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The Early Baptists of Virginia
By Elder John Leland
      There were a few Baptists in Virginia, before the year, 1760, but they did not spread, so as to be taken notice of by the people, much less by the rulers, till after that date. About the year, 1764, they prevailed so much} that, in the year following, they formed an Association, called, "the Ketocton Regular Baptist Association."* From 1764, to 1774, the Baptists spread over the greatest part of the state that was peopled. Several ministers, of that order came from Pennsylvania and the Jerseys, and settled in the northern parts of the state, and others were raised up in the southern parts, who travelled about, and preached like the old Baptist, John, "repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand," and great numbers of the people went out unto them, and were baptized, confessing their sins. Many of the young converts caught the spirit of their teachers, and zealously engaged in the work. In a course of time, the fires from the northern preachers, and those in the south, met, like the two seas, in St. Paul's shipwreck, in Orange county, 1767. Two or three ministers, from each side, assembled in conference, but did not so happily unite, as candor desired. A division took place, The northern members called themselves, "Regular Baptists," and the southern members called themselves, "Separate Baptists;" and, if some alienation of affection did not attend this division, in some instances, it was because they were free from those temptations that have always mingled with religious divisions, and if there was not a little zeal discovered to proselyte, as well as convert the people, I have been wrongly informed.

      The Regulars, adhered to a confession of faith, first published in London, 1689, and afterwards adopted by the Baptist Association of Philadelphia, in 1742; but the Separates had none but the Bible. Just upon the spot of ground where the division took place, the members knew something of the cause; but those who lived at a distance, were ignorant of the reason, and whenever they met, they loved each other as brethren, and much deplored that there should be any distinction, or shyness among them. The Separates, who also formed an association, increased much the fastest, both in ministers and members, and occupied, by far, the greatest territory. The Regulars were orthodox Calvanists [sic], and the work under them was solemn and rational; but the Separates were the most zealous, and the work among them was very noisy. The people would cry out, "fall down," and, for a time, lose the use of their limbs; which exercise made the bystanders marvel; some thought they were deceitful, others, that they were bewitched, and many being convinced of all, would report that God was with them of a truth.

The Persecution of the Baptists

      SOON after the Baptist ministers began to preach in Virginia, the novelty of their doctrine, the rarity of mechanics and planters preaching such strange things,** and the wonderful effect that their preaching had on the people, called out multitudes to hear them - some out of curiosity, some in sincerity, and some in ill will.

      Their doctrine, influence and popularity, made them many enemies; especially among those who value themselves most for religion in the Episcopal mode. The usual alarm of the Church and State being in danger, was echoed through the colony; nor were the Episcopal clergymen so modest, but what they joined the alarm; like the silversmiths of old, crying "our craft is in danger of being set at naught." Magistrates began to issue their warrants, and sheriffs had their orders to take up the disturbers of the peace. The county of Spottsylvania took the lead, and others soon followed their example. Preaching, teaching, or exhorting, was what disturbed the peace. A like work disturbed the peace of Satan, when he cried out, "let us alone." Sometimes, when the preachers were brought before the courts, they escaped the prison by giving bonds and security, that they would not preach in the county in the term of one year; but most of them preferred the dungeon to such bonds. Not only ministers were imprisoned, but others, for only praying in their families, with a neighbor or two.

      The act of toleration, passed in the first of William and Mary's reign, afforded the suffering brethren some relief. By applying to the general court, and subscribing to all the thirty-nine articles, saving the thirty-fourth, thirty-fifth, and thirty-sixth, together with one clause in the twentieth, and part of the twenty-seventh, they obtained license to preach at certain stipulated places;+ but, if they preached at any other places, they were exposed to be prosecuted.

      Some of the prisoners would give bonds not to preach, and as soon as they were freed, would immediately preach as before. This was done, when they had reason to believe that the court would never bring suit upon the bonds. I have never heard of but one such suit in the state, and that one was dismissed. The ministers would go singing from the court-house to the prison, where they had, sometimes, the liberty of the bounds, and at other times they had not. They used to preach to the people through the grates: to prevent which, some ill-disposed men would be at the expense of erecting a high wall around the prison; others, would employ half drunken strolls to beat a drum around 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 of the 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 colored. Virginia soil has never been stained with vital blood for conscience sake. Heaven has restrained the wrath of man, and brought auspicious days at last. We now sit under our vines and fig-trees, and there is none to make us afraid.

The Reasons of the Dissent

      BUT why this schism? says an inquisitor. If the people were disposed to be more devotional than they had been before, why not be devout in the church in which they had been raised, without rending themselves off, and procuring so much evil unto themselves? This question may be answered in part, by asking a similar one. Why did the Episcopal church rend off from the church of Rome, in the Reformation? Why not continue in that church, and worship in her mode? What necessity for that schism, which occasioned so much war and persecution? If we are to credit Frederick, in his "Memoirs of the House of Brandenburg," the cause of the Reformation was, in England, the love of a woman - in Germany, the love of gain - in France, the love of novelty, or a song. But can the church of England offer no other reason for her heretical schism, but the love of a woman? Undoubtedly she can: she has done it, and we approve of her reason; but after all, she is not so pure in her worship, but what we have many reasons for dissenting from her. Some of which, are as follows:

      1. No national church, can, in its organization, be the Gospel Church. A national church takes in the whole nation, and no more; whereas, the Gospel Church, takes in no nation, but those who fear God, and work righteousness in every nation. The notion of a Christian commonwealth, should be exploded forever, without there was a commonwealth of real Christians. Not only so, but if all the souls in a government, were saints of God, should they be formed into a society by law, that society could not be a Gospel Church, but a creature of state.

      2. The church of England, in Virginia, has no discipline but the civil law. The crimes of their delinquent members are tried in a court-house, before the judges of the police, their censures are laid on at the whipping-post, and their excommunications are administered at the gallows. In England, if a man cast contempt upon the spiritual court, the bishop delegates a grave priest, who, with his chancellor, excommunicate him. The man thus excommunicated, is by law, disabled from being a plaintiff or witness in any suit. But for heresy, incest or adultery, the bishop himself pronounces the exclusion. The outcast, is not only denied the company of Christians, in spiritual duties, but also, in temporal concerns. He not only is disabled from being plaintiff or witness in any suit, (and so deprived of the protection of the law,) but if he continues forty-days an excommunicant, a writ comes against him, and he is cast into prison, without bail, and there continues until he has paid the last mite. Mrs. Trask was judged a heretick [sic], because she believed in the Jewish Sabbath, and for that, she was imprisoned sixteen years, until she died; but a Gospel Church has nothing to do with corporeal punishments. If a member commits sin, the church is to exclude him, which is as far as church power extends. If the crime is cognizable by law, the culprit must bear what the law inflicts. In the church of England, ecclesiastical and civil matters are so blended together, that I know not who can be blamed for dissenting from her.

      3. The manner of initiating members into the church of England, is arbitrary and tyrannical. The subject, (for a candidate I cannot call him,) is taken by force, brought to the priest, baptized, and declared a member of the church. The little Christian shows all the aversion he is capable of, by cries and struggles, but all to no purpose; ingrafted he is; and, when the child grows up, if he differs in judgment from his father and king, he is called a dissenter, because he is honest, and will not say that he believes what he does not believe; and, as such, in England, can fill no post of honor or profit. Here, let it be observed, that religion is a matter entirely between God and individuals. No man has a right to force another to join a church; nor do the legitimate powers of civil government extend so far as to disable, incapacitate, proscribe, or in any way distress, in person, property, liberty or life, any man who cannot believe and practice in the common road. A church of Christ, according to the Gospel, is a congregation of faithful persons, called out of the world by divine grace, who mutually agree to live together, and execute gospel discipline among them; which government, is not national, parochial, or presbyterial, but congregational.

      4. The church of England has a human head. Henry VIII. cast off the Pope's yoke, and was declared head of the church, 1533; which title, all the kings of England have borne since; but the Gospel Church, acknowledges no head but King Jesus: He is law-giver, king, and judge - is a jealous God, and will not give his glory unto another.

      5. The preachers of that order, in Virginia, for the most part, not only plead for theatrical amusements, and what they call civil mirth, but their preaching is dry and barren, containing little else but morality. The great doctrines of universal depravity, redemption by the blood of Christ, regeneration, faith, repentance and self-denial, are but seldom preached by them, and, when they meddle with them, it is in such a superficial manner, as if they were nothing but things of course.

      6. Their manner of visiting the sick, absolving sins, administering the Lord's supper to newly married couples, burying the dead, sprinkling children with their gossips, promises, cross, etc., are no ways satisfactory, and, as they were handed to us through the force of law, we reject them in toto. These are some of the reasons we have for dissenting from the Episcopalians in Virginia, and though they may not be sufficient to justify our conduct, in the opinion of others, yet they have weight with us.++



      * Ketocton, is the name of a water-course, in Loudoun county, that empties into the Potomac. Most of the Baptist churches, now in Virginia, take their names of distinction from the waters where they are.
      ** To this day, there are not more than three or four Baptist ministers in Virginia, who have received the diploma of M. A., which is additional proof that the work has been of God, and not of man.
      + There are other parts of the thirty-nine articles, equally exceptionable with those parts excepted. If a creed of faith, established by law, was ever so short, and ever so true; if I believed the whole of it with all my heart - should I subscribe to it before a magistrate, in order to get indulgence, preferment, or even protection - I should be guilty of a species of idolatry, by acknowledging a power, that the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, has never appointed. In this point of view, who can look over the Constitutions of government adopted in most of the United States, without real sorrow? They require a religious test, to qualify an officer of state. All the good such tests do, is to keep from office the best of men; villains make no scruple of any test. The Virginia Constitution is free from this stain. If a man merits the confidence of his neighbours, in Virginia - let him worship one God, twenty God's, or no God - be he Jew, Turk, Pagan, or Infidel, he is eligible to any office in the state.
      ++ What is here said of the church of England, respects them before the late Revolution. Since the independence of the state, a great number of those who still prefer Episcopacy, have the most noble ideas of religious liberty, and are as far from wishing to oppress those who differ with them in judgment, as any men in the state. Experience proves, that while each man believes what he chooses, and practises as he pleases, although they differ widely in sentiment, yet they love each other better, than they do when they are all obliged to believe and worship in one way. The only way to live in peace and enjoy ourselves as freemen, is to think and speak freely, worship as we please, and be protected by law in our persons, property and liberty.


[From The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, 1845, pp. 104-109. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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