This past July I had the privilege of traveling to Colonial Williamsburg to participate in the Baptist Joint Committee's Fellows Program. The Fellows Program is for young professionals interested in deepening their legal, historical and theological understanding of religious liberty.
For each class, 10 Baptist Joint Committee Fellows (“BJC Fellows”) are selected from diverse educational, professional and religious backgrounds. As a Fellow, I commit to being an advocate for religious liberty in my house of worship and community.
During the 2016 BJC Fellows Seminar I learned about the significance of our founding framers choosing to write early documents in a way that was inclusive rather than exclusive in order to institute religious liberty for all. Reading professor Michael Meyerson’s book, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America, prior to my arrival to Colonial Williamsburg helped prepare me for the seminars and times of discussion focused on the history of religious freedom in our country. Professor Meyerson shared with us that the founding framers did not intend to cleanse all religion from public life.
Instead, our founding framers wanted to include those of different faiths, not divide those of different faiths. I was struck by the point Meyerson made during one of our sessions that if the framers wanted to exclude those of faith communities other than Protestant Christians from freedom of religious expression, religious practice, or the lack thereof, they could have done so explicitly in our founding documents. But our founding framers chose not to be exclusive, instead choosing to pen documents that granted freedom of religious expression, religious practice, or the lack thereof to those of all faiths or no faith at all. Professor Meyerson shared with us during one of his sessions that our founding framers “wanted to separate church and state, not God and state.” This statement stuck out to me in that it is the essence of religious liberty I truly appreciate and want to advocate for today.
Another meaningful part of my week in Colonial Williamsburg with the Baptist Joint Committee was the opportunity to experience history firsthand from the historical interpreters. I love experiential learning experiences and really enjoyed hearing from interpreters of John Leland, Gowan Pamphlet, and Thomas Jefferson. In an incredible setting like Colonial Williamsburg, the stories of these men came alive when they shared about the experiences of these men advocating to preserve religious liberty in such a tumultuous time. Hearing from interpreters of Leland, Pamphlet, and Jefferson made their stories even more relevant to the conversations we, BJC Fellows, had during our time in Colonial Williamsburg.
I was particularly struck by the historical interpretation of Gowan Pamphlet. Mr. Pamphlet took his last name from Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense. Pamphlet was educated at a school for enslaved persons where he learned to read. Upon receiving and reading Paine’s pamphlet he was struck by Paine’s exhortation to the colonies that America must rid itself of all forms of oppression. Pamphlet encountered Rev. Jeremiah Walker, a pastor, evangelist, and advocate for religious liberty who was put into jail for preaching publicly. Later, Pamphlet was baptized by Rev. Walker in the James River. Pamphlet felt a calling to ministry and was the first enslaved person to be ordained in the colonies in 1772. In 1776, Pamphlet started First Baptist Church at Green Spring plantation. It is said that “Gowan Pamphlet paved a pathway of recognition for his Christian ministry centered on a gospel of equality.”* Rev. Pamphlet was emancipated from slavery on September 25, 1793.
I am grateful to have had this experience to learn, in-person as a BJC Fellow, so much more about the history of religious liberty, the incredible work of the BJC, and how I can better be a part of advocating for religious liberty through education. This Thanksgiving I give thanks for our founding framers who wrote inclusive founding documents to celebrate God-given religious liberty for ALL. This Thanksgiving I give thanks for the many, like Rev. Gowan Pamphlet, who fought oppression and adversity to promote equality for ALL.
Megan J. Pike
Learn more about my 2016 BJC Fellows experience:
*Ywone D. Edwards-Ingram, The Art and Soul of African American Interpretation (Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2016), 14.