14]

The two most influential confessions written by Particular Baptists in the seventeenth century are the First London Confession (1644) and the Second London Confession (1689), the latter of which is still used by Reformed Baptists today and served as the foundation for a number of important eighteenth-century American Baptist confessions. Before examining those, however, we should mention two other early confessions: A True Confession (1596)[15] and The Somerset Confession (1656).[16] The latter only briefly mentions political theology in Article XLIV, acknowledging God’s ordination of government and Christian duty to submit to it “for conscience’s sake” and to pray for leaders. The former, though, has quite a bit more to say. A True Confession is one of the earliest known Separatist confessions, and in some ways (but not all; see below) sets the tone for what follows in seventeenth-century Particular Baptist thought. Regarding political theology, it is in many ways akin to what we saw above with the General Baptists,[17] with one exception. While the confession emphasizes Christian obligation to submit to the government in all lawful things and the governmental obligation to provide religious freedom for Christians (Articles 39–44), it also calls for the government to “. . . suppress and root out by their authoritie all false ministeries, voluntarie Relligions, and counterfeit worship of God, to abolish and destroy the Idoll Temples, Images, Altares, Vestments, and all other monuments of Idolatrie and superstition and to take and convert to their own civil uses not only the benefit of all such idolatrous buyldings & monuments, but also the Revenues, Demeanes, Lordships, Possessions, Gleabes and maintenance of anie false ministries and vnlawfull Ecclesiastical functions whatsoever within their Dominions” (Article 39).[18]  This restriction of religious liberty to what amounts to Protestant Christians and the corollary call to cast out all other religions is idiosyncratic among early Baptist confessions, both in seventeenth-century Britain and in early American Baptist life.

While we cannot know for certain why The True Confession includes this language and most subsequent confessions do not, we might speculate and suggest that The True Confession’s language is explained by its Separatist intent, whereas later Baptists saw that excluding some from religious liberty meant that they, too, could be excluded. In their introduction to the confession’s text, William Lumpkin and Bill Leonard note that, in the Preface, the Separatist authors state plainly that, “On the basis of biblical standards, the Church of England is found wanting as a true church, and its ministry, liturgy, rites, and membership are impugned.”[19] In other words, their motivation for the confession is to separate – ecclesiastically and politically – from the Church of England. In doing so, it articulated a political theology in which it felt the state church was corrupt and in need of cleansing. This motivation, albeit a precursor to later Baptist political theology, did not produce the more full-throated affirmations of religious liberty we now identify as “Baptist,” but only called for the corrupt state church to be overthrown (and, presumably, replaced by the “pure” church of the Separatists).  

The London Confession (1644) is in many ways dependent on A True Confession,[20] and so shares aspects of its political theology. It is also of a piece with the General Baptist confessions surveyed above with respect to its views on church and state. For instance, civil magistracy is “an ordinance of God set up by God for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well” (Article XLVIII), which means that Christians are obligated to pray for those in authority and to submit to them “in the Lord” in “all lawfull things commanded by them.” Additionally, common biblical texts are used in support: Romans 13, 1 Peter 2:13–14, and 1 Tim. 2:2 chief among them. Even so, and in contradistinction from A True Confession, there are strong statements regarding religious liberty (Articles XLIX, L, and LI), including an appeal to the government to allow them to worship freely (Article L) and an admonition that, if the government persecutes them for their beliefs, they “obey God and not men” (Article LI). In other words, a half century after Separatist congregationalists penned A True Confession, the first major Particular Baptist confession changed the wording of its political theology to be much stronger on religious liberty than its Separatist forebearers.

Given the Second London Confession’s (1689) dependence upon First London, it is not surprising that it is similar to its predecessor. Once again we find Rom. 13:1–4 cited in support of the declaration that God, who is king over all, has ordained particular governments to punish evildoing and encourage the good (XXIV.1). Christians are able to serve as Magistrates and, in that capacity, “wage war upon just and necessary occasions” (XXIV.2). All Christians are obligated to be in “. . . subjection in all lawful things commanded by [Civil Magistrates] . . . in the Lord; not only for wrath but for Conscience sake,” and to pray for their leaders (XXIV.3). While 2LCF does not discuss religious liberty in immediate proximity to the rest of its political theology, it does address the issue in Chapter XXI. “God alone is Lord of the Conscience” (XXI.2), and implied in that statement is that the government (or anyone else) should not compel a person or church to believe or practice the faith in particular ways. Interestingly, though, the focus of this particular chapter is on the abuse of liberty rather than its protection; perhaps this can be explained by the passing of the Edict of Toleration in the same year. In any case, both First and Second London exhibit the same characteristics we have seen so far. Given these surveys, what conclusions can we make about early Baptist political theology?

Early Baptist Political Theology

Early Baptists, both General and Particular, exhibited an almost singular mind on political theology. I say “almost” for two reasons: first, because of the idiosyncratic argument for government intervention in non-Protestant religions in A True Confession and, second, because not every confession contains each of the following elements or does so using the same language. Still, given the common trope that “where two Baptists are gathered, you get three opinions,” the continuity between early Baptists (and, in fact, in later Baptist life) regarding political theology is worthy of attention.

We see at least three common elements in early Baptist theology. First, while God in Christ is king over all (e.g. A True Confession, Article 39; 2LCF XXIV), he has ordained particular governments in particular places to promote the good and punish evil. Christians are therefore obligated to submit to government in all things lawful and to pray for their leaders. They are also therefore able to become Magistrates if they choose to do so. Second, because Christ alone is Lord of the individual’s conscience and of individual local churches, governments should not impinge upon the religious freedom of its citizens or its religious organizations with respect both to belief and practice. If that kind of freedom is not given, Christians—Baptists especially—are obligated to “obey God rather than men,” even it costs them their lives. Finally, Christians are not obligated to submit to the government or to participate in it if and when it begins to act unlawfully, that is, in a way contrary to God’s law. Indeed, they should be willing to lay down their prosperity, freedom, and even their lives if obedience to Christ the only true King requires it in the face of government opposition.[21] The first point is common to most Christian traditions, providing an element of catholicity to Baptist political theology, while the latter two are born of Baptists’ prime place as dissenters.[22] Additionally, the first point distinguishes Baptists from Anabaptists. Thus, taken together as indicative of Baptist political theology, these three elements distinguish Baptist thought and practice from all other parties.

They also point to the Baptist political ideal, a free church in a free state. This ideal is connected to the sine qua non of Baptist theology, namely individual responsibility before the Lord. Baptists historically have emphasized the biblical demand for individual accountability to God, and at both an individual and an ecclesial level. Baptists affirm credobaptism because it acknowledges the individual’s personal responsibility before God to repent and believe, and therefore to repent of sin and confess Christ as Lord consciously, clearly, and publicly. Baptists affirm congregationalism because Christ is King over the church and over each individual congregation, thus placing responsibility on each local church to submit to Christ’s lordship in its governance of itself. And Baptists affirm a free church in a free state, or what we now refer to as religious liberty, because only Christ is Lord of the conscience, both the individual person’s and the individual church’s. These three commitments are interconnected and also present from the beginning of Baptist life and thought. For our purposes, then, a free church in a free state is one of the markers of Baptist identity, at least historically speaking.

While we do not have time to survey later Baptist thought on political theology, we should briefly mention that these elements remain common in subsequent Baptist movements.[23] Particularly in early American Baptist life, in the thought of Baptists as varied as John Clarke, John Leland, and Isaac Backus, one finds these same aspects of political theology—God’s ordination of government, religious liberty, and dissent. To the extent that Baptists today also affirm these aspects, we remain in continuity with the Baptist tradition of political theology, one of the defining marks of our identity. To the extent that we forget our obligation to submit to and pray for government officials, to advocate for religious liberty for all people, and to dissent in the face of governmental evil, we exchange our Baptist heritage and identity for political porridge.

[1] Due to space we must constrain our remarks to seventeenth century English Baptists, leaving off confessions, statements, and letters from seventeenth century American Baptists such as (for a brief period of his life) Roger Williams, John Clarke, and Obadiah Holmes. For an overview of this period, including the political persecution that American Baptists suffered at the hands of their fellow colonists and resources for further study of early American Baptist political thought, see Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn, and Michael A. G. Haykin, The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), 27–39. There is not much difference between American Baptist political theology and thought and English Baptist political theology and thought in the seventeenth century, aside from the fact that American Baptists appear to focus more on religious liberty rather than the English Baptist starting point of God’s ordination of government. This perhaps can be explained by the presence of Anabaptists in England and on the Continent and their comparatively minimal presence and influence in America. English Baptists experienced persecution precisely because they were being conflated with Anabaptists, and so felt the need to emphasize their distinction from them via affirmation of God’s ordination of government. American Baptists felt more pressure with respect to their faith and practice as Baptists, not so much in terms of being mistaken for Anabaptists. In any case, although it is unfortunate that we cannot survey American Baptists due to space, we do not believe such a survey would alter our conclusions, but instead would further reinforce them.

Finally, see D. Densil Morgan, “Conflicting Commitments? Baptist Identity and Welsh National Consciousness, 1649 to Present,” pp. 45–55 in Ian M. Randall, Toivi Pilli, and Anthony R. Cross, eds., Baptist Identities: International Studies from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Centuries (Studies in Baptist History and Thought 19; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), 45–49 for a discussion of the seventeenth century Welsh Baptist movement and its relation (or lack thereof) to early British Baptist movements. 

[2] On this distinction, see James Leo Garrett, Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2009), 15–16.

[3] See particularly the comments in Garrett, Baptist Theology, 21, regarding A True Confession, one of the earliest Separatist confessions that is also a precursor to early Particular Baptist confessions of faith. We will discuss this confession again below.

[4] For an attenuated but similar version of the argument made in this essay about early Baptist political theology, see the brief comments in Brian Haymes, Ruth Gouldbourne, and Anthony R. Cross, On Being the Church: Revisioning Baptist Identity (Studies in Baptist History and Thought 21; Milton Keynes, Paternoster, 2008), 54–56.

[5] For a general overview of English General Baptist confessions of faith, including the ones discussed here, see Garrett, Baptist Theology, 31–41. See also his comments on one of the leading General Baptists of the seventeenth century, Thomas Grantham, in ibid., 42–43.

[6] William L. Lumpkin and Bill J. Leonard, eds., Baptist Confessions of Faith, 2nd rev. ed. (Valley Forge: Judson, 2011), 107.

[7] Lumpkin and Leonard, eds., Baptist Confessions, 107; see particularly English Declaration Articles 24 and 25, ibid., 113–14.

[8] Although it is not a properly Baptist confession, Propositions and Conclusions Concerning True Christian Religion (PCCTCR), written by John Smyth’s followers and presumably enough to garner communion with the Waterlander Mennonites, appears to be the first confession to clearly articulate religious liberty and liberty of conscience. See Lumpkin and Leonard, eds., Baptist Confessions, 114–29; PCCTCR8, Article 84.

[9] While it would take another essay to articulate the various ways in which early Baptists understood “ynlawful” and, more positively, “God’s law,” these phrases and others like it are used to refer broadly to the biblical prescriptions for human beings. One could summarize these with reference to the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Two Great Commandments. Again, though, early Baptists, along with their Roman Catholic, Magisterial Protestant, and Radical Reformation contemporaries, understood “God’s law” and its relation to society in a variety of ways.

[10] Lumpkin and Leonard, eds., Baptist Confessions, 171.

[11] Lumpkin and Leonard, eds., Baptist Confessions, 178.

[12] Lumpkin and Leonard, eds., Baptist Confessions, 213–14.

[13] Lumpkin and Leonard, eds., Baptist Confessions, 214.

[14] For an overview of English Particular Baptist history and their confessions in the seventeenth century, see Garrett, Baptist Theology, 51–61.

[15] Lumpkin and Leonard, eds., Baptist Confessions, 75–91.

[16] Lumpkin and Leonard, eds., Baptist Confessions, 184 –98.

[17] e.g. acknowledging God’s ordination of the government and Magistrates in particular, articulating religious freedom for all kinds of Christians, albeit in nascent form

[18] Quoted in Lumpkin and Leonard, eds., Baptist Confessions, 88–89.

[19] Leonard and Lumpkin, eds., Baptist Confessions of Faith, 77.

[20] Leonard and Lumpkin, eds., Baptist Confessions of Faith, 77.

[21] Which is, in fact, what happened to some early Baptists, including Thomas Helwys, who died in prison after making public, written arguments for religious liberty. See, for example, Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, 3rd ed. (Valley Forge: Judson, 1963), 38–39.

[22] On the relationship between the dissenter tradition and Christ’s lordship over all things, see Curtis W. Freeman, Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Noncomformity (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017), 4–15.

[23] We should note, though, the characteristically careful articulation of David Bebbington on the vacillation in Baptist life thought regarding political practice; according to him, “Repeatedly there has been interplay between religious and national identities. Some Baptists have been proud to merger their loyalties as Christians into their versions of patriotism. Others, especially where the state is like the Babylon depicted in scripture, have wanted to keep their citizenship firmly in heaven. Very often . . . a shift in of national identity has been required as churches derived from Christian missions have moved towards self-reliance. Alien nationality can become a liability, especially for church growth, in such circumstances.” David W. Bebbington, “Foreword,” pp. xiii–xv in Ian M. Randall, Toivi Pilli, and Anthony R. Cross, eds., Baptist Identities: International Studies from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Centuries (Studies in Baptist History and Thought 19; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), xiv.


  • Matt Emerson

    Matthew Y. Emerson (PhD Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Dean of Theology at Oklahoma Baptist University. Emerson has authored or co-authored over 20 publications. He serves as co-Executive Director of the Center for Baptist Renewal, co-editor of the Journal of Baptist Studies, steering committee member of the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar, and Senior Fellow for the Center of Ancient Christian Studies. Emerson and his wife, Alicia, are both from Huntsville, AL. Married in 2006, they have five daughters.

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