SWBTS General 3

When it comes to the ‘culture war,’ Baptists could learn from the English Puritans

January 22nd, 2014 / By: Zach Crook / comments

A cursory glance at the state of cultural morality in America is disheartening. The Defense of Marriage Act has been labeled unconstitutional. A healthcare reform act is requiring all businesses, no matter the religious beliefs of the owners, to offer access to abortion-inducing drugs. Same-sex marriage is being legalized in numerous states. The list could go on.

If we are honest, we can see that we live in a post-Christian culture. The dominant Christian culture has faded. For someone like me, a pastor of a Baptist church in the Bible Belt of Texas, I hear the alarmists sound the end of Christian influence and the demise of our country. Now that we stand on the other side of a failed “moral majority,” there is one question everyone is asking, “What now?”

As is often the case, we can find direction for moving forward by studying the history of those who preceded us. In many ways, the English Puritans of the late 16th century experienced the same sense of political failure that the Religious Right is feeling now. They had tried for decades to influence the politics of Elizabeth I and reform the Church of England and the religious state of their country. They, much like conservative efforts in the 1980s and ’90s, were galvanized for a time in believing they could influence Elizabeth and the national church, only to realize their efforts were ultimately futile. But it was their response to their political frustration that sheds light on how a religious minority can still influence the future of a nation.

By the 1590s, the Puritans realized they weren’t going to convince the monarchy or the leadership of the Church of England to reform. They had lost the political battle and “retreated” from London to Cambridge. While the political scene in Washington might make it uncomfortable for a Christian to express belief in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, it was illegal for the Puritans to separate from the Church of England and even gather to worship. If any group could have held a defeatist attitude toward the state of their country, it would have been them. However, while they had to admit their failure to influence the government, they didn’t give up or sound the alarm.  They didn’t lament the future of their nation. They simply changed their strategy.

Rather than continually trying (and failing) to influence the monarchy toward reform in the Church of England, they focused on educating and influencing the next generation of leaders who were studying at Cambridge. The Puritans embraced their minority status and changed their aims. They realized that a top-down approach wasn’t working, so they switched to bottom-up. No longer focusing solely on those in power, they went about teaching biblical truth to the next generation of leaders. While presenting the power of the gospel to these university students, many were saved and developed a biblical worldview.

Many Puritans eventually separated from the Church of England and started churches that produced theologians like John Smyth, who in turn pastored Thomas Helwys, who began the first Baptist church on English soil. Additionally, Helwys wrote a groundbreaking work on religious liberty, “A Short Declaration on the Mystery of Iniquity,” which made a lasting impact on generations of believers. He greatly affected those who eventually helped get the Act of Toleration passed, which allowed some conditional religious freedoms to dissenting groups.

It seems that God worked mightily among these Puritans when they stopped trying to change the government and simply started sharing biblical truth with the masses. 

This is why the position of Russell Moore and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission should be so encouraging to Baptists moving forward. He has openly stated that we must switch our thinking from a “moral majority” to a “prophetic minority.” We must share the truth of the Bible no matter the cost. We should focus on the gospel and teach a biblical worldview. 

As the Puritans learned, who is in political power shouldn’t be our greatest concern. Our greatest concern should be sharing and spreading God’s truth. If we do that, God can work through our prophetic minority in the same way he worked through the Puritans. As believers, we need to continue to fight to ensure that our nation maintains religious liberty. With the freedom to share God’s Word, we should trust in its power to change people and culture.

—Zach Crook is the pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Weatherford and a master of divinity student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.