Friday, August 21, 2009

Patrick Henry vs. Sectarianism

Patrick Henry was among the most orthodox of Christians, and it took his retirement from public affairs for the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to win passage after a number of previous attempts.

But lest we view Henry as a completely dogmatic cementhead, even he saw the problem with an oppressive state-established church, as we see here during the period when the Anglican church was the established church of Virginia, via Southern Appeal blog:

[Henry] once entered a courtroom where three Baptist preachers were being tried for preaching the gospel without approval of the Episcopalian church in Virginia. In the midst of the proceedings he interrupted with: “May it please your lordships, what did I hear read? Did I hear an expression that these men, whom you worships are about to try for misdemeanors, are charged with preaching the gospel of the Son of God?”

[The charges against the preachers were dismissed.]

3 comments:

Mark in Spokane said...

For the most part, the Founders who were orthodox and who supported state establishments still supported limited religious liberty for dissenters-- the right of individuals not to be members of the state church and the right of individuals to hold to non-conforming forms of Christianity. While this certainly violates Thomas Jefferson's ideas regarding religious liberty, it is still considerably more progressive than what went on in much of Europe.

For example, in England Catholics would have the right to clearly own property until Edmund Burke was able to convince his parliamentary colleagues to begin to adopt a series of statutes that would eventually be referred to as "Catholic Emancipation." As it was, there were no Catholic bishops in England until the reign of Victoria!

secular square said...

Patrick Henry actually has some interesting connections to the strife between the religious establishment and dissenters. His uncle, also named Patrick Henry, served as the rector for St. Paul’s Parish in Hanover County, VA. A small group of locals quit his church to worship at home. Later they connected with Presbyterian itinerant preachers sent from the North to the Scotch-Irish settlers in the western part of the colony. Rev. Henry complained to the government about “the present distracted condition of my parish” and the “future disturbances I justly apprehend from these itinerants, who make it their study to screw up the people to the greatest heights of religious phrenzy and then to leave them in that wild state for perhaps ten or twelve months, till another enthusiast comes among them. . . . .“ The dissenters eventually settled one of these Presbyterian itinerants, Rev. Samuel Davies, as their permanent pastor. He secured a license to preach at two meeting houses in Hanover and two more in Henrico Counties from the Governor’s Council. Later, the Council began to curtail the activities of Davies by rejecting applications for additional meeting houses and refusing to license any assistant for Davies. Patrick Henry, the future revolutionary, attended Davies church as a child with his mother. Years later, when Henry was governor, it was actually petition from Hanover Presbytery that moved him to support a general establishment. Interesting how the non-conformists forty years later wanted to join the religious establishment.

secular square said...

For those Baptist itinerants, like those defended by Henry, who refused to secure a licence, a taste of what awaited them in one county:

"Brother Waller informed us [that] about two weeks ago on the Sabbath Day down in Caroline County he introduced the worship of God by singing. While he was singing the Parson of the parish [who had ridden up with his clerk, the sheriff, and some others] would keep running the end of his horsewhip in [Waller's] mouth, laying his whip acros the hymn book, ect. When done singing[Waller] proceded to prayer. In it he was violently jerked off of the stage, they caught him by the back part of his neck, beat his head against the ground, some times up, sometimes down, they carried him through a gate . . where [the sheriff] gave him twenty lashes with his horse whip. Then Brother Waller was released, went back singing praise to God, mounted the stage & preached with a great deal of liberty."

Advocates of Christian Nation theories should remember that at least some 18th century Christians were a different breed than today.

Efforts to create a general establishment failed when the House of Delegates received a deluge of petitions from religious dissenters against it. Support for it collapsed and they enacted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom instead.