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Baptists in Virginia

In 1775, the Baptists first appeared in this mighty West. It was at a period the most momentous in the world's history. The storms of Revolution were sweeping over the colonies, spreading calamity and gloom. Nowhere did the contest rage more fearfully than in Virginia, and nowhere did the opposing parties put forth mightier efforts. It was the battle of truth, of principle, of national life, fought not for America alone, but for the world. The dark hour was succeeded by the sunrise of freedom.

In the midst of this conflict, and ere the storm had subsided, the West rose into being, like the fabled spirit of beauty, from the waves of the agitated sea. The principles which triumphed in the revolution were the elements of her existence, and the men who had suffered most from oppression, and had lifted up their voices for freedom from the jails of Virginia, were the first settlers in the valley of the Mississippi.

Lewis Craig had been followed by his sympathizing church to the gates of Fredericksburg jail. He was followed by that same church through the Cumberland gap, to plant that gospel barrier amid the tangled wilderness of the "dark and woody ground." The principles which actuated him and them, and which have ever characterized the Baptists, had been working silently, but effectually, for a century previous in Virginia.

Of the names of those prosecuted for those principles little need be said. Let one scene suffice. It was the trial of Lewis and Joseph Craig and Aaron Bledsoe. They had been indicted for preaching the gospel of the Son of God in the colony of Virginia. The clerk was reading the indictment in a slow and formal manner; when he pronounced the crime with emphasis

"For preaching the Gospel of the Son of God in the colony of Virginia," a plainly-dressed man who had just rode up to the court-house entered, and took his seat within the bar. He was known to the court and lawyers, but a stranger to the mass of spectators, who had gathered on the occasion. This was PATRICK HENRY, who, on hearing of this prosecution, had rode some fifty or sixty miles from his residence in Hanover county, to volunteer his services in their defense. He listened to the further reading of the indictment with marked attention, the first sentence of which that had caught his ear was, "For preaching the Gospel of the Son of God." When it was finished, and the prosecuting attorney had submitted a few remarks, Henry arose, reached out his had and received the paper, and addressed the Court:

"May it please your worships: I think I heard read by the prosecutor as I entered this house the paper I now hold in my hand. If I have rightly understood, the king's attorney of this colony has framed an indictment for the purpose of arraigning, and punishing by imprisonment, three inoffensive persons before the bar of this Court, for a crime of great magnitude-as disturbers of the peace. May it please the Court, what did I hear read? Did I hear it distinctly, or was it a mistake of my own? Did I hear an expression as if a crime, that these men, whom your worships are about to try for a misdemeanor, are charged with

what?"

and continuing in a low, solemn, heavy tone, "For preaching the Gospel of the Son of God!"

Pausing, amid the most profound silence and breathless astonishment, he slowly waved the paper three times around his head, when, lifting his hands and eyes to heaven, with peculiar and impressive energy he exclaimed, "GREAT GOD!" The exclamation, the action, the burst of feeling from the audience, were all overpowering. Mr. Henry resumed:

"May it please your worships: There are periods in the history of man, when corruption and depravity have so long debased the human character, that man sinks under the weight of the oppressor's hand, and becomes his servile, his abject slave; he licks the hand that smites him; he bows in passive obedience to the mandates of the despot, and in this state of servility he receives his fetters of perpetual bondage. But, may it please your worships, such a day has passed away! From that period, when our fathers left the land of their nativity for settlement in these American wilds, for LIBERTY, for civil and religious liberty, for liberty of conscience, to worship their Creator according to their conceptions of Heaven's revealed will; from the moment they placed foot on the American continent, and in the deeply imbedded forests sought an asylum from persecution and tyranny, from that moment despotism was crushed; her fetters of darkness were broken, and Heaven decreed that man should be free-free to worship God according to the Bible. Were it not for this, in vain have been the efforts and sacrifices of the colonists; in vain were all their sufferings and bloodshed to subjugate this new world, if we, their offspring, must still be oppressed and persecuted. But, may it please your worships, permit me to inquire once more, for what are these men about to tried? This paper says, 'For preaching the Gospel of the Son of God.' Great God! For preaching the Gospel of the Savior to Adam's fallen race." And in tones of thunder, he exclaimed: "WHAT LAW HAVE THEY VIOLATED?" while the third time, in a slow, dignified manner, he lifted his eyes to heaven, and waved the indictment around his head.

The Court and audience were now wrought up to the most intense pitch of excitement. The face of the prosecuting attorney was pallid and ghastly, and he appeared unconscious that his whole frame was agitated with alarm; while the judge, in a tremulous voice, put an end to the scene, now becoming excessively painful, by the authoritative declaration, "Sheriff, discharge those men."

They battled on for truth and soul freedom; and their fortitude, their courage, and final triumph have been recorded by their foes. They were republicans from principle. Says the Episcopalian, Hawkes:*

"No dissenters in Virginia experienced, for a time, harsher treatment than did the Baptists. They were beaten and imprisoned, and cruelty taxed its ingenuity to devise new modes of punishment and annoyance; but the men, who were not permitted to speak in public, found willing auditors in the sympathizing crowds who gathered around the prisons to hear them preach from the grated windows.  "Persecution had taught the Baptists not to love the establishment, and they now saw before them a reasonable prospect of overturning it altogether. In their Association, they had calmly discussed the matter and resolved on their course; in this course they were constant to the end; and the war they waged against the church was a war of extermination. They seem to have known no relentings, and their hostility never ceased for seven-and twenty years. They revenged themselves for their sufferings by the almost total ruin of the church; and now commenced the assault, for, inspired by the ardor of patriotism, which accorded with their interests, they addressed the Convention, and informed that body that their religious tenets presented no obstacle to their taking up arms and fighting for the country; and they tendered the services of their pastors in promoting the enlistment of the youth of their persuasion. A complimentary answer was returned, and the ministers of all denominations, in accordance with the address, placed on equal footing. This, it is believed, was the first step toward religious liberty in Virginia."

A century anterior to this, a statute was enacted in the colonial Legislature of Virginia, which runs thus:

"Whereas, Sundry and divers persons, out of adverseness to the establishment orthodox religion, or out of new-fangled conceits of their own heretical inventions, refuse to have their children baptized. Be i enacted, that whosoever shall thus refuse when he might carry his child to a lawful minister within the country, shall be fined two hundred pounds of tobacco, half to the informer, and half to the parish."*

The persons against whom the legislative thunder was hurled in the name of God and King Charles II., were Baptists. Here, then, in the interior of Virginia, at the time when Rhode Island was organizing, and with no intercourse with that distant little colony, we find Christian immersionists, Baptists. Where did they come from?

One year previous, in the colony of Massachusetts, a "poor man by the name of Painter," as we are informed by Mr. Hubbard, "was suddenly turned Anabaptist; and, having a child born, would not suffer his wife to carry it to be baptized." He was complained of for this to the Court, and enjoined by them to suffer his child to be baptized. But poor Painter had the misfortune to dissent, both from the church and the court. He told them that infant baptism was an antichristian ordinance, for which "he was tied up and whipped."

Gov. Winthrop tells us that Painter was whipped "for reproaching the Lord's ordinance."*

The persecutions at this time were so numerous in this pious Pedobaptist colony, that a letter was addressed to the "Governor, Assistants, and People of Massachusetts, exhorting them to lenient measures toward the Dissenting brethren." About this time, we are told by Gov. Winthrop, that "the Anabaptists increased and spread in Massachusetts; and this fearful increase which could not be checked by argument or insult, led to the following act for their suppression:"

"Forasmuch as experience hath plentifully and often proved that the Anabaptists have been the infectors of persons in the main matters of religion, and the troublers of churches in all places where they have been; and that they who have held the baptizing of infants unlawful, have usually held other errors therewith; and whereas, divers of this kind have, since our coming into New England, appeared among ourselves, and if they should be connived at by us are likely to be increased among us, it is ordered and agreed, that if any person or persons, within this jurisdiction, shall either openly condemn or oppose the baptizing of infants, or go about secretly to seduce others from the approbation or use thereof, or purposely depart from the congregation at the ministration of the ordinance - every such person of persons shall be subject to banishment."*

Of the malice of these "tender mercies" of Pedobaptist orthodox churches, a passing glance is sufficient. The connection of infant baptism and oppression is so intimate, that in no spot on earth has the former prevailed that the latter has not followed. But pursuing our inquiry; the statute shows one fact: that from the first settlement, (or, as the act reads,) "since our coming into New England have appeared among ourselves divers Anabaptists." Five years anterior to the enactment of the above law, in 1638, Hanserd Knollys, a name enshrined in the temple of soul-liberty, gathered together a Baptist church; and John Smith, John Spur and four others, were arrested in 1639 for attempting to organize a church at Weymouth, fourteen miles south of Boston. Before Roger Williams was baptized, or his Church organized, there were Baptist Churches and Baptist ministers throughout New England. The principles of this down-trodden people Roger Williams adopted, and in advocating them, defending them, and suffering for them, he has stamped immortal honour on his name. The glory of that name we would not, even could we, tarnish. Not a green leaf would we pluck from the imperishable laurels that wreathe his brow. Every lover of freedom, every one imbued with the spirit of Jesus Christ, as he follows the turbid stream of history and searches for that vital principle which first enlarged the soul of humanity on this continent, will have his footsteps arrested, and will pause with delight as he watches the developments of principle on the colony of Massachusetts.

In February, 1631, an humble pilgrim, noble in his appearance, yet retiring in his manners, a little more than thirty years of age, a fugitive from English persecution, Roger Williams, like a "light on eternity's ocean," rose amid the darkness of spiritual despotism, then brooding over Europe and the world. "It became his glory," says Bancroft, "to found a State on the principle of full liberty of conscience, and to stamp himself upon its rising institutions in characters so deep that the impress has remained to the present day, and can never be erased." There he stood, like freedom itself, towering above the storms of persecution and suffering, triumphant, sublime.

But historic facts prove beyond doubt that Roger Williams was not the founder of the Providence Church, and further, that the church he established, and which crumbled to pieces four months after it was gathered, was not the first church in America. It is recorded in the minutes of the Philadelphia Association, when the first Church in Newport was one hundred years old in 1738, Mr. John Callender, their minister, delivered and published a sermon on the occasion.

Williams, indeed, touched the Baptist standard, but ere he raised it, his hand trembled, and it fell. It was seized by a steadier hand; at Newport it was raised, and far and near they came to it; it was carried into the heart of Massachusetts, and a work was commenced which till the last setting of the sun, shall never cease; and this, before we have any evidence that a church in Providence had begun to be.

Among the evils that have resulted from the wrong date of the Providence Church, has been the prominence given to Roger Williams. It is greatly to be regretted, that it ever entered into the mind of any one to make him, in America, the founder of our denomination. In no sense was he so. Well would it be for Baptists, and for Williams himself, could his short and fitful attempt to become a Baptist be obliterated from the minds of men. A man only four months a Baptist, and then renouncing his baptism forever, to be lauded and magnified as the founder of the Baptist denomination in the New World! As a leader in civil and religious liberty, I do him homage; as a Baptist, I owe him nothing.

There is another name, long, too long concealed, by Williams being placed before him, who will in after times be regarded with unmingled affection and respect, as the true founder of the Baptist cause in this country. That orb of purest luster will yet shine forth, and Baptists, whether they regarded his spotless character, his talents, his learning, the services he rendered, the urbanity and the modesty that distinguished him, will mention John Clarke as the real founder of our denomination in America. And when Baptist history is better understood than it is at present, every one, pointing to that venerable church which, on one of earth's loveliest spots he established, will say, "This is the mother of us all!"

But in Virginia were Baptists ere Rhode Island had its charter. In Massachusetts were Baptist congregations before Williams was baptized. In the language of the legislative act already cited, "since our coming to New England," before Roger Williams saw it, "divers of this kind",

Baptists, pleading for soul-liberty and Christian immersion, trod these shores of the New World, stained or hallowed by their blood. "SOME OF THE FIRST PLANTERS IN NEW ENGLAND WERE BAPTISTS." This is the language of Dr. Mather, their bitter foe, who lived in that persecuting age; and his language, corroborated as it is by colonial laws and documents still extant, is conclusive.

Here, then, closes our first milestone up the blood-stained path which Baptists have been forced to travel. Here we look on the bleak, wild forests of New England and Virginia, as this mighty nation was lifting its mountain summits into the morning mists of historic light. And here, before Williams lived, or Clarke or Holmes suffered and bled, we have found these Baptists.

We subjoin the epitaph of this noble man of God, whose memory should be held in vivid and grateful recollection by every lover of truth and freedom.

To the Memory of

DOCTOR JOHN CLARKE,

One of the original purchasers and proprietors of
this island, and one of the founders of the
First Baptist Church in Newport,
its first pastor and munificent benefactor:
He was a native of Bedfordshire, England,
and a practitioner of physic in London.
He, with his associates, came to this island from Mass.
in March, 1638, O.S., and on the 24th
of the same month obtained a deed thereof from
the Indians. He shortly after gathered
the Church aforesaid, and became its pastor.
In 1651, he, with Roger Williams, was sent to England,
by the people of Rhode Island Colony,
to negotiate the business of the Colony with the
British ministry: Mr. Clarke was instrumental
in obtaining the Charter of 1663 from Charles II., which
secured to the people of the State free and
full enjoyment of judgment and conscience in matters
of religion. He remained in England
to watch over the interests of the Colony until 1664,
and then returned to Newport and
resumed the pastoral care of his Church.
Mr. Clarke and Mr. Williams, two fathers of the Colony,
strenuously and fearlessly maintained that
none but Jesus Christ had authority
over the affairs of conscience. He died
April 20, 1676, in the 66th year
of his age, and is here interred.

To our inquiry

Where did they come from?

 

* Hawkes's Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia, p.121.
* Herring's Statutes
* Backus, vol i, p. 147
* Winthrop, p. 211

 
 
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