Patrick Henry’s Defense of the Baptists
From The Home Field, 1916
READERS WHO HAVE penned our new mission study book, “Baptist Missions in the South” will remember the titanic and long-continued struggle of our Baptist fathers to bring religious liberty in Virginia and in the nation. God gave to Baptists in those days powerful friends in James Madison, George Washington and Patrick Henry. The story of Henry's defense of the Baptist preachers, who were on trial at Fredericksburg for the high offense of preaching the gospel contrary to the form and wishes of the Established (Episcopal) Church, was published in 1849 in "The Baptist Memorial." Not to stir bad feelings toward Episcopalians, but to bring the magnet of historical truth to bear upon any who in the midst of the present propaganda for Union may not forget at what price Baptists purchased the boon of religious liberty for America and for themselves, we reproduce the story of Patrick Henry's thrilling defence.
GO BACK TO the period just prior to the Declaration of Independence. Imagine yourself In the old court-house at Fredericksburg,* Spotslyvania County, Virginia. The king’s judges were on the bench, and the king’s attorney is present to aid in dealing justice to all offenders. Numerous are the spectators on this occasion, for three ministers are to be tried for no other offense than "preaching the gospel of the Son of God, contrary to the statute in that case provided, and consequently disturbers of the peace."
Patrick Henry, who had heard of the imprisonment of these men, rode sixty miles from his home in Hanover county, to volunteer his services in their defense. As he entered the courtroom the clerk, was reading the indictment. He pronounced the crime with emphasis, "for preaching the gospel of the Son of God." The reading of the Indictment finished, the prosecuting attorney submitted a few words, all he supposed necessary to convict the prisoners; and all that would have been necessary under ordinary circumstances. The judges were about to pronounce the ordinary verdict of condemnation, when Patrick Henry, who had entered the bar among the lawyers, arose, stretched out his hand and received the paper. The first sentence of the indictment, which was being read as he entered, which had fallen upon his ears, was “for preaching the gospel of the Son of God."
This was the keynote. He commenced: "May it please your Worships, I think I heard read, as I entered this house, the paper I now hold in my hand. If I have rightly understood, the king’s attorney of this county has framed an indictment for the purpose of arraigning punishing, by imprisonment, 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 if a crime that these men, whom your Worships are about to try for a misdemeanor are charged with what?” - and continuing in a low, solemn tone - “for preaching the gospel of the Son of God?"
Pausing amidst the most profound silence and breathless astonishment of his hearers,
he slowly waved the paper three times around his head, then, lilting up his hands and eyes to heaven, with extraordinary and Impressive energy he exclaimed, "Great God!"
The exclamation, the action, the burst of feeling from the audience, were all overpowering. Mr. Henry resumed: "May It please your Worships: In a day like this, when truth is about to burst her fetters, when mankind Is about to be raised to claim their natural and inalienable rights, when the yoke of oppression which has reached the wilderness of America, and the unnatural alliance of ecclasiastlcal [sic] and civil power Is about to be dissevered - at such a period when liberty - liberty of conscience is about to wake from her slumbering, and inquire into the reason of such changes as I find exhibited here to-day in this Indictment!"
Another fearful pause while the speaker alternately cast his sharp, piercing eyes on the court and the prisoners, and resumed: "If I am not deceived, according to the contents of the paper which I now hold in my hand, these men are accused of preaching the gospel of the Son of God. Great God!”
Another long pause, during which he again waved the Indictment around his head.
Resuming his speech: "May it please your Worships: There are periods in the history of men when corruption and depravity have so long debased the human character that man sinks under the weight of the oppressor's hand, and becomes the servile, abject slave; he licks the hand that smites him; he bows In passive obedience to the mandates of the despot, and in the state of servility he receives his fetters of perpetual bondage. But, may It please your Worships, such a day has passed away. From the period when our fathers left the land of their nativity for settlement in these American wilds, for liberty - for civil and righteous liberty - for liberty of conscience, to worship their Creator according to their conceptions of heaven’s revealed will; from the monument they placed their feet on the American continent, and in the deeply imbedded forests sought an asylum front persecution and tyranny - from that moment despotism was crushed; her 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 have been the efforts and sacrifices of the colonists; in vain were all the sufferings and bloodshed to subjugate the new world, if we, their offspring, must still be oppressed and persecuted. But may It please your Worships, let me inquire once more, for what are these men about to be tried? This paper says, ‘for preaching the gospel of the Son of God!’ Great God! for preaching the Saviour to Adam’s fallen race."
After another pause, in tones or thunder he inquired:
“What law have they violated?” Then, for the third time, in slow, dignified manner, he lifted his eyes to heaven and waved the indictment around his head. The court and the audience were wrought up to the most intense pitch of excitement. The face of the prosecuting attorney was pale and ghastly, and he appeared unconscious that the whole body was agitated with alarm; and the judge in a tremulous voice put an end to the scene, now becoming extremely painful, by the authoritative command:
"Sheriff, discharge these men.”
To any one who doubts the full truth of this Incident, we would respectfully suggest that he compose a speech and try to pass it off as one of Patrick Henry’s orations.
Any one acquainted with the speeches of this great orator will readily recognize, not only his arrangement of words, but his dramatic style, as evidenced in this masterpiece.
[From Victor I. Masters, editor, The Home Field, September, 1916, pp. 5-6; via Baylor U. digitized documents.
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