Recently I have been reading Garnett Ryland’s book The Baptists of Virginia 1699-1926 (Virginia Baptist Board of Missions and Education, 1955). The history of early Baptists in Virginia is particularly striking reading on the week in which we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day. Early Baptists in Virginia suffered regular persecution. As dissenters, their pastors were arrested for preaching without a license or for meeting in unauthorized gatherings. They suffered the injustice of having their taxes support the Church of England, whose doctrine they opposed. It was no surprise that when the Revolutionary War began Baptists were among the first to enlist to fight against English tyranny. Even after the war for American independence was won, the Baptists continued to petition and send memorials to America’s Founding Fathers urging the safeguarding of religious liberty that American citizens enjoy today.
Here is one example of what early Baptists endured.
On August 21, 1773 Nathaniel Saunders, pastor of Mountain Run Baptist Church in Orange and William McClannahan, assistant pastor of Carter’s Run Baptist Church in Fauquier were arrested in Culpepper County on the charge that they did "Teach & Preach Contrary to the Laws & usages of the Kingdom of Great Britain, raising Sedition & Stirring up Strife amongst his Majestie’s Liege People." Saunders was brought to court on September 20, 1773 and committed to jail, because he refused to give bond that he would "neither teach, preach, nor exhort for one year except in his licensed meeting house."
He soon received this letter from David Thomas his spiritual father in the ministry:
I hear you are put in prison for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps you may think it hard. But O, what honor has the Lord put upon you! I think you may be willing to suffer death now, seeing you are counted worthy to endure a dungeon for your Master’s sake. Hold out, my dear brother! Remember you Master—your royal, heavenly, divine Master—was nailed to a cursed tree for us. O, to suffer for him is glory in the bud! O, let it never be said that a Baptist minister of Virginia ever wronged his conscience to get liberty, not to please God, but himself! O, your imprisonment (which I am satisfied is not from any rash proceedings of your own) is not punishment, but a glory! "If you suffer with him you shall also reign with Him."
Dear brother, the bearer is waiting or I should have enlarged. This is only to let you know that I can pray for you with great freedom. Give my kind love to your fellow-prisoner, though I know him not. I hope he is a dear child of God. Pray for me, for I need it. I remain dear brother,
Yours in our dear Lord Jesus, David Thomas
Fauquier, September 26, 1773
N.B. Let me hear from you the first opportunity.
Note: See Ryland, pp. 80-81. Ryland cites the source as Religious Herald, October 30, 1856, copied from original sent by Nathanile Saunders’ grandson, Francis J. Saunders, to Williams Sands.
May God make us men and women whose consciences are likewise captive to Christ.
Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle