Of Mormons, Baptists, and Liberty of Conscience

On 7 October, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, was speaking to reporters outside the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, where he had just introduced Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. Taking aim at Perry’s rival for the nomination, Mitt Romney, Jeffress said that Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “is not a Christian.” Jeffress went on to say, “This idea that Mormonism is a theological cult is not news…. That has been the historical position of Christianity for a long time.”

Jeffress has a point: evangelicals have long been uncomfortable with Mormonism, and significant theological differences—most notably over Christology—exist between the two groups. I’m not going to attempt to resolve those differences here, or to defend the proposition that Mormons are in fact Christian (even though I, as a Mormon, affirm my own faith in Christ).

Rather, I wish to seize on an opportunity inadvertently opened by Jeffress’s overly broad invocation of “the historical position of Christianity” to argue that Mormons and Baptists ought to make common cause in opposing the use of such appeals as tests of religious orthodoxy, let alone as de facto religious tests of fitness for political office.

Here’s the thing: “the historical position of Christianity” hasn’t always been kind to Baptists, either. In 1640s London, for instance, Baptist congregations found themselves altogether on the margins. Adherence to the doctrine of believer’s baptism put them at odds with the longstanding practice of baptizing infants, and their belief that church membership depended on such baptism meant separation from the established Church of England. Thus, Baptist gatherings were illegal, and entire congregations occasionally found themselves in prison. With the outbreak of civil war in 1642, enforcement broke down, and some churches began to meet more openly. For instance, a congregation led by Thomas Lambe held meetings in Bell Alley, Coleman Street that were open to the public and drew huge crowds.

Persecution did not end, however. In 1645, the Church of England clergyman Daniel Featley (himself in prison for supporting episcopacy) published The Dippers Dipt, in which he wrote: “Now, of all Heretiques and Schismatiques the Anabaptists … ought to be most carefully looked unto, and severely punished, if not utterly exterminated and banished out of the Church and Kingdome.” Featley appeals to “the historical position of Christianity” when he notes the Baptists’ “affinity with many other damnable Heretiques, both Ancient and Later.”

The Presbyterians, at that time ascendant in the effort to remake English religion after the abolition of episcopacy, were no friendlier to the Baptists than Featley was. The Presbyterian Thomas Edwards, in his massive and influential catalogue of heresies, Gangræna (1646), relates the story of the Baptist preacher Laurence Clarkson, who traveled about Norfolk and Suffolk “dipping” believers. There were warrants out for Clarkson’s arrest, however, and in time he was imprisoned.

Edwards quotes from the petition that eventually secured Clarkson’s release: “That whereas your Petitioner hath been above six Moneths in Bonds for Dipping: in which time he hath taken great pains, both by Dispute and searching the Scriptures, in which he doth finde, and is convinced, That he ought not to Dip any more[.]” Upon his release, however, Clarkson “turned from Anabaptist and Dipper, to be a Seeker, and to deny the Scriptures to be the rule of a Christian,” leading Edwards to conclude that his recantation “was a Jesuiticall Equivocation, and deep Dissimulation,” because he simply left one heresy for another.

Life got worse, not better, for Baptists after the return of the king in 1660. The Restoration Parliament passed a series of acts (the Clarendon Code) designed to punish nonconformity to the newly re-established Church of England. Although the Toleration Act of 1689 put an end to official persecution, nonconformists (emphatically including Baptists) remained legally barred from participating in public affairs until 1828.

Conditions in England prompted some Baptists to leave for the American colonies, but these were not always hospitable, either. Roger Williams famously founded the first Baptist congregation in the colonies after being banished from Massachusetts Bay. Less prominently, other Baptists left New England in search of places where they could worship freely. Among these settlements was Piscataway, NJ, founded predominantly by Baptists who had left puritan New Hampshire (via Long Island) for the liberty of conscience offered by the New Jersey colonial constitution.

Several descendents of these seventeenth-century Baptist pioneers turned out to be Mormon pioneers in the nineteenth century. Hannah Manning Rowe, born in Piscataway in 1787 to a family that settled there in the 1670s, did not become a Mormon. Even so, after she could not convince her converted son, William, to stay with her in Indiana, she made the trek to Salt Lake. Hannah’s daughter Margaret was baptized into the Church while en route to Utah in 1848. I am Margaret’s fifth-generation descendant, as are numerous other Latter-day Saints.

The Mormons’ journey to Utah mirrors the Baptists’ journey to Piscataway. Both groups sought circumstances more favorable to the free exercise of their religion, places where “the historical position of Christianity” might not prove such a hindrance. The real theological differences that exist between Mormons and Baptists too often prevent people of both faiths from remembering this common quest for liberty of conscience.

One of my heroes is a man named Henry Jessey (pictured above). In 1637 Jessey became the pastor of the oldest and largest independent “gathered” church in London. Shortly after his arrival, a group of Baptists left his church to join a separate congregation under John Spilsbury. Soon, Jessey’s congregation began to debate the question of whether its own members’ youthful baptisms in the Church of England “counted.” Jessey himself remained unconvinced of believer’s baptism at the time.

In 1645, however, Jessey converted to the principle of believer’s baptism and was baptized by Hanserd Knollys, leader of a significant Baptist congregation. Even so, recalling how contentious this doctrine had been in his own church, Jessey did not make acceptance of it a condition of membership.

In A Storehouse of Provision (1650), Jessey explains his reasoning behind such decisions: “For, this is one of the Vanities; that (with griefe) I have beheld, under the Sun; that the Spirit that is in us, (even in Professors of the Gospell,) lusteth after things lesse profitable or pertinent to us; like that of him, who asked, What shall this man doe? which had this check, What is that to thee? follow thou me: (John 21:21-22.)” The job of individual believers is simply to follow Jesus, not to worry about whether other people are following him in the right way.

Jessey eventually became convinced that believer’s baptism was (or ought to have been) “the historical position of Christianity,” but as someone who by then had been imprisoned for his beliefs, he recognized that liberty of conscience means leaving people room to depart from “the historical position of Christianity” (whatever that may be), if that is what their honest efforts to follow Jesus require of them. As people who have crossed long distances and endured much hardship in quest of this liberty, Mormons and Baptists ought to come together to make sure that all believers and non-believers might enjoy it, too.

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Notes on Sources

An indispensable resource on the separate churches of London—and a ripping good read—is Murray Tolmie, The Triumph of the Saints: The Separate Churches of London, 1616-1649 (Cambridge University Press, 1977).

All seventeenth-century books were accessed on Early English Books Online. I quote from:

-Thomas Edwards, Gangræna (London, 1646), 72-74. Due to irregular pagination, these are the second pages so numbered in the tract. It can be found in the Thomason Tracts housed in the British Library, shelfmark E.323[2].

-Daniel Featley, The Dippers Dipt (London, 1645), fol. B1v. Thomason E.268[11].

-Henry Jessey, A Storehovse of Provision (London, 1650), fol. A2v. This is item number J698 in Wing’s Short Title Catalogue. It can be found in Union Theological Seminary Library.

I have also consulted the entries for Daniel Featley and Henry Jessey in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The image of Henry Jessey is from Samuel Palmer, The Nonconformist’s Memorial (London, 1775) which updates and abridges Edmund Calamy’s seminal account of the ministers ejected from the Church of England in 1662. Palmer’s book can be found in the New York Public Library and on Google Books. This book is in the public domain.

For more on the founding and history of Piscataway, NJ, see J. F. Brown, History of the First Baptist Church of Piscataway, N. J. (Stelton, NJ, 1889), esp. pp. 11-20. This document mentions the arrival of the Manning family, identifies George Drake (Hannah’s great-great-great-grandfather) as the brother of the first pastor of the church, and discusses the movement of Baptists from New Hampshire to Long Island and later into New Jersey. It can be accessed here.

Further information about Hannah Manning Rowe can be found in this brief biography of her son, William.

The Clarendon Code consisted of four acts passed by the Reformation Parliament: The Corporation Act (1661), the Act of Uniformity (1662), the Conventicle Act (1664), and the Five Mile Act (1665).


Jason A. Kerr is a contributing scholar for State of Formation.

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