Religion & Revolution


Attacking Baptists

Period of Persecution…1768 to 1778

Robert Semple revealed the fact that Gowan’s church came into being when “Moses a black man,” began preaching and was “often whipped for holding meetings.” Abuses against preachers was a common occurence in the 18th century. In Virginia it was not unusual for unlicensed preachers to be arrested and incarcerated for weeks at a time.

Most people are surprised to learn that religious persecution occurred in colonial America since we’ve been taught that the Pilgrims came to America in order to escape religious persecution. While that may be so, it doesn’t mean that America was founded on the religious freedom principle. In fact, the Virginia colonial government mandated support of the Church of England which meant that all citizens were required to join the church and pay tithes to it.

It shouldn’t be surprising that legislators in Virginia’s General Assembly supported the established church because these same men were vestrymen for their respective parish congregations. As it turned out, this compulsory adherence to religion ended up squelching faith based on spiritual and personal atonement. In place of this renewing, spirit-based faith, a faith based on works became the norm in colonial Virginia.

During the 1730’s a movement among the religious community changed all that. Preachers exploded the belief that salvation came from the Church of England. Instead they revealed that faith could be attained through a personal relationship with Jesus. These men believed that true Christian faith had become snuffed-out by compulsory religion. And Whitefield and the Wesleys began preaching wherever they could find listeners. They preached in the streets, along byways, in public squares, and in private homes. They awakened the spirit of true Christianity. They introduced people to a living, saving Jesus, who was friend, redeemer and personal savior. And that explosion touched off a spiritual awakening in England and eventually colonial America from which it never recovered. The Age of Faith had arrived; however, Virginia’s colonial government and especially its Church of England clergy were unable to deal with its consequences.

This explains why the so-called “Great Awakening” brought persecution into Virginia, particularly among the Baptists.

The first case of imprisonment occurred in 1768 in Virginia when Lewis Craig and four others were put in the Spotsylvania Gaol. It didn’t stop there. Over seventy-five professed Baptist men suffered persecution over the next decade.


Jeremiah Walker John Waller Elijah Baker
John Shackelford James Ware James Greenwood
Joseph Anthony John Corbley John Shackelford
James Chiles Elijah Craig John Delaney
Lewis Craig Augustine Eastin James Goolrich
Thomas Hargate Edward Herndon Anderson Moffett
James Ireland William Lovall Thomas Maxwell
John Tanner James Pitman William McClannahan
Joseph Spencer William Mash Philip Spiller
Jeremiah Moore David Tinsley William Webber
John Picket James Reed Nathaniel Saunders
Robert Ware Allen Wyley John Weatherford
John Clay Thomas Ammon John Burrus
John Alderson Thomas Chambers Bartholomew Choning
Adam Banks

Persecuted Baptists

John Afferman David Barrow Rane Chastain
Eleazar Clay Joseph Craig Richard Elkins
Richard Falkner Daniel Fristoe William Fristoe
Samuel Harriss Martin Kaufman John Koontz
Dutton Lane John Leland Ivison Lewis
Lewis Lunsford Richard Major Daniel Marshall
William Marshall Thomas Mastin Edward Mintz
Elijah Morton William Mullins Joseph Murphy
Hipkins Pitman Younger Pitts Henry Street
John Taylor David Thomas “Three Old Men”
Andrew Tribble Thomas Waford Anderson Weeks

The data used to compile the charts was obtained from Lewis Peyton Little’s “Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia,” 1938 J.P. Bell Co., Inc. Lynchburg, Va.


Anglicans Who Opposed Religious Persecution

There were many Virginians who were shocked by the actions against the Baptists, but none more so than James Madison. Appalled by what was happening in his beloved Virginia, he complained to his college friend, William Bradford on two occasions. Excerpts of his letters appear below:

24 Jan. 1774
“I want again to breathe your free Air. I expect it will mend my Constitution & confirm my principles. I have indeed as good an Atmosphere at home as the Climate will allow: but have nothing to brag of as to the State and Liberty of my Country. Poverty and Luxury prevail among all sorts: Pride ignorance and Knavery among the Priesthood and Vice and Wickedness among the Laity. This is bad enough But It is not the worst I have to tell you. That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal Infamy the Clergy can furnish their Quota of Imps for such business. This vexes me the most of any thing whatever. There are at this [time?] in the adjacent County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in close [Gaol] for publishing their religious Sentiments which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear talk or think of any thing relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded abused and ridiculed so long about it, [to so lit]tle purpose that I am without common patience. So I [leave you] to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience [to revive among us.]”

James Madison to William Bradford .”

Madison’s second letter to Bradford is even more revealing as he specifies to which denomination he thinks is getting the brunt of the abuse.

VIRGINIA, Orange COUNTY, April 1, 1774.
…”Our Assembly is to meet the first of May, when it is expected something will be done in behalf of the dissenters. Petitions, I hear, are already forming among the persecuted Baptists, and I fancy it is in the thoughts of the Presbyterians also, to intercede or greater liberty in matters of religion. For my own part, I cannot help being very doubtful of their succeeding in the attempt. The affair was on the carpet during the last session; but such incredible and extravagant stories were told in the House of the monstrous effects of the enthusiasm prevalent among the sectaries, and so greedily swallowed by their enemies, that I believe they lost footing by it. And the bad name they still have with those who pretend too much contempt to examine into their principles and conduct, and are too much devoted to the ecclesiastical establishment to hear of the toleration of dissentients, I am apprehensive, will be again made a pretext for rejecting their requests.”

James Madison to William Bradford .”

Based on these letters, is it any wonder that James Madison supported the enacting of a religious freedom statute in Virginia?

Virginians Who Opposed the Baptists



The Official Opinion Concerning Prosecution of Baptists

Click here to read the Virginia Gazette of February 20, 1772 to discover how Virginia legislators, magistrates and court officials viewed the actions of unlicensed Baptists who preached in unlicensed settings.