Baptist Preachers and Prison

My old Church History Professor is getting radical in his old age.  Bill was fresh out of Boston University when he came to Southern Seminary in Louisville in 1975.  I was in his first class.  A decade later, he was head of my PhD committee before leaving Southern for Samford University and then Wake Forest where he eventually became Dean of the Divinity School.  For years, the urbane Baptist scholar has been drawn to Black Baptist churches, so maybe he’s been radical all along.  AGB

For cause of conscience

By Bill Leonard
Thursday, May 10, 2012

Bill Leonard

In 1611, as they prepared to leave Amsterdam and return to England, members of the earliest Baptist congregation wrote a confession of faith, asserting that when members of the Body of Christ “come together” they “may and ought … to Pray, Prophecie, breake bread and administer in all the holy ordinances, although as yet they have no Officers, or that their Officers should be in Prison, sick or by any other means hindered from the Church.”

Those dissenters took it for granted that their “officers,” compelled by conscience, might ultimately end up in jail. Imprisonment was ensured for Thomas Helwys, the principal author of the 1611 confession, after the publication of his treatise, A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity, probably the first English text advocating complete religious liberty.

Arriving in England in 1612, Helwys was soon arrested and sent to Newgate Prison. Helwys scholar Richard Groves notes the possibility that a “handwritten document found in the Library of the House of Lords,” may have come from the Baptist leader. It states: “A most humble supplication of divers [various] poor prisoners and many others the king’s majesty’s loyal subjects ready to testify it by the oath of allegiance in all sincerity, whose grievances are lamentable, only for cause of conscience.”

Across the centuries dissent for “cause of conscience” has propelled innumerable Christians into “divers” prisons. It still does.

While imprisoned in Toledo (1577) for founding an unauthorized monastic order, St. John of the Cross wrote his great Spiritual Canticle.

Sir Thomas More was jailed then beheaded for refusing to acquiesce to Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy. (Sadly, while serving as Henry’s Lord Chancellor, More also orchestrated the imprisonment of many Protestants.)

While imprisoned in Switzerland in 1525, Anabaptist Conrad Grebel wrote a major treatise on believer’s baptism.

Quaker founders George Fox and Margaret Fell Fox were in and out of English jails for a total of at least five years.

Baptist Elijah Craig was jailed in Virginia and South Carolina for refusing to secure a “preaching license” from the state and for sermons that “disturbed the peace.” (Craig moved to Kentucky and invented bourbon whiskey, but that’s another story.)

In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. defended dissenting actions that he knew could bring incarceration: “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

King’s words came home in April 2012 when Francisco Risso, a student in my church history class at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, was jailed as a result of protests challenging the Alamance County (N.C.) Sheriff Department’s treatment of undocumented immigrants.

Although Risso and fellow dissenter Patrick O’Neill were given a 10-day suspended sentence and a $500 fine, they chose imprisonment, refusing “in good conscience” to pay fines since “Latino immigrants do not have the option to buy their way out of jail.”

Risso, previously associated with the Catholic Worker Movement, reminded the court that for him many governmental responses to Latino immigrants reflect an inhumanity reminiscent of Jim Crow laws and other unjust policies. “They’re the ones that have the least fault in their poverty,” Risso commented, noting that unfair trade practices foster poverty throughout Latin America. He went to jail, incarnating the church’s long tradition of dissent.

How might that tradition impact the rest of us? As Christians, our consciences often collide even contradict each other across the gospel spectrum. We are called to cultivate them nonetheless, especially as Protestant privilege diminishes in American culture and churches are compelled to exercise “the responsibility of the minority” as the Italian Waldensian leader Maria Bonafede wrote recently.

Drawing on a dissenting heritage dating from the 12th century she observed: “There are moments during which responsibility for vigorously affirming fundamental principles of civil society falls on the shoulders of small minorities. It is the duty of these minorities to intervene because they know firsthand the pain of prejudice and persecution inflicted by the majority, a majority all too often ill informed, distracted, confused or manipulated and therefore unable to stop episodes of hatred, discrimination and violence against whomever’s turn it is to be different.”

Such dissent may send us into the public square for conflicting reasons, so faith and history help us ascertain the certainty of our actions. Conscience is a risky tutor.

So if on some future Sunday you discover that your pastor is in jail for “cause of conscience” don’t cancel the morning worship service. Continue to “Pray, prophecie and breake bread” as the Body of Christ. Then, at the offertory, collect a little gospel bail money.

Bill Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University.