Baptists in Early Virginia

The following is taken from Encyclopedia Virginia.

While the Anglican authorities often perceived the Presbyterians as damaging to church and society, the Presbyterians’ attempts to portray themselves as moderate, serious Christians worked well, and by late in the 1750s the Presbyterians had become a grudgingly accepted presence within the colony. Colonial officials did not look so kindly, however, on the second wave of evangelicals to hit the colony: the radical and contentious Baptists. Baptists had existed in the colonies since the early settlement of New England, but the Great Awakening effectively spawned a new Baptist movement, born out of radical Separate churches that illegally broke away from the established Congregationalist churches of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Some of these Separates began to ask whether the widespread Christian practice of infant baptism was really biblical. Some decided to reserve baptism only for those old enough to experience conversion personally.

Some Separate Baptists in New England became interested in spreading their gospel to the South. Minister Shubal Stearns established the most influential Baptist congregation in the colonial South at Sandy Creek, North Carolina, in 1755. From there, Baptist preachers radiated into the rest of the coastal South, including Virginia, where Stearns’s brother-in-law Daniel Marshall began preaching late in the 1750s. A Separate Baptist congregation was founded in 1760 on the Dan River in Virginia. By late in the 1760s the Baptists had begun to expand throughout the colony.

The quick growth of the Baptists, their challenge to the Anglican establishment, and their unwillingness to seek official licenses to preach, brought down the wrath of Virginia authorities, leading to an intense season of persecution early in the 1770s. In 1771 an Anglican minister disrupted a Baptist service by beating the preacher at the pulpit and dragging him outside, where the sheriff of Caroline County gave him twenty lashes with a bullwhip. About thirty-four Baptist preachers were jailed for disturbing the peace and for holding unlawful assemblies. But this seemed only to steel their resolve. Pastor James Ireland was imprisoned in Culpeper, yet he continued to preach to followers through a grate. Ruffians harassed Ireland, however, and some even urinated on him as he attempted to address the crowd. His antagonists also burned brimstone and pepper to try to suffocate him.

One of the reasons that the Baptists generated so much controversy was their loose handling of conventional social bounds of race and gender. They always included African Americans in their congregations, and some white Baptist leaders actually spoke out against slavery. The first Separate Baptist congregation in Virginia, albeit a short-lived one, may have been formed among slaves on the plantation of William Byrd III in 1758. African American and Virginia Indian men occasionally served as exhorters, deacons, and even elders (the highest office of leadership among Baptists) in mixed-race congregations. Women, too, found new positions of authority among the Baptists as “deaconesses,” and often received opportunities to testify about their experiences with God.

Blacks had the right to bring charges against whites in Baptist disciplinary proceedings. While these actions had predictable limitations and often seemed to favor whites’ testimony over blacks’, they were the only judicial formats in colonial Virginia in which slaves could expect their grievances to be taken seriously. Occasionally, white masters were punished for treating their slaves harshly, as in a 1772 case at the Meherrin Baptist Church in Lunenburg County when master Charles Cook was rebuked for burning one of his slaves. But Cook gained readmission to the congregation a month later when he asked for forgiveness before the membership, presumably including the blacks. [source]

Leave a Reply

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: