Thursday, May 16, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we remember one of the most scrutinized speeches in the history of religious freedom in America.

It is the 16th of May 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


It was on this, the 16th of May in 1920- 104 years ago today, that George Washington Truett stood on the east steps of the National Capitol in Washington D.C to address some 10,000 gathered in connection with the Annual Session of the Southern Baptist Convention. He would speak on the topic of Baptists and Religious Liberty in a speech that has been lionized, vilified, scrutinized, and more properly used as an example of the tensions in religious and public life in America at the beginning of those anxious decades in American history.

George Washington, “GW” Truett, was born in 1867 in North Carolina in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He attended the local academy and Baptist church. At the age of 19, he converted to Christianity at an evangelistic meeting. He began teaching at a public school in Georgia before he opened his own school- a private school that he would use to save money to attend law school. He left when his parents moved to Whitewright, Texas, and enrolled in junior college and attended the Baptist church there. A popular teacher and speaker at the church, in 1890, the church voted to call the 23-year-old to be their preacher, and he reluctantly accepted. His oratorical skills recommended him to the board at Baylor University to help them fundraise to get out of an almost $100,000 debt. They were out of debt in three years, and Truett resigned from his position and enrolled at Baylor as a freshman. He earned his degree and was called to be the pastor at the now-historic First Baptist Church in Dallas. Growing the congregation over tenfold to almost 8,000 members, he would become the de facto spokesman for the denomination. During World War I he was invited by President Wilson to travel to Europe to preach to the troops.

It was after the war, and in Wilson’s last year as President, that Truett gave his speech on Religious Liberty and the Baptist tradition. It’s juxtaposition of a call to religious freedom, and its shocking anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant statements give the modern some kind of whiplash. He claims, “Indeed, the supreme contribution of the new world to the old is the contribution of religious liberty [and] it was pre-eminently a Baptist contribution.”  

He goes on to state that, “Happy are our Baptist people to live side by side with their neighbors of other Christian communions.”  He claims that the other Protestant traditions have not quite reformed enough to his liking, but “The Baptist message and the Roman Catholic message are the very antipodes of each other.”

He goes on to claim that “A Baptist would rise at midnight to plead for absolute religious liberty for his Catholic neighbor, and for his Jewish neighbor, and for everybody else.” But then he claims that "We are menaced by our vast and fast-growing cities” and their “alien population.” We do best to see Truett in the context of a Catholic church that had condemned “Americanism” and the idea of a separation of church and state- something Truett wrote: “It was written into our country's Constitution that church and state must in this land be forever separate and free.”

Truett would go on to reject the idea that the state should support private schools- confident that the Baptists would continue to fund their schools while this would choke off the fast-growing Catholic institutions. But he would be criticized from his right flank for refusing to support a bill that opposed the teaching of evolution. Furthermore, he was moderate in his context as a colleague of his, Frank J. Norris, whipped anti-Catholic sentiment, claiming a secret papal plot to infiltrate America and to "behead every Protestant preacher and disembowel every Protestant mother. They would burn to ashes every Protestant Church and dynamite every Protestant school”.

Truett’s speech sounds, to modern ears, both anachronistic and progressive. He calls not just for religious tolerance but full freedom. His place in history, immediately after World War 1 and with the fear of autocracy and a Papacy that sought political inroads across Europe, contextualizes his radical (and unfortunately nativist) language. But such is the expected scrutiny of a speech given to thousands on the steps of the capitol on this the 16th of May in 1920.


 The last word for today is from the daily lectionary from Psalm 33 and a fun exercise in exegesis after today’s story:

Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
    the people he chose for his inheritance.

From heaven the Lord looks down
    and sees all mankind;

from his dwelling place he watches

    all who live on earth—

he who forms the hearts of all,

    who considers everything they do.

No king is saved by the size of his army;
    no warrior escapes by his great strength.

A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;

    despite all its great strength it cannot save.

But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him,

    on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,

to deliver them from death
    and keep them alive in famine.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of May 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man staring at both Baptists and Catholics in this story in a very confused state of “Lutheran”; he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man happy we’ve moved on from the idea of disembowelment-  Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe (it’s free!) in your favorite podcast app.

More From 1517