Baptist parents would do well to name their daughters Hannah.
Her story is told in First Samuel. It illustrates the most basic principle of baptist-style religion: freedom before God.
Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah. She had no children, and this was a burden to her. Elkanah and Hannah lived in Ramathaim, in the hill country north of Jerusalem. They worshiped at Shiloh. The biblical narrative recounts how Hannah “in bitterness of soul, wept much and prayed to the Lord…’O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me…but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life….'”
The priest Eli was observing this scene “sitting on a chair by the door post.” He thought Hannah was drunk, because while she prayed her lips moved but she did not speak. In other words, she was praying to the Lord silently. She prayed an extemporaneous prayer, without the aid or assistance of priest or prayer book. Eli interrupted her praying with a sharp rebuke, “Hannah, get rid of your wine!” But Hannah replied, “I am pouring out my soul to the Lord.” Eli then bestowed a blessing upon Hannah with these words: “Go in peace and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him” (1 Samuel 1:12-17).
Hannah was engaged in the most basic act of the Christian believer, talking directly with God. Hannah was free before God. She was unhindered by the need for any human assistance: no written material, no religious professional, no monetary fee, no traditional ritual. Hannah was one soul, created in God’s image, in need of what only the Lord could provide. She came directly to God.
This is the way Jesus prayed. He talked to God about the needs of his life. He received direction from God. He taught us to pray this way. Go into a closet, he said, and there present your needs to your heavenly Father. Ask of God,and you will receive.
The unnamed apostolic author of Hebrews describes our freedom with these words: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest, … Jesus the son of God…let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-15).
E. Y. Mullins, the great Baptist leader of the first part of the twentieth century, writes of this truth in his famous book The Axioms of Religion. He states the religious axiom with these words, “All people have an equal right to direct access to God.” IN the revised edition of that little book prepared by Herschel H. Hobbs and published by Broadman Press, these words of explanation are given:
This axiom simply asserts the inalienable right of every person to deal with God for himself….It is based upon the principle of the soul’s competency in religion. It asserts that on the question of spiritual privilege there are no such differences in human nature as warrant our drawing a line between people and claiming for one group in this particular what cannot be claimed for others. It denies that there are any obstacles to any believing soul to any part of the Father’s grace. There can, therefore, be no special classes in religion. All have equal access to the Father’s table, the Father’s ear, and the Father’s heart.”
Sometimes this part of the baptist vision is termed “soul competency.” At other times it is called “priesthood of the believer” (although I think this much to marrow a definition for this Reformation phrase). Smyth and Helwys Publishing of Macon, Georgia, has taken this theme of personal freedom in religion as a major focus of their publishing.
Freedom before God is, by whatever phrase it is signified, an essential element of the baptist experience of God. This precious understanding of true religion is cultivated by such practices as preference for spontaneous prayer over against prepared prayers, lay leadership and participation in worship and Bible study, discussion rather than lecture as a leadership style, family devotions and prayers, use of personal rather than pew Bibles, and the importance given to personal testimony of individual encounters with the living God.
There are likewise many ways that this freedom is denied or compromised. It is denied by traditions that encourage people to pray to God through Mary, or saints, or even religious professionals like priests and pastors. It is hindered by parents who do not provide their children the opportunity to ready the Bible, worship God, and pray. It is compromised by liturgies that restrict the prayer of the people, individually or collectively, to the words written by some other person.
Freedom before God is distorted by religious leaders–Catholic Protestant, even some who claim to be Baptist–who promote the idea that they are the ones chosen by God to hear His voice and discern His will. It is repudiated by people who refuse to take responsibility for their own spiritual life, moral discernment, and eternal destiny.
Hannah worshiped God in the spirit and style of baptist people everywhere. Her heart was burdened. She chose her own time and place to pray. she lifted up to God a prayer in her own words. Hannah was free before God.
Freedom as exercised by Hannah will not, of course, be independent of a praying community. In such company, our prayer life is shaped by the patterns and processes of other people. Prayer that is memorized, written, read, or recited often forms the rich resources out of which comes prayer that is free, spontaneous, and shaped by the burdens and blessings of the moment. As we read in private or in public, the many prayers recorded in Scripture, we gain new freedom to range far and wide in giving voice to the yearnings of our hearts.
Spiritual freedom, like all freedom, brings accountability. Only the free person is responsible for her thoughts and deeds. Free baptist come before a free God accountable for our sins, responsibility for hearing and heeding the voice of God. Those who are free in the presence must respond with repentance and with obedience. Section nine of the Short Confession of Faith in Twenty Articles by John Smyth (1609) says this well:
“That men, of the grace of God through the redemption of Christ, are able…to repent, to believe, to turn to God and to attain to eternal life; so on the other hand, they are able themselves to resist the Holy Spirit, to depart from God, and to perish for ever.”
This great truth of the free soul undergirds the preaching of all the prophets, the apostles, and the Lord himself. “Repent, and believe the Good News. Follow me. Enter the Kingdom.”
This spiritual freedom, like all freedom, brings opportunity. Only the free person can experience all the richness of God’s glory and goodness. Free baptists can know the salvation of God, the forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the sweetness of Christian fellowship. All the promises of God, for this life and the next, are available to those who freely and without hindrance, all upon the name of the Lord. What the the Scripture say? “Those who call upon the Lord will not be disappointed” (Joel 2:32, Romans 10:13).
Eli was priest of the Most High God. But he learned something very important that day in the house of God at Shiloh. He learned anew the meaning of freedom before God. When Hannah explained what she was doing, Eli could have rebuked her for praying in that way, for not requesting his assistance, for ignoring the written prayer guides, for failure to pray at the proper time or with the proper position. Instead, he blessed her. There is a blessing for every person who lives in this wonderful world of freedom.
Like Eli, baptists and indeed Christians of all persuasions need to be reminded of the value, even the necessity, of freedom in our dealings with God. It falls to baptists to forever hold high the banner of freedom.
There are times, obviously, when the values of freedom and liberty seem to conflict with the values of order and authority. this happens in things political as well as things ecclesiastical. When these two necessary elements collide, how should baptists react? While each situation is different, it is important for baptists to realize that it is our calling before God to emphasize the freedom dimension of Christian life and thought.
Let us articulate the good gifts that come through our freedom in Christ; let others urge the necessity of order and authority. In this way, do we not take the role of Hannah in the biblical story? Does not Eli play the authoritarian part, seeking to control how and when and where Hannah could exercise her spiritual rights? Is it not Hannah who is nearer to the heart of God in this matter? Was it not God who blessed Hannah through the words of Eli?
Name you daughter Hannah. Steep her soul in the prayers and promises of both eh people of God the word of God. Then she shall be free indeed to commune with One who lives her and calls her into holy conversation.