Religious Freedom Day Talking Points
Galatians 5:1
1-16-22


For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. – Galatians 5:1 ESV


Today is Religious Freedom Day, commemorating the date in 1786 when the Virginia Legislature enacted the Statute on Religious Freedom, which was a forerunner to our First Freedom in our First Amendment. In fact, every U.S. president since 1993, Democrat and Republican, has declared January 16th to be Religious Freedom Day and each one has called upon Americans to observe this day through appropriate activities in homes, schools, and places of worship. So, I wanted us recognize this unique time to be grateful to God for our freedom of religion in America, an inalienable right granted by him but also protected in our U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.


The United States Constitution is our governing document, but it would have never been ratified or approved without the promise of a Bill of Rights enumerating and guaranteeing our freedoms as Americans. The very first freedom is the freedom to believe and live according to those beliefs. Let me read it to you: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”


Yet, almost on a daily basis, we hear about people who are being threatened, fined, fired, and even jailed for their deeply held religious beliefs. But the First Amendment provides the legal basis for our right to freely practice our faith without government interference, not only in church, but everywhere in public life. This freedom did not originate with the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the Founding Fathers, or the Pilgrims and Puritans who were among the first to settle in what became America. No, this freedom comes from God, and the Scriptures bear witness to it.

I. BIBLICAL BASIS OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Our Scripture is one that was very popular with Patriot Pastors of the Revolution, and that is Galatians 5:1 ESV: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” I also like the old KJV: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free…” Obviously, the Patriot Pastors applied it to not only religious but civil liberty in view of British tyranny. But in the original context, Paul was battling the Judaiazers, who came in after he left, telling the Galatians they needed to add some works of the law to the Gospel of Grace. Paul preached Jesus plus nothing, but the Judaizers said: “No, it’s Jesus plus something, like for example circumcision, feast days, fast days, Sabbath observances, etc. And Paul said if you listen to them, you are leaving your freedom in Christ to become enslaved again by works of the law.


A. Individual Religious Freedom: Freedom is highly valued in Scripture. The Bible from the beginning consistently places a high value on individual human freedom and responsibility to choose one’s actions. When God created and placed Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, He gave people freedom of choice. Genesis 2:16–17 says: “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’” Such freedom to choose is one of the highest manifestations of excellence in the human beings that God has created, and it is one of the ways in which mankind is more like God than any of the animals or plants that God has made. Adam and Eve were free to love and obey God or not. They were not free from the consequences of their choices. So it is with us.


Freedom of individual choice is viewed favorably again and again in Scripture. It is a component of full human personhood and is ultimately a reflection of God’s image. Obviously, God has the freedom of will to make decisions and choices, approving or disapproving as He pleases. Therefore, we have not only God’s testing of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, but also statements such as this:


“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Deut. 30:19).
“Choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15).
“Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him’” (1 Kings 18:21 NIV).
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).


Throughout the Bible, from the beginning of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation, God honors and protects human freedom and human choice. Liberty is an essential component of our humanity. Any government that significantly denies people’s liberty exerts a terribly de-humanizing influence on its people.


B. National Religious Freedom: Liberty in a nation is of utmost importance because it allows people to have freedom to choose to obey or disobey God and to serve him or not to serve him, according to their best judgment. Several arguments from the Bible support the idea that governments should protect human liberty. The first consideration is the fact that slavery and oppression are always viewed negatively in Scripture, while freedom is viewed positively. That’s true of Israel, God’s chosen people.


1) Old Testament: When Israel was in slavery in Egypt, Moses advocated for religious liberty: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Exodus 8:1 NIV). When God gives the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel, he begins by saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). When the people of Israel turned against the Lord, he gave them into the hand of oppressors who enslaved them and took away their freedom (see Deut. 28:28–29, 33; Judg. 2:16–23). While God’s people are obligated to submit to government that punishes evil, rewards good, and acts for the common welfare of its citizens (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17), God did not punish his people for disobedience to tyrannical government.


For example, when the Egyptian Pharaoh commanded the midwives to put newborn Hebrew baby boys to death, they disobeyed, and God approved of their disobedience (see Exod. 1:17, 21). When Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar commanded Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to bow down and worship a golden statue and they refused, God showed his approval by rescuing these Hebrew heroes from the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:13–30). When it was against the law for anyone to come into the presence of Persian King Ahasuerus without being invited, Esther disobeyed the law and risked her own life to save her people, the Jews (see Esth. 4:16). When the Medean King Darius was tricked into making a law prohibiting prayers to anyone but himself, Daniel openly disobeyed and was thrown into the lion’s den, but God rescued him from the mouths of the lions (Dan. 6).

Obviously, the loss of freedom for Israel as a nation was a judgment, not a blessing. That is why one blessing promised by the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61 is that a Deliverer would come who would free the people from such oppression by their enemies, for he would come “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Isa. 61:1). But first it would be a spiritual liberty before ultimately becoming a physical liberty.

2) New Testament: In the NT, when King Herod had commanded the wise men to return and tell him where the newborn King of the Jews was to be found, they were warned by an angel not to obey this command, so they disobeyed King Herod and “departed to their own country by another way” (see Matt. 2:8, 12). When the Jewish authorities arrested the apostles and commanded them “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18) after being commanded by Christ to “be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8), they answered, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:20). Later, Peter proclaimed, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29). This is a clear affirmation of the principle that God requires his people to disobey the civil government if obedience would mean directly disobeying God. So religious freedom is not only a sacred God-given right, but a solemn responsibility.


II. BEGINNINGS OF AMERICAN RELIGIOUS FREEDOM


Religious liberty has been a prized freedom from the beginnings of America. After all, the Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers, and other religious settlers came here for religious freedom. And we have enjoyed this first freedom for over 200 years, the freedom to believe and live by those beliefs. As a result, the gospel has flourished. In fact, America sends more missionaries and invests more money in missions than any other nation in the world.


A. Sad Situation of Dissenters: But religious freedom did not come easy, even in America. Infamous Supreme Court Justice and former Ku Klux Klansman Hugo Black, observed in 
Engel v. Vitale, 1962, which struck down school prayer:

When some of the very groups which had most strenuously opposed the established Church of England found themselves sufficiently in control of colonial governments in this country to write their own prayers into law, they passed laws making their own religion the official religion of their respective colonies.  

One of those persecuted for his dissent was Baptist Roger Williams, who left Puritan controlled Massachusetts to found his own colony of Rhode Island. He wrote in his Plea for Religious Liberty, 1644:

The doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience is most contrary to the doctrine of Christ Jesus the Prince of Peace... God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.

A few years later, Quaker founder of Pennsylvania William Penn wrote in 
England’s Present Interest Considered, 1675: “Force makes hypocrites, ‘tis persuasion only that makes converts.” But most of the colonies didn’t heed his advice and formed “Established Churches.”

Colonial Virginia had an “establishment” of the Church of England, or “Anglican Church” from 1606 to 1786. Establishment meant:


• Mandatory membership;
• Mandatory taxes to support it; and
• No one could hold public office unless they were a member.


Baptists had been particularly persecuted in colonial Virginia, as Francis L. Hawks wrote in Ecclesiastical History (1836): “No dissenters in Virginia experienced for a time harsher treatment than the Baptists...They were beaten and imprisoned...Cruelty taxed ingenuity to devise new modes of punishment and annoyance.”[1]

Patrick Henry once rode 50 miles to defend Baptist Pastor John Waller and two others for being charged with disturbing the peace simply for preaching the gospel without a license.[2] For that “crime” they had been jailed. So many Baptist ministers were harassed, and their church services disrupted, that James Madison introduced legislation in Virginia’s Legislature on October 31, 1785, titled “A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship,” which passed in 1789.

But the establishment law needed to be changed to not only tolerate Baptists and other dissenters but acknowledge their freedom to believe and live according to those beliefs without discrimination or persecution. Baptist Leader Elder John Leland wrote in Rights of Conscience Inalienable, 1791, that they wanted not just toleration, but equality:

Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.[3]

B. Statute for Religious Freedom in Virginia: There were a number of government leaders responsible for religious freedom in America, but the most well-known is Thomas Jefferson. And yet when it comes to the role of faith in public life, Jefferson’s views are the subject of the most debate because his influence on the birth of the nation is so pivotal.

As I mentioned, in Jefferson’s Virginia, the Anglican Church was the established, state sanctioned, tax supported church. So if you were a Baptist or Presbyterian or Methodist, you had to pay taxes to support a minister you didn’t listen to and for a church building where you did not attend. Jefferson saw that practice as unjust. That is the basis for the establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

What about the free exercise clause? Well in 1777, Thomas Jefferson drafted “An Act for establishing Religious Freedom,” which states:

Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend not only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our Religion [Heb. 12:2], who, being Lord both of the body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercion on either, as was in His almighty power to do…
 
Be it, therefore, enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry, whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities…
[4]

In other words, you should not be treated any differently because of what you believe and how you live according to those beliefs. So you don’t have to check your beliefs at the door of your job, your school, or even public office. Your freedom to believe and live by those beliefs is a natural, God-given right.

Almost 10 years after he drafted it, Jefferson’s Statute, ultimately shepherded through the Virginia legislature by James Madison, disestablished the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed freedom of religion to people of all faiths, including Baptists, Catholics, and Jews as well as members of all Protestant denominations. It was enacted on January 16, 1786, and it provides the foundation for Religious Freedom Day. In fact, it was one of the three things Jefferson wanted to be remembered for, along with the Declaration of Independence and the University of Virginia.

Consequently, Jefferson’s Statute contributed philosophical building blocks for the two legal clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Jefferson’s statute provided historical context for the Establishment Clause (no state sanctioned taxpayer supported denomination) and the Free Exercise Clause (you have a natural, God-given right to believe as you choose and live according to those beliefs).

Interestingly, Jefferson, James Madison, and their colleagues realized that future lawmakers might try to limit this right, and there was nothing they could do about it, except issue this warning:

We are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of the natural right.[5] 

They were warning of what is literally happening today, which is the infringement of our natural God-given right, the freedom to believe.

Thomas Jefferson championed religious liberty for all Americans and laid the foundation for our First Amendment freedom of religion. Jefferson’s friend James Madison picked up the torch of religious liberty. While Jefferson was in France, he served as a catalyst for getting a Constitutional Convention in 1787, and then moving a Bill of Rights in the First Federal Congress in 1789. In fact, the Constitution would have never been ratified without a Bill of Rights and its protections for religious liberty. Baptist Elder John Leland met with James Madison near Orange, Virginia, when he was running for Congress on a cold, snowy day. He demanded a Bill of Rights in exchange for political support. Upon Madison’s promise to introduce what would become the First Amendment, Leland agreed to persuade Baptists to get involved politically by supporting Madison over James Monroe. Madison won and the rest is history. Madison became the Father of the Bill of Rights, but it was the Baptists who insisted on protecting religious liberty who prompted it.

I wonder what Jefferson, Madison, and the other Founders who fought so hard for our First Freedom would think about what is happening today… Modern courts and those who bow to their opinions are now infringing on our natural, God-given rights. Our freedom to believe is under fire!

What should we do about it? Well, Jefferson’s words etched on his 
Memorial in D.C. are not a bad place to start: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”[6]

So it is fitting that we study the origins of Religious Freedom Day and the words and deeds of the man who drafted the Statute for Religious Freedom, that provided part of the foundation for our First Amendment freedom of religion in America. Not only should we study religious freedom, we need to live it, stand for it, defend it, and pass it down to the next generation of Americans. The freedom to believe and live according to those beliefs is a sacred God-given right, and a solemn responsibility.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, we thank you for these men who fought so valiantly for our religious liberty in America. We pray for leaders who would have the same spirit, especially in recognizing that this nation’s founding principles are rooted in a Christian worldview, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.
 
[1] Francis L. Hawks, Contributions to the Ecclesiastical History of the United States, 2 vols., (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836-39), 1:121.
[2] Roscoe Ashburn Musselwhite, “A brief history of the Baptists of Louisa County, Virginia to 1865,” University of Richmond – UR Scholoarship Repository, http://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1966&context=masters-theses.
[3] “John Leland: ‘The Right of Conscience Inalienable’ on Religion as a Matter Between God and Individuals,” January 1, 1791, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs - Georgetown University, accessed January 13, 2022, https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/quotes/john-leland-the-right-of-conscience-inalienable-on-religion-as-a-matter-between-god-and-individuals.
[4] H.A. Washington, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson – Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private, 9 vols. (New York: Derby and Jackson, 1859), 8:454-56. Bracketed item added.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800, in Julian Boyd et al, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 45 vols., (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-21), 32:168.