It has been my great privilege to have lived my life in a land where great religious liberty still exists. Even in it’s decline, America has seen more freedom than possibly any other nation, but it would do the reader well to understand that it was not always so. The Puritans who had fled to the New World for the chance to exercise their own conscience in matters of worship eventually became the very thing they fled. Colonial America wasn’t an idyllic utopia of liberty, but rather a patchwork quilt of different understandings and tolerances of what freedom was all about. In many places, especially in Church of England dominated-areas, the line between church and state was so blurry as to be almost non-existent. Church officials held political offices and church officials exercised police powers, with a careful eye towards maintaining the status quo of doctrinal purity. This mindset revealed itself in activities like the witch trials in Salem or the ordinance passed in Massachusetts in 1644 that specifically referred to Anabaptists as “the troublers of churches in all places where they have been”. In 1656 when the first Quakers began to arrive on the shores of Massachusetts, the Quakers in question were imprisoned by their Puritan brothers, the women strip-searched under pretense of looking for witches, and their religious literature burned as heresy.
It was this way, at least in the beginning because that was how the people of a community chose to live. Those who disagreed could leave, and often did, starting their own small communities a bit deeper in the great American wilderness. Some were banished. But not everyone could leave, and not everyone thought they should have to leave. For those that stayed, life was harsh in the ‘land of the free’. With the codification of church law into secular law came an entire hierarchy of church officials and creeds that attempted to coerce the consciences of everyone under their jurisdiction to worship as the hierarchy decided. James Madison had said “All men with power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree ” and that certainly rang true as well-intentioned men persecuted their brothers and sisters , using the power of the state to enforce their religious convictions.
Existing side by side with these large religious behemoths were small pockets of men and women who followed their conscience regardless of what the ruling powers thought. They worshipped both in secret, and in open, and preached outside of the established church buildings, taking the gospel out in public as the Bible commands. For this they were fined, banished, beaten, arrested, and imprisoned. Their ears were, in some cases, cut off, and hot irons driven through their ‘blasphemous tongues’. Their church buildings were burned, their properties seized. They were Quakers, and Baptists, and Anabaptists, and a variety of other groups who simply sought to live and worship according to the dictates of their own conscience. They sought to practice what would later be called ‘soul liberty’.
From these oppressions came a shift in the way of colonial thinking. The heavy heel of ecclesiastical oppression was fuel for the fire of soul liberty, and as men began to ask themselves what freedom was all about, there came a rebirth of the commitment to religious liberty. People saw what they were becoming, and it shocked them enough to change course. Because of that change, generations have reaped the benefits of religious freedom.
This story is just one small facet of that larger story. It involves a handful of Baptist preachers, and a famous name among famous names; Patrick Henry of Virginia. This story covers one small trial, in one small area, just a little sliver of the life of one of America’s founders, but this sliver set the stage for a discussion, and eventually a debate that changed the course of history. Of course for the sliver to have any context, the lives of the principals prior to the incident must be presented. Let me take this opportunity to encourage the reader to read beyond this work and to dig further into the lives of John Waller, Lewis Craig, James Chiles, James Read and Patrick Henry. If you are an American or a Christian or both, this is not only their story; it is your story, and a heritage undimmed by the passing of time.
Keep in mind that these were men of like passions such as we are, with wives and children and expenses and reputations, but yet they risked all for the proclamation of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. As their legacy, we should be willing to do no less.
John Waller was born 2 days before Christmas in 1741 to a respectable family in Virginia. He however, was not respectable. As a gambler with a bad temper, he was referred to as “Swearing Jack” or more colorfully as “the Devil’s Adjutant”. From a single incident in which he was involved, he reportedly had three separate warrants issued for his arrest. He had some legal training, and took great pleasure in the persecution of Baptist in Spotsylvania County, which in the minds of some in Spotsylvania County, made up for his self-destructive tendencies . He was assigned to a grand jury in 1766 and it was in this capacity that he first met Lewis Craig.
Craig had been brought to trial for holding ‘illegal religious meetings’. This charge was often brought against non-church of England ministers and particularly publick ministers. Craig had a history of this, and the grand jury decreed that evidence was sufficient for him to go to trial. Many of the grand jury members felt that not only had justice been served, but that yet another of those pesky Baptist street preachers had been dealt with. They adjourned to the local tavern to celebrate.
What happened next was to affect John Waller’s life forever. That pesky publick preacher Lewis Craig followed them to the tavern, and bought them a round of drinks, telling them:
“ I thank you, Gentlemen of the Grand Jury, for the honor you have done me. While I was wicked and injurious, you took no note of me, but since I altered my course of life and endeavored to reform my neighbors, you concern yourself much about me. I have gotten this mug of grog, to treat you with, and shall take the spoiling of my goods joyfully.”
Such talk bothered John Waller, but his well-earned reputation as an enemy of the faith prevented him from letting his disturbed conscience show. He began to secretly attend Baptist meetings including those held by Lewis Craig. When Craig and his company would hold their publick meetings, Waller would stay at the edge of the crowd, listening, but appearing not to. In 1767, less than a year after the grand jury experience, Waller surrendered his all to Jesus Christ. He relates it this way:
“ I had long felt the greatest abhorrence of myself and began almost to despair of the mercy of God. However I determined never to rest until it pleased God to show mercy or cut me off. Under these impressions, I was at a certain place, sitting under preaching. On a sudden, a man exclaimed that he had found mercy and began to praise God. No mouth can describe the horror with which I was seized that instant. I began to conclude that my damnation was certain. Leaving the meeting, I hastened unto a neighboring wood and dropped on my knees before God to beg for mercy. In an instant, I felt my heart melt, and the sweet application of the redeemer’s love to my poor soul.”
Following his conversion, Waller became one of the most ardent proclaimers of the gospel in Orange and Spotsylvania County. He was baptized by James Read. He sold his property to pay off his gambling debts, and became the firm companion for his new friend and brother in Christ, Lewis Craig. By the ungodly he was considered “a bold, inexorable fanatic, which would do much mischief unless restrained.”
In time he would organize a church and be their pastor. During the course of his life he endured great persecution including a beating in 1771 at the hands of the local sheriff that scarred him for the rest of his life. He would spend 113 days in 4 different jails over the next 35 years. But it is his arrest in 1768, while still a young man, that we must concern ourselves.
Lewis Craig was born in Virginia to a pious family of Puritans, but according to all accounts, he was dead in trespasses in sins despite an outward religiosity until his conscience was pricked under the preaching of Samuel Harris when he was 25 or 26 years old. For months he would follow Samuel Harris around, peppering him with questions about eternal things, and lamenting that he must surely be lost and undone before God. When he was 27, he settled it all within his heart and immediately began to preach, even attempting to give the gospel to his old Anglican priest.( Note: Some accounts list him as the child of a good devout Baptist family) This newfound zeal caused a split with his family, and with the Anglican community. Soon Lewis Craig found himself preaching all over Virginia. His soul winning efforts led to the establishment of the first Baptist church in Lower Spotsylvania, according to James Taylor.
“ He travelled almost constantly, and the large congregations which everywhere attended his ministry, were entreated to escape the divine wrath, with the most impassioned earnestness. Nothing could exceed the burning zeal with which he persuaded men to be reconciled to God. His sermons consisted in a plain pungent exhibition of the evil of sin, and its ruinous consequences, with the glad tidings of redeeming love, through a Saviour. Hundreds of his hearers found in these announcements, the means to salvation. The Gospel came to them not in word only, but in power, and in the Holy Ghost, with much assurance.”
In 1780, amidst the lingering persecution in Virginia, he took his congregation and headed to Kentucky with them, where he established a profitable work until his death in his eighties. He was one of those who lived on both sides of America’s experience with religious intolerance, and could tell the tale of the way things ‘used to be’. So much of his life, and his ministry happened after his arrest in 1768, and they are stories worth telling, but alas, it is there, in June of 1768 that we must focus our attentions.
Even less is known about James Chiles. He was said to possess “a sturdy set of limbs and a resolute spirit” which he used to “bruise the bodies of his countrymen”. Converted while in his 20’s, he was with Craig and Waller that day in Spotsylvania
The facts of the actual trial are very scanty, and no court records exist. The story has to be pieced together from multiple eyewitness accounts.
On the 4th of June 1768 John Waller, Lewis Craig, James Chiles and James Read were all arrested while preaching in publick. The charge was that they were disturbing the peace, with the prosecutor at their trial claiming “May it please your worships, these men are great disturbers of the peace; they cannot meet a man upon the road but they must ram a text of Scripture down his throat.” After their arrest, the charge of holding ‘religious meetings contrary to the law of the land’ was added as they had no license from the Church of England. The bond was set as 2000 pounds, which one historian cites as ‘a king’s ransom’. John Corbly, a local preacher, met with them and offered to be surety for them, putting his family farm at risk, should they decide to post bond. They declined.
Waller, with his partial law school education, argued their case before the magistrates, and a deal was offered them. They would be released on the condition that they agree to not preach in publick for the length of one year and one day. The preachers refused and were thusly marched to the jail in Fredericksburg. Along the way, they broke out in a chorus of an old Isaac watts hymn “Broad is the way that leadeth to death”:
Broad is the road that leads to death,
And thousands walk together there;
But wisdom shows a narrower path,
With here and there a traveler.
Deny thyself, and take thy cross,
Is the Redeemer’s great command:
Nature must count her gold but dross,
If she would gain this heavenly land.
The fearful soul that tires and faints,
And walks the ways of God no more,
Is but esteemed almost a saint,
And makes his own destruction sure.
Lord let all my hopes be not in vain,
Create my hope entirely new,
Which hypocrites could ne’er attain,
Which false apostates never knew.
After a month in captivity, two of them had secured their release. Accounts differ as to whether it was Lewis Craig or Elijah Craig, but John Waller was certainly one of them. The two preachers, whoever they were, made a trip to the Deputy Governor in Williamsburg to plead the case of their comrades still in jail. In July of 1768, a letter was written on their behalf from the deputy governor to the king’s attorney.
I lately received a letter signed by a good number of worthy gentlemen who are not here, complaining of the Baptists; the particulars of their misbehavior are not told any farther than their running into private houses and making dissensions. Mr. Craig and Mr. Waller are with me and deny the charge. They told me they are willing to take the oath as others have. I told them the attorney general is of the opinion that the general court only has the power to grant licenses and referred them to the court. But on their application to the attorney general they brought me his letter, advising me to write you that their petition is a matter of right and that you may not molest these conscientious people so long as they behave themselves in a manner becoming pious Christians and in obedience to the laws, till the court, when they apply for their licenses and when the gentlemen who complain, may make their objections and be heard. The act of toleration (it being found by experience that persecuting dissenters increases their number) has given them a right to apply, in a proper manner, for licensed houses of worship of God according to their consciences; and I persuade myself that the gentlemen will quietly overlook their meetings till the court. I am told they administer the sacraments of the Lord’s supper near the manner we do but differ in nothing from our church but in that of baptism, and in their renewing of the ancient discipline...they have reformed some sinners and brought some to be truly penitent; nay if a man of theirs is idle and neglect to labour and provide for his family as he ought, he incurs their censures which have had good effects. If this be their behavior, it were to be wished we had some of it among us; but at least I hope all men may remain quiet until court. I am, with great respects to the gentlemen, your humble servant.
July 16, 1768
This pleading failed, and the case went to trial.