James Ireland was born in the City of Edinburgh, in 1748. He was early sent to school by his father, who intended to give him a thorough education. Considerable proficiency was made
in the Latin language and other branches of learning, but before he had completed his course he contracted a strong prejudice against study, which retarded his progress and rendered his education defective. Being rather inclined to a romantic temper, after he left school his father decided on sending him to sea, with the hope that this propensity would be cured and that he might be induced to turn his attention steadily to business. Several voyages to the northern seas were taken, during which he was exposed to imminent perils. Frequently he experienced such marked providential interferences as were well suited to awaken grateful emotions toward his Almighty Deliverer, but his heart remained callous.
After his return from these voyages, in consequence of some indiscretion, he left his father's house, and embarked for America. With regard to this he says, "I consider my removal as the most auspicious epoch of my life. It pleased my great Deliverer to bring good out of evil. True it is, on my first arrival in Virginia, and for a few years after, this now happy country groaned under the tyranny of a rigorous religious intolerance; but it soon pleased the Giver of all good, through the instrumentality of the Revolution, to burst asunder the bands of oppression." On his arrival in America, he took charge of a school in the northern part of Virginia. At this time he had not the fear of God before his eyes. In the new settlements where he lived, as he states, "there was not the least respect for the Sabbath, except among a few Quakers, who, on that day, would meet at a certain house and pursue their mode of worship." Their practice had some effect on his mind, and brought to his recollection the scenes of his childhood, when, under the direction of his parents, he was taught to venerate the Lord's day and to believe in the necessity of conversion. In thinking of the past, he would sometimes weep, and pray to God to have mercy on him. But these impressions were of short duration. "I could soon," he says, "join in the wicked amusements of those around me without remorse, and being of an aspiring disposition, it did not suit my taste to be a common accomplice with them, but an active leader in all their practices of wickedness, so that it might be said of me, as in Isaiah, 'I drew iniquity with the cords of vanity, and sin, as it were,
with a cart-rope.' During the year that I resided in those parts, I cannot recollect that ever I experienced any remorse of conscience except in one instance, so wretched and hardened had I become. I possessed certain qualifications by which I could accommodate myself to every company: with the religions I could moralize a little, with the well-bred I could be polite, with the merry I could be antic, and with the obscene I could be profane. I may say, with great propriety, that I was engaged to treasure up unto myself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God to come. The god of this world had so blinded my understanding that, comparing my pleasures in sin with my confused ideas of the happiness of heaven, I often thought I would not have desired the happiness of the saints above if God would have allowed me to enjoy it. I was not only willing to be wicked, but studied to be so. Profane jest-books I procured to improve me in vice, and never could I hear a pertinent answer, as would nonplus an opponent in folly, without studying a variety of answers."
Such, according to his own language, was the deplorable condition of this youth. But God, who is rich in mercy, had determined to pluck him as a brand from the burning. He had been accustomed, for the gratification of those around him, to indulge a poetic talent which it was thought he possessed. A pious young man, who had before evinced some desire to be of spiritual advantage to him, presented a request that he would compose a few lines on a religious subject. Having complied, his second composition, on "the natural man's dependence for heaven," was the means of his own conviction. He became deeply concerned about the salvation of his soul, having perceived that all his former dependences for heaven were untenable. For some time he continued in an unhappy state of mind.
Referring to his feelings, he remarks: " The deep impression upon my soul had a very considerable influence upon my exterior appearance; that wild vivacity that flashed in my eyes, and natural cheerfulness that appeared in my countenance, were entirely gone; my flesh began to pine away, my ruddy cheeks had vanished, and all that remained was a solemn, gloomy paleness; while my head was often hanging down like a bulrush, under the internal pressure of my guilty state."
After many painful apprehensions, and much reading of the Word of God, he was at length brought to behold the beauty and sufficiency of Christ. "My head," he observed, "was like a well of water, while the tears ran down for several hours without intermission; and, of all the tears I ever shed, these were the sweetest. My hard heart was melted into contrition, while I was laid low in the dust before God, under the sweet impression of his goodness to me."
The change which took place in his feelings and life was blessed of the Lord to the turning of others. During this time they had not enjoyed the privilege of hearing the gospel preached. Shortly after, Elder John Picket, being informed of these instances of conversion, rode sixty miles to visit the neighborhood and dispense to them the Word of Life. He remained two days, preaching at the house of Mr. Ireland, and to him it was indeed the sincere milk of the Word. He divulged his feelings freely to Elder Picket, and received from him advice suited to his circumstances. On leaving, Elder Picket promised again to visit and preach to them. When the time of the next appointment arrived, lie was prevented by unavoidable circumstances from complying with his engagement. The congregation having met, a consultation was held among the few pious persons who were present, and it was determined that Mr. Ireland should address the people. He thus describes his first attempt: "About twelve o'clock a tolerably large congregation were met. In dependence on God, and in fear and much trembling, I went forward. Worship was introduced by singing the hymn,'Let me but hear my Saviour say.' The hymn was expressive of the real exercises of my heart. After prayer, I addressed the people from John, iii. 3. My heart was greatly enlarged, my zeal inflamed, and my desires ran out for the salvation of souls in such a manner that I have often thought, could I have had twenty tongues to employ that day, there would have been matter for them all. I dare not say but I had some sweet thoughts that God would bring me into the ministry, but against them I struggled, and would not give them entertainment in my heart, under the apprehension that they were the production of pride. However, it was a day full of comfort
to us who were banded together in love, and also of deep humility to myself." iHe continued to speak in public, as opportunity allowed, for some time before he united with any church. Indeed there was no church within his reach. Those who, with him, had been brought to a knowledge of the truth, were accustomed regularly to meet and receive instruction at his hands, although they had not submitted to the ordinances. But when they understood "the way of God more perfectly," they determined to follow Christ in baptism, and be regularly constituted into a church. Having been educated a Presbyterian, Mr. Ireland was not easily convinced of the obligation to be baptized. In his own words, the manner in which he was led to discover his duty is thus described: "A circumstance among our little society on Smith's Creek produced a degree of anxiety for a short time, but happily terminated to our satisfaction. The circumstance related to myself. The work of God through the Colony was at that time principally carried on under the ministry of the Baptists, then distinguished by the appellation of Regulars and Separates. Both parties were Calvinistic in their sentiments, and our little body was disposed to join them by submitting to the rules of their society. We were fully persuaded that their baptism was right, according to the example of Jesus Christ and the practice of his Apostles.
"In this point they were all of one heart and one mind, myself only excepted. I was still tenacious of the old mode of sprinkling, according to the Presbyterian plan. They apprehended that if ever any minister was raised among them, I would be the individual, and if I continued under that persuasion it would create a difficulty. This, no doubt, occasioned many prayers to be sent up to the throne of grace, that I might be convinced of my error in this respect. Discovering the uneasiness that existed among them, I was led to search the Scriptures impartially, and in a short time it pleased God to remove the scales from my eyes, and give me to see that I must be a partaker of the grace of faith in Christ before I could be qualified to obey the ordinance of his institution. The application was very powerful, so that nothing could erase it from my heart. I determined at once to obey Christ
. by following him into the water, and thus put him on professionally. All being now united together in one mind and one judgment, and possessing a warm zeal for the glory of our Redeemer, we wished to know which of the two bodies, Regulars or Separates, had the warmest preachers and the most fire among them. We determined in favor of the latter, although the ministers of both were zealous men."
With the advice of his brethren, he attended the meeting of the Separate Baptist Association, which was held at Sandy Creek, North Carolina, in 1769, for the purpose of receiving baptismn and ordination. At this meeting, Elder Samuel Harriss, who previously had refused ordination, was regularly set apart to the ministry, and authorized to administer the ordinances. It was proposed that he should baptize Mr. Ireland, and for this purpose a meeting was appointed to be held in Pittsylvania. Mr. Ireland thus refers to this interesting circumstance: "Three days and the greater part of the nights were employed in preaching to the people, at Mr. Harriss's, many of the hearers having come great distances. The third day the whole body of the church went into their meeting-house, according to their rule, to hear experience and receive subjects for baptism. I endeavored to make them acquainted with what the Lord had done for my soul, and with my desires for submitting to an institution of God's own appointment.
"After short interrogations, only for the satisfaction and edification of the church, they gave me the right hand of fellowship, and declared me to be a proper subject for baptism. Next day, in the afternoon, was appointed for the administration thereof; it being Sunday, we were to meet very early in the morning for preaching. There were eleven ministers present. Considering the distance I lived, it was proposed among them, and acceded to, that I should preach my trial sermon, and obtain credentials. Worship being over, we repaired to the water for the administration of baptism. Mr. Garrard was to speak on the nature and design of the ordinance, and Mr. Harriss was to administer it, which accordingly was done, in the presence of a large and solemn audience. Next morning I had to take leave of that church.
My credentials were signed by eleven ministers, that I might go forward, as an itinerant preacher, without any hesitation." Immediately after his baptism he returned home, and in the spirit and power of his Master devoted himself to the great work of preaching the gospel. The Lord added many seals to his ministry. But he soon found that bonds and imprisonment awaited him. His growing popularity and success excited the indignation of the rulers of the established church, and brought down upon his head fierce persecution. "At one time," he says, "preaching being over, and concluding with prayer, I heard a rustling noise in the woods, and before I opened my eyes to see what it was, I was seized by the collar by two men while standing on the table. Stepping down and beholding a number of others walking up, it produced a momentary confusion in me. The magistrates instantaneously demanded of me what I was doing there with such a conventicle of people. I replied, that I was preaching the gospel of Christ to them; they asked, who gave me authority so to do. I answered, He that was the author of the gospel had a right to send forth whom He had qualified to dispense it. They retorted upon me with abusive epithets, and then inquired if I had any authority from man to preach. I produced my credentials, but these would avail nothing, not being sanctioned and commissioned by the bishop. They told me that I must give security not to teach, preach, or exhort, for twelve months and a day, or go to jail. I chose the latter alternative."
This occurred in Culpepper. He was accompanied to prison amid the abuses of his persecutors, and while incarcerated in his cell not only suffered by the extreme inclemency of the weather, but by the personal maltreatment of his foes. They attempted to blow him up with gunpowder, but the quantity obtained was only sufficient to force up some of the flooring of his prison. The individual who led in this infamous conduct was, shortly after, in a hunting excursion, and while asleep in the woods, bitten by a mad wolf, of which wound he died in the most excruciating pain. There was also an attempt made by Elder Ireland's enemies to suffocate him, by burning brimstone, etc. at the door and window of his prison. A scheme was also formed to poison him. But the mercy of God prevented. He states,
that he might speak of a hundred instances of cruelty which were practiced. "I expected," says he "every court, to be brought out to the whipping-post before the gazing multitude; I sat down and counted the cost, and believed, through Christ strengthening me, I could suffer all things for his sake. It appeared that their power did not reach so far, or it would have been executed. At this period I received letters from the ministers of our persuasion, and from a variety of churches with whom I was connected. From these churches I received general information, how singularly letters I wrote, were, under God, blessed to the conversion of numbers, who were anxiously led to inquire into the cause for which I suffered, as well as the grounds of that fortitude which bore me up under these sufferings. My prison, then, was a place in which I enjoyed much of the Divine presence; a day seldom passed without some signal token of the Divine goodness toward me, which generally led me to subscribe my letters in these words, 'From my palace in Culpepper.'" As a specimen of the letters written to him, a few of the closing lines of one from Elder David Thomas will not be uninteresting: "brother, if you can, by bearing the charming, lovely cross of Jesus Christ, win one of the strongest of Satan's strongholds, no matter then how soon you die; and if you thus die for Him, how would the glorious armies of the martyrs above shout, to see Ireland coming from a prison to reign with them in glory!"
It is painful to record, that this unholy opposition was mainly the result of clerical influence. The ministers of the established church were generally found most active in those imprisonments which were experienced by Baptist ministers in Virginia. Mr. Ireland states that, at his trial, "the county parson was very officious in giving his assistance to the bench in the dilemma they were in. I applied to Mr. Bullet to move the court to give the parson and me leave to argue the point in hand, before them, and if I did not confute him, I would go to prison as a volunteer! He, with a smile, replied, the word of God does not pass current in this house; I answered, it appears so, or they would not imprison those who preach it."
To expose the oppressions of his day, another extract from Elder Ireland's pen will be introduced, by which it will be perceived
that a man of reputable character, of good talents, and aiming to promote the well-being of society, was not allowed, by the consent of his church, to speak in public, or to build a house of worship, without special consent from the governor. It was necessary to travel down from Culpepper to Williamsburg, that this privilege might, in person, be obtained, and then, not without examination by some Episcopal minister. The following is the extract: --
"I went up to Frederick County, drew up a petition addressed to Lord Botetourt, the then Governor of Virginia, praying him to grant me the privilege of having a meeting-house built in Culpepper County, to be occupied without molestation, on condition of my conforming to the rules prescribed for Protestant Dissenters. To this I obtained the signature of a number of respectable inhabitants, both of Frederick and Culpepper Counties, and repaired to the capital, at Williamsburg. The governor, I understood, was a religious man; and his universal conduct was stamped with the approbation of all, both within and without his capital. Whether he possessed vital religion or not I will not presume to determine, but he received my petition with all the graces of a gentleman, and gave me direction what measure to pursue, antecedent to granting the privileges I requested. I found the clergy in the city of quite a different character from the governor; they appeared obstinately determined not to give me the requisite examination: every one shifted it upon another, till at last I obtained it from a country parson, living eight miles from the capital, and presented it to the governor and council, who granted me a license for those things petitioned."
It was Elder Ireland's portion to suffer many other painful trials, but his ministry was increasingly successful. He was instrumental in forming several churches of the Ketockton Association, and for many years filled the pastoral office with two or three of those in the Counties of Frederick and Shenandoah. Several hundreds were by him led into the watery tomb, expressive of their death unto sin. In 1802 he baptized, in one of his churches, ninety-three persons, fifty-two of whom were received in one day.
In consequence of injuries sustained by a fall from his horse, and afterwards by the overthrowing of his carriage, he was in the
early part of 1806 confined to his bed. He soon became much afflicted with the dropsy, and suffered the most excruciating pains. Notwithstanding his extreme illness he did not neglect family worship, even after he became so weak that he could not sit up; then he would lead in prayer, and seem to enjoy it while in a recumbent posture. He gradually declined, until May 5th, 1806, when his spirit fled to mansions on high. The following notice of his character and labors is taken from the Winchester Gazette:
" Elder James Ireland was pastor of the Baptist congregations at Buckmarsh, Happy Creek, and Water Lick, in Frederick and Shenandoah Counties, Virginia. He had labored nearly forty years in his Lord's vineyard, and during a great part of the time through much infirmity of body. He was always distinguished as an able minister of the New Testament, rightly divining the Word of Truth, giving to saint and sinner their portion in due season. During his last illness, which confined him to his bed about three months, his mind was tranquil and serene. Fully sensible of his approaching dissolution, and perfectly resigned to the will of God, he endured all things, as seeing Him who is invisible; and having an eye to the recompense of reward, patiently waited for the manifestations of the sons of God. On Sunday, the first instant, a suitable and affecting discourse was delivered at Buckmarsh Meeting-house, the place of his interment, to a numerous and weeping audience, by Elder William Mason, from 2 Tim. iv. 7, 8: 'I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course,' etc. "Mr. Ireland was a man of common stature, a handsome face, piercing eye, and pleasant countenance. In his youth he was spare, but he became by degrees quite corpulent, so that not long after his second marriage he wanted but nineteen pounds of weighing three hundred."
This sketch will be closed by the introduction of two or three stanzas composed by him shortly after the Declaration of Independence. They furnish a specimen of his talent for poetry:
America! exult in God
With joyful acclamation;
Who has, through scenes of war and blood,
Displayed to thee salvation.
When armed hosts,
With warlike boasts,
Did threaten thy destruction,
And crossed the main,
With martial train,
To compass thy subjection;
Thy sole resource was God alone,
Who heard thy cries before his throne,
Beheld with hate their schemes of blood
Impending o'er thee like a flood,
And made them know it was in vain
To make thee longer drag their chain;
That thou shouldst be
A nation free
From their unjust oppression.
Hail! now ye sons of liberty,
Behold thy constitution!
Despotic power and tyranny
Have seen their dissolution.
No clattering arms,
No war's alarms,
Nor threats of royal vengeance;
Thy hostile foes
Have left off those;
Now own thy Independence.
Replete with peace, valiant we stand,
Freedom the basis of our land;
Blest with the beams of gospel light,
Our souls emerge from sable night;
Jehovah's heralds loud proclaim
Eternal life through Jesus' name,
Point out his blood
The way to God,
For our complete salvation.
Amid the blessings we enjoy
From God the gracious giver,
Let gratitude our hearts employ,
To praise his name forever;
Beware of pride,
Lest, like a tide,
It flows and gains possession;
'Mongst empires all,
Both great and small,
Pride always brought oppression;
Pride finds the way to rule and reign,
And forges the despotic chain;
Denies we should enjoy or have
The right that God in nature gave.
Against this baleful evil fight
Resist its force with all your might,
And join as one,
Before the throne,
That God would keep us humble.
Most gracious God, thee we adore,
Whose mercy faileth never;
Thy guardian care we now implore, —
Be thou our king forever;
May gospel rays
With an immortal lustre,
And teach us how
Our hearts to bow
To the Redeemer's sceptre!
Oh may the silver trump of peace
Within our empire never cease,
Until the ransomed, holy race,
Are called in by sovereign grace.
Then may the conflagration come,
And sinners rise to hear their doom!
Thy chosen ones,
In endless songs,
Will shout forth hallelujahs!
[From James B. Taylor, Virginia Baptist Ministers, 1859, pp. 115-126. jrd]
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