“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
In writing and putting together a book on Defending Conscience, about the Baptist influence on the doctrine of liberty of conscience, one of the most consistent questions Tim and I have been asked in the writing of our book is: why did we choose to focus on the Baptists? The answer is simply because that is how the history worked itself out. Baptists and before them Anabaptists, were the main proponents of this teaching for some time before other denominations took up the cause.
But just because we are writing from the perspective of Baptists, and about a history where the Baptist Church taught the world a lot, does not mean our goal is only to extol the virtues of the Baptist Church. We are not seeking to do this at all, what we are seeking to do is reflect on how Baptists got things right and how they got things wrong and learn from this. When they got things right this changed the world for the better. But they haven’t always gotten things right and when they get things wrong this had significant, powerful and dreadful ramifications for society. This true for the whole Church, when the Church goes bad it has detrimental effects on the society around it.
One of the best examples of this is the Baptist’s failure during Prohibition. Let us share with you a bit of an example from the book:
Baptists Involvement in Prohibition
“You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”
- Mark 7:8-9
The Errant Principle of Prohibition
Despite Baptists being the historical custodians of the principle of liberty of conscience, there are regrettably periods when the Baptist denomination failed to uphold this incredible legacy. Prohibition is the most instructive of these periods as it mirrors many of the effects of the Covid years. What became immediately clear during Prohibition, is that the attempt to create a utopia was far from successful. Drinking was not eliminated, it simply went underground, and often not even this was the case, in many places the laws were openly flouted. Not only was a utopia not created, but a veritable anarchy ensued. As demonstrated above, the result of the success of the Anti-Saloon League was to assail the very pillars of much of the United States civil structure, and empower crime in ways that reflected the Wild West era.
This came about for a very simple reason; the dangerous self-righteousness with which the anti-alcohol crowd pushed their cause. Amongst many of the leading Prohibitionists there is more than a shadow of the self-righteous man at prayer in Scripture who openly thanked God that he was not like the tax collector. What is it that makes such a man so dangerous? It is the false principle of righteousness from which Prohibition derives its life and being. Wightman writes of her experience of the self-righteous cause, “‘We are the good people’, say the moral re- formers: ‘you are the bad’; therefore it is the duty of the good people to seek control of the government and to enact laws that will make you bad people good."
This is precisely the characteristic of the early seventeenth century English Church under King James that English Baptists had rejected, and in response formed their views of liberty of conscience. Anglican bishops and Church of England Kings did not see themselves as the wicked oppressors of God’s flock, rather, they saw themselves as defenders of the faith and the English people. Disappointingly so did the Baptists who supported Prohibition. As Harvey Dent states in the The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” This is what transpired with the Baptist Church in the century leading up to and during prohibition. The Baptists were too civil to burn people at the stake, instead, they struck a stake through the heart of their distinctives and American society.
Baptists Were Up to their Necks in Prohibition Lunacy
The question is, therefore, what involvement did Baptists have in implementing this Amendment that divided the country? The answer: a significant involvement! The temperance movement was a response to the general evils of the day. As one Baptist historian writes, “Drunkenness was widespread, leading to violence, sexual license, and incapacity to work, and so giving up strong drink seemed like the solution to many problems.” Because of the evangelical desire for moral reform, many evangelicals - including Baptists - became strong proponents of temperance. Not all Baptists agreed with this solution, however, with a minority wanting to leave the matter to liberty of conscience,
While all arguments against the temperance movements among Baptists found their way to the touchstone of Scripture, a second category of disagreements concerned liberty of conscience. Several Baptists did not see enough biblical evidence to require the signing of an abstinence pledge. According to their reading of Scripture, Christians were free to disagree on this very point.
However, Baptists “who publicly supported the anti-temperance movement to defend their personal rights of liberty of conscience were a small but significant minority.” The majority of Baptists supported the cause enthusiastically. “Jabez Tunnicliff, for example, an English General Baptist minister, was a founder of the Band of Hope movement that aimed to educate children in the risks incurred drinking alcohol.” Over the course of the nineteenth century, the Baptist churches became increasingly associated with the temperance cause.
Interestingly, most Baptists in the twenty-first century would agree that Prohibition was a disproportionate response to the problem of alcoholism, even if they are teetotalers themselves. Many Baptist pastors today who abstain from alcohol tolerate those who think otherwise and even work alongside them in church pastoral teams. There were Baptists who thought this way, even amid the Prohibition hysteria, and who continued to uphold the Baptist distinctive of liberty of conscience. This is an important lesson; even in times of vast social pressure and hysteria, there are individuals who remain grounded to their principles. In regard to Prohibition, the passing of time has revealed that it was the minority who held fast to the Baptist distinctive of liberty of conscience, who in fact had the most rational and reasonable approach to the problem. Such is human nature, but when the cost of holding one’s principles is high one needs firm boundaries around their convictions to hold the line.
Amongst the greatest supporters of Prohibition was The Southern Baptist Convention. This convention promoted Prohibition at every annual meeting until it became law and appointed a permanent temperance committee in 1910. The entire organisational structure of the ASL from its leadership to the staff, along with “its affiliate organisations were overwhelmingly Methodist and Baptist. Clergymen occupied a minimum of 75 percent of the board seats of any branch.” The secret of the ASL’s success was their ability to reach hundreds of thousands of church members and attendees through thousands of pulpits around the country, and the way they could also rely on their financial support to aid the cause. If requested, pastors all over the country even stood ready to preach ASL messages on a particular Sunday. Because of the strong network of churches that underpinned the League’s efforts, they were soon able to overtake the WCTU and increase the effectiveness of the anti-alcohol movement.
“Such is human nature, but when the cost of holding one’s principles is high one needs firm boundaries around their convictions to hold the line.” The disconnect between what people say and what they do is a real problem that we encounter a lot, and the Baptists of the Prohibition era are a clear example of this. What people say and what they do is often not consistent, and times of pressure really reveal that.
As you can see, the Baptist church has its fair share of abandoning its principles and in the process supporting evil. This is why our book is necessary. Since Prohibition the Baptist Church has not been the force for liberty of conscience that it once was. We need Christians of all stripes to lend their support to this cause, to renew the light of the liberty of conscience in our society.
When you read our book you will see Baptists at their best, but also Baptists at their worst, and there is a lot to learn in this for all Christians. You will also see how Christians from other denominations took up the torch of liberty and applied it to the world.
Tim and Matt
You can pick up our book at www.defendingconscience.com, it’s ready for pre-order, and will be out soon.