Beating Up Baptists

Excerpt from Chapter 3 of The Sword of the Lord. Baptists were an oppressed and disreputable religious community in American before the Revolution. They were attacked, beaten, jailed, and ostracized for the offense of creating their own churches outside the established Church of England. Baptists therefore, led the drive to enshrine the separation of church and state in the new United States Constitution. The principle Baptists defended was intended to prevent the state from privileging one religious institution or one set of religious beliefs and practices over another, though not to prevent individuals from bringing their private religion and principles into the public sphere.<

Religious liberty continued to be an important rallying cry for the American Revolution. Many newly minted Americans had sailed west fleeing religious persecution and hoping for a peaceful haven for their practice of faith, yet they had found that in some colonies the religious problems of Europe were replicated in the New World.

In the colony of Virginia, for example, the Anglican Church was the official state church, just as in England. But Virginia was also home to a fair number of Baptists, a movement that was a significant outgrowth of the Great Awakening. Baptist belief was strongly focused on the importance of separating church and state, removing the power of the state to approve or endorse any particular religious expression.

In Virginia alone from 1760 to 1778, “there were at least 153 serious instances of persecution involving seventy-eight Baptists—including fifty-six jailings of forty-five different Baptist preachers…Most of the persecution was clustered in exactly the part of Virginia that gave us Madison, Mason, Washington, and Jefferson.”[i] Baptist preachers were beaten while trying to deliver sermons, jailed for months on end, and tormented in a variety of ways.

Historian Lewis Peyton Little told of an Anglican minister who walked onto a stage where a Baptist preacher was sermonizing, stuck his riding crop into the man’s mouth, and helped drag the man off to be beaten bloody by the sheriff. A mob interrupted David Barrow’s service to force his head into water and mud until he nearly drowned. Little recorded numerous other instances of violence against Baptists: “dragged from his house,” “meeting broken up by mob,” “pulled down and hauled about by hair, hand, etc.,” “tried to suffocate him with smoke,” “shot with a shotgun,” “jerked off stage—head beaten against ground.”[ii]

The struggle for religious freedom in America before and after the Revolution was long and arduous, and American Baptists proved to be the most radical and ardent opponents of government promotion of any religious practice. James Madison wrote: “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an inalienable right.”[iii]

In 1785, Baptist preacher Jeremiah Walker drew up a petition averring that Christianity historically flourishes in the absence of support by a government: “The blessed author of the Christian religion not only maintained and supported his gospel in the world for several hundred years, without the aid of civil power but against all the powers of the earth, the excellent purity of its precepts and the unblamable behavior of its ministers made its way through all opposition.”

The Baptist General Association in Orange County, Virginia protested that any notion that government should promote religion was “founded neither in Scripture, on reason, on sound policy; but is repugnant to each of them.” In 1789, after significant struggle and debate, the Congress agreed on the words of the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” More ardently than any other group, Baptists were the driving force behind the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.


[i] Steven Waldman, Founding Faith (New York: Random House, 2008), 101.

[ii] Ibid, 102, quoted by Waldman from  Lewis Peyton Little‚Äôs Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia (Lynchburg: J.P. Bell, 1938).

[iii] James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, 1785, We the People, http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia
(accessed November 29, 2010).