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While the contest between the established clergy and Legislature about the salaries of the clergy, was alienating the public mind from the established church herself, the zealous Baptist preachers were calling the attention of men to the great interests of religion, and preaching, according to their ability, the gospel, without money and without price. Generally without education, but under strong convictions of the necessity of conversions to God, they appealed to the hearts of men on subjects always interesting, but at that time almost novel to the mass of their hearers, reared as they were in the bounds of a parish. Repentance, conversion to God, justification by faith in the imputed righteousness of Christ sounded strangely in the ears of many who were not altogether strangers to the forms of religion. These were the doctrines urged upon the hearts of their hearers by the Baptist ministers, with all the energy of excited spirits inflamed by their contemplations of divine truth, and their thoughts and visions of the spiritual world. Multitudes became believers under their fervent exhortations.
For a time, says Mr. Semple, pp. 14, 15—"the Baptists of North Carolina and Virginia were viewed by men in power as beneath their notice; none, said they, but the weak and wicked join them; let them alone, they will soon fall out among themselves, and come to nothing. In some places this maxim was adhered to, and persecution in a legal shape was never seen. But in many others, alarmed by the rapid increase of the Baptists, the men in power strained every penal law in the Virginia code to obtain ways and means to put down these disturbers of the peace, as they were now called. It seems by no means certain 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; 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 Jan. 1768, John Waller, Lewis Craig, James Childs, &c, were seized by the sheriff, and bailed 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; and at 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 upon the road but they must ram a text of Scripture down his throat. Mr. Waller made his own and his brethren's defence so ingeniously that they were somewhat puzzled to know how to dispose of them. 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 court-house to the prison, through the streets of Fredericksburg, they sung the hymn—' Broad is the road that leads to death.' After four weeks, Lewis Craig was released from prison—Waller and the others continued in jail forty-three days, 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, upon whom the word was in power and demonstration.'' The confinement of these men drew from the Deputy Governor, John Blair, under date of July 16th, 1768, a letter that does honour to his head and heart, 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 misbehaviour are not told, any further than their running into private houses, and making dissensions. Mr. Craig and Benjamin Waller are now with me and deny the charge; they tell me they are willing to take the oaths as others have; I told them I had consulted the Attorney General, who is of opinion that the General Court only have a right 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 license, 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 increases 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 labour and provide for his family as he ought, he incurs their censures, which have had good effects. If this be their behaviour, it were to be wished we had some of it among us: but at least, I hope, all may remain quiet till the court.
I am, with great respect to the Gentlemen, Sir,
"Williamsburg, July 16th, 1768."
"When this letter came to the attorney"—says Semple—"he would have nothing to say in the affair."
Patrick Henry, who had a few years before brought himself into notice by his famous plea against the parsons, in Hanover, hearing of the situation of these Baptist ministers confined in Spottsylvania jail, rode some fifty miles to volunteer his services on the day of their second trial. He entered the courthouse, almost entirely unknown, while the indictment was reading by the clerk. The king's attorney having made some remarks in defence of the prosecution, Mr. Henry taking the paper containing the indictment, said—"May it please your worships, I think I heard read by the prosecutor, as I entered the house, the paper I now hold in my hand. If I have rightly understood, the king's attorney has framed an indictment for the purpose of arraigning, and punishing by imprisonment, these 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 of a crime, that these men, whom your worships are about to try for misdemeanor, are charged with,—with—what?"—Then in a low, solemn, heavy tone he continued—" preaching the gospel of the Son of God?" Pausing amid profound silence, he waved the paper three times round his head, then raising his eyes and hands to heaven, with peculiar and impressive energy, he exclaimed—" Great God!" A burst of feeling from the audience followed this exclamation. Mr. Henry resumed—"May it please your worships, in a day like this,—when truth is about to burst her fetters,—when mankind are about to be aroused to claim their natural and inalienable rights—when the yoke of oppression that has reached the wilderness of America, and the unnatural alliance of ecclesiastical and civil power, are about to be dissevered,—at such a period, when liberty,—liberty of conscience,—is about to wake from her slumberings, and inquire into the reason of such charges as I find exhibited here to-day in this indictment,"—here he paused, and alternately cast his piercing eyes upon the Court and upon the prisoners, and resumed,—"If I am not deceived, according to the contents of the paper I now hold in my hand, these men are accused of preaching the gospel of the Son of God!—Great God!" A deeper impression was visible as he paused, and slowly waved the paper round his head. "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,—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 these American wilds,—from the moment they placed their feet upon the American continent, from that moment despotism was crushed, the 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 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 be tried? This paper says, for preaching the gospel of the Saviour to Adam's fallen race." For the third time he slowly waved the indictment around his head, and lifting his eyes to heaven in a solemn dignified manner, and again looking at the Court, he exclaimed with the full power of his strong voice—" What laivs have they violated?" The scene now became painful,— the audience were excited,—the attorney was agitated,—the bench and bar were moved; and the presiding magistrate exclaimed, "Sheriff, discharge those men/'
Spottsylvania in a few years wiped away this stain, when the gentlemen assembled in Fredericksburg, in opposition to Dunmore, on the 29th of April, 1775, pledged themselves "to preserve their liberty at the hazard of their lives and fortunes," —and appealed to "God to save the liberties of America."
In different counties the persecution of the Baptists continued. Its weight fell mostly upon those who were called Separate Baptists, who did not, for various reasons, obtain license for their nouses of worship, as the regular Baptists generally did. Semple, pp. 294 and 5. At the meeting of the southern district at Hall's meeting-house in Halifax, the second Saturday of May, 1774,—" Letters were received from preachers confined in prison, particularly from David Tinsley, then in Chesterfield jail. The hearts of their brethren were affected at their sufferings, in consequence of which, it was agreed to raise contributions for their aid. Agreed to set apart the second and third Saturday in June, as public fast days, in behalf of our poor blind persecutors, and for the releasement of our brethren." These fast days aroused all the sympathies of their brethren, and of multitudes who had no special attachment to either the persons or doctrines of the Baptists.
In this state of things, it is not wonderful, if the Baptists showed themselves opposed to all laws that favoured one denomination of religion to the detriment of all, or any others; or if they sought opportunities to gain in religion, what all classes were now seeking to gain in the State, freedom from oppression.
By the agencies that have been glanced at, freedom of conscience began to have a place in men's ideas, and to become a subject of public discussion: and when, the next year, the subject of religious freedom began to be agitated, in the Legislature, as a thing to have an existence and a home in Virginia, it is supposed by Mr. Jefferson, that two thirds of the people of Virginia were dissenters from the Established Church.
PROGRESS OF FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE, DURING THE TIMES OF THE REVOLUTION, AND THE AID GIVEN BY MR. JEFFERSON AND MR. MADISON.
During the American Revolution, all classes of community were agitated, and all interests were discussed in private meetings and public assemblies. From causes already stated, a large portion of the inhabitants of the colony of Virginia had become dissenters from the Established Church. The continuators of Burke's History say, page 180—" The dissenters constituted at least two thirds of the people''—at the time of the Declaration of Independence. In the class of dissenters he probably ranked Presbyterians, Baptists, Germans, Quakers, and those by education favourable to the Episcopal church, but, disinclined to the Establishment on account of the proceedings of the clergy. Should his statement be thought to be extravagant it will yet be conceded by all, that, the number opposed to the,Church of England, as established in America, was very large.
The attention of the General Assembly was favourably turned to the condition of religious congregations—and the subject of toleration necessarily became a subject of legislative action. That something must be done to relieve those, disagreeing with the forms and creed of the Church of England, was beyond discussion or doubt. But what should be done? what could be