Baptists in early America instinctively felt they had divine permission to preach their beliefs to all who would lend their ears to truth. Without waiting for the laws of man to change in their favor, early Baptists fearlessly demanded respect by living out heart held religious freedoms by preaching the Gospel in pulpits, public gatherings, porches, and prisons. Baptists have never asked for pity or persecution as they stood up for the religious freedoms of all Americans.
Religious liberty was a foreign concept to most early Americans prior to the Revolutionary War of 1776. Borrowing an old world concept, each colony usually sponsored a state church. Taxes supported the clergy and it was unlawful to not attend church in some of the colonies. Religious dissenters were dealt with quickly and sometimes crudely.
This would change as philosophical concepts espoused by John Locke eventually undergirded the mental framework of Americans that … “All men are created equal, …they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Also, the price that early Baptists paid with their personal sacrifice paved the way for the new government of the United States of America to get out of the business of religion and the governing of churches.
In Virginia, the Anglican Church (or Church of England in the old world) was the established religion of the colony. All licenses to preach had to be issued from the Anglican bishop and without this document the preacher would be out of step with the church and state.
Baptists were not impressed with having the sanction or license of man to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The heartfelt conviction of religious liberty empowered Baptists to believe that every human being has the right to worship as they please without the coercion of a state run church. These convictions were troublesome to the Anglicans (or Episcopalians as they were later called) who ruled the land of Virginia and imposed religious fines.
For instance, in 1623, a person could be fined the amount of one pound of tobacco for being absent from worship without a reasonable excuse. For missing church for one month, the sinning person forfeited 50 pounds of tobacco. If a colonist said anything to disparage a minister, the sinning person was compelled to pay 500 pounds of tobacco and to apologize to the minister in the presence of the congregation.
In 1643, Virginia passed a law that gave the right to preach the Gospel to those whose beliefs conformed to those of the Church of England. These laws were strengthened after the restoration of the monarchy in England in 1661. In 1662, laws were passed making it unlawful for parents to refuse their children the divine sacrament of baptism from a lawful minister of the county in which the child was born. Dissenting parents were fined 2,000 pounds of tobacco with half of the fine going to the informer and the other half going to the public.
Presbyterians in Virginia found favor to preach and practice their faith by petitioning under the Act of Toleration. Baptists saw their right to preach the Gospel as a God-given commission; therefore, they usually chose the more difficult road. They did not wish to be “tolerated” by anyone.
James Ireland, a Baptist preacher in Culpeper County was a man who endured the persecution of the established church in Virginia. He was baptized by Samuel Harris, thereby connecting him to the Sandy Creek Baptist tradition. Ireland represents the unassailable spirit among the early Baptists in Virginia for a long list of them was persecuted.
Ireland started giving great witness to what the Lord Jesus had done in his life immediately after his baptism. Mr. Manif of Culpepper County extended an invitation to young Ireland to come and preach in his community. The local authorities threatened Ireland upon his arrival. He decided to “suffer all for Him.” The authorities threw him in the county jail with the thought that this would silence the preacher. To their surprise, great crowds would gather outside the jail cell window of James Ireland to hear the Gospel.
A plot was hatched to place a keg of gunpowder below Ireland’s jail cell. The explosion did more harm to the jail than to the preacher. Next, detractors tried to suffocate Ireland by burning brimstone and Indian pepper in the jail. With that failing, they bribed a doctor to place poison in his medicine as Ireland was being treated for the fever. The jailer owned a tavern, and on several occasions he allowed rowdy drunks in the jail to beat Ireland and urinate in his face.
This terrible treatment worked against the established church as many leading citizens were converted by Ireland’s message and enduring spirit. He wrote many letters while in this jail and he signed them, “From my Palace in Culpepper.”
In 1770, Ireland was released from jail after a 5-month stay, but his persecution did not end. He persevered as a church planter and pastor. Along with many other Virginia Baptists, he fought bravely for his new nation during the Revolutionary War. In 1786, Ireland got to witness the Commonwealth of Virginia pass “An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.” This law guaranteed all Virginians the right to practice their faith without fear from the government or state run church.
These valiant Virginia Baptists influenced men like James Madison and George Washington to finally understand that “religious toleration” was not enough. Baptists did not want a state run church to “put up with them” by tolerating them with patronizing attitudes. True religious freedom would allow people to practice (or not practice) their faith and to be respected as equal citizens in the new land of the free.
Today Baptists represent more than 25 percent of Virginia’s people of faith, while the remnant of the state church is below three percent.
© Ron F. Hale, June 17, 2013