This Month in Our History
February 2011 – Speak freely without fear...and worship according to one's faith.
The early Baptists of Virginia reflected the first rays of freedom’s holy light in their struggle to secure religious liberty for all people. It was the greatest single contribution made by mankind to the cause of religion, and it was authored and redeemed through real sacrifice by the spiritual ancestors of today’s Virginia Baptists.
Certainly other denominations made some contributions, but it was the Baptists in Virginia who willingly bore the brunt, gladly occupied the jails, and persisted with the dream. The securing of religious liberty in America is the shared common legacy of Virginia Baptists and, next to our very faith itself, the greatest treasure we, as a people, possess.
It was not easily won. Freedoms never are. Virginia Baptists ministers, denied by law from preaching the gospel, dared to preach anyway and were arrested and jailed. Virginia Baptist layfolk, compelled to support a state religion—the Anglican—dared to exercise their own consciences.
Before the struggle was over, some 40 Virginia Baptists were imprisoned or otherwise persecuted for their faith in the decade of 1768-78. Baptist worship services were interrupted by ruffians; gangs dispersed baptismal services; and at least one preacher, John Waller, was publicly horsewhipped.
The Baptists did more. They wrote impassioned pleas and circulated petitions, seeking religious freedom not just for themselves but for all people. They championed their pleas until they rang on the ears of the founding fathers. Evidence abounds that Jefferson, Madison and Henry were influenced by the holy light of religious freedom which hit upon the Baptists and was deflected across the landscape of new America.
What kind of freedom was it? In 1791, John Leland, the Virginia minister who influenced James Madison and subsequently the First Amendment, penned the following “Religion is a matter between God and individuals, [therefore] the religious opinions of men [should not be the objects of civil government nor in any way under its control. It has often been observed by the friends of religion established by human laws, that no state can long continue without it… that religion will perish and nothing but infidelity and atheism prevail. Are these things fact? Did not the Christian religion prevail during the first three centuries…without the aid of law? And did not religion receive a deadly wound by being fostered in the arms of civil power and regulated by law. These things are so.
“The evils [of state religion] are many. Uninspired, fallible men make their own opinions tests of orthodoxy and use their own systems …to stretch and measure the consciences of all others. Those who cannot stretch their conscience to believe anything and everything in the established creed are treated with contempt.
“Is uniformity of sentiment in matters of religion essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith.”
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