Roots of the First Amendment

David L. Cummins

It is well that we understand the background of the First Amendment to our national Constitution. How tragic that the current Supreme Court members no longer seek to understand the Constitution with the use of “original intent.” The hermeneutical system of the justices is surely pedantic and panders to the liberal, left leaders of our once-proud republic.

The First Amendment originated at the insistence of the Baptists in Virginia. Reverend John Leland debated the matter with James Madison. Ultimately Leland obtained a promise from Madison that the First Amendment would be as it is written to this day, a guarantee that a national state church would not be established. As we know from history, nine of the 13 original colonies had “state” churches. Baptists were fined (as epitomized in the case of Reverend Isaac Backus in Massachusetts), beaten (as demonstrated in the case of Obadiah Holmes in Massachusetts), and imprisoned (as observed in the cases of 44 incarcerated Baptist preachers in Virginia). The First Amendment did not abolish “state” churches in individual colonies. In fact, there were established state churches in America until 1833—almost 50 years following the ratification of the Constitution!

In 1801 the Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, objected to the established state church of Connecticut, which was Congregational. Knowing that President Thomas Jefferson had led in the disestablishment of religious favoritism in his home state of Virginia, they were desirous that he intervene for them in Connecticut. On a recent trip to Danbury, I had access to the minutes of the Danbury Baptist Church, which was founded in 1790. The minutes make clear that the members were chafing under the arrangement that forced them to pay taxes to support the Congregational state church.

Although President Jefferson favored the Baptists’ position, he explained that the Constitution forbade the federal government from intruding in state matters. That was the famed “wall of separation” to which he referred in his return letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.

In 1947 the liberal justice Hugo Black came upon the quotation from Jefferson in the Danbury Baptist Association, and he misconstrued its meaning completely. Since that time, the liberal justices have so distorted the amendment so as to reverse its original intent totally!

Daniel Drisbach, American University professor, in the Journal of Church and State, points out that the “wall of separation” has “less to do with the separation of church and civil government than with the separation between state and federal governments.”

While serving as governor of Virginia, Jefferson had declared religious days of prayer and thanksgiving, but as president of the United States he would not do that. He understood that the First Amendment restricts the federal government and president, but not individual states and governors.

Thomas Macaulay, British historian who died on the eve of the Civil War, wrote a warning to America: “Your republic will be fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the Twentieth Century as the Roman Empire was in the Fifth, with this difference: that the Huns and Vandals who ravaged the Roman Empire came from without and your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your own country, by your own institutions.”

Is there any hope for America? The answer is to be found in a genuine spiritual revival that will send believers into the land as voices of righteousness. Shall genuine Christians exert a godly influence in the political arena of our day? If we answer this question in the negative, all hope is gone. But, one with God is a majority. While local churches are not constituted to participate in politics, surely individual believers must make their voices heard just as our Baptist forbears did before us.

Whittier wrote:

Is the old Pilgrim spirit quenched within us?
Stoops the proud manhood of our souls so low,
That Mammon’s lure or Party’s wile can win us to silence now?
Now, when our land to ruin’s brink is verging.
In God’s Name let us speak while there is time:
Now, when the padlocks of our lips are forging,
Silence is a crime.

May God light a flame of patriotism anew in the hearts of each and every one of His children. Surely it is not too much to expect that Fundamentalists stand up and be counted in these desperate days of our American republic.

When this article first appeared in FrontLine, the late Dr. David L. Cummins was Deputation Director of Baptist World Mission in Decatur, Alabama.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)