An excerpt from

The Virginia Chronicle

John Leland (1790)

Soon after the Baptist ministers began to preach in Virginia, the novelty of their doctrine; the rarity of mechanics and planters preaching such strange things; and the wonderful effect that their preaching had on the people, called out multitudes to hear them. Some out of curiosity, some in sincerity, and some in ill-will.Their doctrine, influence and popularity, made them many enemies; especially among those who value themselves most for religion in the Episcopal mode. The usual alarm of the church and state being in danger, was echoed through the colony; nor were the Episcopal clergymen so modest, but what they joined the alarm; like the silver-smith of old, crying "our craft is in dnager of being set at naught." Magistrates began to issue their warrents, and sheriffs had their orders to take up the disturbers of the peace. The county of Spotsylvania took the lead, and others soon followed their example. Preaching, teaching or exhorting was what disturbed the peace of Satan, when he cryed out, "let us alone." Sometimes when the preachers were brought before courts, they escaped the prison by giving bonds and security, that they would not preach in the county in the term of a year; but most of them preferred the dungeon to such bonds. Not only ministers were imprisoned, but others for only praying in their families with a neighbor or two.The act of toleration, passed in the first of William and Mary, afforded the suffering brethren some relief. By applying to the general court, and subscribing to all the 39 articles, saving the 34th, 35th, and 36th, together with one clause in the 20th and part of the 27th, they obtained license to preach at certain stipulated places; but if they preached at any other places, they were exposed to be prosecuted.Some of the prisoners would give bonds not to preach, and as soon as they were freed, would immediately preach as before: This was done when they had reason to believe that the court would never bring suit upon the bonds. I have never heard of but one such suit in the state, and that one was dismissed. The ministers would go singing from the Court-house to the prison, where they had sometimes the liberty of the bounds, and at other times they had not. They used to preach to the people through the gates; to prevent which, some ill-disposed men would be at the expence of erecting a high wall round the prison; others would employ half-drunken strolls to beat a drum round the prison to prevent the people from hearing. Sometimes matches and pepper-pods, were burnt at the prison door, and many such afflictions the dear disciples went through. About 30 of the preachers were honored with a dungeon, and a few others beside. Some of them were imprisoned as often as four times; besides all the mobs and perils they went through. The Dragon roared with hedious peals, but was not red--the beast appeared formidable, but was not scarlet colored. Virginia soil has never been stained with vital blood for conscience sake. Heaven has restrained the wrath of man, and brought auspicious days at last. We now sit under our vines and fig-trees, and there is none to make us afraid.

But why this schism? says an inquisitor. If the people were disposed to be more devotional than they had been before; why not be devout in the church in which they were raised, without renting themselves off, and procuring so much evil unto themselves? This question may be answered in part, by asking a similar one. Why did the Episcopal church rend off from the church of Rome in the reformation? Why not continue in that church and worship in her mode? What necessity for that schism, which occasioned so much war and persecution? If we are to credit Frederick in his memoirs of the house of Brandenburg, the cause of the reformation, was, in England, the love of a woman--in Germany, the love of gain--in France, the love of novelty of a song. But can the church of England offer no other reason for her heretical schism, but the love of a woman? Undoubtedly she can: She has done it; and we approve of her reason; but after all, she is not so pure in her worship, but what we have many reasons for dissenting from her. Some of which are as follows:

1. No national church, can, in its organization be the gospel church. A national church takes in the whole nation, and no more; whereas the gospel church, takes in no whole nation, but those who fear God and work righteousness in every nation. The notion of a Christian commonwealth, should be exploded forever, without there was commonwealth of real Christians. Not only so, but if all the souls in a government were saints of God, should they be formed into a society by law, that society could not be a gospel church, but a creature of state.

2. The church of England, in Virginia, has no discipline but the civil law. The crimes of their delinquent members are tried in a court-house, before the judges of the police, their censures are laid on at the whipping post, and their excommunications are administered at the gallows. In England if a man cast contempt upon the spiritual court, the bishop delegates a grave priest, who with his chancellor excommunicate him. The man thus excommunicated, is by law, disabled from being a plaintiff or witness in any suit. But for heresy, incest or adultery, the bishop himself pronounces the exclusion. The out-cast, is not only denied the company of Christians, in spiritual duties, but also in temporal concerns. He not only is disabled from being plaintiff or witness in any suit (and so deprived of the protection of the law) but if he continues 40 days an excomunicant, a writ comes against him, and he is cast into prison, without bail, and there continues until he has paid the last mite. Mrs. Trask was judged an Heretick, because she believed in the Jewish sabbath, and for that she was imprisoned 16 years until she died; but a gospel church has nothing to do with corporeal punishments. If a member commits sin, the church with corporeal punishments. If a member commits sin, the church is to exclude him, which is as far as church power extends. If the crime is cognizable by law, the culprit must bear what the law inflicts. In the church of England Ecclesiastical and civil matters are so blended together, that I know not who can be blamed for dissenting from her.

3. The manner of initiating members into the church of England is arbitrary and tyrannical. The subject (for a candidate I cannot call him) is taken by force, brought to the priest, baptised and declared a member of the church. The little Christian shows all the aversion he is capable of, by cries and struggles, but all to no purpose, ingrafted he is; and when the child grows up, if he differs in judgment from his father and king he is called a dissenter, because he is honest, and will not say that he believes what he does not believe; and as such, in England, can fill no post of honor or profit. Here let it be observed, that religion is a matter entirely between God and individuals. No man has a right to force another to join a church: Nor do the legitimate powers of civil government extend so far as to disable, incapacitate, proscribe, or any ways distress in person, property, liberty or life, any man who cannot believe and practice in the common road. A church of Christ, according to the gospel, is a congregation of faithful persons, called out of the world by divine grace, who mutually agree to live together, and execute gospel discipline among them; which government, is not national, parochial or presbyterial, but congregational.

4. The church of England has a human head. Henry VIII cast off the Pope's yoke, and was declared head of the church 1533; which title all the kings of England have born since; but the gospel church acknowledges no head but king Jesus: He is law-giver, king and judge--is a jealous God, and will not give his glory unto another.

5. The preachers of that order, in Virginia, for the most part, not only plead for theatrical amusements and what they call civil mirth, but their preaching is dry and barren, containing little else but morality. The great doctrines of universal depravity, redemption by the blood of Christ, regeneration, faith, repentance and self-denial, are but seldom preached by them, and when they meddle with them it is in such a superficial manner, as if they were nothing, but things of course.

6. Their manner of visiting the sick, absolving sins, administering the Lord's supper to newly married couples, burying the dead, sprinkling children with their gossups, promises, cross, etc., are no ways satisfactory, and as they were handed to us through the force of law, we reject them in toto. These are some of the reasons we have for dissenting from the Episcopalians in Virginia, and though they may not be sufficient to justify our conduct in the opinion of others, yet they have weight with us.

Upon the first rise of the Baptists, in Virginia, they were very strict in the dress. Men cut off their hair, like Cromwell's round headed chaplains, and women cast away all their superfluities; so that they were distinguished from others, merely by their decoration. Where all were of one mind, no evil ensued; but where some did not choose to dock and strip, and churches made it a matter of discipline, it led to great confusion; for no standard could be found in the Bible, to measure their garments by. No doubt dressing, as well as eating and drinking can be carried to excess; but it appears to be a matter between God and individuals; for whenever churches take it up, the last evil is worse than the first. This principle prevailed `till the war broke out, at which time the Baptist mode took the lead. Those who went into the army, cut off their hair, and those who stayed at home, were obliged to dress in home-spun. Since the return of peace, and the opening of the ports, the uniformity between the Baptists and others, in point of clothing, still exists; notwithstanding the great work of conversion there has been in the state; but very little is said about rending garments; those who behave well, wear what they please and meet with no reproof.

The principle, that civil rulers have nothing to do with religion, in their official capacities, is as much interwoven in the Baptist plan, as Phydia's name was in his shield. The legitimate powers of government, extend only to punish men for working ill to their neighbours, and no ways effect the rights of conscience. The nation of Israel received their civil and religious laws from Jehovah, which were binding on them, and no other; and with the extirpation of that nation, were abolished. For a Christian commonwealth to be established upon the same claim, is very presumptuous, without they have the same charter from Heaven. Because the nation of Israel had a divine grant of the land of Canaan and orders to enslave the Heathen, some suppose Christians have an equal right to take away the land of the Indians, and make slaves of the Negroes. Wretched religion, that pleads for cruelty and injustice. In this point of view, the Pope offered England to the king of Spain, provided he would conquer it; after England became Protestant, and in the same view of things, on May 4, 1493, the year after America was discovered, he proposed to give away the Heathen lands to his Christian subjects. If Christian nations, were nations of Christians these things would not be so. The very tendency of religious establishments by human law, is to make some hypocrites, and the rest fools; they are calculated to destroy those very virtues, that religion is designed to build up; to encourage fraud and violence over the earth. It is error alone that stands in need of government to support it; truth can and will do better without; so ignorance calls in anger in a debate, good sense scorns it. Religion in its purest ages, made its way in the world, not only without the aid of law, but against all the laws of haughty monarchs, and all the maxims of the schools. The pretended friendship of legal protection, and learned assistance proves often in the end, like the friendship of Joab to Amasa. Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for, is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable, it supposes that some have a pre-emimence above the rest, to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians. Test oaths, and established creeds, should be avoided as the worst of evils. A general assessment (forcing all to pay some preacher) amounts to an establishment; if government says I must pay somebody, it must next describe that somebody, his doctrine and place of abode. That moment a minister is so fixed as to receive a stipend by legal force, that moment he ceases to be a gospel ambassador, and becomes a minister of state. This emolument is a temptation too great for avaricious man to withstand. This doctrine turns the gospel into merchandise, and sinks religion upon a level with other things.

As it is not the province of civil government to establish forms of religion, and force a maintenance for the preachers; so it does not belong to that power to establish fixed holy days for divine worship--that the Jewish seventh-day sabbath was of divine appointment, is unquestionable;--but that the Christian first day appointment, is unquestionable;--but that the Christian first day sabbath is of equal injunction, is more doubtful. If Jesus appointed the day to be observed, he did it as the head of the church, and not as the king of nations; or if the apostles enjoined it, they did it in the capacity of Christian teachers, and not as human legislators. As the appointment of such days, is no part of human legislation, so the breach of the sabbath (so called) is no part of civil jurisdiction. I am not an enemy to holy days; the duties of religion cannot well be performed without fixed times; but these times should be fixed by the mutual agreement of religious societies, according to the word of God, and not by civil authority. I see no clause in the federal constitution, or the constitution of Virginia, to empower either the federal or Virginia legislature to make any sabbatical laws.

Under this head, I shall also take notice of one thing, which appears to me unconstitutional, inconsistent with religious liberty and unnecessary in itself; I mean the thing of paying the chaplains of the civil and military departments out of the public treasury. The king of Great Britain has annually 48 chaplians in ordinary, besides a number extraordinary; his army also abounds with chaplains. This, I confess, is consistent with the British form of government, where religion is a principle, and the church a creature of the state; but why should these plans of proud, covetous priests, ever be adopted in America? If legislatures choose to have a chaplain, for Heaven's sake let them pay him by contributions, and not out of the public chest. In some of the contributions, and not out of the public chest. In some of the states, a part of each day, during the session of assembly, is taken up in attending prayers, and they may well afford it, for they are paid for the time; but whether they would pray as long, if they were not under pay, is a question; and whether the chaplain would pray as long for them, if the public chest was like Osiron's purse, is another.

For Chaplains to go into the army, is about as good economy as it was for Israel to carry the ark of God to battle, instead of reclaiming the people, they generally are corrupted themselves, as the ark fell into the hands of the Philistians. The words of David are applicable here, "carry back the ark into the city." But what I aim chiefly at is paying of them by law. The very language of the proceeding is this "if you will pay me well for preaching and praying, I will do them, otherwise I will not." Such golden sermons and silver prayers, are of no great value.

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