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 Chapter 25

Struggle for Religious Liberty by the Baptists in Virginia


IN 1900, Charles James, President of the Roanoke Female College in Danville, Virginia, former Pastor of the Culpeper Church of Virginia, published a book entitled Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia. As in the seventeenth century in England, so in the eighteenth century in America, the Baptists, on the one hand were to be severely persecuted for their religious fidelity, and on the other hand were to play a key role in the ultimate fight for religious freedom. In the colony of Virginia, no doubt because of its Anglican heritage, nonconformists had an extraordinarily difficult time. Earlier the members of the Church of England had settled and established the Virginia Colony at Jamestown in 1607.

Following the pattern of England, the Church of England became the established church by a legal enactment, and the church was supported from the colonyís coffers. As the established church, it was designed to be the only church recognized or legally permitted in the colony. This led to enactment of severe penalties to exclude all dissenting religions from practicing and proclaiming their faiths in the colony. Even after the Act of Toleration in England and the acceptance of the English Bill of Rights of 1689, there was little change in the role of the Church of England in Virginia.

Toward the end of the seventeenth century, a significant number of Presbyterians settled in Virginia. However, their influence was small for many years, and therefore attracted little attention or persecution. Nevertheless, as the numbers of Presbyterians increased in Virginia, it was considered prudent to forge some relationship with the authorities in Virginia. These Presbyterians had immigrated from Ireland and Pennsylvania. In 1738, an agreement was entered into between the Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia and the governor of Virginia, William Gooch. This permitted Presbyterian immigrants to occupy a portion of the Virginia colony which was considered to be frontier territory and to be protected by the Act of Toleration. Thus the governor gained the support of the Presbyterians in return for his extending the same freedom to worship as had been extended to the members of the Church of England in Virginia.

The Act of Toleration, however, was not an act of religious freedom. While it gave no official status to the Presbyterians, they were able nevertheless to worship according to the dictates of their conscience. (Charles James, Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia, Da Capo Press, New York, 1971, Reprint p. 11, 12) (James)

No doubt because of Virginiaís severe laws, the Baptists did not begin to settle there until the early part of the eighteenth century. The Baptists, with their insistence upon adult consent baptism by immersion, faced an entirely different situation from the Presbyterians. Also, because of their experience in England in the seventeenth century, the Baptists had a clear concept of the principles of true liberty which was in sharp conflict with the declared established church that they found in Virginia.

Like the Anglicans, the Presbyterians had come from that stream of the Reformation which had accepted similar sacral concepts to those that had dominated the Roman Catholic Church for many centuries. Their heritage allowed for the acceptance of an established church. It must be remembered that the Presbyterian Church became the established Church in Scotland. Therefore the Presbyterians would settle for toleration, whereas the Baptists were willing to settle for nothing less than complete freedom and equality in the exercise of their religious faith. Thus was established the ground for intense religious conflict. It was to lead to decades of severe persecution of the Baptists in Virginia.

As early as 1623, strict laws, that established worship according to the canons of the Church of England, were enacted in the Virginia colony. These included a forfeiture of one pound of tobacco for anyone who absented himself from religious worship without a reasonable excuse. If a period of one month went by without church attendance, the individual "at fault" forfeited fifty pounds of tobacco. If anything was said to disparage a minister which hurt the ministerís reputation, the colonist was compelled to pay five hundred pounds of tobacco and to apologize publicly to the minister in the presence of the congregation. (James, pp. 17, 18)

In 1643, Virginia enacted a law which stated that only those were permitted to preach and teach, publicly or privately, whose beliefs conformed to those of the Church of England. (Ibid.)

After the restoration of the monarchy in England in 1661, these laws were strengthened. In 1662, the following act was passed,

Whereas many schismatical persons, out of their averseness to the orthodox established religion, or out of the new-fangled conceits of their own heretical inventions, refuse to have their children baptized; be it, therefore, enacted, by the authority aforesaid, that all persons that, in contempt of the divine sacrament of baptism, shall refuse, when they may carry their child to a lawful minister in that county to have them baptized, shall be assessed two thousand pounds of tobacco, half to the informer, half to the public. (Foote, p. 34; Henning, vol. 2, pp. 165, 166, quoted in James, p. 19)

Whereas the more sacrally-minded Presbyterians were willing to petition under the Act of Toleration for the right to preach, the Baptists were not. They saw their right to preach as a commission from God, and not by permission of man. Thus was set the stage for the persecution of Baptist preachers and church members during the eighteenth century. As the Baptists increased significantly in numbers, so did the persecution, which reached its height within the decade prior to the Declaration of Independence. The Baptists were fighting for true freedom; the Presbyterians were willing to settle for toleration.

The history of the two religious groups accounts for the decided difference in the response of the two denominations. The first actual imprisonment of Baptist ministers for breach of the law took place in June 1768. Several Baptist ministers were seized in Spotsylvania County. They were offered release on the condition that they would agree to preach no more in the county for a year and a day. This they refused to do, and therefore were sent to prison. (Ibid., p. 29)


Rapidly there followed many other incarcerations scattered over a wide number of counties in Virginia. As in England, the Baptists began to make petitions to the authorities asking for complete freedom to exercise their religion. The first petition was made May of 1770, but was rejected by the committee for religion. Other petitions followed. In February 1772, the Baptists received the first favorable action from the House. The House agreed to a resolution that gave the Baptists similar levels of toleration to the Quakers, Presbyterians, and other Protestant dissenters. (James, p. 34)

While still in his early twenties, James Madison, now residing back in his home in Virginia after studying at Princeton University, wrote strongly against the religious persecution that he recognized was taking place in the Virginia colony. His concepts of religious liberty were remarkably mature, and in a letter dated April 1 1774, Madison wrote to a friend from his university days at Princeton, these words,

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 a people of your province, is little known among the zealous adherents to our hierarchy. (Quoted in ibid., p. 37)

It was Madisonís conviction that the persecution leveled against the Baptists arose, not out of concern for religion or morality, but from considerations of self interest. (Ibid., p. 37)

In 1774, the Presbyterians began to add their petitions to those of the Baptistsónot for the goal of freedom to preach, but because their denomination was not incorporated in the colony of Virginia, and thus they were prohibited from receiving grants which some of their members and supporters desired to make to the work of the Presbyterian church. In spite of the favorable response in 1772, little was done in practice to free the Baptists in their earnest plea to exercise freedom to preach the gospel.

It is hard to overestimate the impact made by Patrick Henryís "Give me liberty or give me death" speech in St. Johnís Church, Richmond, March 20 1775, to the development of religious freedom that was to become a hallmark of the American Bill of Rights. Unquestionably, the concepts of Patrick Henry, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson were to play the dominant role in bringing religious freedom not only to Virginia but to the emerging new nation.

Virginia became the first of the thirteen original States to recognize religious freedom, in article XVI of her Bill of Rights adopted June 12 1776. But the battle for full religious freedom, or as was sometimes called "soul liberty," received stern opposition lasting for years, and continued for another ten years when Jeffersonís "Bill for establishing religious freedom" became the law of Virginia. (James, p. 10)

Contemporary America and, by extension, many other parts of the world must pay a great tribute to the eighteenth century Baptists for their determination to settle, not for toleration, but for no less than complete liberty. Many faithful preachers suffered imprisonment. The history of this period was stained with imprisonment, floggings, and martyrdom. But total victory was in sight when, in 1779, the Commonwealth of Virginia repealed the establishment status of the Anglican (now called Episcopal) Church. The bill finally passed December 13 1779. This bill cut the purse strings of the establishment, and thus the clergy could no longer look to support from taxes for their sustenance. However, they still retained possession of the rich glebes (church-grant lands), and enjoyed a monopoly of marriage fees and other privileges.

Jefferson fought hard for what was considered a most radical billóthe religious freedom bill. He was especially opposed by the Presbyterians. (Ibid., p. 99) It was not until 1785 that the religious freedom bill was passed, at which time the Presbyterians eventually gave their support. There can be no question that the successful battle for religious freedom in Virginia was the foundation that led to the development and acceptance of the First Amendment to the American Constitution.


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