Among the many biblical, theological, and historical reasons the earliest Baptists gave for religious liberty, is one that is sometimes forgotten or neglected, namely, evangelism. It’s not a stand alone argument. The biblical-theological, covenantal case has to be made. The regulative principles of the New Testament must be exegeted. The freedom and dignity of the human person must be defended. But among those other reasons, Baptists can also appeal to the free proclamation of the gospel as an additional rationale for religious liberty.
It is remarkable that some of the earliest Baptists argued for religious liberty, not only for themselves and their fellow Protestant dissenters, but even for other religions. Thomas Helwys’ famous lines from The Mystery of Iniquity (1612) are always worth repeating: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.” Part of Helwys’ argument is that true obedience to God must be “spiritual obedience,” that is, willing obedience to Jesus, free from governmental compulsion. In other words, if you want non-Christians to be truly saved, religious liberty must be granted to them.
Roger Williams, whose influence on Baptists in the New World outlasted his own brief tenure as a part of a Baptist church, made a similar argument in The Bloody Tenent of Persecution (1644). Williams appeals to Paul’s imperative that meekness and gentleness be shown to “all” in the hopes that God might grant them repentance and salvation (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Williams applies this call to universal patience to the various religious opinions in society: Jews, “Turks” (=Muslims), “Antichristians” (those who preach a false Christ), and pagans. Williams asks his readers to remember their own former spiritual blindness and the mercy extended to them in the Lord Jesus. He concludes, “And to all these sorts–Jews, Turks, Antichristians, pagans–when they oppose the light presented to them, in sense of [the soul’s] own former opposition and that God peradventure may at last give repentance, I add [that] such a soul will not only be patient, but earnestly and constantly pray for all sorts of men, that out of them God’s elect may be called to the fellowship of Christ Jesus. And lastly not only to pray but also to endeavor (to its utmost ability) their participation of the same grace and mercy.” Religious liberty, not religious persecution, is the conclusion of those sensible to God’s sovereign grace in their own lives.
Many Baptists since have understood the evangelistic and missionary benefits of religious liberty. The Baptist insistence on “a free church in a free state” is motivated, in part, by this evangelistic impulse: “the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power” (Baptist Faith & Message, 2000). That doesn’t mean religious liberty has no limits. As the BF&M says elsewhere, “Freedom in any orderly relationship of human life is always limited and never absolute.” When religious liberty brings physical or moral harm, it may be limited in a principled and carefully qualified way. But otherwise, men must be free to reject, if they are to be truly free to accept, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the church must be free to share and to persuade but never to compel or to coerce. Religious liberty, in this understanding, is an evangelistic stewardship as much as an enumerated right.