If Christian pastors are eventually imprisoned for their faith in the United States, it will not be the first time. Early in America’s history, Baptists were persecuted, sometimes fiercely, for standing for their convictions. Religious liberty like we’ve known it wasn’t a reality until years later.
In 1774, James Madison wrote to a friend in Pennsylvania about troubling developments in Virginia. There were reasons to worry about oppressive British taxes, of course, but that was not Madison’s primary concern in this letter. The “worst” news he had to deliver was that the “diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution” was raging in the colony. “There are at this [time] . . . not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in [jail] for publishing their religious sentiments. . . . Pray for liberty of conscience to revive among us.” While today we tend to think of early America as a bastion of religious liberty, many in the colonial era lamented its absence.
No one suffered more persecution than Baptists. They were the most likely “well meaning” Christians to be thrown in jail on the eve of the American Revolution. While leaders like Madison and Thomas Jefferson learned much about the need for religious freedom from “Enlightened” authors such as John Locke, their deepest convictions about liberty of conscience came from watching it being denied to fellow Americans.
What Set Baptists Apart
Baptists caught the brunt of persecution because of their unusual practices and brash style. Baptists had begun to appear in early seventeenth-century England, and were present in America by the early colonial period. Insisting that the baptism of believers by immersion was the biblical mode, they were fighting an uphill battle in the religious culture of the day. With few exceptions, Christians had taught for a millennium that baptism was meant for infants. Infant baptism introduced a child into the covenanted community of the church, and hopefully put them on the path of salvation. Depriving babies of that blessing seemed tantamount to child abuse, the Baptists’ persecutors believed.
Baptists were among the most fractious of all dissenters. They refused to attend the state-backed churches of England or America, or to pay religious taxes to support those churches. They flamboyantly violated rules that required dissenters to secure licenses from the government to preach. Sometimes local authorities would not agree to have these dissenters preach at all. Regardless, Baptist itinerants traveled throughout the colonies, often holding outdoor baptismal services in rivers and lakes, drawing crowds of mockers.