Persecution of Virginia Baptists influenced James Madison to Defend Liberty of Conscience - American Minute with Bill Federer

Persecution of Virginia Baptists influenced James Madison to Defend Liberty of Conscience

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In times of crisis people turn to Christ, and following the crisis of the French and Indian War, Americans turned to Christ in religious revivals.

Virginia's government, though, was established Anglican, and imposed strict lockdowns on unapproved church gatherings.
A Virginia historical marker reads:
"John Weatherford's Grave ... Baptist Preacher ... and early advocate of religious liberty, jailed for five months ... for unlicensed preaching. His release was secured by Patrick Henry."
Another marker stated:
"Crooked Run Baptist Church ... Thomas Ammon became a minister and was imprisoned in the Culpeper jail for preaching."
A marker in Caroline County, Virginia, stated:
"1771, The Hermon Baptist Association to commemorate the heroism of
  • Bartholomew Chewing,
  • John Young,
  • Lewis Craig,
  • Edward Herndon,
  • John Burrus,
  • James Goodrich,
who by the order of the court ... were imprisoned in the Caroline County jail ... on the charge of 'teaching and preaching the Gospel without having Episcopal ordination or a license from the General Court.'"
Robert B. Semple's History of the Baptists of Virginia (1810, p. 25) recounted:
“The ... rapid increase of the Baptists in Virginia must be ascribed primarily to the power of God working with them ...
Yet ... there were ... cooperating causes; one of which ... 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.
‘Tis 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 ...
Having no discipline, every man followed the bent of his own inclination. It was not uncommon for the rectors of parishes to be men of the lowest morals.
The Baptist preachers were, in almost every respect, the reverse of the Established clergy”
Established Anglican clergy, called "parsons" received income in the form of tobacco from farmers.
In 1763, there was a poor harvest and farmers were being forced off their farms to pay debts, yet the parsons insisted on being paid the usual amount.
The "Parson's Cause" case went before King George III, who sided with the established clergy.
Patrick Henry, in his first major public appearance as an attorney, December 1763, successfully convinced the jury to reduce the damages farmers had to pay to one penny, declaring:
"That a King, by disallowing Acts of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerated into a tyrant and forfeits all right to his subjects' obedience."
James Madison wrote to William Bradford, January 24, 1774, about the fate of Baptist ministers who were canceled and imprisoned by official state clergy:
"That diabolical hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal infamy the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such business. This vexes me the most of anything whatever.
There are at this time in the adjacent Culpeper County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in jail for publishing their religious sentiments which in the main are very orthodox ...
So I (leave you) to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us,"
Charles F. James wrote in Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia (Lynchburg, VA: J. P. Bell Company, 1900, pp. 12-14, 26):
“While yielding a ready obedience to the civil authorities in all civil affairs, in matters of religion they recognized no lord but Christ. They were truly apostolic in refusing to obey man rather than God.”
In 1768, three Baptist ministers, John Waller, Lewis Craig, and James Childs, were arrested in Spottsylvania County, Virginia, for preaching to a crowd in violation of the government lockdown orders.
After 4 weeks in prison, Lewis Craig was brought to trial. Governor John Blair, Sr., rebuked the sheriff of Spottsylvania County:
"You may not molest these conscientious men, so long as they behave themselves in a manner becoming pious Christians.
I am told that they differ in nothing from our Church but in (the manner of) Baptism, and their renewing of the ancient discipline, by which they have reformed some sinners and brought them to be truly penitent ...
If this be their behavior, it were to be wished we had some of it among us."
After 8 more weeks in prison, John Waller and James Childs were brought to trial for "preaching the Gospel contrary to law."
Patrick Henry road 50 miles to defend them.
The prosecuting attorney told the judge:
"May it please your worship, these men are great disturbers of the peace: they can not meet a man upon the road, but they must ram a text of Scripture down his throat!"
In their defense, Henry addressed the court:
"May it please your lordships, what did I hear read? Did I hear an expression that these men, whom you worships are about to try for misdemeanor, are charged with preaching the Gospel of the Son of God?"
Henry successfully secured their release.
In 1770, Baptist preachers, William Webber and Joseph Anthony, were arrested and thrown into Chesterfield County jail, where "they did much execution by preaching through the grates of their windows."
In Middlesex County several Baptist ministers were canceled, denied rights, and imprisoned. The Virginia Gazette, 1772, reported that authorities:
"... sought to justify the persecution, charging Baptists with heresy and hateful doctrines, with disturbing the peace of religion, and denying that they were entitled to the benefit of the toleration act."
Rev. James Ireland was a Baptist preacher.
A plaque stated:
"In memory of James Ireland, Minister of the Gospel, Born in Edinburgh, Scotland and converted in Frederick County, Va. Baptized and ordained at Sandy Creek, NC.
Imprisoned at Culpeper, Va. for preaching the gospel. Organizer of Baptist churches, pastor of Buckmarsh Baptist Church 1786-1806. His body lies in Buckmarsh Cemetery near here.
'Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye, for we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.' Acts IV: 19-20"
James Ireland was one of thirty Baptist preachers imprisoned in Virginia from 1768-1770.
Warned that he would be arrested if he preached, he stood on a table and began speaking.
Two men seized him and dragged him to jail.
Thrown in a cell infested with mice and spiders, the jailer, who owned the local tavern, encouraged drunks to beat him up.
Ireland still summoned strength to preach through the bars of his cell window to the crowd gathered outside.
Local authorities broke up the crowd by sending horsemen to ride through and trample them.
In spite of attempts on his life, such as poisonings or filling his cell with smoke, Ireland wrote letters to his friends: "From My Palace in Culpepper."
Ireland went on to plant many Baptist churches.
Francis L. Hawks wrote in Contributions to the Ecclesiastical History of the United States of America (1836):
"No dissenters in Virginia experienced for a time harsher treatment than the Baptists ... They were beaten and imprisoned ... Cruelty taxed ingenuity to devise new modes of punishment and annoyance."
James Madison was born March 16, 1751, in King George County, Virginia, the oldest of 12 children.
Madison recalled as a boy standing with his father outside the jail in the village of Orange and hear Baptists preaching from cell windows -- their crime was preaching without approval from the government.
Madison attended St. Thomas Episcopal Church, built on land given by Madison's great-grandfather, Colonel James Taylor II.
A minister who preached there was Presbyterian Rev. James Waddell, a founding trustee of Liberty Hall (Washington and Lee University).
Years earlier, Waddell had tutored Madison, as well as Meriwether Lewis and future Virginia Governor James Barbour.
George Washington was visited by Rev. James Waddell, whom Patrick Henry described, along with Rev. Samuel Davies, as the two greatest orators he had ever heard.
After hearing Rev. Waddell sermons, Madison remarked:
"He has spoiled me for all other preaching."
Rev. Waddell's preaching was described by U.S. Attorney General William Wirt, who wrote in 1795:
"Every heart in the assembly trembled in unison. His peculiar phrases that force of description that the original scene appeared to be, at that moment, acting before our eyes ...
The effect was inconceivable. The whole house resounded with the mingled groans, and sobs, and shrieks of the congregation."
Madison invited other Presbyterian preachers to speak at his Montpelier estate, such as Samuel Stanhope Smith and Nathaniel Irwin, of whom he wrote:
"Praise is in every man's mouth here for an excellent discourse he this day preached to us."
In June of 1776, George Mason, drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
Madison helped revise Article 16 of Virginia Declaration of Rights (Papers of Madison, I, 171-75) to read:
"That Religion, or the duty we owe to our CREATOR, and manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence;
and, therefore, that all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience,
and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity toward each other."
The next year, 1777, Jefferson wrote his initial draft of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:
"Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness,
and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone."
In support of Jefferson's Statute, Madison wrote Religious Freedom--A Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, June 20, 1785:
"The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.
This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men:
It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator ..."
Madison continued:
"It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to Him ...
Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe ...
We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man's right is abridged by the institution of civil society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance."
When Baptists had their church services disrupted, Madison introduced legislation in Virginia's Assembly, October 31, 1785, titled "A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship," which passed in 1789.
In 1787, Madison attended the Constitutional Convention, where he took a prominent role, resulting in him being referred to by some as the Father or Chief Architect of the Constitution.
He argued for an immediate end to the importation of slaves, though the Convention settled on ending importation by 1808.
He proposed limiting the power of slave-holding states with the three-fifths compromise.
To help convince the states to ratify the Constitution, Madison wrote 29 of the 85 articles which made up The Federalist Papers, along with Alexander Hamilton, who wrote 51, and John Jay, who wrote 5.
Madison wrote in 1829 (Writings 9:351--57):
"The happy Union of these States is a wonder; their Constitution -- a miracle; their example the hope of Liberty throughout the world. Woe to the ambition that would meditate the destruction of either!"
James Madison made a journal entry, June 12, 1788:
"There is not a shadow of right in the general government to inter-meddle with religion ... The subject is, for the honor of America, perfectly free and unshackled. The government has no jurisdiction over it."
After the Constitution was ratified, a popular Baptist preacher Rev. John Leland considered campaigning to be a Representative from Virginia to the first session of the U.S. Congress.
His main issue was religious freedom.
John Leland wrote Rights of Conscience Inalienable, 1791, that Baptists wanted not just toleration, but equality:
"Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience.
If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free."
Leland reportedly met with James Madison in Orange County and after Madison's promise to introduce an Amendment protecting religious liberty, Leland convinced Baptists to get involved in politics and support Madison for Congress.
George Mason proposed wording for the First Amendment:
"That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and therefore all men have an equal, natural, and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that no particular religious sect, or society of Christians, ought to be favored or established by law, in preference to others.'"
True to his promise, in the first session of Congress, June 7, 1789, Madison introduced:
"The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship."
This would eventually become the First Amendment.
In 1793, a Yellow Fever epidemic hit Philadelphia, killing 10 percent of the city's population.
Among the dead was Todd Payne, who was survived by his widow, Dolley Payne, and their son, John Payne Todd.
The following year, 25-year-old Dolley Payne married 43-year-old James Madison.
James and Dolley Madison often visited with Jefferson.
An account circulated that Dolley Madison heard of Jefferson visiting with Baptist Preacher Andrew Tribble (The Christian Watchman, Boston, MA, July 4, 1826):
"Mr. Tribble asked Mr. Jefferson how he was pleased with their church government?
Jefferson replied, that it had struck him with great force, and had interested him much; that he considered it the only form of pure democracy that then existed in the world, and had concluded that it would be the best plan of Government for the American Colonies."
Thomas F. Curtis wrote in The Progress of Baptist Principles in the Last Hundred Years (Charleston, S.C.: Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1856):
"A gentleman ... in North Carolina ... knowing that the venerable Mrs. (Dolley) Madison had some recollections on the subject, asked her in regard to them.
She expressed a distinct remembrance of Mr. Jefferson speaking on the subject, and always declaring that it was a Baptist church from which these views were gathered."
President Coolidge stated at the 150th anniversary of the Declaration, July 4, 1926:
"This preaching reached the neighborhood of Thomas Jefferson, who acknowledged that his 'best ideas of democracy' had been secured at church meetings."
Madison wrote to Robert Walsh, March 2, 1819:
"That there has been an increase of religious
instruction since the revolution can admit of no question.
The English Church was originally the established
religion ...
Of other sects there were but few adherents, except the Presbyterians who predominated on the west side of the Blue Mountains.
A little time previous to the Revolutionary struggle, the Baptists sprang up, and made very rapid progress.
Among the early acts of the Republican Legislature,
were those abolishing the Religious establishment, and putting all sects at full liberty and on a perfect level.
At present the population is divided, with small exceptions, among the Protestant Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Baptists and the Methodists ...
I conjecture the Presbyterians and Baptists to form each about a third, and the two other sects together of which the Methodists are much the smallest, to make up the remaining third ...
Among the other sects, Meeting Houses have multiplied and continue to multiply ...
Religious instruction is now diffused throughout the Community by Preachers of every sect with almost equal zeal ...
The qualifications of the Preachers, too among the new sects where there is the greatest deficiency, are understood to be improving.
On a general comparison of the present and former times, the balance is certainly and vastly on the side of the present, as to the number of religious teachers the zeal which actuates them, the purity of their lives and the attendance of the people on their instructions."
James Madison was elected the fourth President of the United States.
In his First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1809. he stated:
"My confidence will under every difficulty be best placed ... in the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations, whose blessings have been so conspicuously dispensed to this rising Republic,
and to whom we are bound to address our devout gratitude for the past, as well as our fervent supplications and best hopes for the future."
In 1789, Europe descended into war, which had repercussions in America.
The French Revolution was followed by Napoleon's military conquests.
In 1798, Napoleon invaded Egypt and defeated its Muslim mamluk slave army in just a few weeks.
He attempted to introduce the concepts of equality, freedom and democracy, but found there were no words in the Arabic language to convey such concepts.
Returning to Paris in 1799, Napoleon was crowned Emperor in 1804.
He combined the French and Spanish navies with the intention of invading England in 1805, but his forces were defeated at the Battle of Trafalgar, leaving Britain with the most powerful navy in the world.
In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with nearly 500,000 men. Six months later, he retreated from Russia with less than 50,000 troops.
As Napoleon's threat to Europe diminished, Britain refocused ambitions on America with the War of 1812.
President James Madison proclaimed a Day of Prayer, July 9, 1812, stating:
"I do therefore recommend ... rendering the Sovereign of the Universe and the Benefactor of mankind the public homage due to His holy attributes;
of acknowledging the transgressions which might justly provoke the manifestations of His divine displeasure; of seeking His merciful forgiveness; ...
that in the present season of calamity and war He would take the American people under His peculiar care ...
that He would inspire all nations with a love of justice and of concord, and with a reverence for the unerring precept of our holy religion, to do to others as they would require that others should do to them."
British ships sailed into Lake Eire, and invaded New York, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.
Madison encouraged the nation in his Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1813:
"The war with a powerful nation, which forms so prominent a feature in our situation, is stamped with that justice which invites the smiles of Heaven on the means of conducting it to a successful termination."
The next year, on July 23, 1813, Madison issued another Day of Prayer:
"If the public homage of a people can ever be worthy of the favorable regard of the Holy and Omniscient Being to whom it is addressed, it must be ... guided only by their free choice, by the impulse of their hearts and the dictates of their consciences ...
proving that religion, that gift of Heaven for the good of man, is freed from all coercive edicts."
On September 10, 1813, Captain Oliver Hazard Perry had an astonishing victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Eire.
Napoleon abdicated the throne on April 6, 1814, and was exiled to the Island of Elba.
On August 24, 1814, a force of 4,500 British soldiers marched toward Washington, D.C. In a panic, citizens hastily evacuated.
Dolley Madison is credited with having the White House staff save the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington by having it cut out of its frame.
With the help of their servant, Paul Jennings, her carriage was able to make it safely out of the city as British Admiral George Cockburn was riding in.
Cockburn entered the White House, ate dinner, then set the house on fire.
He had British soldiers enter the U.S. Capitol Building and sit in the Congressmen's chairs, holding a mock Congress.
He asked, who was in favor of burning the U.S. Capitol, and the soldiers yelled, "aye," after which they proceeded to torch the Capitol, the Treasury, the Library of Congress, and attack the Navy Yard.
The Patent Office was the only government office not burned by the British.
Suddenly, dark clouds rolled in, wind and thunder grew into a "frightening roar," and lightning began striking.
A tornado touched down sending debris flying, blowing off roofs, knocking down chimneys and walls on British troops.
Two cannons were lifted off the ground and dropped yards away. Violent winds slammed both horse and rider to the ground.
The book, Washington Weather, recorded British Admiral George Cockburn exclaiming to a lady:
"Great God, Madam! Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?"
To which the lady replied:
"No, Sir, this is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city."
A British historian wrote:
"More British soldiers were killed by this stroke of nature than from all the firearms the American troops had mustered in the feeble defense of their city."
As British forces fled, torrential rains fell for two hours, extinguishing the fires.
After marching back to their ships over roads covered with downed trees, they found two of their ships blown ashore and others with damaged riggings.
On September 1, 1814, Madison wrote:
"The enemy by a sudden incursion has succeeded in invading the capitol of the nation ...
During their possession ... though for a single day only, they wantonly destroyed the public edifices ...
An occasion which appeals so forcibly to the ... patriotic devotion of the American people, none will forget ... Independence ... is now to be maintained ... with the strength and resources which ... Heaven has blessed."
Less than 3 months later, Madison proclaimed a National Day of Public Humiliation, Fasting & Prayer to Almighty God on November 16, 1814, stating:
"The two Houses of the National Legislature having by a joint resolution expressed their desire that in the present time of public calamity and war, a day may be recommended to be observed by the people of the United States
as a day of public humiliation and fasting and of prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessing on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace ... of confessing their sins and transgressions, and of strengthening their vows of repentance ...
that He would be graciously pleased to pardon all their offenses ... I have deemed it proper ... to recommend ... a day of ... humble adoration to the Great Sovereign of the Universe."
General Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans, providentially defeating a larger British force on January 18, 1815.
After the War, Madison proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving & Devout Acknowledgment to Almighty God, March 4, 1815:
"No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events and of the Destiny of Nations than the people of the United States ...
To the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land ...
I now recommend ... a day on which the people of every religious denomination may in their solemn assemblies unite their hearts and their voices in a freewill offering to their Heavenly Benefactor of their homage of thanksgiving and of their songs of praise."
In the 1830s, Madison served a term as president of the American Colonization Society which helped free blacks who so desired to found the country of Liberia.
The Madison's had family problems. Dolley Madison's son, John Payne Todd, became an alcoholic, repeatedly jailed, and ran up enormous gambling debts.
James Madison bailed him out, even mortgaging the family's ancestral Montpelier plantation.
After his death, bankrupt Dolley had to sell it.
Due to her son putting her in a dire financial situation, Dolley lived as a pauper in Washington, DC, till she sold her husband's memoirs to Congress.
During these impoverished years, Dolley was cared for by none other than Paul Jennings, the Madison's former servant, who made sure she had enough food, and even gave her money out of his own pocket.
Paul Jennings was freed with the help of Senator Daniel Webster, by whose recommendation he got a job at the Department of the Interior's Pension Bureau.
Madison's family had been in Virginia since the mid-1600s and had a 5,000 acre tobacco plantation, the largest in Piedmont, with an estimated 100 slaves.
Though Quakers and Methodists were pioneering the cause to end slavery, the abolitionist movement as a whole was still in its infancy and did not gain momentum till the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s.
In 1863, Paul Jennings' story was published as “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.”
In it, he recalled Madison:
"One day riding home from court with old Tom Barbour (father of Governor Barbour), they met a colored man, who took off his hat. Mr. Madison raised his, to the surprise of old Tom; to whom Mr. Madison replied, "I never allow a negro to excel me in politeness."
Jennings continued:
"Mr. Madison, I think, was one of the best men that ever lived.
I never saw him in a passion, and never knew him to strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it.
Whenever any slaves were reported to him as stealing or 'cutting up' badly, he would send for them and admonish them privately, and never mortify them by doing it before others. They generally served him very faithfully."
Jennings described Madison further:
"He was temperate in his habits. I don't think he drank a quart of brandy in his whole life ...
When he had hard drinkers at his table, who had put away his choice Madeira pretty freely, in response to their numerous toasts, he would just touch the glass to his lips, or dilute it with water, as they pushed about the decanters.
For the last fifteen years of his life he drank no wine at all."
As a young man, James Madison wrote to a college friend William Bradford, November 9, 1772:
"A watchful eye must be kept on ourselves lest while we are building ideal monuments of renown and bliss here we neglect to have our names enrolled in the Annals of Heaven."
As an old man, Madison wrote to Frederick Beasley, November 20, 1825:
"The belief in a God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the world and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources."
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Image Credit: Public Domain; Description: Portrait of James Madison, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, and fourth President of the United States; Date: 1816; Source: The White House Historical Association; Author: John Vanderlyn (–1852) Blue pencil.svg wikidata:Q1661665;

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