Virginia Baptists – Isaiah 9:8-16

As far as I know, all of the original colonies in the Americas had state-authorized and state-supported churches, except for Rhode Island. What was the only accepted denomination among the French and Spanish? In the beginning what were the only approved religions in the English colonies? (Anglican or Episcopal and Congregational). In New England the Puritan or Congregational churches held sway, and towards the South – Episcopal. And by the way, there was very little love shared between the southern and northern colonies. Virginia, for example, remained true to the King of England until the last moments of the 1770s. She was initially a very strong Anglican colony and considered the Congregationalists as spiritual rebels. (And for this Massachusetts discouraged any contact and trade with Virginia.) When Patrick Henry denounced the Stamp Act and taxation without representation and first proposed the doctrine of revolution, the leaders of Virginia called it treason. The Baptist historian, Thomas Armitage, says that one of the greatest paradoxes in American history is not just that Virginia joined the revolution, but that she became the leader of the revolution. Part of the reason for that change of opinion was due to the labors of the Quaker, Presbyterian, and particularly, the Baptists of Virginia.

It is a fact that the colony from which some of the strongest American patriots came was Virginia. And yet initially Virginia was the most pro-British colony and supported the Anglican church. Here is an Episcopalian statement published in 1771 in Virginia: “The constitution of the Church of England is approved, confirmed and adopted by our laws and interwoven with them. No other form of Church government than that of the Church of England would be compatible with the form of our civil government. No other colony has retained so large a portion of the monarchial part of the British constitution as Virginia; and between that attachment to the monarchy and the government of the Church of England, there is a strong connection.” But the BAPTISTS of Virginia did not and could not agree, and they could not,affiliate with the Episcopalians for two reasons: because they did not regard those churches as churches of Christ; and, they were unrelentingly oppressed and persecuted by the Episcopalians, from the planting of the first Baptist Church in 1714, until the state-church idea was overthrown in 1798.

Did Virginia Baptists ever recognize Episcopal churches as a churches of God?
There is no record of Baptist recognition of those churches or ministers by any document, sermon or act, ministerial or ecclesiastical any time before the late 18th century. And the Baptists were not alone in their sufferings: the Presbyterians and a few others stood beside the Baptists pleading with the government of Virginia to divorce itself from the Episcopal church. In fact, this later became a problem, because as a result of their mutual fight for religious liberty, some Baptist churches began to open their doors to Presbyterian and Methodist fellowship and membership. And herein is a paradox: early Virginia Baptists refused to recognize either the Presbyterians or Episcopalians as true churches, but because the Presbyterians fought side-by-side with the Baptists in their struggle for freedom, they became friends, and during the next century those Baptists relaxed their standards and began to accept Presbyterians into their pulpits and memberships. So even though early Baptists considered the Methodists and Presbyterians as foreign to the Scriptures as the Episcopalians, they were eventually welcomed because they were outlawed along with the Baptists by the Episcopalians. But that acceptance was not the way it was in the beginning, and it should never have taken place. The true nature of all the Paedobaptists was the same – they were unscriptural.

The ministers who organized the first Baptist Churches in Virginia, came either from New England, or were members of the Philadelphia Baptist Association (which we plan to look at next week): Shubal Stearnes, Daniel Marshall came from New England, and David Thomas, John Garrard, John Corbley, J. Marks, P. P. Vanhorn, Miller and John Gano were from the Philadelphia Association. We should assume that those pastors and missionaries taught the new churches their own personal convictions, which were those of the Baptists of those regions from whence they came.

Robert Semple’s History of Virginia Baptists (published about 1810)
Speaking about affairs in the Roanoke Association in 1789, Semple wrote: “About this time, H. Pattillo, a Presbyterian preacher of distinction, had preached several times in favor of Infant Baptism, in which he had degraded the Baptists in the most scurrilous manner. The Association, in order to rebut his calumny, appointed John Williams to answer him on a certain day; which day they determined should be a day of fasting and prayer. Accordingly Mr. Williams fulfilled the appointment to the general satisfaction of the Baptists and their friends, and to the annoyance of their enemies.”

There was little affiliation between the Baptists and Presbyterians at this time, for Presbyterians as much as the Episcopalians regarded Baptists as religious enemies. The only thing which brought them together was their mutual desire for freedom to worship.

In 1794, it is recorded in the history of New River Association: “It appears that the Baptist interest prevails more than that of any other religious society, there being only two or three Presbyterian congregations in the district, and but few Methodist classes. (Notice that the Baptists of the late 18th century didn’t call the Paedobaptists congregations “churches.”) Between these Baptists a good understanding subsisted; insomuch that a considerable party were of opinion in the Association, that they ought to invite the Presbyterian and Methodist ministers to sit with them in their Association as counselors; but not to vote. This subject underwent lengthy investigation, and finally was decided against inviting” (p. 262). The reasons that were given against church and ministerial affiliation with the Paedobaptists were: because it might tend to confusion. (Confusion as to what constituted a true church of Christ.)

And because it would probably rather interrupt than promote friendship. We should be more likely to continue in peace with a neighbor, whom we treated with the distant respect due a neighbor, than if we were to introduce him to our private domestic concerns.” In other words, we are more apt to remain friends with our neighbors if we don’t have to live in our house. Not a word is intimated about those Presbyterians being “evangelical churches.”

Semple has this note about Baptist interests on the Virginia coast: “The established church (Episcopalians) here, as well as in most other places in Virginia, declined rapidly after the rise of the Baptists. Of late they have other opponents that are much more successful. For many years past the Methodists have been a very increasing people on the eastern shore. Whether their prosperity is only temporary until the set time to favor Zion shall arrive; or whether, for some cause, God is disposed to permit his people to be led into captivity, and to become subservient to the neighboring nations, we can not determine.” What do you suppose Semple meant by that?

A case came up before the Ketocton Association, in 1791. A Mr. Hutchinson came from Georgia as a Baptist minister, and held meetings in London, and baptized many converts. It was ascertained that he had been received, by some church in Georgia, upon his Methodist immersion. This brought the question before the Association, and it decided that he was unbaptized, and advised against any church receiving those he had immersed. The result was, he and his converts submitted to a proper baptism. They reasoned thus: “If such baptism was sanctioned, every thing, like ordination, might be dispensed with. But that ordination was not only expedient but an institution of the Bible, and, therefore, indispensable. That such proceedings, if allowed, might go to great lengths, and ultimately produce confusion.” Despite the fact that later Baptists received these kinds of people, the fact is that the early Baptists didn’t.

A group of General Baptists came into the Portsmouth area from England. Semple says: “Their manner of gathering churches was very loose indeed; or, at least, was very adverse to the method now prevalent among Baptists in Virginia. They required no experience of grace or account of their conversion. But they baptized all who asked it, and professed to believe in the doctrine of baptism by immersion.” As a result, if a Methodist or Campbellite claimed to believe on Christ and desired to be a part of a Baptist church, that particular bunch of Baptists would either baptize him if he hadn’t been previously immersed, or they received him without rebaptizing him if they had been immersed. This practice has been around for a while, but that was not the general practice of the Baptists in the early days of Virginia. It wasn’t until the Baptist preachers yearned for popularity that they left the ancient paths and old landmarks.

Part of reason that Virginia Baptists fought so hard for American independence
was their desire for religious liberty.
Armitage says that the moment that the Virginia Convention met to determine the duty of the Colony, sixty Baptist Churches said, “Strike the blow! Make military resistance to great Britain in her unjust invasion, tyrannical oppression and repeated hostilities,” and we will sustain you, ministers and people.

In 1809, Thomas Jefferson wrote this letter: “To the members of the Baptist Church of Buck Mountain, in Albermarle: April 13th, 1809: I thank you my friends and neighbors for your kind congratulations on my return to my native home, and of the opportunities it will give me of enjoying, amidst your affection, the comforts of retirement and rest. Your approbation of my conduct is the more valued as you have best known me, and is an ample reward for any service I may have rendered. We have acted together from the origin to the end of a memorable revolution, and we have contributed, each in the line allotted to us, our endeavors to render its issues a permanent blessing to our country. That our social intercourse may, to the evening of our days, be cheered and cemented by witnessing the freedom and happiness for which we have laboured, will be my constant prayer. Accept the offering of my affectionate esteem and respect.”

Few people realize the importance of Baptist Pastor John Leland to the freedoms of this country. James Madison was running to become the leader of the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention, but it was not guaranteed that he would be elected to represent Virginia at all. John Leland was not sure that the Constitution would contain the kind of language necessary to guarantee true liberty, and Baptists across Virginia were urging him to run against Madison. By this time, Baptists were strong enough to perhaps get Madison replaced by Leland. And then Pastor Leland chose to meet with Madison. During that meeting, Madison agreed with Leland that strong language was needed in the documents creating the nation, and Madison promised that, at the very least in America’s second most important document, the “Bill of Rights,” religious liberty would be guaranteed. Leland believed him, withdrew from the race, and the rest has become American History.

Why did such a pro-British colony become so swayed by Baptist principles?
Or to put it another way, why did Episcopalians, like George Washington, become Baptists or preach Baptist principles in their political rallies?

When men like Patrick Henry began lecturing against the Stamp Act and taxation without representation, many of the erstwhile pro-British residents of Virginia could see the social and political logic. But some of the strongest opposition to Henry and the revolutionaries came from the Episcopalian clergy. The ordination of those men came from English bishops on the other side of the Atlantic, and they were given their authority as religious leaders from the British government. If there was a successful revolution and independence, then all of the Virginia Episcopal priests would have become unordained (defrocked), and they would have lost their incomes and pensions. In fact they might have lost everything for espousing revolution, even if the Americans had lost, so it was in their best interests to argue against revolution and for continuing the British injustices. Not only could many Virginians see the injustice of British colonial laws, such as the Stamp Act, but they could also see the injustice of religious persecution. And when the Baptists en masse, people who had been risking their lives for religious liberty for over a hundred years, also espoused complete independence from Britain, the pieces started falling into place in the minds of many thinking Virginians. “If the Episcopalian priests are taking a stand for injustice, and the Baptists are standing for liberty and justice for all, then perhaps we should consider everything else those Baptists are preaching.”

I realize that this material is not exactly germane to the subject of Landmarkism, but I bring this to your attention, because a major part of the motivation of the Baptists to support the American revolution, was their need and desire for liberty from the Episcopalians to worship God according the Bible, rather than according to the King of England. Their Landmarkism told them that the Episcopalians were not a true Church, and revolution seemed to be a part of the means toward separation from them.