Religion and the State Governments (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition)


In Virginia, religious persecution, directed at Baptists and, to a lesser degree, at Presbyterians, continued after the Declaration of Independence. The perpetrators were members of the Church of England, sometimes acting as vigilantes but often operating in tandem with local authorities. Physical violence was usually reserved for Baptists, against whom there was social as well as theological animosity. A notorious instance of abuse in 1771 of a well-known Baptist preacher, “Swearin Jack” Waller, was described by the victim: “The Parson of the Parish [accompanied by the local sheriff] would keep running the end of his horsewhip in [Waller’s] mouth, laying his whip across the hymn book, etc. When done singing [Waller] proceeded to prayer. In it he was violently jerked off the stage; they caught him by the back part of his neck, beat his head against the ground, sometimes up and sometimes down, they carried him through the gate . . . where a gentleman [the sheriff] gave him . . . twenty lashes with his horsewhip.”

The persecution of Baptists made a strong, negative impression on many patriot leaders, whose loyalty to principles of civil liberty exceeded their loyalty to the Church of England in which they were raised. James Madison was not the only patriot to despair, as he did in 1774, that the “diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages” in his native colony. Accordingly, civil libertarians like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson joined Baptists and Presbyterians to defeat the campaign for state financial involvement in religion in Virginia.

Unlawful Preaching

Many Baptist ministers refused on principle to apply to local authorities for a license to preach, as Virginia law required, for they considered it intolerable to ask another man’s permission to preach the Gospel. As a result, they exposed themselves to arrest for “unlawfull Preaching,” as Nathaniel Saunders (1735-1808) allegedly had done. Saunders, at this time, was the minister of the Mountain Run Baptist Church in Orange County, Virginia.

Summons to Nathaniel Saunders, August 22, 1772 [cover] – [summons]


Virginia Baptist Historical Society (140)

Dunking of Baptist Ministers

David Barrow was pastor of the Mill Swamp Baptist Church in the Portsmouth, Virginia, area. He and a “ministering brother,” Edward Mintz, were conducting a service in 1778, when they were attacked. “As soon as the hymn was given out, a gang of well-dressed men came up to the stage . . . and sang one of their obscene songs. Then they took to plunge both of the preachers. They plunged Mr. Barrow twice, pressing him into the mud, holding him down, nearly succeeding in drowning him . . . His companion was plunged but once . . . Before these persecuted men could change their clothes they were dragged from the house, and driven off by these enraged churchmen.”

The Dunking of David Barrow and Edward Mintz in the Nansemond River, 1778

Oil on canvas by Sidney King, 1990

Virginia Baptist Historical Society (141)

Petition Against Religious Taxation

This anti-religious tax petition (below), composed, scholars have assumed, by a Baptist and clearly stating the Baptist point of view, was printed in large numbers and circulated throughout central and southern Virginia. It was signed by more citizens than any other document opposing Patrick Henry’s bill, including James Madison’s more famous Memorial and Remonstrance. What distinguished this petition from others was its strong evangelical flavor. It argued that deism, which many of the temporary allies of the Baptists espoused, could be “put to open shame” by the exertions of preachers who were “inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost.” It also presented the Baptist reading of history, namely, that the state ruined, rather than helped, religion by supporting it.

Petition to the Virginia General Assembly, Westmoreland County,

Virginia, November 27, 1785 [left page] – [right page]

The Library of Virginia (139)

Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance

Madison’s principal written contribution to the contest over Henry’s general assessment bill was his Memorial and Remonstrance. Madison’s petition has grown in stature over time and is now regarded as one of the most significant American statements on the issue of the relationship of government to religion. Madison grounded his objection to Henry’s bill on the civil libertarian argument that it violated the citizen’s “unalienable” natural right to freedom of religion and on the practical argument that government’s embrace of religion had inevitably harmed it. Thus, he combined and integrated the two principal arguments used by opponents of Henry’s bill.

via Religion and the State Governments (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition).


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