By Aaron Weaver
Charles Evans Hughes was one of the most influential individuals in American public life during the first half of the 20th century. He was the Governor of New York (1907-1910), Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1910-1916), Secretary of State (1921-1925) and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1930-1941).
Hughes was also a Baptist. The son of a Baptist minister, Hughes grew up in a parsonage owned by the Baptist church that his father served. He prepared for the ministry at Brown University, a school affiliated with the Northern Baptist Convention, studying theology and philosophy under Brown’s president, Ezekiel Robinson.
While Governor of New York, Hughes was dubbed “Charles the Baptist” and was involved in Northern Baptist denominational life, selected in 1907 to be the first President of the newly-formed Northern Baptist Convention. When Hughes moved to Washington D.C. in 1911, the new Associate Justice of the Supreme Court joined Calvary Baptist Church, where he remained a committed member for nearly forty years until his death in 1948.
Two years after George W. Truett’s historic and oft-cited 1920 speech on religious liberty from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Chief Justice Hughes gave a similar full-throttled defense of religious freedom at the laying of the cornerstone of the National Baptist Memorial Church to Roger Williams and Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C. More than 90 years later, National Baptist Memorial Church is led by the Rev. Kasey Jones, the moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Read more about NBMC here.
Today, January 16 marks the annual nationwide celebration of Religious Freedom Day. To celebrate Religious Freedom Day, CBFblog has posted in full Chief Justice Hughes’ historic address on April 22, 1922 as published by the Religious Herald. You can learn more about Religious Freedom Day here and also read President Obama’s proclamation.
This memorial is at once a tribute and a pledge. It is a tribute, in this capital where the services and ideals of those who founded and preserved the Union are fittingly memorialized, to one of their great forerunners, to the pioneer who first in America erected the standard of religious liberty. It is also a tribute to that earnest group of believers who, amid scorn and persecution, were steadfast to their distinctive tenet which was to become the vital principle of our free institutions. It is a pledge that this principle shall be held inviolate.
The conception of religious liberty is so familiar to us that we find it difficult to realize that it is not a natural one; that it is one of the late fruits of political experience; and that when first declared it was deemed of all doctrines the most pernicious and dangerous. It is distinctively an American doctrine, for here the principle first found effective expression in governmental institutions. “Of all the differences between the Old World and the New,” says Boyce, “this is perhaps the most salient. Half the wars of Europe, half the internal troubles that have vexed European States, from the Monophysite controversies of the Roman Empire of the fifth century down to the Kuiturkampf in the German Empire of the nineteenth have arisen from theological differences or from the rival claims of Church and State.”
It was inevitable that monarchs, believing themselves to occupy the throne as of divine right, should exert their sway over the consciences of their subjects. It was natural, deeming itself to represent the divine rule upon earth, that the church should seek either direct control or pervasive influence over political institutions. Nor was religious liberty the aim of the leaders of the Reformation. It was recognized to be the province of the head of the State to ordain the religion to be observed within the State, at last to the extent of stamping out heretical doctrine. It was a position easily understood and plausible defended.
What would become the State without religion? Would not subversive religious views and pernicious doctrines threaten the very existence of the State? And who should suppress them if not the ruler of the State? How could pure religion be maintained if the State did not define it and support it by its authority? Never was political precept deemed to be more solidly based in unanswerable logic. Thus was found the ready justification for civil disability, proscription and persecution. “The chief duty of the magistrate,” it was formally declared, “is to defend religion and take care that the Word of God is purely preached.” He was to remove and destroy “all false service of God.”
Against this almost universal opinion, against the voice of authoritative dogma and of philosophical exposition in its support on the part of the learned, with rare exceptions, against what was conceived to be the essential defense of both civil and religion institutions – what chance remained for freedom of conscience and of equality before the law? There was indeed a few scattered prophets of the new era. And there was one group, contemned and persecuted – to whom the light was given when the brightest intellects of Europe were clouded. To the Anabaptists, the most scorned of sects, belongs the imperishable honor of declaring and persistently urging the fundamental doctrine that rulers of States should not intervene in affairs of conscience and that civil disability should not be predicated upon religious belief. Said they, “The magistrate is not to meddle with religion or matters of conscience, nor compel men to this or that form of religion, because Christ is the King and lawgiver of the church and conscience.”
This demand for religious liberty was not an incidental declaration or an effort to obtain a mere immunity for religious practice. Others might flee from persecution only in turn to persecute those who disagreed with them. Others might pledge toleration or maintain a passive resistance to authority. The Anabaptists were not asking to be tolerated; they were fighting for a cardinal principle of their faith.
Persecution intensified their struggle, but it was not sufficient for them to escape persecution. Their demand for the absolute freedom of religion from civil control was an essential part of their conception of religious truth and was pressed with the ardor of the deepest religious feeling. They went to the root of the matter – the relation of the individual soul to its Maker. The kingdom of God was not of this world and was not within the keeping of any prince.
This contribution is the glory of the Baptist heritage, more distinctive than any other characteristic of belief or practice. To this militant leadership, all sects and faiths are debtors. Let this memorial proclaim the indebtedness in the capital of the republic where the once despised dogma has become the foundation of the civic structure.
The soil of Europe was not congenial for the growth of the radical doctrine of religious liberty. Tradition, the supposed requirements of organized society, political authority, ecclesiasticism of whatever name, the learning of the schools, were all against it. Even toleration, as the word implies, fell far short of its advocacy. There was only the persistent effort of weak things which were to put to shame things which were strong. The seeds of liberty were blown across the Atlantic and found fruitage here.
But it was a long process. The New World, despite its freer atmosphere, was affected by the traditions of the Old. Freedom to worship God was one thing. Freedom for someone else to worship God was quite another. Of course, persecution was only for error. Was it not desirable to stamp out error? Was not punishment clearly needed if one continued after warning to sin “against his own conscience?” In the colonies there were various religious establishments reflecting variety of origin and creed and all the inveterate prejudices and hatreds to which age-long religious strife had given rise. Even the truth cannon prosper without leadership, and liberty waited for the appearance of the prophet of the new thought.
Able, well trained, aflame with zeal, came Roger Williams. An exile banished by the theocratic religionists because of his treasonable demand for freedom of conscience, he was, as his enemy put it, “enlarged” out of Massachusetts. And in Rhode Island he founded the commonwealth where for the first time religious liberty was a foundation principle. To him, who established the liberty of the soul in the New World; who, not with indifference to religious truth, but with profound religious conviction, demanded the emancipation of the spirit of man from the fetters of civil rule; who pointed the coming nation to the true pathway of a free people, to Roger Williams – preacher, prophet and statesman – we erect this memorial of the lasting obligation of men and women of all creeds and races.
These were his principles; “The civil sword may make a nation of hypocrites and anti-Christians, but not one Christian. Forcing of conscience is a soul-rape. Persecution for conscience hath been the lancet which hath let the blood of the nations. Man hath no power to make laws to bind conscience. The civil commonwealth and the spiritual commonwealth, the church, not inconsistent, though independent, the one of the other. The civil magistrate owes two things to false worshippers: (1) permission, (2) protection.”
And in 1663 his fundamental tenet was embodied in the following memorable and discriminating language of the charter for the Colony of Rhode Island.
“No persons within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his own and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceable and quietly and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others.”
This was the ancestor of the provisions of our Federal Constitution adopted one hundred and twenty-four years later: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and of the familiar provisions of similar import of the respective State Constitutions.
These Constitutional declarations are not forms of words conveying an abstract idea. They have define and well-understood practical implications. Men of all religious beliefs stand equal before the law. They are not to be punished by reason of their creeds or forms of worship so long as they respect the public peace and the equal rights of others. No one is exposed to civil disability either as a witness in our courts or with respect to qualification for any public office by reasons of his religious faith. Nor are the people to be taxed and public moneys to be used for the support of any sort of religion.
This principle of our institutions also carries with it an inhibition, respected by all good citizens, that no one should seek through political action to promote the activities of religious organizations or should intrude differences of religious faith or practice into our political controversies. The extent to which we manifest that self-restraint marks our degree of attachment to the liberty we proclaim. The right to religious liberty has become a truism, and we are so familiar with this conception that we are likely to forget at what cost freedom of conscience has been won and also the danger to which we are constantly exposed of a recrudescence of bigotry.
The hardest lesson mankind has had to learn is that the religious truth which is held to be most precious cannot prosper by attempts forcibly to impose it upon others. Strong conviction, especially religious convictions, are apt to develop tyrannical purpose and no faith is so pure that it is ever in danger of being made the instrument of the mistaken zeal of those who would deny to other the right to think as they choose.
It is a sound instinct that couples civil and religious liberty in one phrase, in our description of free institutions, however distinct theoretically they may be. The effort to dominate the conscience of men by the use of civil power has always been destructive of civil liberty itself. If there are any who would pervert our institutions to make them servants of religious dogma, they should be regarded as enemies of both religion and the State, as the success of their endeavors would undermine both.
The principle of Roger Williams is not only one of absolute justice with respect of equality before the law, but it is the essential principle of religious culture. When we look beyond form and ritual to the spiritual life of which they are the expression, it must be realized that its vital breath is the liberty of the soul in following its highest aspirations. It is only in the atmosphere of religious freedom that we may hope either for protection against error and delusion or for the maintenance of that spiritual power upon which all progress depends.