“Hey, wasn’t that you at the mosque?”

Yes.  Yes it was me.  Those of you who have studied the photograph on the front page of the Richmond Times Dispatch “Metro” section have correctly identified the out-of-focus figure in the back as Dr. Jim Somerville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, standing somewhere behind Imam Ammar Amonette in a show of solidarity during yesterday’s press conference at the Islamic Center of Virginia. 

I wasn’t one of the featured speakers, and nobody from the press asked why I was there, but if they had I would have been ready.  I would have said, “I’m here because I’m a Baptist.”

That’s right: Baptist.

For more than 400 years now Baptists have been passionate defenders of religious liberty.  That’s why we came to this country: we were looking for the freedom to worship as we pleased.  Even so, some of our preachers were arrested and jailed because (as British colonists) they didn’t have a license to preach from the Church of England.  When the Revolutionary War was over Virginia Baptist pastor John Leland met with James Madison to insist that the new Constitution of the United States of America be amended to include the right to religious freedom.  The situation was tense.  Leland had a huge following.  If he didin’t support the new Constitution it might not be ratified.  If Madison wouldn’t amend the Constitution Leland wouldn’t support it.  In the end, Madison made the amendment, Leland endorsed it, and the Constitution was ratified.  What we now know as the First Amendment begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” 

If we cherish this freedom for ourselves, we cannot deny it to others.  And although the headline in today’s newspaper read, “Area faith leaders ask for tolerance,” we cannot merely “tolerate” the existence of other religions. 

Listen to what John Leland said:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” 

Those are strong words.  They were uttered more than 200 years ago by a Baptist minister from Culpeper, Virginia, where several of his fellow Baptists had been locked up in the local jail for preaching without a license. 

He wasn’t going to let that happen again. 

John Leland is widely recognized as a hero of religious liberty.  His image is featured in one of the stained glass windows in the chapel of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  As pastor of that church, I felt compelled to go to the mosque yesterday, and take a stand for religious liberty.

It’s what John would have done.

The quote from John Leland, above, is from A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia.

8 thoughts on ““Hey, wasn’t that you at the mosque?”

  1. Pastor,
    I really appreciate this paticular blog. I have been praying a lot about this sensitive situation. Formally a New Yorker, I know how passionate we can be. I was not aware of what transpired between John Leland and James Madison and I greatly appreciate the education. I believe that if this were to be shared with the groups in New York some may see the building of the Mosque in a different light. I know it did me. I believe pain and fear that the backers of the Mosque may be affiliated with terrorists are the culprits behind the strong reactions. I believe that if 2 things were to be presented to the protesters there may be a softening.
    1. the history of the communications between John Leland and James Madison, and 2. that prejudging without fact of the people’s motives in trying to build the Mosque is presumptous of us and innappropriate for believers since God alone has the ability and right to judge this accurately.

  2. Jim,

    I appreciate what I read about your visit to the mosque and the basic content on your blog regarding the visit. Your presence and statement does continue a Baptist thing that seems to be missing in some Baptist churches.

    I have some concern about the way that you described the meeting between James Madison and John Leland in regards to the First Amendment to the Constitution. I Invite you to look at the section in Reuben Alley’s A History of Baptists in Virginia on any possible meeting between the 2. He goes into quite a bit of detail on the meeting and the myths that developed over the years. Ralph Ketcham’s biography of Madison does not reflect a demand from Leland but more general agreement between 2 men who had their reasons to oppose Patrick Henry the chief opponent to the Constitution. I thought that you might find the information in Alley’s book interesting as if you lack something to read.

    Roy Ford

  3. Amen, Jim! Wide open religious liberty is one of the things we Baptists *ought* to be known for, and there was never a better time to be on the front lines for that freedom.

    Nancy Ammerman

  4. Jim: I was wondering if you church has had a showing of Robert Parham’s Common Word Documentary and how that went.
    Would if be possible for you to do a showing and have some folks from the SBC IMB present to discuss the film with you.
    Would make great blog fodder.

  5. Yes, we have had a showing of “Different Books, Common Word.” We didn’t have anyone from the IMB present (not officially anyway), but the Imam was with us along with a couple of other experts who contributed greatly to our understanding of Islam.

  6. Good report.
    For certain I imagine you will be reading Parham’s remarkable and most timely essay up this morning at ED.com on General Petraeus and Jerry Vines.
    In related matters and not to go too far afield as you most lkely know Charles Marsh’s Wayward Christian Soldiers shines lot of light on this topic. You will want to google his lecture in Berlin March of this year on Bonhoeffer and his year in America: Sterling.

    I think there is a sense in which Parham’s friend Sayyid Syeed and Parham himself are in an Earl Stallings moment; Stallings the pastor of FBC Bham, Alabama in 63. I have made tribute to him at http://www.marymurphy.net one of the best sites on the 50th Anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird.
    Say hello to Stu Williams for me, whom I believe to be a member of your church.

  7. Jim: Two final references in this matter. If you can make it to a Barnes and Noble, very worthwhile essay in the Print issue only by a Rabbi who is good friends with Imam Rauf and his thoughts on the NYC Mosque.
    And I trust you are following the several essays at Religion Dispatches on the matter, one this morning calling for end of Demagoguery among Muslim clerics; a similar situation to what moderate Baptists faced in WA Criswell and other fundamentalists in the late 70’s and the decade to come.

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