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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."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.