Free to Be or Free to Believe? What the Battle for Baptist Identity Tells Us About Religious Liberty

Something which has always distinguished Baptists within the Christian tradition is their peculiar regard for conscience. Their tenacity for its defense was molded by intense persecution throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and their ascendancy in the United States after the Second Great Awakening of the nineteenth century led to an enrichment of distinctly Baptist thought, including in the area of conscience. This development stemmed from scholars and pastors dedicated to the intellectual advance of the movement.

One such figure was Edgar Young Mullins (1860 – 1928). One-time president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mullins’ foremost contribution to the Baptist tradition was his notion of “soul competency,” set forth in The Axioms of Religion (1908). In brief, soul competency (or “soul liberty”, a more traditional designation in Baptist thought) to Mullins meant “the right of private judgment in religious matters and in the interpretation of the Scriptures.”[1] Promotion of soul liberty in American theology had surged with Roger Williams (1603 – 1683) and became a distinctively Baptist tenet thereafter, but Mullins’ modification was significant. With this term, Mullins intended to articulate the primacy of the individual religious experience in man’s communion with God. His assertion is classically evangelical to the extent that it positions true conversion as a voluntary exercise of personal faith, and he proposed it as a means for rapprochement between theological liberalism and Protestant fundamentalism.[2] By presenting the ultimate locus of spirituality as being within the atomized self, while still seeing it as necessarily coupled with pursuing an orthodox understanding of God, Mullins presumed that the fundamentalist-modernist controversy could be resolved. Allowing for subjective adjudication concerning theological matters would, he hoped, avoid the factionalism he saw playing out before him, and in the end ensure the retention of orthodoxy.

Mullins felt uncomfortable with denominations policing orthodoxy, as it entailed dogmatism on either side of any dispute. J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937), a Prebysterian but a fellow fundamentalist, claimed in Christianity and Liberalism (1923) that the struggle between the fundamentalists and the modernists was not just a spirited disagreement about non-essentials; it was a dualistic struggle between two wholly separate, incompatible belief systems. In contrast, Mullins averred that if conscience’s duties were fully kept free from any coercion, then one would freely decide which formulation of Christianity suited them best, promising equilibrium amidst the Manichean sympathies at large.[3] However, the term eventually far surpassed Mullins’ originally intended meaning.

In context, Mullins thought he was stating an obvious fact of Christian belief: in the order of experience, we don’t start with God; rather, we start with ourselves. Calvin himself articulated the much the same in his Institutes: epistemology principally pertains to “the knowledge of God and ourselves” (I.1.1), and although “the order of right teaching requires that we discuss the former first” (I.1.3), experientially it is knowledge of ourselves which “not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him” (I.1.1). Yet, historically, Baptists had not understood this to mean one’s personal preferences should determine everything in the Christian life. One of Mullins’ contemporaries, Curtis Lee Laws (1868 – 1946), stated that Baptists “knew no soul-liberty that guaranteed to men the right to believe what they pleased while still claiming to be Baptists.”[4] Favoring the fundamentalists over the modernists, Laws knew that liberal Baptists thought themselves immensely clever in casting their theological trailblazing as merely a manifestation of the kind of liberty of conscience forebears such as Isaac Backus (1724 – 1806) and John Leland (1754 – 1841) had fought for. For modernists, to be “Baptist” meant to assert one’s freedom whenever desired, eschewing inherited Baptist traditions or confessions; it meant being completely untethered, practicing soul competency in toto. Yet, as Laws suggested, this renders even becoming a Baptist vacuous: Baptists had been clearly outlining what their articulation of the Christian faith since their stirrings in the seventeenth century; why identify as one if you rejected that articulation? Mullins himself did not see his unique appraisal of spirituality leading to such a conclusion, but even the best of ideas quickly depreciate in the hands of opportunistic ideologues.

“Soul Competency” and the SBC Conservative Resurgence

The conflicts surrounding the “Conservative Resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention illustrate how weaponized Mullins’ notion of soul competency eventually became. This was the struggle for control of the Convention, beginning in 1979, in which conservatives within the denomination strategically and systematically elected their own into positions of leadership, ousting more liberal and (supposedly) “moderate” members. The self-identified “moderate” Baptist historians Walter Shurden and Bill Leonard rallied to soul competency as means for a détente between themselves and the conservatives. Soul competency, they argued, afforded freedom for Baptists to continue identifying as such, despite holding beliefs historically unassociated with the Baptist faith.[5] Therefore, both conservatives and liberals should be able to coexist and within the same Convention, because both were ultimately equally Baptist. However, the counterproposal of scholars L. Russ Bush and Tom J. Nettles demonstrated that the Baptist forefathers Shurden and Leonard claimed as their own disagreed.[6] Instead, it was clear that a Baptist understanding of religious liberty and freedom of conscience had never pertained to the moderates’ libertarian streak. It sought to preserve how persons could act in accordance with beliefs they held to be objectively binding upon them due to the authority of Scripture. This articulation of Baptist identity is precisely what the moderates despised.

Refusing to cede ground, the Moderates began to move out of the SBC entirely, especially after the climactic 1984 election of conservative Charles Stanley to the presidency. Forming the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1991, these “libertarian Baptists” saw no need for constraining one’s expression of Baptist identity.[7] This could not have been more obvious than in 2012: the CBF co-sponsored a conference on “Sexuality & Covenant,” which was little more than a preview of the progressivism stampeding through its ranks and out into the frontlines.[8] Then, in 2018, it faced a controversy over its hiring practices in relation to LGBT people, proving how fractious its vision for “the freedom and responsibility of every person to relate directly to God without the imposition of creed or the control of clergy or government” had become.[9]

“Soul Competency” and Liberalism

In view of the above, it is understandable that many diagnose the fractures amongst Baptists in America as being caused by the continual malleability of theological liberalism. And whilst modernism’s many reconfigurations will ensure that such divisions about Baptist identity will endure until “the perfect comes,” another aspect of these controversies needs to be probed further.

When religious liberty is denuded of doctrinal assertions, it sulks toward becoming little more than a project for insulating one’s own hermetically-sealed religiosity, which has no significant external manifestations of faith that would make acclimation to secularization uneasy. Unless one is striving for the freedom of belief in order to sustain their higher commitments to belief system seen as objectively normative (e.g. a religious confession), it ceases to lack any genuine quarter in regards to the Christian church. Public philosophers from John Locke to John Rawls wanted precisely that kind of compromise, whereas theologians from Athenagoras to Augustine could hardly fathom it. Because Christianity is inherently meant to be promulgated, attempts to assuage its adherents into informed silence will only break ground among those already welcoming the fissures of dissent purely for dissent’s sake.

The founding confessional document of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Abstract of Principles (1858), states in its clause pertaining to liberty of conscience that “God alone is Lord of the conscience; and He hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to His word, or not contained in it.”[10] Starting with God as the Lord of conscience before appropriating conscience’s primacy gives form to why it has political merit, valuing human beings as moral creatures before anything else. However, a view of soul competency which at every juncture privileges personal preference over adherence to inherited religious foundations remains coherent only so long as its proponents are corralled under some kind of catholicity in its utilization. Without the benchmark of a defined orthodoxy, the bedrock of any Christian tradition quickly proves friable when its own sense of distinction is perpetually at risk of being held captive to individual caprice, regardless of its creedal bona fides.

From the perspective of public interest though, denominational disintegration is no cause for alarm. Secular accounts of religious liberty tolerate individuals assenting to any assortment of spiritually-based values, so long as they don’t compel persons to act on them. As long as the Lockean imperative of protecting natural rights is preserved, fanciful faiths of all origins are welcome to gather around the maypole of an entirely negative sense of religious freedom, picketed but not picketing. Nevertheless, a Christian doctrine of liberty of conscience suffices for the only adequate vindication as to why genuine religious freedom is essential.

Devoid of its greater significance within the ordering of basic societal rights and goods, purely positive religious freedom as an end in itself eventually devolves into entirely negative religious freedom by jettisoning its transcendent worth. Rawls proposed that in order for liberalism to succeed, religious freedom could at best only be practiced amongst the “nonpublic reasons of churches and universities,” pocketed away so as to not jeopardize the advance of wholly secularized institutions.[11] In this approach, religious freedom exists solely for the purpose of keeping sects content while society gets on without them. This suits libertarian Baptists such as Shurden and Leonard, eager to avoid any intimations toward making others feel any compulsion toward mores not immediately of their own choosing. It provides remarkable ease – except when it comes to that pesky question of warning others of eternal perdition.

A Properly Christian Religious Liberty

There remains, however, a solution for this deficiency. Looking to one like Isaac Backus in the eighteenth century, a more classically Baptist approach to religious liberty emerges: religious liberty as an evangelical imperative, instead of an incidental property of democracy. Backus averred that “by the law of Christ every man, is not only allowed, but also required, to judge for himself, concerning the circumstantials as well as the essentials, of religions, and to act according to the full persuasion of his own mind, and he contracts guilt to his soul if he does the contrary.”[12] Obviously, this approach to religious liberty as a soteriological good is vindicated here, but what Backus intimates as well is the deontological character of freedom of belief in society. Men should not have religious freedom just so that they can relish in bandying back and forth about mystical inquiries; they must have it so that they can act in accordance with their most sincerely held beliefs. Without the provision thereof, they cease to be citizens and instead subsist as votaries for the spirit of the age, a prognosis oddly akin to what so many modern ideologues deem to be utopic. Yet it is in giving conscience its due that civilization can flourish. As Backus notes,

The true liberty of man is, to know, obey and enjoy his Creator, and to do all the good unto, and enjoy all the happiness with and in his fellow-creatures that he is capable of; in order to which the law of love was written on his heart, which carries in its nature union and benevolence to being in general, and to each being in particular, according to its nature and excellency, and to its relation and connexion to and with the supreme Being, and ourselves.[13]

This far more robust appreciation of liberty as religious and moral, therefore possessing a clear telos, roots religious liberty as principally a concern of conscience instead of mere personal preference. Protecting conscience secures the longevity of society by making its stewards responsible to a Creator beyond their self-interest, and this only becomes salient within a body politic which views both natural law and divine revelation as sure safeguards for a lasting liberty. Religious freedom finds its legitimacy not in leaving men and women to be as they are, but in freeing them to become what they must be. As the Baptist theologian Carl. F. H. Henry (1913 – 2003) rightly asserted, a people who prizes religious freedom rightly understood within the perspective of Christian orthodoxy as a concern of conscience will “assign to the truth of revelation the priority it deserves.”[14]

Religious Liberty Today

Lest we allow expressive individualism’s presuppositions to roost within our own Christian proposals for religious liberty, reclaiming its classical contours could not be more timely. An unremitting demand for absolute autonomy risks absorbing religious liberty into a broader milieu of expressive individualism. If left unchallenged, it will relegate any substantive notion of liberty of conscience in the current discourse with regard to religious liberty to a place of only ecclesial significance.[15] Expressive individualism encapsulates the theological Left’s weaponization of soul competency as a means for allowing greater encroachments upon orthodoxy under the banner of “self-identification” to endure. Therefore, returning to a historical definition of liberty of conscience as the fitting grounds for a Christian doctrine of religious liberty proves imminently worthwhile to those aiming to avoid modern abuses which threaten its true utility.

Though differentiation about his ordinances for his Church and the structure thereof might persist, Christ’s ethical expectations for his redeemed remain evident, as well as what it entails to respond to them in sincerity. Honoring the intimate realities of religious belief requires understanding its objective goal: the hope of all coming to the light of divine revelation prescribed and proclaimed by means of Christian Scripture. With a view toward conscience first and convenience second then, a defense of religious liberty which grasps its full soteriological worth might prove salutary to souls after all. We are not just free to be; we are made to be free to believe.

Flynn Evans is a ThM student in Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He lives in Louisville with his wife, Claire.

  1. E. Y. Mullins, The Axioms of Religion, Library of Baptist Classics 5 (Nashville: B & H, 1997), 62.

  2. This assumption flows from David Bebbington’s quadrilateral, focusing upon evangelicalism’s “conversionism” in appealing directly to individual persons for “decisions” to trust in Christ for salvation. See David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge, 1989), 2-3.

  3. According to Fisher Humphreys, Mullins was “intoxicated by personal freedom, even by personal rights––a category which owes more to the Enlightenment than to the New Testament.” This democratic spirit in his thought gives greater clarity as to the preponderation of individualism in his theology. See Humphreys, ​​“Edgar Young Mullins,” Theologians of the Baptist Tradition, edited by Timothy George and David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishers, 2001), 181-201.

  4. Curtis Lee Laws, “Editorial,” in Watchman Examiner, June 9, 1921; 710.

  5. See Walter B. Shurden, Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys Books, 1993) and Bill Leonard, “Baptists in North America,” in The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume III: The Nineteenth Century, ed. by Timothy Larsen and Michael Ledger-Lomas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 231-55.

  6. See Bush and Nettles, Baptists and the Bible: The Baptist Doctrines of Biblical Inspiration and Religious Authority in Historical Perspective (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980).

  7. This designation comes from Rhyne R. Putman in his essay “Baptists, Sola Scriptura, and the Place of the Christian Tradition,” in Baptists and the Christian Tradition: Towards an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity, ed. by Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2020), 27-54.

  8. See Andrew T. Walker, “FIRST-PERSON: CBF — Yesterday’s moderates are today’s ‘conservatives’,” Baptist Press. Published on May 1, 2012. Last accessed on November 13, 2021.

  9. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, “Core Values.” Last accessed on October 24, 2021.

  10. Basil Manly, Jr., “The Abstract of Principles.” From The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Last accessed on October 27, 2021.

  11. John Rawls, Political Liberalism: Expanded Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 213.

  12. Isaac Backus, “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty (1773),” in The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding, ed. by Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall (Indianapolis: The Liberty Fund, 2009), 204-11.

  13. Backus, “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty (1773),” 206.

  14. Carl F. H. Henry, Has Democracy Had Its Day? (Nashville: Leland House Press, 2019), 59.

  15. For more on understanding expressive individualism, see O. Carter Snead, “The Anthropology of Expressive Individualism,” Church Life Journal. Published on December 1, 2020. Last accessed on November 13, 2021.


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