The Irony of Baptist Intolerance

by Bob Schwartz

Rev. Stan Weatherford, pastor at First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs, Mississippi, refused to marry a black couple, Charles and Te’Andrea Wilson, at the church, after a handful of congregants complained. The minister did marry them at a nearby church, but the damage was done, and this has become a global story. The meaning of the story is something that is still developing.

As for Mississippi, this has undoubtedly bolstered a painful stereotype that the state cannot shake. Personal experience in a dozen or so states, including Mississippi, says that there are racists in most states, probably totaling in the millions. Mississippi, a great state is so many ways, has the unfortunate burden of being on racial probation, maybe for the rest of American history. In fact, this hyper-consciousness has led many—though not all—Mississippians to pay special attention and take special care to move forward where others around the country just pretend that there isn’t a problem where they live.

More interesting than the Mississippi angle is the Baptist story. The Southern Baptist Convention was quick to point out that this was a sad and regrettable event, and that the refusal to marry a couple on the basis of their race is completely unacceptable. It is a congregational denomination, so decisions ultimately rest with the congregation and its pastor. In this case, SBC said, the pastor was in a difficult position—as in the likelihood, but not certainty, that he would have lost his job if he had proceeded with the marriage at the church.

This is where the irony comes in so loudly. Throughout American history, Baptists have been notable for their courage in the face of religious persecution and intolerance. American religious liberty, as ultimately codified in the Bill of Rights, is a direct response to that persecution. As the Library of Congress exhibit on Religion and the Founding of the American Republic points out:

In Virginia, religious persecution, directed at Baptists and, to a lesser degree, at Presbyterians, continued after the Declaration of Independence. The perpetrators were members of the Church of England, sometimes acting as vigilantes but often operating in tandem with local authorities. Physical violence was usually reserved for Baptists, against whom there was social as well as theological animosity. A notorious instance of abuse in 1771 of a well-known Baptist preacher, “Swearin Jack” Waller, was described by the victim: “The Parson of the Parish [accompanied by the local sheriff] would keep running the end of his horsewhip in [Waller’s] mouth, laying his whip across the hymn book, etc. When done singing [Waller] proceeded to prayer. In it he was violently jerked off the stage; they caught him by the back part of his neck, beat his head against the ground, sometimes up and sometimes down, they carried him through the gate . . . where a gentleman [the sheriff] gave him . . . twenty lashes with his horsewhip.”

The persecution of Baptists made a strong, negative impression on many patriot leaders, whose loyalty to principles of civil liberty exceeded their loyalty to the Church of England in which they were raised. James Madison was not the only patriot to despair, as he did in 1774, that the “diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages” in his native colony. Accordingly, civil libertarians like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson joined Baptists and Presbyterians to defeat the campaign for state financial involvement in religion in Virginia.

The picture above is The Dunking of David Barrow and Edward Mintz in the Nansemond River (1778):

David Barrow was pastor of the Mill Swamp Baptist Church in the Portsmouth, Virginia, area. He and a “ministering brother,” Edward Mintz, were conducting a service in 1778, when they were attacked. “As soon as the hymn was given out, a gang of well-dressed men came up to the stage . . . and sang one of their obscene songs. Then they took to plunge both of the preachers. They plunged Mr. Barrow twice, pressing him into the mud, holding him down, nearly succeeding in drowning him . . . His companion was plunged but once . . . Before these persecuted men could change their clothes they were dragged from the house, and driven off by these enraged churchmen.”

Maybe Rev. Weatherford had never heard of David Barrow and Edward Mintz. Maybe the congregants who didn’t want black people married in the church hadn’t either. More than two hundred and thirty years is a long time. Maybe Rev. Weatherford could have stood up to the minority in his church, depending on whether he thought that losing his job was better or worse than being dunked in a river. Maybe he could have done a better job of bringing a part of the Christian message to those congregants, but people are stubborn in their worst beliefs, and anyway that’s not really his job. In all religions, but especially in disintermediated ones such as the Baptist Church, it all comes down to you and God, one of you talking, one of you listening and learning. It’s always true that some listen and learn better than others.