WHEN the Baptists first appeared in North Carolina and Virginia, they 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 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, how. ever, 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 haled 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 upon the road, but they must 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 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,” etc. This had an awful appearance. 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 misbehaviour 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 oaths, 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 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 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 respects to the gentlemen, Sir,your humble servant, JOHN BLAIR . “Williamsburg, July 16, 1768.” When the letter came to the Attorney, he would have nothing to say in the affair. 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, 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 all their exertions; insomuch, that in very few sections of Virginia did the Baptist cause appear more formidable to its enemies, and more consoling to its friends, than in Spottsylvania; and we may add, so it is to this day.
We have already observed the spread of the gospel in the county of Goochland, and that certain promising young preachers were thrust into the work. Animated as they were with strong desires for the welfare of souls, they could not restrain themselves within the limits of one county.
In December, 1770, Messrs. William Webber and Joseph Anthony, two zealous young preachers, passed James-river, into Chesterfield, having been previously invited by some of the inhabitants. They, however, met with rigid treatment. The magistrates, finding that many were turning to righteousness, (to madness, as they would have it) and that these young laborers were likely to do them much harm, issued warrants, and had them apprehended and cast into prison. The Court requiring them to bind themselves to do what they could not in conscience comply with, they continued in jail until the March following. While in prison they did much execution by preaching through the grates; many people attended their ministry, and many professed faith by virtue of the labors of these, the Lord’s persecuted servants. This was the beginning of God’s work in the county of Chesterfield; no county ever extended its opposition and persecution to the Baptists farther than this; and yet in few counties have Baptist principles prevailed more extensively.
When Webber and Anthony were let go, they returned to Goochland, to their own company, and resumed their great work: Mr. Webber, however, enjoyed his liberty only a few months. He consented to travel with John Waller, on a course of meetings, to Middlesex, to the upper end of which place they arrived on the 10th of August, 1771. They soon found, however, there was no chance to proceed in their work. While Webber was preaching from these words, “Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew you my faith by my works,” a magistrate pushed up, and drew back his club, with a design to knock him down; some person behind him caught the club, and prevented the mischief. Having a warrant to apprehend all who preached, and being backed by two Sheriffs, he seized William Webber, John Waller, James Greenwood, and Robert Ware. On the same day, Thomas Waford, who had traveled from the upper country with the preachers, though no preacher himself, was severely beaten by one of the persecutors with a whip, the scar of which he will probably carry to his grave; he with the four above-named preachers, were tried by James Montague.They first searched their saddle-bags, to find treasonable papers; finding none, they proceeded to trial, taking them, one by one, into private rooms, proposing to them to give bond and security not to preach in the county again. Each of them expressly refused; Waford was discharged, not being a preacher; the other four were ordered to prison, and being conducted by two Sheriffs, they were safely lodged in close jail that night, about 9 o’clock. Having borrowed a candle of the jailer, and sung the praises of that Redeemer whose cross they bore, and from whose hands they expected a crown in the end — and having returned thanks that it was a prison and not hell that they were in — praying for themselves, their friends, their enemies, and persecutors, — they laid down to sleep. The next day being Sabbath, many of their friends came to see them, and were admitted into the prison: James Greenwood preached to them; they were well supplied by their friends with the necessaries and comforts for living, which, added to the sense of divine goodness that they enjoyed, they had not, on the whole, an unpleasant season. They gave notice that they would preach every Wednesday and Sunday. Many came to hear them, insomuch that their enemies began to be enraged, and would frequently beat a drum while they were preaching.
On Monday the 24th, being Court day, they were carried to the courthouse to be tried. A guard attended them, as if they had been criminals.
They were not allowed to speak for themselves, but peremptorily required to give bond and security for good behavior, and not to preach in the county again for one year. These terms they expressly refused, and were remanded to prison, and orders given that they should be fed on bread and water; accordingly the next day they had nothing else, and not enough of bread. Thus it continued for four days, until the brethren and friends found it out; after that, they were furnished so plentifully that they bestowed much upon the poor inhabitants of the town. On September 10th, they were allowed the prison bounds, by which they were much relieved; yet they were frequently under the necessity of resorting to the jail, to avoid the rage of persecutors. The Lord daily opened the hearts of the people: the rich sent many presents, things calculated to nourish them in their sufferings, and alleviate their sorrows. Mr. Webber fell sick; this excited the sympathy of their friends in a higher degree, and they paid him great attention. The persecutors found that the imprisonment of the preachers tended rather to the furtherance of the gospel; for they preached regularly in their prison, crowds attended to hear, and their preaching seemed to have a double weight when coming from the jail; many viewed it with superstitious reverence, so that their enemies became desirous to be rid of them. Accordingly, on the 26th day of September, after having been thirty days in close confinement, and sixteen days in the bounds, they were liberated, upon giving a bond for good behavior.
The rage of persecutors had in no wise abated; they seemed, sometimes, to strive to treat the Baptists and their worship with as much rudeness and indecency as was possible. They often insulted the preachers in time of service, and would ride into the water, and make sport, when they administered baptism. They frequently fabricated and spread the most groundless reports, which were injurious to the characters of the Baptists; and when a Baptist fell into any improper conduct, it was always exaggerated to the utmost extent. On one occasion, when Robert Ware was preaching, there came two sons of Belial, one named Davis and the other Kemp, and stood before him with a bottle, and drank, offering the bottle to him, cursing him. As soon as he closed his service, they drew out a pack of cards, and began to play on the stage where he had been standing, wishing him to reprove them, that they might beat him. But it is worthy of note, that these two men both died soon after, ravingly distracted, each accusing the other of leading him into so detestable a crime. Notwithstanding these severe oppositions, the word of the Lord grew and multiplied greatly.
Young preachers were ordained, and churches constituted; the first of which was Lower King and Queen church, constituted October 17, 1772, with seventeen members, and on the 1lth February following, Robert Ware was ordained as pastor. Glebe Landing church was also constituted at the same time, and James Greenwood was ordained a lay-elder. Exol and Piscataway churches were constituted in no great while after this. These new churches, filled with young and inexperienced members, were visited frequently by John Waller, accompanied sometimes by one, and sometimes by another of the preachers of his own vicinity. His ministrations, on the one hand, were exceeding salutary and comfortable to his friends; but on the other, highly displeasing to the enemies of the Baptists. They viewed Waller as the ring-leader of all the confusion and disturbance that had befallen them. Great congregations of people attended the Baptist meetings, while very few went to the parish churches. The zealots for the old order were greatly embarrassed: If, say they, we permit them to go on, our church must come to nothing; and yet, if we punish them, as far as we can stretch the law, it seems not to deter them; for they preach through prison windows, in spite of our endeavours to prevent it.
Sometimes the rector of the parish would give notice, that on a certain day, he would prove the Baptists to be deceivers, and their doctrines false. The attempt was often made, but they uniformly injured their own cause; their arguments were generally drawn from the extravagancies of the German Anabaptists; to this the Baptists in a word replied, that they disclaimed all connection with the Anabaptists, and felt themselves no more responsible for their irregularities, than the Episcopalians could feel for the fooleries of the Papists; that the BIBLE was the criterion; by that they were willing to stand or fall. Not unfrequently, their leading men would attend the Baptist meetings, and would enter into arguments with the preachers: they insisted that their church was the oldest, and consequently the best; that their ministers were learned men, and consequently most competent to interpret scripture; that the better sort and well-informed, adhered to them, whilst none, or scarcely any except the lower order, followed the Baptists; that they were all in peace and friendship before the coming of the Baptists, but now their houses and neighbourhoods were filled with religious disputes; that the Baptists were false prophets, who were to come in sheeps’ clothing.
To these arguments, Waller and the other preachers, boldly and readily replied, that if they were wolves in sheeps’ clothing, and their opponents were true sheep, it was quite unaccountable that they were persecuted, and cast into prison; it is well known that wolves would destroy sheep, but never, until then, 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; and to rouse them from this lethargy, was like waking a man whose house was burning over him; that the effects of their coming was similar to those foretold by Christ, as arising from the propagation of his word, namely, “that there should be five in one house, three against two, and two against three; ” that if the higher ranks in society did not countenance them, it was no more than what befel their Master, and his inspired Apostles; that rich men, in every generation, with some few exceptions, were enemies to a pure gospel; but that God had declared. that he had chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith; that, it was true, most of their preachers were unlearned, yet that they had evidences they were called to the ministry by the will of God; that this was the most essential qualification of a minister, the want of which, all the learning of all the schools could not supply.
The Baptist preachers would often retort their own inconsistencies upon them; that while they professed to be Christians, they indulged themselves in the violation of most of the Christian precepts; that their communion was often polluted, by the admission of known drunkards, gamesters, swearers, and revellers; that even their clergy, learned as they were, had never learned the most essential doctrine of Revelation, the indispensable necessity of the new birth, or being born again; that their publick discourses were nothing more than moral addresses, such as a pagan philosopher, unassisted by the Bible, could have composed.
Foiled in their arguments, and galled by the reproaches cast upon them, which, doubtless, were often done with too much acrimony, they again resorted to the civil power. In August, 1772, James Greenwood and William Loveall were preaching, not far from the place where Bruington meeting-house now stands, in the county of King and Queen, when they were seized by virtue of a warrant, and immediately conveyed to prison.
After the first day and night, they were allowed the bounds. Having continued in prison sixteen days, until Court, they were discharged, upon giving bond merely for good behavior. At this season they received the most unbounded kindness from Mr. Harwood the jailer, and his lady.
They preached regularly while in prison, and to much purpose.
On March l3th, 1774, the day on which Piscataway church was constituted, a warrant was issued to apprehend all the Baptist preachers that were at meeting. Accordingly, John Waller, John Shackleford, Robert Ware, and Ivison Lewis, were taken and carried before a magistrate. Ivison Lewis was dismissed, not having preached in the county; the other four were sent to pr!son. It appears from Waller’s journals, that while in prison, God permitted them to pass through divers and fiery trials; their minds, for a season, being greatly harassed by the enemy of souls. They, however, from first to last of their imprisonment, preached twice a week, gave much godly advice to such as came to visit them, read a great deal, and prayed almost without ceasing. In their stated devotion, morning, noon, and night, they were often joined by others. They continued in close confinement from the l3th to the 21st of March, which was Court day; being brought to trial, they were required to give bond and security for their good behavior for twelve months, or go back to prison. Ware and Shackleford gave bond, and went home; Waller, being always doubtful of the propriety of giving any bond whatever, determined to go back to jail.
The trials of this man of God were now greater than ever. Deserted by his brethren, scoffed at, persecuted by his enemies, locked up with a set of drunken, profane wretches, he had no alternative but to commit himself to the hands of his God, and wait his deliverance. After remaining in prison fourteen days, he gained his own consent to give bond, and go home.
We have thus stated a few instances of the sufferings of God’s ministers in those times; time and space would fail to enumerate them all. They used to preach to the people through the grates; to prevent which, some illdisposed men would be at the expense of erecting a high wall round the prison; others would employ half-drunken strolls to beat a drum round the prison, to prevent the people from hearing. Sometimes matches and pepper-pods were burnt at the prison door, and many such afflictions the dear disciples went through. About thirty preachers were honored with a dungeon, and a few others beside. Some of them were imprisoned as often as four times, besides all the mobs and perils they went through. The dragon roared with hideous peals, but was not red — the beast appeared formidable, but was not scarlet-coloured. Virginia soil has never been stained with vital blood for conscience sake. — Leland’s Virginia Chronicle.
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 law; that they were entitled to the same privileges that were enjoyed by the dissenters in England: their judges, however, decided otherwise; 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. When they could not succeed in this way, they resorted to the General Court, for the purpose of obtaining licensed places for preaching, etc. agreeably to the toleration law in England.
On this subject Mr. Edwards has the following observations: “Some, who have allowed the sufferings of the Baptists in Virginia to be of the nature of persecution, have also said, “that they may blame themselves for them, because they refused to put themselves under the protection of the Toleration Act.” To this it may be replied, that the spread of the Baptists in Virginia is almost a new thing, and that among people, who, for the most part, knew little of law, and of the rights and privileges of protestant dissenters. However, it is not true that Baptists have either refused or neglected to claim their rights. Some have obtained licenses, others have been refused under various pretences; some alleging that the Toleration Act was not in force in Virginia, because it is of later date than their charter, and was never formally adopted by the Legislature; others, that they never would adopt it, but keep it out of the province as they did the Stamp Act; and some, that it was the business of the Assembly, and not of justices of inferior Courts, to grant licenses. By these means, the suits of the Baptists were deferred, and the clergy, magistrates, and mobs, in many places, continued to treat them despitefully. At last, the Baptists addressed the Assembly for their privileges as protestant dissenters. The Assembly, instead of adopting the Toleration Act as it was framed in England, drew up a bill something like it. When this made its appearance in the publick papers, the Baptists saw themselves under a necessity of remonstrating about it, and of renewing their claim to peace and impunity, in consequence of the Toleration Act, which, in their opinion, is coextensive with the establishment of the Church of England.”
It was in making these attempts, that they were so fortunate as to interest in their behalf the celebrated Patrick Henry; being always the friend of liberty, he only needed to be informed of their oppression; without hesitation, he stepped forward to their relief. From that time, until the day of their complete emancipation from the shackles of tyranny, the Baptists found, in Patrick Henry, an unwavering friend; after some difficulty they obtained their object, and certain places were licensed accordingly. But to a people, prompted as the Baptists were, with unwearied zeal for the propagation of the gospel, a few licensed places in each county was but a small acquisition; they thirsted for the liberty to preach the gospel to every creature.
In the mean time, every thing tended to favor their wishes; their persecution, so far from impeding, really promoted their cause; their preachers had now become numerous, and some of them were men of considerable talents. Many of the leading men favored them, 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, although but 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.
We have already seen that the first Separate Baptist Church, north of James-river, was formed in 1767, and the second in 1769; so that, at the commencement of the year 1770, there were but two Separate churches in all Virginia, north of James-river; and we may add, there were not more than about four on the south side. In 1774, by referring to the History of the General Association, we find, that there were thirty on the south, and twenty-four on the north side, that sent letters, etc. to the Association; besides a probability of several that did not associate. By which it appears, that about fifty churches were gathered in about four years, which must be considered a most rapid and astonishing increase. But the Baptist interest increased in a much greater proportion. So favorable did their prospects appear, that towards the close of the year 1774, they began to entertain serious hopes, not only of obtainingliberty of conscience, but of actually overturning the church establishment, from whence all their oppressions had arisen. Petitions for this purpose were accordingly drawn, and circulated with great industry. Vast numbers readily and eagerly subscribed to them.
The great success and rapid increase of the Baptists in Virginia, must be ascribed primarily to the power of God working with them; yet it cannot be denied, but that there were subordinate and cooperating causes; one of which, and the main one, was the loose and immoral deportment of the established clergy, by which the people were left almost destitute of even the shadow of true religion. It is true, they had some outward forms of worship, but the essential principles of Christianity were not only not understood among them, but by many never heard of. Some of the cardinal precepts of morality were disregarded, and actions plainly forbidden by the New-Testament were often proclaimed by the clergy, harmless and innocent, or at worst, foibles of but little account. Having no discipline, every man followed the bent of his own inclination. It was not uncommon for rectors of parishes to be men of the loosest morals. The Baptist preachers were, in almost every respect, the reverse of the established clergy; without learning, without patronage, generally very poor, plain in their dress, unrefined in their manners, awkward in their address; all of which, by their enterprising zeal and unwearied perseverance, they either turned to advantage, or prevented their ill effects. On the other hand, most of the ministers of the establishment were men of classical educations, patronised by men in power, connected with great families, supported by competent salaries, and put into office by the strong arm of civil power.
Thus pampered and secure, the men of this order were rolling on the bed of luxury, when the others began their extraordinary career. Their learning, riches, power, etc. seemed only to hasten their overthrow, by producing an unguarded heedlessness, which is so often the prelude to calamity and downfall.
We are not to understand, that this important ecclesiastical revolution was effected wholly by the Baptists; it is true, they were the most active, but they were joined by other dissenters; neither was the whole dissenting interest united, at that time, equal to the accomplishment of such a revolution; but we must turn our eyes to the political state of the country, to find adequate causes for such a change.
The British yoke had now galled to the quick, and the Virginians, having the most tender necks, were the first to manifest uneasiness. 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.
It is said, however, and probably not without truth, that many of the Episcopalians, who voted for abolishing the establishment, did it upon an expectation that it would be succeeded by a general assessment; and, considering that most of the men of wealth were on that side, they supposed that their funds would be lessened very little. This, it appeared in the sequel, was a vain expectation. The people having once shaken off the fetters, would not again permit themselves to be bound. Moreover, the war now rising to its height, they were in too much 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.
Having thus mentioned the establishment, it will be proper to treat more fully respecting the origin and nature of those laws, by which it arose and fell.
The first settlers of Virginia being chiefly emigrants from England, brought with them all that religious intolerance which had so long prevailed in the mother country. Thus we see, that the first care of the early Legislatures, was to provide for the Church of England, as established by the act of Parliament. By the first act of 1623, it is provided, that in every plantation or settlement, there shall be a house or room set apart for the worship of God. But it soon appears that this worship was only to be according to the canons of the Church of England, to which.a strict uniformity was enjoined. A person absenting himself from divine service on a Sunday, without a reasonable excuse, forfeited a pound of tobacco; and he that absented himself a month, forfeited fifty pounds. Any minister, who was absent from his church above two months in a year, forfeited half his salary; and he who absented himself four months, forfeited the whole.
Whoever disparaged a minister, whereby the minds of the parishioners might be alienated, was compelled to pay five hundred pounds of tobacco, and ask the minister’s pardon publickly in the congregation. No man was permitted to dispose of any of his tobacco, till the minister was satisfied, under the penalty of forfeiting double his part of the minister’s salary.
The first allowance made to the ministers was ten pounds of tobacco and a bushel of corn for each titheable: and every laboring person, of what quality or condition soever, was bound to contribute. In the year 1631, the Assembly granted to the ministers, besides the former allowance of ten pounds of tobacco and a bushel of corn, the twentieth calf, the twentieth kid, and the twentieth pig. This was the first introduction of tythes, properly so called, in Virginia. But it did not continue long, for the law was repealed in 1633.
To preserve the “purity of doctrine, and unity of the church,” it was enacted in 1643 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 publickly 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 statute of England of the 3d of James I. against popish recusants, was also adopted in Virginia, in the year 1643. This statute declared, that no popish recusant should exercise the office of secret counselor, register, commissioner, (a term then used for justices of the peace) surveyor, or sheriff, or any other publick office. Nor should any person be admitted into any of those offices, before he had taken the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. The same act of Assembly, by which the statute of:3d James I. was adopted, further declared, that if any person should assume the exercise of any of those offices, and refuse to take the said oaths, he should be dismissed, and moreover forfeit one thousand pounds of tobacco. No popish priest thereafter arriving in the colony, was permitted to remain more than five days, if wind and weather permitted his departure.
During the existence of the commonwealth of England, the church government of Virginia experienced an important change. Instead of enjoining obedience to the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England, no injunction in favor of any particular sect appears. Every thing relating to the affairs of the church, was left at the entire disposal of the vestry, who being elected by the people, it may, in effect, be said that the people regulated their own church government.
The Quakers were now flying from persecution in England. They cast their eyes on these new countries, as asylums of civil and religious freedom; but they soon found them free only for the reigning sect. When they first made their appearance in Virginia, the utmost degree of persecution was exercised towards them. Several acts of the Virginia Assembly of 1659, 1662, and 1663, had made it penal in their parents to refuse to have their children baptized; had prohibited the unlawful assembling of the Quakers; had made it penal for any master of a vessel to bring a Quaker into the State; and ordered those already here, and such as should come hereafter, to be imprisoned till they should abjure the country; provided a milder punishment for their first and second return, but death for the third; had inhibited all persons from suffering their meetings in or near their houses, entertaining them individually, or disposing of books which supported their tenets. If no capital execution took place here, as did in New-England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or spirit of the Legislature, as may be inferred from the law itself; but to historical circumstances, which have not been handed down to us.
This severe law against the Quakers passed during the commonwealth, when the people were unrestrained in matters of religion; but it happened in this case, as it generally has, where the civil power undertakes to interfere at all, that the ruling party in the State will tolerate no religion in the church, but their own.
A levy of fifteen pounds of tobacco per poll, was laid in the year 1655, upon all titheables; the surplus of which, after paying the minister’s salary, was to be laid out in purchasing a glebe and stock for the minister.
This law was re-enacted in the revisal of 1657. After the restoration of Charles II. which happened on the 29th of May, 1660, a temporary provision was again made for the established church.
In the year 1661, the supremacy of the Church of England was again fully established. The first nine acts of the session, held in March, 1661-62, are devoted to that subject. A church was to be built in each parish, and vestries appointed. Glebes were directed to be procured for the ministers, and convenient houses built thereon; in addition to which, their salaries were fixed at 80 pounds per annum, at least, besides their perquisites. No minister was permitted to preach, unless he had received ordination from some bishop in England. If any person, without such ordination, attempted to preach publickly or privately, the Governor and Council might suspend and silence him; and, if he persisted, they were empowered to send him out of the country. In those parishes,where there was not a minister to officiate every Sunday, a reader was to be appointed, whose duty it was to read divine service every intervening Sunday. The Liturgy, according to the canons of the church of England, was to be read every Sunday by the minister or reader; and the administration of the sacraments was to be duly observed. No other catechism than that inserted in the book of common prayer could be taught by the minister; nor could a reader attempt to expound that or the Scriptures. Ministers were compelled to preach every Sunday; one Sunday in a month at the chapel, if any, and the others at the parish church, and twice a year he was compelled to administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Every person was compelled to go to church every Sunday, under the penalty of fifty pounds of tobacco. But Quakers and non-conformists were liable to the penalties of the statute of 23d Elizabeth,which was 20 pounds sterling for every month’s absence, and, moreover, for twelve month’s absence, to give security for their good behavior.Quakers were further liable to a fine of two hundred pounds of tobacco, for each one found at one of their meetings; and in case of the insolvency of any one of them, those who were able were to pay for the insolvents. Various other laws passed between the above period and the commencement of the American revolution, by which the Episcopal establishment was protected. The salary of the ministers was first settled at sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco in the year 1696, to be levied by the vestry on the titheables of their parish, and so continued to the revolution. Any minister admitted into a parish, was entitled to all the spiritual and temporal rights thereof, and might maintain an action against any person who attempted to disturb him in his possession. The same acts provided for the purchase of glebes for the ministers.
Though the Toleration Law is not believed to have been strictly obligatory in Virginia, yet, as was frequently the case at that period, it was acted under in many instances. That it was doubtful whether acts of parliament respecting religion were in force in Virginia, appears by the act of October, 1776, chapter 2d, section 1st. Even this act of toleration is a most flagrant violation of religious freedom.
At the October session, 1776, the first law was passed suspending the payment of the salaries formerly allowed to the ministers of the Church of England. The preamble of this act is worthy of consideration, and was, probably, drawn by Mr. Jefferson, who was then a member. A number of memorials from different religious societies, dissenters from the Church of England, were presented to this Assembly, praying to be exempted from parochial dues to the Church of England, and for the abolition of the established church. In opposition to these, there was a memorial from the clergymen of the Church of England, praying that the establishment might be continued.
These memorials formed the basis of the act of that session above mentioned. This act, “for exempting the different societies of dissenters from contributing to the support and maintenance of the church, as by law established, and its ministers,” was preceded by a set of resolutions, recognizing the same principles which were afterwards engrafted into the act itself. It does not appear by what majority this act passed, as the ayes and noes were not taken on it. At the May session, 1777, the payment of the salaries, allowed to the clergy of the Church of England, was further suspended; and at the October session, 1779, so much of every act as related to the salaries formerly given to the clergy of the Church of England, was repealed.
The question, as to the propriety of a general assessment, had long been much agitated, and a great variety of opinions existed respecting it. By the 6th section of the act of October, 1776, which first suspended the payment of the salaries allowed to the clergy of the Church of England, this question as to a general assessment is expressly left undecided.
In 1784, the subject of a general assessment was again revived. 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 provision for the teachers of the Christian religion; ” but on its third reading, it was postponed till the fourth Thursday of November then next; ayes 45, noes 38. The following resolution was immediately afterwards adopted: “Resolved, that the engrossed bill, establishing a provision for the teachers of the Christian religion, together with the names of the ayes and noes on the question of postponing the third reading of the said bill to the fourth Thursday in November next, be published in hand-bills, and twelve copies thereof delivered to each member of the General Assembly, to be distributed in their respective counties; and that the people thereof be requested to signify their opinion respecting the adoption of such a bill to the next sesston of Assembly.”
The above resolution drew forth a number of able and animated memorials from religious societies of different denominations, against the general assessment.
The General Committee of the Virginia Baptists took a decided stand against this bill, and at their annual session in 1785, thus expressed their sentiments: Resolved, that it be recommended to those counties, which have not yet prepared petitions to be presented to the General Assembly, against the engrossed bill for a general assessment for the support of the teachers of the Christian religion, to proceed thereon as soon as possible:
That it is believed to be repugnant to the spirit of the gospel, for the Legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion: That no human laws ought to be established for this purpose, but that every person ought to be left entirely free, in respect to matters of religion: That the holy Author of our religion needs no such compulsive measures for the promotion of his cause: That the gospel wants not the feeble arm of man for its support:
That it has made, and will again, through divine power, make its way against all opposition: And that, should the Legislature assume the right of taxing the people for the support of the gospel, it will be destructive to religious liberty: Therefore, this Committee agrees unanimously, that it will be expedient to appoint a delegate to wait on the General Assembly, with a remonstrance and petition against such assessment.”
Accordingly, the Rev. Reuben Ford was appointed, who accomplished the object of his appointment to the satisfaction of his brethren. But a paper drawn up by Colossians James Madison (now President of the United States) entitled a Memorial and Remonstrance, was the most distinguished instrument. The style is elegant and perspicuous, and for strength of reasoning and purity of principle, it has seldom been equalled, certainly never surpassed, by any thing on the subject in the English language. (See Appendix.)
The sentiments of the people appearing to be decidedly against a general assessment, the question was given up forever.
And here it is proper to remark, that the suppression of the bill for a general assessment may, in a considerable degree, be ascribed to the opposition made to it by the Baptists, for it is stated by those who were conversant with the proceedings of those times, that the reference made to the people, after the bill was engrossed, was done with a design to give the different religious societies an opportunity of expressing their wishes. The Baptists, we believe, were the only sect who plainly remonstrated. Of some others, it is said, that the laity and ministry were at variance upon the subject, so as to paralyze their exertions, either for or against the bill.
These remarks, by the bye, apply only to religious societies, acting as such. Individuals of all sects and parties joined in the opposition. “And Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, Deists, and the covetous, readily and eagerly signed the petitions against it.” At the same session, however, (Oct. 1784,) in which the bill providing for a general assessment failed, an act passed for “incorporating the Protestant Episcopal Church.” This bill passed the House of Delegates by a small majority only, being, ayes 47, noes 38; but in 1786 it was repealed. By the repealing law, the property belonging to all religious societies was secured to those societies respectively, who were authorized to appoint, from time to time, according to the rules of their sect, trustees for the managing and applying such property to the religious uses of the society. And all laws, which prevented any religious society from regulating its own discipline, were repealed.
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 ceremony prescribed in the book of common prayer. Cases, however, frequently occurred, especially during the war, where the marriage ceremony was performed by others. This gave rise to an act of October, 1780, which declared all former marriages, celebrated by dissenting ministers, good and valid in law; and authorized the county courts to license dissenting ministers of the gospel, not exceeding four to each sect, to celebrate the rites of matrimony within their counties only.
The General Committee also interested themselves in these proceedings, and delegated Messrs. Reuben Ford and John Leland to wait on the Assembly with a memorial on the subject.
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 the late revisal of the Virginia laws.
It appears that many of the Baptist preachers among other dissenters, presuming on a future sanction of government, had ventured to marry those who applied to them. For a set of preachers to proceed to solemnize the rites of matrimony, without any law to authorize them, may, at first view, appear to be a heedless and censurable measure.But we are informed that they were advised to it by their friend Patrick Henry, as being the most certain method of obtaining the law which they had in view. Their attempts succeeded. But it is still a question with some, whether this was not doing evil that good might come.
TheLegislature of 1798 repealed all laws vesting property in the hands of any religious sect, by which the Episcopalians were deprived of the glebes, etc. by which all religious sects were put into a state of perfect equality, as it respected the favors of government. 3