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THE STRUGGLE FOR RELIGIOUS FREE
DOM IN VIRGINIA: THE BAPTISTS
I recollect with satisfaction that the religious society of which you are members have been, throughout America, uniformly and almost unanimously, the firm friends to civil liberty, and the persevering promoters of our glorious revolution.George Washington's Letter of 1789.
The struggle for Religious Freedom in Virginia was really a part of that greater struggle for political freedom with which it was so nearly coincident in time. Much the same causes led to each; the logic of both was the same; and there was no time at which the religious struggle was not largely political and not clearly seen to be so by the leaders of thought. The struggle for independence was against external coercion; the struggle for religious freedom was against that external coercion as represented within the colony itself. The failure of the struggle for independence meant the failure of the struggle for religious freedom; but the achievement of independence did not necessarily mean the attainment of religious freedom. Hence the religious struggle outlasted the political, and hence also it assumed towards the end a vindictiveness not pleasant to contemplate.
Religious toleration had been attained some years before the Revolution drew near; and for that, credit is due chiefly to the Presbyterian population of the colony, as Dr. McIlwaine has shown in his account of the “Struggle for Religious Toleration in Virginia." 1 Other elements of the population became actively involved as the dissatisfaction among the colonists hardened into resistance against the mother country; and among these elements, active in bringing about religious freedom, no one perhaps was of greater importance than the Baptists, with whom we have to do in the following pages.
When the struggle for religious toleration practically ceased with the French and Indian War and the “ Parsons' Cause” in 1763, the Baptists were not of sufficient consequence to be even noticed by the historian.
Eleven years later they are preparing to petition the legislature for the abolition of the Established Church. Evidently we must know something of them, must know who and whence they were, as a preliminary to understanding what they helped to bring about.
The accepted version, for the matter is disputed somewhat, seems to be that Baptists first came into Virginia about the year 1714 as English emigrants; that they settled in the southeastern part of the colony; and that they remained there practically unnoticed until they were taken up in the movement of which we are going to speak. After various vicissitudes, they still had a church at Pungo in Princess Anne county in 1762, but they had not influenced the life of the colony. They were known, it seems, as “General ” Baptists.
About the year 1743 another party of Baptists came from Maryland into the lower Valley and settled at Mill Creek on the Opeckon in Berkeley county. About a dozen years later, in consequence of inroads of the Indians, a part of this congregation and their minister, John Garrard, probably a Pennsylvanian, removed across the Blue Ridge and settled on Ketocton Creek in Loudoun county, organizing
*Cf. H. R. McIlwaine, Religious Toleration in Virginia, Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, 1894.
themselves into a church about 1755-56. A few years later, David Thomas, from Pennsylvania, a man of vigorous mind and, we are told, of a classical education, settled at Broad Run in Fauquier county, where a church was constituted and he was chosen pastor, probably in 1761. Thomas and Garrard travelled and preached extensively in this piedmont country. In 1770 these Baptists were spread through the Northern Neck of Virginia above Fredericksburg in the counties of Stafford, Fauquier, and Loudoun, and they had churches at that time at Mill Creek, in Berkeley county; at Smith's Creek in Shenandoah county; at Ketocton, New Valley, and Little River, in Loudoun county; at Broad Run, in Fauquier county; at Chappawamsic and Potomac Creek, in Stafford county; at Mountain Run, in Orange county; at Birch Creek, in Halifax county; with a membership, all told, of six hundred and twenty-four.' These were known
Regular" Baptists; and although they were from time to time hindered by mobs and reprimanded by magistrates, they were not seriously interfered with. “The reason why the Regular Baptists were not so much persecuted as the Separates," says Semple, was that they had, at an early date, applied to the General Court, and obtained licenses for particular places, under the toleration law of England; but few of their enemies knew the extent of these licenses; most supposing that they were, by them, authorized to preach anywhere in the county. One other reason for their moderate persecution perhaps was that the Regulars were not thought so enthusiastic as the Separates; and having Mr. Thomas, a learned man, in their Society, they appeared much more respectable in the eyes of the enemies of truth."* It is important
* Fristoe, Ketocton Association, pp. 5-10; Semple, 288; cf. also Semple, 43, 49, 141, 169, 174, 194, 290.
The title of Thomas's little book is worthy of transcription in this connection:
“The Virginian Baptist: or a View and Defence of the Christo note this two-fold statement, that the Regular Baptists took out licenses from the General Court in due form of law, and that the presence of David Thomas as an educated man in their midst was of weight in protecting them against their neighbors.
The great Baptist influence in Virginia was that of the “Separate” Baptists, as they were called. They came into Virginia from North Carolina in the following way:
In 1754, Shubal Stearns, a native of Boston, who had become a Separate Baptist preacher in 1751, came south with a small party of New Englanders, called of the Spirit, as he conceived, to a great work. They halted first at Opeckon in Berkeley county, Virginia. Here he met his brother-in-law, Daniel Marshall, formerly a Presbyterian, now a Baptist preacher, who was just returned from a mission among the Indians. After a short stay in this part of the country, they moved on south to Guilford county, North Carolina, and, establishing themselves on Sandy Creek, founded a church which soon swelled from 16 to 606 members.'
Daniel Marshall made visits into Virginia, preaching and baptizing converts. Among them was Dutton Lane (originally from near Baltimore, Maryland), who, shortly after his baptism, began to preach; a revival succeeded,
tian Religion, as it is professed by the Baptists of Virginia. In three Parts. Containing a true and faithful Account (1) Of their Principles, (2) Of their Orders as a Church, (3) Of the principal Objections made against them, especially in this Colony. With a serious Answer to each of them.
By David Thomas, A. M., and Baptist Minister of Fauquier, in Virginia.
Non haec tibi nunciat Auctor Ambiguus: Non ista vagis rumoribus. Ipse ego tibi. Ovid Met.
And thou Son of Man, show the House to the House of Israel, and let them measure the Pattern. Ezek. xliii., 10, II.
Baltimore: Printed by Enoch Story, living in Gay Street. MDCCLXXIV." * Semple, p. 5.
and Mr. Marshall at one time baptized 42 persons. In August, 1760, a church was constituted under the pastoral care of the Rev. Dutton Lane. This was the first Separate Baptist church in Virginia, and in some sense the mother of all the rest." This church seems to have been the Dan River church in Pittsylvania county. “Soon after Mr. Lane's conversion," continues Semple, “the power of God was effectual in the conversion of Samuel Harriss, a man of great distinction in those parts.' “ Samuel Harriss, commonly called Colonel Harriss, was born in Hanover county, Virginia, January 12th, 1724. Few men could boast of more respectable parentage. His education, though not the most liberal, was considerable for the customs of that day. When young, he moved to the county of Pittsylvania, and as he advanced in age, became a favorite with the people as well as with the rulers. He was appointed church warden, sheriff, a justice of the peace, burgess of the county, colonel of the militia, captain of Mayo fort, and commissary for the fort and army. All these things, however, he counted but dross, that he might win Christ Jesus and become a minister of His word among the Baptists, a sect at that time everywhere spoken against. . . . In 1759 he was ordained ruling elder. His labors were chiefly confined, for the first six or seven years, to the adjacent counties of Virginia and North Carolina, never having passed to the north of James River until the year 1765. In January, 1765, upon the invitation of Allen Wyley, of Culpeper, a convert of the Regular Baptists, Harriss went to that county and preached the first day at Wyley's house. When he began to preach the next day, a mob appeared with whips, sticks and clubs, and so interfered that Harriss went that night over into Orange. Here he preached for many days to great crowds. In 1766 some of the young converts of these meetings went to Harriss's house to bring