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.