To what extent were Baptists persecuted in Colonial America? Describe the contributions of Baptists in the fight for religious freedom. In what ways has this legacy continued today?


The extent that Baptist religious persecution occurred in Colonial America varied based on regional influences. According to H. Leon McBeth, in 1648 New England established the Congregational Church as the state church and taxed individuals to support it.[1] Dissenters had goods confiscated, church services restricted, and, at times, were thrown into jail until the tax was paid.[2] In 1727 Exemption Laws were passed that allowed Baptists to apply for a tax refund under certain circumstances, but restrictions, which required tracking financial support and church locations, continued to limit freedom.[3] The environment in the Middle Colonies differed significantly from New England. McBeth explains that religious pluralism and Quaker influence in the Middle Colonies did not allow for a state church, which created an environment of toleration that served as a model for religious liberty.[4] Finally, in the Southern Colonies, McBeth describes an environment of severe religious persecution provoked by laws that assisted the Anglican state church, thus during the 1760s, “Baptists in Virginia were whipped, fined, beaten by mobs, jailed, and/or exiled in an attempt to control them.”[5]

The contributions of Baptists in the fight for religious freedom is difficult to overestimate. McBeth explains that the most prominent Baptist spokesman for religious liberty in New England was Isaac Backus, who fought against a Massachusetts’ state constitution in 1779 that allowed taxation of individuals to support ministers.[6] Backus also headed the Warren Association’s Grievance Committee, which presented cases of Baptist persecution to courts and legislatures in the pursuit of religious freedom.[7] Ultimately, the Constitution and Bill of Rights provided the basis for religious liberty, and Backus is “credited with helping achieve ratification in Massachusetts and, indeed, in other New England states.”[8] Similar to Isaac Backus, a prominent Baptist spokesman for religious liberty arose in the Southern Colonies. McBeth explains that in 1784 Baptists in Virginia formed a General Committee to pursue religious liberty by petitioning legislatures.[9] In 1788, the influential Baptist spokesman, John Leland, brokered a deal with James Madison whereby Baptists would support Madison’s election and the Constitution, but only if he would introduce amendments to the Constitution providing religious freedom.[10] Madison ultimately introduced the Bill of Rights, which was passed in 1791 and provided religious freedom as law.[11] Without question, Baptist influence paved the way for religious freedom in America.

McBeth notes that during the formation of the Constitution, “Baptists never wavered in demanding separation of church and state,” and the legacy of religious liberty continues as one of the freedoms that undergirds America.[12] However, recent history has once again raised the question of separation of church and state resulting in division among Baptists. Aaron Weaver explains that President Reagan’s proposed prayer amendment created a firestorm of controversy for the Southern Baptist Convention.[13] James M. Dunn, considered by some as a modern-day John Leland, was the head of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.[14] Dunn attacked Reagan’s proposal to allow supervised prayer in public schools suggesting that it would grant government inappropriate authority over religion and lead to Buddhist, Mormon, and Muslim prayers in different parts of the country.[15] However, Southern Baptist fundamentalists disagreed with Dunn’s assertions and supported Reagan’s prayer amendment.[16] Regardless, Dunn did not waiver; he was “against anything that smacked of established religion or coercive mandated faith,” and believed the “Founding Fathers intended church and state to be separated.”[17] Certainly, the legacy of the Baptists’ fight for religious freedom continues to impact modern Baptist decisions.


McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville: B&H Academic, 1987.

Weaver, Aaron Douglas. “James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom: A Baptist Paradigm for Political Engagement in the Public Arena.” Baptist History and Heritage 45, no. 2 (2010): 48–58.

[1] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1987), 255.

[2] Ibid., 256.

[3] Ibid., 258.

[4] Ibid., 266–67.

[5] Ibid., 270.

[6] Ibid., 261.

[7] Ibid., 262.

[8] Ibid., 266.

[9] Ibid., 275.

[10] Ibid., 281–82.

[11] Ibid., 266.

[12] Ibid., 278.

[13] Aaron Douglas Weaver, “James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom: A Baptist Paradigm for Political Engagement in the Public Arena,” Baptist History and Heritage 45, no. 2 (2010): 50.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 51.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 55.