Outline of Baptist Persecution in Colonial America











 Links to online copies of original documents are included at the end of the outline.





The year is 1774.  American colonists are strongly protesting British invasions of their rights, and in September the first Continental Congress is convened as a response British encroachments.   Also in 1774 in Northampton, Massachusetts, eighteen Baptists are sitting in jail.  Their crime?  Refusing to pay taxes for the support of the town’s Congregational minister. 

Also in 1774, down South in Virginia, James Madison declared, "That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some. . . . There are at this time in the adjacent county not less than five or six well-meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which in the main are very orthodox. . . . So I must beg you to . . . pray for liberty of conscience for all."

The fight for religious liberty in America extended from the early 17th century to the early 19th century.  Of the various religious sects in America, Baptists were the most persecuted, and thus became the most vocal advocates of religious liberty and separation of church and state, taking the lead in the establishment of religious liberty and separation of church and state first in Virginia, and then at the federal level.

Following is a brief outline of Baptist persecution in colonial America.

I.    Background: 17th Century

A.     The Puritan Version of "Religious Liberty" – Upper Colonies: theocratic leaders wanted religious freedom only for themselves, believed all laws should be grounded in God's (Old Testament) laws

B.     Roger Williams – A Separatist, Williams migrated to Boston in 1631. His religious views were not well-received, and he eventually was forced to flee. The first champion of full religious liberty in colonial America, Williams founded Rhode Island colony in 1635 on the principles of full religious liberty, separation of church and state, and democratic government.  In 1638, he founded the first Baptist Church in America (Providence).

C.     Religious Liberty in colonial America was primarily limited to Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

II.  Preparing the Way for Religious Liberty in America

A.     The Great Awakening – created a shared experience among denominations; revival calls for a personal decision undercut the concept of a state church dictating citizens’ beliefs

B.     The Enlightenment – attacked religious authority and dogma, championed tolerance and individual reasoning

III. Baptist Persecutions in Virginia

A.     Baptists entered Virginia in early 18th century

B.     First Virginia Baptists thrown in jail in Spotsylvania in 1768, for refusing to stop preaching, cited with disturbing the peace (John Waller, Lewis Craig, James Childs)

C.     Imprisonment of Baptists continued until at least 1778, for periods of up to 5 months

D.     Baptists accused of child abuse (because they did not baptize their children as infants), Baptist marriages not recognized

E.      Persecutions included (from court records, as compiled by Lewis Peyton Little, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia):

               "pelted with apples and stone"
               "ducked and nearly drowned by 20 men"
               "commanded to take a dram, or be whipped"
jailed for permitting a man to pray"
               "meeting broken up by a mob"
               "arrested as a vagabond and schismatic"
               "pulled down and hauled about by hair"
               "tried to suffocate him with smoke"
               "tried to blow him up with gun powder"
               "drunken rowdies put in same cell with him"
               "horses ridden over his hearers at jail"
               "dragged off stage, kicked, and cuffed about"
               "shot with a shot-gun"
ruffians armed with bludgeons beat him"
               "severely beaten with a whip"
               "whipped severely by the Sheriff"
hands slashed while preaching"

IV. The Baptist Fight for Religious Liberty in Virginia:  A Timeline

A.     1770 – Baptists presented petitions for the removal of restrictions placed on them

B.     1775 – Baptists presented petitions calling for the abolishment of the established church; one petition garnered 10,000 signatures, including Presbyterians and some Anglicans

C.     1776 – VA disestablished Church of England; dissenters exempted from attending church and paying taxes to the Church, and allowed to publicly voice their religious sentiments but no separation of church and state; Baptists were still not happy, and were yet persecuted

D.     1777 – Jefferson wrote a “Bill for Religious Freedom” declaring that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever”; no immediate action was taken (Jefferson departed for Paris, leaving James Madison to champion the bill)

E.      1778-1786 – Baptists continued to insist on full religious liberty and separation of church and state; John Leland, a Massachusetts transplant, was a popular minister who supported Jefferson’s religious freedom bill and led the Baptist agitation for separation of church and state; during this time, a number of denominations were willing to compromise by decreeing a general religious tax; the Baptists refused

F.      1786 – VA established Religious Freedom; Baptists complained that the proposed new federal constitution did not make sufficient provision for religious liberty

V.  The Baptist Fight for Religious Liberty on the National Level

A.     1787 – John Leland rallied Baptist support behind James Madison’s candidacy for the Virginia Convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution in turn for Madison’s promise to pursue a federal religious liberty amendment

B.     1789 – Madison elected to congress, champions constitutional amendments, based on the Virginia Declaration of Rights

C.     1791 – The “Bill of Rights” Ratified, with Religious Liberty clause

D.     1833 – Massachusetts becomes the final state to grant full religious liberty



The Roots of Religious Liberty (Primary Documents; Library of Congress)

An Excellent, Extensive Collection of Church/State Primary Documents (RJ&L Rel. Liberty Archive)

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Primary Documents; Library of Congress)

History of Religious Liberty in America (First Amendment Center)

Baptists and Religious Liberty in New Connecticut (Dr. George W. Grisevich, Yale University)

Church vs. State: Historical Background (PBS)

James Madison’s Proposed Amendments to the Constitution, 1789 (Primary Document; digital reproduction of original document)

John Leland and James Madison: Religious Influence on the Ratification of the Constitution and on the Proposal of the Bill of Rights (by Mark S. Scarberry)