VI. The Period of Intolerance and Persecution in Virginia Ends in 1775 with the Beginning of the Revolution; The Baptists Push for Religious Freedom

A Publication of Separation of Church and State Law Ministry

Jerald Finney
Copyright © March 2, 2018

1775 closed the period of “Intolerance, Toleration, and Persecution.”

  • “The colony is involved in trouble with the mother country. Virginia has denounced the ‘Boston Port Bill,’ and made common cause with Massachusetts. The First Continental Congress has already met in Philadelphia. Patrick Henry has electrified the country by his memorable speech in the popular Convention which met March, 1775…. The Battles of Lexington and Concord have been fought (April 19), and Virginia has taken steps to enroll companies of volunteers in every county. The war of the Revolution is on, and the times call for union and harmony among all classes. Hence, there is no more persecution of Baptists. There are no more imprisonments in 1775, and that obnoxious Toleration Bill is indefinitely postponed. The same ruling class that admitted the Presbyterians to Virginia and to the benefits of the Act of Toleration, on condition that they occupied the frontier counties, and thus protected them against Indian raids, are now inclined to tolerate, not only the Presbyterians, but the Baptists also, with all their ‘pernicious doctrines,’ if only they will help in the struggle with Great Britain. The Baptists will help, and not a Tory will be found among them. But they will strike for something more and something dearer to them than civil liberty—for freedom of conscience, for ‘just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty.’”[1]

The Baptists were ready to push for religious freedom and abolition of the establishment. In their Association meeting on the fourth Saturday of May 1775, “they were to a man favorable to any revolution by which they could obtain freedom of religion. They had known from experience that mere toleration was not a sufficient check, having been imprisoned at a time when that law was considered by many as being in force.” “The Revolutionary War opened up possibilities to overthrow the entire system of persecution…. [Baptists] were everywhere the friends of liberty…. There was not a tory among the Baptists of America.”[2] They received the highest praise for their patriotic endeavors.[3]

The Baptists decided to circulate petitions throughout the state calling for abolition of the church establishment and freedom of religion, and also to appoint commissioners to present their address for military resistance to British oppression and “offering the services of their young men as soldiers and asking only that, so far as the army was concerned, their ministers might enjoy like privileges with the clergy of the Established church” to the State Convention which was the House of Burgess under a new name and in a different character. The Convention, still controlled by “the same class that had, a few years before made concessions to the … Presbyterians on condition that they settle on the western counties forming a line of defense against the Indians, resolved to allow those dissenters in the military who so desired to attend divine worship administered by dissenting preachers. This first step towards placing all Virginia clergy on an equal footing, came as a result of the need for the numerical strength of the Baptists in what was considered by the establishment in 1775 a “struggle for their rights ‘in the union’ [with England].” The Convention maintained their “faith and true allegiance to His Majesty, George the Third, [their] only lawful and rightful King.” “It would have been very impolitic, even if their petitions had been ready, to have sprung the question of disestablishment upon [the Convention] before they had committed themselves to the cause of independence.”[4]


[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. 47-48. See also John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists, Volume I, (Texarkana, Ark.-Tex.: Bogard Press, 1922), p p. 381-384.

[2] Christian, Volume I, p. 386-387.

[3] Ibid., pp. 390-391.

[4] James, pp. 49-57.

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