The Baptists in the American Revolution.

The Persecutions in Virginia— Imprisonments—Spotsylvania—Lewis Craig—Letter of John Blair—Waller forty—three Days in Jail—The Members of the Establishment Enraged—Others Imprisoned—William Fristoe on Persecutions—The Baptists Greatly Increase in Number—James Madison Writes Letters—The Action of the House of Burgesses—The Baptists Present Petitions—The Baptists Attack the Establishment.

Heretofore, as has been seen, the Baptists were much persecuted. At their baptisms they were annoyed, and on one occasion a clergyman of the Establishment rode into the water and badgered them. They had been whipped, branded and banished. Now there was a systematic effort made to entirely overthrow them.

"The first instance of actual imprisonment," says Semple, "we believe, that ever took place in Virginia, was in the county of Spotsylvania. On the 4th of June, 1768, John Waller, Lewis Craig, James Childs, &c., were seized by. the sheriff and hauled before three magistrates, who stood in the meeting-house yard, and who bound them in the penalty of one thousand pounds, to appear in court two days after. At court they were arraigned as disturbers of the peace; on their trial, they were vehemently accused, by a certain lawyer, who said to the court, ‘May it please your worships, these men are great disturbers of the peace; they cannot meet a man upon the road, but they must ram a text of Scripture down his throat.’ Mr. Waller made his own and his brethren’s defense so ingeniously that they were somewhat puzzled to know how to dispose of them. They offered to release them if they would promise to preach no more in the county for a year and a day. This they refused; and, therefore, were sent into close jail. As they moved on, from the court house to the prison, through the streets of Fredericksburg, they sung the hymn, ‘Broad is the road that leads to death, &c.’

This had an awful appearance. After four weeks’ confinement, Lewis Craig was released from prison and immediately went to Williamsburg to get a release for his companions. He waited on the deputy governor, the Hon. John Blair, stated the case before him, and received the following letter, directed to the King’s attorney in Spotsylvania:

Sir, —I lately received a letter, signed by a good number of worthy gentlemen, who are not here, complaining of the Baptists; the particular of their misbehavior are not told, any further than the running into private houses and making dissentions. Mr. Craig and Mr. Benjamin Waller are now with me and deny the charge; and tell me that they are willing to take the oaths as others have; I told them I had consulted the attorney general, who is of opinion that the general court only have a right to grant licenses, and therefore I referred them to the court; but, on their application to the attorney general, they brought me his letter, advising me to write to you. That their petition was a matter of right, and that you may not molest these conscientious people so long as they behave themselves in a manner becoming pious Christians and in obedience to the laws till the court, when they intend to apply for license, and when the gentlemen who complain may make their objections and be heard. The act of toleration (it being found by experience that persecuting dissenters increases their numbers) has given them a right to apply, in a proper manner, for licensed houses for the worship of God, according to their consciences; and I persuade myself that the gentlemen will quietly overlook their meetings till the court. I am told they administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, near the manner we do, and differ from our church in nothing but in the fact of baptism, and in their renewing the ancient discipline; by which they have reformed some sinners and brought them to be truly penitent. Nay, if a man of theirs is idle and neglects to labor and provide for his family as he ought, he incurs their censures, which have had good effects. If this be their behaviour, it were to be wished we had more of it among us. But at least, I hope all may remain quiet till the court.

I am, with great respect,
To the gentlemen, &c.
Your humble serv’t
John Blair.

Williamsburg, July 16, 1768 (Campbell, History of the Colony of the Ancient Dominion of Virginia, p. 554. Philadelphia, 1860).

"When the letter came to the attorney he would have nothing to say in this affair. Waller and the others continued in jail forty-three days, and were discharged without conditions. While in prison they constantly preached through the gates. The mobs without using every exertion to prevent the people from hearing, but to little purpose. Many heard, indeed, upon whom the Word was in power and demonstration.

"After their discharge, which was a kind of triumph, Waller, Craig, and their compeers in the ministry, resumed their labors with redoubled vigor, gathering fortitude from their late sufferings, thanking God that they were counted worthy to suffer for Christ and his Gospel. Day and night, and indeed almost every day and night, they held meetings in their own and adjacent neighborhoods. The spread of the Gospel and Baptist principles was equal to all of their exertions; insomuch that in a few sections of Virginia did the Baptist cause appear more formidable to its enemies and more consoling to its friends than in Spotsylvania; and we may add, so it is to this day" (Semple).

The outcome of this affair seems to have further enraged the members of the Establishment. They everywhere attempted to strengthen their cause. A petition was presented by them to the House of Burgesses, May 5, 1769, to the following effect:

A petition was presented from the "minister and sundry inhabitants of the parish of Hamilton," praying for a division of the parish into two, the reasons being that the parish was "so large that many of the inhabitants reside so far from their parish churches that they can but seldom attend public worship; from which causes, dissenters have opportunity and encouragement to propagate their pernicious doctrines."

The persecutors were exceedingly active. At Middlesex, William Webber, John Waller, James Greenwood, and Robert Ware were thrown into a filthy jail "which swarmed with fleas." Untold indignities were placed upon the men. "On September the 10th they were allowed the prison bounds, by which they were much relieved; yet they were frequently under the necessity of resorting to the jail to avoid the rage of the persecutors. The Lord daily opened the hearts of the people; the rich sent many presents-things calculated to nourish them in their sufferings and to alleviate their sorrows. William Webber fell sick. This excited the sympathy of their friends in a higher degree; they paid him great attention. The persecutors found that the imprisonment of the preachers tended rather to the furtherance of the Gospel. They preached regularly in prison; crowds attended; the preaching seemed to have double weight when coming from the jail; many viewed it with superstitious reverence, so that their enemies became desirous to be rid of them. Accordingly, on the 26th day of September, after having been thirty days in close confinement and sixteen days in the bounds, they were liberated upon giving a bond for good behavior.

"The rage of persecutors had in nowise abated; they seemed, sometimes, to strive to treat the Baptists and their worship with as much rudeness and indecency as was possible. They often insulted the preachers in time of service, and would ride into the water and make sport when they administered baptism; they frequently fabricated and spread the most groundless reports, which were injurious to the character of the Baptists. When any Baptist fell into any improper conduct, it was always exaggerated to the utmost extent. On one occasion when Robert Ware was preaching, there came one Davis and one Kemp, two sons of Belial, and stood before him with a bottle, and drank, offering the bottle to him, cursing him. As soon as he closed his service they drew out a pack of cards and began to play on the stage where he had been standing, wishing him to reprove them that they might beat him" (Semple).

In regard to these persecutions William Fristoe says:

The enemy, not content with ridicule and defamation, manifested their abhorrence to the Baptists in another way. By a law then in force in Virginia, all were under obligation to go to Church several times in the year; the failure subjected them to a fine. Little notice was taken of the omission, if members of the Established Church; but so soon as the "Newlights" were absent, they were presented by the grand jury, and fined according to law...Soon they began to take other steps to deter the Baptist preachers and obstruct the progress of the gospel, by objecting to their preaching until they obtained license from the General Court, whose place of sitting at that time was old Williamsburg. Until such times that license was obtained, they were exposed to be apprehended and imprisoned...When persecutors found that religion could not be stopped in its progress by ridicule, defamation, and abusive language, the resolution was to take a different step and see, what would do; and the preachers in different places were apprehended by magisterial authority, some of whom were imprisoned and some escaped. Before this step was taken, the parson of the parish was consulted (in some instances, at least), and his judgment confided in. His counsel was that the "Newlights" ought to be taken and imprisoned, as necessary for the peace and harmony of the old church. As formerly the high priest took the ‘lead in persecuting the followers of Christ, in like manner the high priests have conducted in latter days, and seldom there has been a persecution but that a high priest has been at the head of it. (Fristoe, History of the Ketocton Association).

The results of the persecution were inevitable. "Religious tyranny produced its accustomed effects; the Baptists increased on every side. If one preacher was imprisoned, two arose to take his place; if one congregation was dispersed, a larger assembled on the next opportunity. Twenty years before the Revolution, few of this sect could have been found in the Colony, and yet, in 1774, the Separates alone, had thirty churches south of the James river, and twenty-five on its north, and the Regulars, though not so numerous, had grown with rapidity. The influence of the denomination was strong among the common people, and was beginning to be felt in higher places. In two points they were distinguished. First in their love of freedom. No class of the people of America were more devoted advocates of the principles of the Revolution; none more willing to give their money and goods to the country; none more prompt to march to the field of battle, and none more heroic in an actual combat, than the Baptists of Virginia. Secondly, in their hatred of the Church establishment. They hated not :w ministers, but its principles. They had seen its operation and had felt its practical influence. Common sense pointed out its deformities, and clamored against its injustice. To a man they were united in the resolve never to relax their efforts until it was utterly destroyed" (Howison, II).

These harsh measures brought many petitions to the House of Burgesses for relief. Such petitions did not bring liberty to the Baptists. The state of affairs is well pictured by James Madison in a letter to his friend Bradford, of Philadelphia, January 24, 1774, when he says:

I very believe that the frequent assaults that have been made on America (Boston especially) will in the end prove of real advantage. If the Church of England had been the established and general religion in all the Northern colonies, as it has been among us here, an uninterrupted harmony had prevailed throughout the continent, it is clear to me that slavery and subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated among us. Union of religious sentiments begets a surprising confidence, and ecclesiastical establishments tend to great ignorance and corruption, all of which facilitates the execution of mischievous projects...I want again to breathe your free air. I expect that it will mend my constitution and confirm my principles. I have, indeed, as good an atmosphere at home as the climate will allow, but have nothing to brag of as to the state and liberty of my country. Poverty and luxury prevail among all sorts; pride, ignorance and knavery among the priesthood, and vice and wickedness among the laity. This is bad enough; but it is not tire worst I have to tell you. That diabolical hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some, and, their eternal infamy, the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such purposes. There are at this time in an adjacent county not less than five or six well meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which, in the main, are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear, talk, or think any thing relative to this matter; for I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed so long about it, to little purpose, that I am without common patience. So I must beg you to pity me, and pray for liberty of conscience for all (Rives, Life and Times of Madison, I).

On April 1, 1774, he again writes to Bradford as follows:

Our Assembly is to meet the 1st of May, when it is expected that something will be done in behalf of the dissenters. Petitions, I hear, are already forming among the persecuted Baptists, and I fancy that it is in the thought of the Presbyterians also to intercede for greater liberty in matters of religion. For my own part, I cannot help being very doubtful of their succeeding in the attempt. The affair was on the carpet during the last session; but such incredible and extravagant stories were told in the House of the monstrous effects of the enthusiasm prevalent among the sectaries, and so greedily swallowed by their enemies, that I believe they lost footing by it. And the bad name they still have with those who pretend to such contempt to examine into their principles and conduct, and are too much devoted to ecclesiastical establishment to hear of the toleration of the dissentients, I am apprehensive, will be made again a pretext for rejecting their requests...The sentiments of our people of fortune and fashion on this subject are vastly different from what you have been used to. That liberal, catholic, and equitable way of thinking, as to the rights of conscience, which is one of the characteristics of a free people, and so strongly marks the people of your province, is little known among the zealous adherents of our hierarchy. We have, it is true, some persons in the Legislature of generous principles, both in religion and politics; but number, not merit, you know, is necessary to carry points there. Besides, the clergy are a numerous and powerful body, have great influence at home by reason of their connection with and dependence on the bishops and crown, and will naturally employ all of their arts and interests to depress their rising adversaries; for such they must consider dissentients, who rob them of their good will of the people, and in time endanger their livings and security (Rives, I).

In the meantime a tremendous struggle had been going on to secure the passage of a law of toleration in the House of Burgesses. The movement in favor of such a law began in 1769. The Baptists, irritated at their ill treatment, complained and the Assembly awakened to the fact that it would be advisable to confirm the Toleration Act of 1699. "The attempt to prevent the spread of dissent, which fell so heavily on the Baptists from the year 1768 onwards convinced the more thoughtful Episcopalians that some degree of restricted toleration must be granted to the citizens of Virginia, or society must be shaken to its foundation. To appease the agitated community a bill was proposed granting privileges to the dissenters" (Foote, I).

The House of Burgesses ordered, May 11, 1769, "that it be an Instruction to the Committee, for Religion, that they prepare and bring in a Bill for exempting his Majesty’s Protestant Dissenters from the Penalties of certain Laws" (Journal of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1766-1769, p. 205. Richmond, 1906); but the bill was not introduced. For a second time it was ordered, November 10, 1769 (Ibid, p. 252), but again it was not presented.

Petitions began to come in from various Baptist churches. "A Petition of several Persons of the County of Luenburg, whose names are thereunto subscribed, was presented to the House, and read; setting forth that the Petitioners, being the Society of Christians, called Baptists, find themselves restricted in the Exercise of their Religion, their Teachers imprisoned under various Pretences, and the Benefits of the Toleration Act denied them, although they are willing to conform to the spirit of that Act, and are loyal and obedient Subjects; and therefore praying that they may be treated with the same kind Indulgence, in religious matters, as Quakers, Presbyterians, and other Protestant Dissenters, enjoy" (Journal of the House, 1770-1772, pp. 160, 161).

February 2, 1772, the Baptists of the county of Mecklenburg presented the same petition (Ibid, pp. 182, 183); and on March 14, the Carolina Baptists (Ibid, p. 245) presented their petitions. There was likewise a petition of several persons of the county of Amelia "whose names are thereunto subscribed, setting forth, that the Petitioners, being of the Community of Christians who worship God under the Denomination of Baptists, are restricted in their religious Exercises; that, if the Act of Toleration does not extend to this Colony, they are exposed to severe Persecution; and, if its does extend hither, and the Power of granting Licenses to Teachers be lodged, as is supposed, in the General Court alone, the Petitioners must suffer considerable Inconveniences, not only because that Court sits not oftener than twice in the year and then at a Place far remote, but because the said Court will admit a single Meeting House and no more in one County; and that the Petitioners are loyal and quiet Subjects, whose Tenets in no wise affect the State; and therefore praying a Redress of their Grievances, and the Liberty of Conscience may be secured to them (Journal, pp. 185, 186).

These petitions were referred to a committee which reported back, February 25, that "so far as they relate to allowing the petitioners the same Toleration in matters of Religion, as is enjoyed by his Majesty’s dissenting Protestant Subjects of Great Britain, under different Acts of Parliament, is reasonable" (Ibid, p. 188) . It was ordered that the committee on Religion "do inquire into the state of the established Religion in this Colony and Report the same, as it shall appear to them, to the House" (Ibid, p. 189).

An amended bill on the subject of toleration was presented to the House and engrossed March 17 (Ibid, p. 249). This bill was not satisfactory to the Baptists, so on May 12, 1774, they protested that "not admitting public Worship, except in day time, is inconsistent with the laws of England, as well as the Practice and Usage of the Primitive Churches, and even of the English Church itself," that the night season may be sometimes better spared by the Petitioners from the necessary duty of their callings; and that they wish for no indulgences which may disturb the Peace of the Government; and therefore praying the House to take their Case into Consideration, and to grant them suitable redress (Ibid, p. 102).

The bill did not become a law. A Revolution was on and now the Baptists boldly and effectively attacked the Establishment itself, and won the victory for liberty of conscience.

Books for further reference:

George E. Dabney, Religious Persecutions in Virginia, The Christian Review, XXIII. pp. 49-74, 199-218. Baltimore, 1858.

William Thomson Hanzsche, Church and State in the American Colonies before the Revolution, Bibliotheca Sacra, LXXXII, pp. 23-48. St. Louis, 1925.

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