Roots of Religious Liberty

Message from the Baptist World Alliance, July 26, 2012

According to Glen Stassen, Richard Overton, whom he described as an “Anabaptist Baptist,” was the first person writing in the English language to have advocated for religious liberty.

Stassen, a professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in the state of California in the United States, was giving a prepared response to a paper on Thomas Helwys presented by European Baptist Federation General Secretary Tony Peck, during the recent Baptist World Alliance® Annual Gathering in Santiago, Chile.

Helwys and John Smyth are commonly regarded as pioneers of the Baptist movement and Helwys, in particular, is believed to have influenced the historical Baptist stance in support of religious liberty. In 1612, Helwys published A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity in which, Peck asserted, “Helwys made… the first plea for universal religious freedom in the English language, and since then religious freedom for all, not just themselves, has been a core conviction of Baptists in every part of the world.”

But Stassen claimed that “Richard Overton was a member of the group of the very first Baptists” and “wrote out his confession of faith, with themes that later led him to become the father of human rights.” It is believed that Overton, who was part of the fledgling Baptist movement in Amsterdam, Netherlands, founded in 1609, had written his declarations before Helwys returned to England where he released A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity.

Stassen told Baptist leaders and theologians at the gathering that, decades later, “during the Puritan Revolution in England, Richard Overton was the best writer of the Leveller Movement, championing the human right to religious liberty.”

Overton was jailed for printing books not approved by the government, and his wife and infant child were also jailed when she continued to print his works during his imprisonment. Stassen declared that Overton published a “comprehensive doctrine of human rights” that “remarkably still fits what most church denominations have said when they have affirmed human rights.” These include the right to religious liberty and civil liberty; the right to life, including basic needs of life; and the right to dignity in community, with rights of participation for all in a church of their choice.

Stassen bemoaned that many thinkers believed that the notion of human rights came out of the secular French Enlightenment in the 18th century, what he calls the “fallacy of confusing the source of human rights.” Human rights, he claimed, was “the product of Baptists in the 17th century.”

Because Overton grounded his stance on human rights in Christian scripture and in the work and person of Jesus Christ, the root of human rights are religious rather than secular, Stassen asserted.

Stassen, who is also a research professor at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, Czech Republic, said “the justice that God cares about deeply, and that many of us care about deeply in our own contexts, requires developing congregations that care about and serve people who need justice and human rights and it requires governments that support human rights for all people.”