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History of Virginia Baptists
Section II
By David Benedict, 1848


The ecclesiastical affairs of Virginia Laws against dissenters a summary view of the sufferings of the baptists under the power of the establishment the first instance of imprisonment John Blair in their favor Patrick Henry and others ditto overthrow of the National Establishment general assessment-great revival General committee General meeting of correspondence.

The Ecclesiastical Establishment of this State.

"THE first settlers of this country were emigrants from England, of the English church, just at a point of time when it was flushed with complete victory over the religions of all other persuasions." Possessed, as they became,
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of the powers of making, administering, and executing the laws, they showed equal intolerance in this country with their Presbyterian brethren, who had emigrated to the northern government.

"The Episcopalians retained full possession of the country about a century. Other opinions began to creep in; and the great care of the government to support their own church having begotten an equal degree of indolence in its clergy, two-thirds of the people had become dissenters at the commencement of the revolution. The laws were still oppressive on them; but the spirit of one party had subsided into moderation, and of the other had risen to a degree of determination which commanded respect.

"The first care of the early Legislature was to provide for the church. By the first act of 1623, it was provided that in every plantation or settlement there had be a house or room set apart for the worship of God according to the canons of the Church of England, to which a strict uniformity was enjoined.

"To preserve 'the purity of doctrine and unity of the church,' it was enacted, in 1613, that all ministers should be conformable to the orders and constitutions of the Church of England, and that no others be permitted to teach or preach publicly or privately. It was further provided, 'that the Governor and Council should take care that all non-conformists departed the colony with all conveniency.'

"The first allowance made to the ministers was ten pounds of tobacco and a bushel of corn for each titheable. which meant every laboring person, of whatever color or condition; the twentieth calf, kid, or pig was soon after added to the minister's allowance. But this law was repealed in 1633.

"Tobacco was then the staple commodity of the country, and the foundation of exchange and currency in all business transactions. Taxes, fines, and assessments of all kinds were to be paid in this article. Fines varied from one pound to one thousand."

The whole system of this first religious hierarchy in this country is found in Semple's History of the Virginia Baptists, my 2d Vol., and Henings Statutes at large.

Laws against dissenters. In 1643 the old English laws against popish recusants was enacted in this colony.

"Several acts of the Virginia Assembly, from 1659 to 63, had made it penal in their parents not to have their children baptized; and against the quakers, who were flying from persecution at home, the laws of this colony were alarmingly severe; and if no executions took place here as in New England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church or the spirit of the Legislature, as may be inferred from the law itself, but to historical circumstances which have not been handed down to us."

As the baptists were not known in this country, in these early times, no respect was had to them in any of these severe enactments. The law compelling parents to have their children baptized, in all probability, was intended for the Quakers rather than them.

And in this respect the Virginians differed entirely from the New Englanders. In their legislation, the anabaptists were continually held in view, and their persecuting laws were framed with a special design to hinder the spread of their opinions, or drive them from the country.

Again, the New England people took especial care to pocket the fines of disobedience, for which those of the ancient dominion seemed to have, but little care.
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A Summary View of the Sufferings of the Baptists under the forms of Law, or without them.

The first appearance of the denomination in this country excited no alarm; most of their converts were from that class of people who were of but a small account in society; their preachers were generally illiterate; their assemblies and their efforts were in places remote and obscure, and the language of the leading men in church and State was, let them alone, they will soon fall out among themselves and come to nothing. In some places the maxim was adhered to, and persecution in a legal shape was never known. But in many others, alarmed by their rapid increase, the men in power, especially those in the lowest functions, strained every penal law in the Virginia code to obtain ways and means to put down the disturbers of the peace, as they were now called.
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Although their baptisms were open and abundant, and many of their converts were from the established church, yet but little was said against them on this account. The burden of the complaints of their opposers was, that they were disturbers of the peace, as will soon appear. This was the head and front of their offending; this was the first article in all accusations, whether they came from the minister of the church or of the law, or from the rude and rustic assailants, who were notoriously irreligious and immoral, and who, as Morgan Edwards once said, had not wit enough to sin in a genteel manner.

"It seems by no means certain," says Semple, "that any law in force in Virginia authorized the imprisonment of any person for preaching. The law for the preservation of peace, however, was so interpreted as to answer this purpose; and, accordingly, whenever the preachers were apprehended, it was done by a peace warrant."

The first instance of actual imprisonment, we believe, that ever took place in Virginia, was in the county of Spottsylvania, on the 4th of June, 1768. John Waller, Lewis Craig, James Childs, and others, 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 at 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 on the road, but they 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 their. 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 were moving on from the courthouse to the prison, through the streets of Fredericksburg, they sang the hymn,

"Broad is the road that leads to death," &c.

This solemn procession, and this bold and fearless conduct on the part of a company of men who were conscious of having committed no offence deserving such treatment, produced a prodigious effect on all who witnessed the scene, and had a powerful reaction in favor of the cause for which they suffered.

After four weeks' confinement, Lewis Craig was released from prison, and immediately went down 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 Spottsylvania:

"Sir I lately received a letter, signed by a good number of worthy gentlemen who are not here, complaining of the baptists; the particulars of their misbehavior are not told any farther than their running into private houses and making dissensions. Mr. Craig and Mr. Benjamin Waller are now with me, and deny the charge. They tell me they are willing to take the oath as others have. I told them I had consulted the Attorney-General, who is of opinion that the General Court only have power 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 licenses, 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 increased 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 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 in nothing from our church but in that of baptism and 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 behavior, it were to be wished we had some of it among us; but, at least, I hope all men may remain quiet till court.
"I am, with great at respects to the gentlemen, sir, your humble servant,
"Williamsburg, July 16, 1768. JOHN BLAIR"
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This letter, so creditable to this high officer of the King, met with a cold reception from the attorney.

"Waller and the others continued in jail forty-three clays, and were then discharged without any conditions. While in prison, they constantly preached through the grates; the mob without used every exertion to prevent the people from hearing, but to little purpose. Many heard, indeed, to whom the word came in demonstration of the spirit and with power.

"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 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 the adjacent neighborhoods. The spread of the Gospel and of baptist principles was equal to their exertions; insomuch, that in very few sections of Virginia did the baptist cause appear more formidable to its enemies, and more connoting to its friends, than in Spottsylvania; and, we may add, so it is to this day."10

"Waller was viewed as a ringleader in these offensive excitements, and was dealt with accordingly.

"Not unfrequently their leading men would attend the baptist meetings, enter into arguments with the preachers, and plead the superior claims of their church, their ministers, &c. -- accuse the Baptists as false prophets, wolves in sheep's clothing, and close with the standing complaint, that all was quiet before those disturbers of their peace came among them.

"To these arguments, Waller and the other preachers boldly and readily replied, that if they were wolves in sheep's clothing, and they were true sheep, it was quite unaccountable that they were persecuted and cast into prison; as it is well known that wolves would destroy sheep, but, never, until them, that sheep would prey upon wolves; that their coming might indeed interrupt their peace, but certainly, if it did, it must be a false peace, bordering on destruction."

In this manner the opposition continued, until the troubles and dangers of the war of the revolution called the attention of all parties to a new field of controversy, and soon the hitherto dominant party were glad to have the aid of dissenters in their struggle for liberty, civil and religious.

About thirty of the ministers were imprisoned, and some as many as four times each, for different periods of tune, besides a number of exhorters and companions, whose only fault was their being in company with their clerical brethren.

These scenes of incarceration were generally turned to a good account by the zealous reformers; public sympathy was aroused in favor of these victims of au unwise and ill-timed opposition, and multitudes gathered around the prisons to bear the bold addresses of these fearless heralds of the eras, through the iron grates, open doors, and all avenues of utterance.

In some cases, drums were beaten in the tune of service; high enclosures were erected before the prison windows by malicious opponents; matches and other suffocating materials were burnt outside the prison door. But all these malignant stratagems were of but little avail; the current continued to roll, and the obnoxious sentiments everywhere prevailed.

In the language of John Leland, who resided in the State about this tune, "the dragon roared with hideous peals, but was not red; the beast appeared formidable, but was not scarlet-colored. Virginia soil has never been stained with vital blood for conscience' sake."

From the beginning, the Baptists were unremitting in their exertions to obtain liberty of conscience; they contended that they could not be imprisoned by any existing laws; that they were entitled to the same, privileges that were enjoyed by the dissenters in England. Their judges, however, decided otherwise,
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and as there was no regular appeal, the propriety of that decision has not been legally ascertained; the prevailing opinion in the present day is, that their imprisonment was unlawful.

In the midst of their struggles, this oppressed people were so fortunate as to secure the interest of the famous Patrick Henry, who, though a member of the State establishment, yet, being always the friend of liberty, he espoused their cause, and continued their unwavering friend until their complete emancipation was effected.

Many other men of great influence favored their cause, some from one motive, and some from another; their congregations were large, and when any of their men of talents preached they were crowded. The patient manner in, which they suffered persecution, raised their reputation for piety and goodness in the estimation of a large majority of the people. Their numbers annually increased in a surprising degree. Every month new places were found by the preachers whereon to plant the Redeemer's standard. In these places but a few might become baptists, yet the majority would be favorable. Many who had expressed great hostility to them, upon forming a more close acquaintance with them, professed to be undeceived.

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Overthrow of the National Establishment.

Now, matters were rapidly advancing to their final issue. An unguarded heedlessness, the certain prelude of calamity and downfall, on the part of a large portion of the ministers of the establishment, who were pampered and secure amidst patronage and power, made them the easy victims of their indolence and inactivity.

On the other hand, the political revolution was rolling on with impetus force, regardless of all the vestiges of royalty in church or state. Republican principles had gained much ground, and were fast advancing to superiority; the leading men on that side viewed the established clergy and the established religion as inseparable appendages of monarchy, one of the pillars by which it was supported. The dissenters, at least the baptists, were republicans from interest as well as principle; it was known that their interest was great among the common people, and the common people in every country are, more or less, republicans. To resist British oppressions effectually, it was necessary to soothe the minds of the people by every species of policy. The dissenters were too powerful to be slighted, and too watchful to be cheated by an ineffectual sacrifice. There had been a time when they would have been satisfied to have paid their tithes, if they could have had liberty of conscience; but now the crisis was such, that nothing less than a total overthrow of all ecclesiastical distinctions would satisfy their sanguine hopes. Having started the decaying edifice, every dissenter put to his shoulder to push it into irretrievable ruin. The revolutionary party found that the sacrifice must be made, and they made it.

General assessment. It is said, and probably with truth, that many of the members of the established church joined in the vote for its abolition, under the expectation of a general assessment, in which all would be bound to contribute for the support of religion; and as most of the men of wealth were on their side, their ministry could be easily maintained. This, it appeared in the sequel, was a vain expectation. The people having once shaken off the fetter, would not again permit themselves to be bound. Moreover the war now rising to its height, they were too much in need of funds to permit any of their resources to be devoted to any other purpose during that period; and we shall see, that when it was attempted a few years after the expiration of the war, the people set their faces against it.

The project had been previously broached, and in 1784 a bill, which had for its object the compelling of every person to contribute to some religious teacher, was introduced into the House of Delegates, under the title of "A bill establishing provisions for the teachers of the christian religion."
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This bill, by a resolution of the House, was laid by to another session.

Dissenters generally took the alarm, memorials and remonstrances were circulated with great activity, and were poured into the legislature from every quarter. Rev. Reuben Ford was the bearer of one from the General Committee of the Virginia baptists, who, we believe, were the only denomination who took a uniform and open stand against the measure. Of some other parties it is said, that the laity and clergy were at variance on the subject, so as to paralyze the exertions either for or against the bill.

These remarks apply to religious societies as such. Individuals of all parties joined in the opposition, and Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, Deists, and the covetous, readily and eagerly signed the petition against it,11 and the question was given up forever.

Rites of Matrimony. Under the old ecclesiastical establishment, no person could celebrate the rites of matrimony but a minister of the church of England, and according to the ceremonies prescribed in the book of Common Prayer.

It was not until the year 1784, that the dissenters were put on the same footing as all other persons, with respect to celebrating the rites of matrimony. By this act the marriage ceremony might be performed by any minister licensed to preach, according to the rules of the sect of which he professed to be a member The same act has been incorporated in a late revisal of the Virginia laws.

In 1798 the legislature repealed all laws vesting property in the hands of any religious sect, by which the Episcopalians were deprived of the glebes, &c., and by which all religious sects were put into a state of perfect equality, as it respected the favors of government.12

Great revival in 1785, and onward. Although the war of the Revolution had a salutary effect on the outward condition of the baptists, and other dissenters, yet it had an opposite influence in their spiritual affairs. All had been so much engrossed with anxious thoughts and schemes for effecting the revolution, as well as with alternate hopes and fears for the event, that they were left, at the close of that eventful struggle, in a sad condition of religious coldness and stupidity. New openings for trade and an increasing desire for worldly accumulations, had an unfavorable influence on the interest of internal piety. Some of their watchmen fell, others stumbled, and many slumbered, and many ministers of great influence removed to Kentucky and the west. Associations were but thinly attended, and business was badly conducted. The long and great declension induced many to fear that God had wholly forsaken them.

Such is the gloomy picture drawn by Mr. Semple, their historian.

"But in 1785, at the period above referred to, the set time to favor Zion had come, and as the declension had been general, so was the revival which followed. The work commenced on James River, and spread with astonishing rapidity in different directions over most of the whole State, and as it continued for several years, there were very few churches which were not visited with its salutary influence. Thousands were added to the baptist churches, besides marry who joined the Methodists, Presbyterians and other societies."

The peculiarities of this extensive work, which lasted six or seven years, are thus described by the historian so often referred to, and although the scenes may be offensive to most men of the present day, yet, as a matter of historical veracity, I feel bound to insert them:

"During the progress of this revival, scenes were exhibited somewhat extraordinary. It was not unusual to have a large proportion of the congregation prostrate on the floor, and in some instances they lost the use of their limbs. No distinct articulation could be heard, unless from those immediately by; screams, groans, shouts, and hosannas, notes of grief and joy, all at the same time, were not unfrequently heard throughout their vast assemblies. At Associations and great meetings, where there were several ministers, many of them would officiate at the same time, in different parts of the congregation, some in exhortation, some in praying for the distressed, and some in argument with opposers. At first, many of the preachers disapproved of these exercises, as being enthusiastic and extravagant, others fanned
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them as fire from heaven. It is not unworthy of notice, that in those congregations where preachers encouraged them to much extent, the work was more extensive, and greater numbers were added. It must also be admitted, that in many of those congregations, no little confusion and disorder arose after the revival subsided; some have accounted for this by an old maxim: -- Where much, good is done much evil will also be done; where God sows many good seeds, the enemy will saw many tares. But certain it is that many ministers, who labored earnestly to get christians into their churches, were afterwards perplexed to get hypocrites out."

"From this revival great changes took place among the baptists, some for the better, and others for the worse. Their preachers were becoming much more correct in their manner of preaching. A great many odd tones, disgusting whoops, and awkward gestures were disused. In their matter also, they had more of sound sense and strong reasoning. Their zeal was less mixed with enthusiasm, and their piety became more rational. They were much more numerous, and of course, in the. eyes of the world, more respectable. Besides, they were joined by persons of much greater weight in civil society. Their congregations became more numerous than those of any other christian sect; and, in short, they might be considered, from this period, as taking the lead in matters of religion, in many places of the State. This could not but influence their manners and spirit more or less. Accordingly, a great deal of that simplicity and plainness, that rigid scrupulosity about little matters, which so happily tends to keep us at a distance front greater follies, were laid aside. Their mode of preaching also was somewhat changed. At their first entrance into the State, though not very scrupulous as to their method and language, yet they were quite correct in their views, upon all subjects of primary importance. No preachers ever held out to their hearers the nature of experimental religion more clearly and warmly. But after they had acquired a degree of respectability in the view of the world, they departed too much from this most profitable mode of preaching, and began to harp too much on opinions and disputable points. To dive deep into mysterious subjects, and to make conjectures respecting unrevealed points, looked more wise, and excited more applause, than to travel on in the old track: and this tampering with matters beyond their reach, to the neglect of plain and edifying subjects, is too common at present, with many of our preachers in this region as well as elsewhere."13

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A short Account of the Public Bodies which, in succession, here had the general oversight of the affairs of the Denomination in this State

General Committee. This body was organized in 1784, and continued its operations fifteen years, viz., until 1799, when it was dissolved.

One article in the rules of this body was, that no petition, memorial, or remonstrance, should be presented to the General Assembly, from any Association in connection with the General Committee, without its concurrence. Such was the zeal at this time for appearing before the legislature, where they had always met with a favorable reception, that fears were entertained that the people, in their zeal for freedom, might send some unnecessary instrument of the kind, and thereby injure the cause which was now in a promising way.

Reuben Ford, John Williams, John Leland, and John Waller, appear to have been the most active in conducting the general affairs of the Virginia Baptists in these times.

General Meeting of Correspondence. This meeting, like the General Committee, was formed of Delegates from all the Associations which chose to promote it. It was organized in 1800. and continued in being about twenty years, when it was succeeded by the

BAPTIST GENERAL ASSOCIATION OF VIRGINIA, which was formed in 1823, and has become a body of great efficiency and usefulness.

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Notes


10. Semple's History, &c.
11. Leland's Virginia Chronicle, p. 33.
12. Most of the history of the laws of Virginia are from Hening's work, as quoted by Semple.
13. Semple's History, &c.
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[From David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America, 1848, pp. 652-658. jrd]


Section III of Benedict's Virginia History

Virginia Baptist History
Baptist History Homepage 1