IV. Baptists in Virginia Colony; The Bad Character of the Anglican Clergy; Colonel Sam Harris and Other Baptist Preachers; The Separate and Regular Baptists


A Publication of Separation of Church and State Law Ministry.




Jerald Finney
Copyright © March 2, 2018


Different bodies of Baptists came to Virginia during the colonial period. The “Regular Baptists,” like the Presbyterians, “applied for license and took the prescribed oaths.” As for the “Separate Baptists,” the “body spread so rapidly throughout the State from 1755 to the … Revolution,” and “did not recognize the right of any civil power to regulate preaching or places of meeting.” They were the “most active in evangelizing Virginia and most severely persecuted, and … had the largest share of the work of pulling down the ‘Establishment’ and securing religious liberty for all.” “While yielding a ready obedience to the civil authorities in all civil affairs, in matters of religion they recognized no lord but Christ. They were truly apostolic in refusing to obey man rather than God.”[1]

Conditions were favorable for the rapid growth of Baptist principles. “First, the distress of the colonists, consequent upon the French and Indian wars, inclined them towards religion.” Secondly, the distressed people could find no solace or comfort in the immoral established clergy.

  • “The great success and rapid increase of the Baptists in Virginia must be ascribed primarily to the power of God working with them. Yet it cannot be denied but that there were subordinate and cooperating causes; one of which, and the main one, was the loose and immoral deportment of the Established clergy, by which the people were left almost destitute of even the shadow of true religion. ‘Tis true, they had some outward forms of worship, but the essential principles of Christianity were not only not understood among them, but by many never heard of. Some of the cardinal precepts of morality were discarded, and actions plainly forbidden by the New Testament were often proclaimed by the clergy as harmless and innocent, or, at worst, foibles of but little account. Having no discipline, every man followed the bent of his own inclination. It was not uncommon for the rectors of parishes to be men of the lowest morals. The Baptist preachers were, in almost every respect, the reverse of the Established clergy.’”[2]

Their own authorities prove the bad character and actions of the established clergy. Many of that clergy came to Virginia “to retrieve either lost fortune or lost character….” “Many of them had been addicted to the race-field, the card-table, the theatre—nay, more, to drunken revel, etc….” “They could babble in a pulpit, roar in a tavern, exact from their parishioners, and rather by their dissoluteness destroy than feed the flock.”[3]

The Baptists grew stronger and more numerous in Virginia. Robert Nordin, when he arrived from England in 1714, established the first Baptist church in Virginia. By 1755, there were six Baptist churches in Virginia.[4] 1758 to 1769 was a period of slow but persistent growth in the face of a determined popular hostility. The early opposition to the Baptists came from the lower classes and was based upon prejudice.

The Virginia expansion was intimately tied up with the ministry of Colonel Samuel Harris. Harris—who served at various times as churchwarden, sheriff, justice of the peace, colonel of the county, and captain and commissary of Fort Mayo and its military garrison—was the first person of prominence to join the Separates in Virginia and was just one of many examples of the power of this movement. He was saved at a house meeting after hearing a sermon preached by a Separate Baptist from North Carolina. He resigned from his official positions and narrowed his business interests almost to the vanishing point in order to preach. He began to preach throughout Virginia, and many were converted because of his ministry.[5]

Harris was a fearless preacher. “The excellence of his preaching lay chiefly in ‘addressing the heart,’ and Semple holds that ‘perhaps even Whitefield did not surpass him in this.’”[6] He had the assistance of several North Carolina itinerant evangelists planting the earliest Separate churches in south central Virginia. In 1760, Daniel Marshall and Philip Mulkey with seventy-four charter members, eleven of whom were Negroes, started the Dan River Church. Other churches were soon constituted from the Dan River Church.[7]

Wherever the Baptist itinerants preached, great crowds came to hear them. Many were converted in Virginia, and many Baptist churches were started. In 1770, there were only two Separate churches north of the James River, four south of it. The General Association of Separate Baptists of Virginia was held in May 1771 in Orange County with twelve churches represented, and three not represented.

By 1772, the Separate Churches outnumbered those of the Regular churches. In that year, as many as forty thousand Virginians may have heard the gospel. By 1773, thirty-four churches were represented at the General Association meeting, and they reported a combined membership of 3,195. By May 1774, when Baptist expansion and Baptist persecution were at high tide, the Southern District in Virginia had twenty-seven churches with 2,033 members and the Northern District had twenty-four churches with 1,921 members. By the end of 1774, there was at least one Separate Baptist church in twenty-eight of the sixty counties of Virginia. During the Revolution, Baptist growth continued, but at a much slower pace.[8]


Endnotes

[1] Charles F. James, Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia (Harrisonburg, VA.: Sprinkle Publications, 2007; First Published Lynchburg, VA.: J. P. Bell Company, 1900), pp. 12-14, 26.

[2] Ibid., pp. 26-27, citing Robert B. Semple, “History of the Baptists of Virginia,” 1810, p. 25.

[3] Ibid., pp. 27-28, citing Foote, p. 38 quoting from the Bishop of London; Bishop Meade, “Old Parishes and Families of Virginia” (Vol. I, 118, 385, etc.; Dr. Hawks, “History of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Virginia,” p. 65.).

[4] James R. Beller, America in Crimson Red: The Baptist History of America (Arnold, Missouri: Prairie Fire Press, 2004), pp. 140-142.

[5] Lumpkin, pp. 48-49.

[6] Ibid., p. 90, citing A. B. Semple, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists of Virginia (Richmond: Pitt & Dickinson, 1894), p. 380.

[7] Ibid., pp. 90-98.

[8] Ibid., pp. 90-103.

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