Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers: Primary Documents on Events of the Period

By David A. Copeland | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 22
Religious Liberty: Baptists Call for Toleration, 1770-1776

In 1771 four Baptist preachers in Virginia were given five-month jail sentences for holding unlawful religious meetings--that is, services that were not approved by the general assembly and did not use the liturgy of the Church of England. The ministers' plight was not unusual. Baptists had been the target of attacks in Virginia since they migrated in large numbers into the colony following the Great Awakening (Chapter 8). Some Baptists faced more dire consequences for their worship and preaching than imprisonment. Some were beaten or stoned. One minister, David Thomas, was grabbed while preaching, dragged outdoors, and beaten. When his attacker pulled a gun to execute the stunned Baptist, a bystander wrenched it from the would-be assailant's hand.1

In Virginia, as in most of the other Southern and New England colonies, colonial law established one denomination as the official religion. Citizens paid taxes to support worship in the state church, Anglicanism in the South and Congregationalism in New England. Virginia's ties with the Church of England were established in the colony's 1606 charter, which required mandatory Anglican worship. As John Smith explained, "When I first went to Virginia, I well remember. . . . wee had daily Common Prayer morning and evening, every Sunday two sermons, and every three moneths the holy Communion."2

The fact that the settlers in any part of America established a preferred form of religion within a colony seems ironic. After all, many of America's first settlers were themselves religious dissenters in England and braved Atlantic passage to obtain freedom of worship. But worshipers who had

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