THEIR PREACHING WAS A MATTER OF RIGHT
Scripture – Esther chapter 4
A full day had passed since the apprehension of the four preachers and the exhorter in the meetinghouse yard. According to the bond they were now appearing in court June 6, 1768, and were being accused as many other Baptists were subsequently accused, of being vagrants, strollers, and disturbers of the peace. The only real disturbers of the peace were the ruffians who would pelt them with apples and stones, drag them from their pulpits, beat them with fists, pound their head on the ground, and on occasions dunk them in water until they nearly drowned. There only supposed crimes were quoting Scripture, preaching the gospel of the grace of God, and condemning the vices of the state supported clergy.
John Waller, one of the accused, made his own and his brethren’s defense so ingeniously that the court was somewhat puzzled to know how to dispose of them. Waller was capable of this feat, being a brilliant, talented scholar and having received his education from private tutors.
Though bred a churchman, he was distinguished from other John Wallers by the title “Swearing Jack” because of his profane speech. He was converted and embraced the principles of the Baptists as a result of sitting on the grand jury before whom Lewis Craig gave testimony. The court offered to release Waller and the others if they would promise to preach no more in the county for a year and a day. They dared not obey this mandate because it was in conflict with the supreme command of their God, their sovereign, but they could cheerfully submit to the penalty which unjust human law inflicted, thus demonstrating its oppressive injustice and paving the way for its repeal.
There has been a speech widely publicized that Patrick Henry supposedly made in defense of these men. Some historians declare that he was not even present. Others believe that he was present but that the published speech was not his but was written later, and yet others defend the validity of the speech. It is well documented that Waller defended that group and that they spent many days in the jail. It is also well known that Patrick Henry was a friend of the Baptists, defended some of them in court, paid some of their fines, and assisted them in many ways.
During their confinement, they preached through the grates, and Morgan Edwards records that they made “very serious impressions on the minds of eleven heads of families and some of their domesticks [domestics] with many others. The populace doing everything they could invent to keep the people off and to plague the prisoners, till at last they let the prisoners out in order to get rid of them.”
An Anglican rector who had previously debated with John Corbly after one of Corbly’s sermons and had verbally attacked Corbly from his pulpit visited these prisoners and entered into a friendly conversation upon the subject of religion. Before he left them, he offered to give security if they chose to give bond. Not all among the state clergy were in sympathy with such persecution.
Having a petition for their release on July 4, 1768, Lewis Craig entered into a recognizance to carry it to the General Court in Williamsburg. He and Benjamin Waller, upon presenting the petition, received a letter from the attorney general, John Randolph, Jr., to the deputy governor, John Blair, advising that their petition was a “matter of right” and suggesting he write the “king’s attorney” of Spotsylvania County that he was not to “molest these conscientious people, so long as they behaved themselves in a manner becoming pious Christians, and in obedience to the laws.”
The religious freedoms we enjoy today were won in Virginia and then the rest of America by the early Baptist preachers who would not buckle under the harsh, un-Godly rule of the government. They, by the grace of God, and friends of religious freedom like Patrick Henry won for us the freedom we enjoy today. If we do not want to lose these freedoms we need to stand again against those who are systematically taking them away.
Taken from “This Day in Baptist History, Vol. 1” by E. Wayne Thompson and David L. Cummins