Since 1698, the Church of England was the established church in the Virginia Colony. The rights to baptize, consecrate marriage, teach school, and administer public morality rested exclusively with the clergy. They were selected and licensed solely by the Crown. To avert dissent, privileges of the Toleration Act in England were extended to colonists in America. Exemptions, such as preaching at funerals, were granted. Baptists, however, rejected taking an oath in exchange for a license to preach. Baptists claimed an exclusion from the Toleration Act. The dissenters stated they were subject only to God. As a result, violent mob rule by the establishment ran riot over Baptist preachers and their congregations throughout the Colony.
- Baptists Were Whipped, Mocked, & Imprisoned
- Elijah Craig and His Brothers Were Arrested
- Congregations Were Subject to Violence
- Blacks Received the Most Savage Beatings
- Baptist Preachers Were Imprisoned
- Dissenters Were Known to John M. James
- John Waller’s Celebrated Persecution
- “The Fearless” Col. French Strother Obstructed
- James Neighbors Were Persecutors
- Igniting the Fire of Soul Liberty
- Baptists Bartered Patriot Allegiance for Religious Liberty
- Unfettered Political Freedom Advanced
- Total Separation Remains Elusive
- Distant Government Remains Distrusted
Estimated reading time: 20 minutes
“Disturbers of the Peace”
A preview excerpt from Jesse James Soul Liberty, Volume II, This Bloody Ground by Eric F. James
“THEY CALLED US DISTURBERS; YOU KNOW.” John M. James soundly slammed the door to the sunlight, blinding his sight. “Disturbers of the peace!” His bellow echoed throughout his brooding empty hallway. 
After so many decades, the offensive charge rankled him still. Sitting on the staircase, John muttered his complaint. “Their prosecutor said, ‘May it please your Worships, these men are great disturbers of the peace; you cannot meet one of these men along the side of the road, but they must ram a text of scripture down your throat.’ ’’ 
John erupted into a burst of laughter. With a playful wink of his eye, he admitted, “t’was true.”
Baptists Were Whipped, Mocked, & Imprisoned
Too often, John recalled the violence of those “cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment.” John often quoted Hebrews, 11:36.
The incarcerations began earnestly around 1768 in Spotsylvania County. John was seventeen, then. In the next six years, John witnessed over fifty Baptists jailed. Only one hundred were preaching in all of Virginia at the time. Most preached without a license, resulting in their incarceration. 
Elijah Craig and His Brothers Were Arrested
Authorities apprehended Elijah Craig’s brother, Joseph, but he managed to escape. Dogs chased down Joseph. Then, authorities jailed Joseph Craig for four months more.
Authorities also arrested Elijah Craig’s brother Lewis Craig, multiple times.
They arrested his associate Younger Pitts, too. Pitts later followed Elijah Craig to Georgetown, Kentucky. Authorities abused Pitts both verbally and physically. When released, authorities arrested Pitts again.
The court issued a warrant for preaching for Nathaniel Saunders. When he arrived at court, authorities promptly jailed Saunders. Though acquitted at trial, threats of prosecution continually dogged Saunders if he preached any further. 
Saunders later fled with the Craig brothers to Bryant’s Station in Kentucky.
Congregations Were Subject to Violence
John added, “Our congregations fell subject to the violence, too.”
Authorities dragged Baptists from their churches. Authorities dunked and nearly drowned Baptists in nearby rivers, creeks, and streams in a mock parody of baptism itself.
Inside meetinghouses, authorities forced communicants to witness their preachers whipped as they preached.
Men on horseback surprised Baptists attending open-air baptisms. They lashed them violently with whips. 
Blacks Received the Most Savage Beatings
Blacks particularly were subject to the most savage beatings.
The gentry feared Baptists were recruiting black people; either the free or enslaved, to oppose the establishment.
Most blacks took their preaching at irregular hours during the night. This raised further alarms among the gentry, giving the impression of slave unrest. In their meetings of faith, the enslaved were seeking only some respite, some recapture of internal peace.
Baptist Preachers Were Imprisoned
When jailed, preachers continued to preach from inside their cells.
Confounded by the incessant preaching, the authorities belligerently beat drums to drown out the preaching that never stopped.
When a preacher stood in his prison window pulpit, facing outward from his cell, a small flock approached. Some urinated on his face.
John Weatherford stretched his arms before him, supplicating the sinners assembled outside his cell. The hand of a gentrified bigot who guarded him slashed Weatherford repeatedly with a knife.
Authorities erected a twelve-foot wall to block his prison window, for his “denying the prison bounds.” 
Brother Weatherford was the father of fifteen children, thirteen of whom were girls.
Dissenters Were Known to John M. James
John M. James knew personally some of the jailed dissenters who displeased Anglican and civil authorities.
The authorities detained Adam Banks. He preached in the home of John Dulaney in Culpeper County. Banks’ forebear, Garrard Banks, had arrived in America about 1620 with the immigrant ancestor of John, a previous John James. Authorities jailed Dulaney for allowing Baptist preaching in his home, even though he was not a Baptist himself.
So was James Pittman, who later followed John M. James into Kentucky to Pulaski County. 
Another one jailed was Edward Herndon of Overwharton Parish.
Authorities also imprisoned William McClanahan, who served with John and Daniel Morgan in Culpeper’s Minutemen militia of “Fighting Baptists.”  They charged McClanahan with teaching and preaching “contrary to the laws and usages of the King of Great Britain, raising sedition and raising up strife among His Majesty’s liege people.” 
John knew John Shackleford, too, also imprisoned for preaching.
John also knew James and Robert Ware, forebears of John Singleton Mosby and Anne Apperson Bacon. Much later, Anne married Rev. Philip Slater Fall. Authorities jailed Brother James Ware for both preaching and permitting preaching. Brother Robert Ware was fed only bread and water. His crime was playing cards on the very dais from where he preached. 
John Waller’s Celebrated Persecution
Celebrity of sorts fell upon dissenting preacher John Waller. Authorities jailed Waller over six times.
- In Hanover County, Waller was dragged from his church by the hair.
- In Caroline County, Waller was jerked from his lectern. Sheriff William Harris whipped Waller with twenty lashes. Harris left Waller in “a gore of blood.” Waller then “remounted the stage and preached a most extraordinary sermon, thereby showing the beaten oil is the best for the sanctuary.”
- In Spotsylvania, no less than lawyer Patrick Henry came to Waller’s defense, arguing for his release.
- In Middlesex County, John Waller was put in solitary confinement.
- In Caroline County, Sheriff Harris again ordered Waller’s church clerk to whip Waller. This time, in the presence of another minister.
- On a different occasion in Middlesex County, Waller was fed only bread and water in yet another vile incarceration.
- When found preaching yet again later in Middlesex, John Waller was stoned as he preached. 
“The Fearless” Col. French Strother Obstructed
A cousin of John M. James, Col. French Strother, was dubbed “The Fearless” during the Revolution. Strother lived on an estate of 1,500 acres near the James family, lying on Mountain Run on the Fredericksberg Road, between Culpeper and Stevensburg. Strother was a warden and vestryman of St. Mark’s Parish.
As a member of the Committee for Religion, Strother freed a Baptist preacher in 1779 who had been imprisoned. Strother substituted Tom, one of his slaves, to be incarcerated instead. Then, under the cover of night, Tom was released and returned to Strother. 
James Neighbors Were Persecutors
The power behind these persecutions was intimidating. John M. James recognized well the persecutors among his community who were his neighbors.
From 1761 through 1774, a powerful elite family of relatives governed the persecutions. Those most responsible were Edmund Pendleton, Archibald Carey, Robert Carter Nicholas, Henry Lee, Edmund Randolph, Richard Bland, and the James family’s neighbor Benjamin Harrison. 
All staunchly supported the Anglican Church, especially Lee and Harrison. Carey ordered persecutions personally. Later, Carey built a jail yard wall to discourage preachers from preaching when confined to prison.
Igniting the Fire of Soul Liberty
History recorded, “this hard flint of persecution struck the true fire of soul liberty.” 
Roger Williams first coined the magnetic phrase, soul liberty. An early Baptist dissenter in Rhode Island, Williams attempted to define the relationship between state and religion, and the relationship of the individual to the state.
Williams preached that each person was born with a first liberty. To choose for God, against God, or for no God at all. Individual conscience alone, independent of religious coercion or government control, dictated one’s faith, acts, and practice.
Williams cited history’s lesson. He reminded anyone of the experience of Europe. A state forcing religion onto an individual’s belief had led only to a long history of persecution, war, and bloodshed.
Williams argued forcefully. Church must be separate from State. The mind and heart of mankind must be left to God’s will alone, and to the freedom of conscience, personal choice, and self-esteem that is born with each person as the soul liberty of all humanity. 
John M. James concluded with a smirk, “Their persecutions were far too intolerable for us, the rebel preachers.”
Patrick Henry Defended Dissenters
In the Baptist battle for soul freedom and religious liberty, the lawyer Patrick Henry was among the first to defend the Baptist dissenters.
Henry rode fifty miles to intrude, unsolicited and unpaid, into a court proceeding. The trial charged the three preachers, Aaron Bledsoe with the brothers, Lewis and Joseph Craig, “for preaching the Gospel of the Son of God in the colony of Virginia.” Patrick Henry unleashed his fierce anger upon the court.
“There are periods in the history of man when corruption and depravity have so long debased the human character, that man sinks under the weight of the oppressor’s hand, and becomes his servile, his abject slave; he licks the hand that smites him; he bows in passive obedience to the mandates of the despot, and in this state of servility he receives his fetters of perpetual bondage.
“But, may it please your worships, such a day has passed away!
“From that period, when our fathers left the land of their nativity for settlement in these American wilds, for LIBERTY, for civil and religious liberty, for the liberty of conscience, to worship their Creator according to the conceptions of Heaven’s revealed will;
“from the moment they placed a foot on the American continent, and in the deeply embedded forests sought asylum from persecution and tyranny, from that moment despotism was crushed; her fetters of darkness were broken, and Heaven decreed that man should be free – free to worship God according to the Bible.
“Were it not for this, in vain have been the efforts and sacrifices of the colonists; in vain were all their sufferings and bloodshed to subjugate this new world, if we, their offspring, must still be oppressed and persecuted.
“But, may it please your worships, permit me to inquire once more, for what are these men about to be tried? This paper says, ‘For preaching the Gospel of the Son of God.’ Great God! For preaching the Gospel of the Savior to Adam’s fallen race. WHAT LAW HAVE THEY VIOLATED?” 
Baptists Bartered Patriot Allegiance for Religious Liberty
Baptists no longer sought tolerance alone, but the soul liberty of which Patrick Henry spoke. With the Colony now at odds with the Crown, the Crown courted the disaffected. So also, the patriot command courted the dissenters against the Crown.
Faith itself became an armament to barter for patriotic allegiance.
Concessions Were Granted
Concessions were painfully slow to come.
Writing to George Washington, Baptists complained, “mobs, bonds, fines, and prisons were our frequent repast.”  Washington was quoted in return. Washington said the Baptists were “firm friends of liberty.”
George Mason drafted the Baptists’ complaint into the Virginia Declaration of Rights “that all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.”  Baptist dissenters obstinately demanded an immediate end to the establishment of taxes and to the restrictions upon worship and marriages.
At Blue Run, not too distant from James Madison’s estate, four to five thousand protesting Baptists assembled to hear William Marshall preach. The uncle of the future United States Supreme Court Justice John J. Marshall joined Elijah Craig, Waller, and others. Newly arrived in the legislature, Madison readily provided for the “free exercise of religion,” but only narrowly in his Declaration of Rights. 
In return, Baptists bartered their bodies to the patriot cause in revolutionary opposition to the Crown. “These things granted, we will gladly unite with our Brethren of other denominations, and to the utmost of our ability promote the common cause of freedom.” 
Baptists Petitioned House of Burgesses
Baptists petitioned Payton Randolph and the House of Burgesses:
“Alarmed at the shocking Oppression, which in a British Cloud hangs over the American Continent, we, as a Society and part of the distressed State, have in our Association considered what part might be most prudent for the Baptists to act in the present unhappy Contest…we, therefore, delegate and appoint our well-beloved Brethren in the Ministry, Elijah Craig, Jeremiah Walker, and John Williams…to petition you that they may have free Liberty to preach to the Troops…without molestation or abuse…” 
To which the convention replied:
“Resolved. That it be an instruction to the commanding officers…that they permit dissenting clergymen to celebrate divine worship, and to preach to the soldiers, or to exhort from time to time, as the various operations of the military service may permit…” 
As Baptists promised, dissenters mobilized their military support. They provided combatants for the Revolution.
Some of the formerly incarcerated preachers who claimed military exemptions joined the Culpeper Minutemen.
Rev. William McClanahan quickly raised a rag-tag company, dubbed the “Fighting Baptists.” From his youth, McClanahan was recognized as a “holy terror.”  Like Daniel Morgan, McClanahan attracted the type of young people who were spoiling for a fight.
Rumor said, McClanahan only became a preacher for the sole fun of quelling disturbances in Baptist meetings. He used his powerful and strong physical presence. He was less of a peaceable sergeant at arms. He acted more like a daunting bully, who enjoyed being a forceful bouncer of undesirables.
The “Fighting Baptists” included William Nalle, the brother of John’s future wife, Clara. Capt. William served as McClanahan’s ensign, with Jacob Pence Jr., who became Capt. Nalle’s ensign.
The home-tailored buckskin uniforms of the Minutemen cultivated the appearance of camouflaged hunters. Their crude and fringed hunting shirts were dyed brown by the extract of leaves. Bucktail trophies, collected from hunts, adorned their hats. Tomahawk trophies and scalping knives, seized in skirmishes with the Native people, hung from their belts. Across their chests, raw white letters emblazoned “LIBERTY OR DEATH.” McClanahan preached passionately and regularly to his militia. 
Following his term of service, Capt. McClanahan returned to pastor Upper Carter’s Run Church. Not surprisingly, the Committee of Safety instructed Methodists to organize their company.
Unfettered Political Freedom Advanced
The Baptists insisted steadfastly on more than religious liberty alone. Unfettered political freedom became their endgame.
Jefferson’s favorite aunt, Dorothea Randolph, the wife of Col. John Woodson, was a practicing Baptist. Jefferson had visited her Baptist church and others. 
Jefferson’s Bill Establishing Religious Freedom soon would be signed into law. But the Baptists perceived the law and dictum cynically, as “bitumen to cement the Church and State together.”
A “Christian Nation” Was Opposed
Baptists vehemently opposed the idea of a “Christian nation.” They rejected the very idea.
What Baptists sought was the complete separation of church and state.
Baptists claimed, “Equal Liberty.” The only interference they wanted from a governing legislature was “to support them in their just Rights and Equal Privileges.”
Sentiment for Baptists Shifted
As the Anglican establishment of the Crown continued to appeal for enforcement of old laws, a petition arrived at the Virginia House, bearing 10,000 names, identified as “Dissenters from the Ecclesiastical establishment.”  Surprisingly, the petition included numerous names of non-Baptists.
The shifting force of public sentiment was unmistakable. The enslaved people comprised forty-five percent of Virginia’s population of 400,000 to 600,000 people. The number of enslaved left a population of Anglo slave owners and overseers almost equal in number. But half of the Anglo populace consisted of women. Women were chattel and had no voice or vote.
In effect when reduced by numbers, nearly ten percent of the Virginian population signed the petition. A clear majority, if the forty-five percent of its enslaved population also was accounted for. 
As the Crown appealed to the slave populace to fight for their freedom, the Crown also encouraged attacks by Indians against the colonists and dissenters.
Exemptions Were Won
Over time, Baptist dissenters won their exemption from paying establishment taxes.
The Crown also repealed penalties for non-attendance at Anglican church services.
Authorities progressively dropped oaths as a requirement for voting. Civil or military service only required a solemn vow.
Total Separation Remains Elusive
Absolute freedom and equality for Baptists and dissenters still were uncertain. So, too, was the complete separation of church from state.
Distant Government Remains Distrusted
Seared into the boyhood memory of John M. James were these persecutions and the violence, the endless injustices, the personal suffering, and the numerous bloody conflicts that came from it all. John witnessed that, all of it came from a government that was distant from its people.
The sufferance and infirmity served only to brand John’s sense of soul liberty. Passion lit in him an eternal flame of independence for his person and for the person of any other. This igniting seared John M. James, lighting his progeny for generations to come, only to erupt in a greater conflagration in the time of his grandsons, Frank and Jesse James.
 Fristoe, William, A Concise History of the Ketocton Baptist Association, 1766 – 1808, Staunton, Virginia, William Gilman Lyford, 1808; republished in 1978, pp. 31-38. The brothers, Bob, Jim, and Cole Younger of the Younger Gang, are great-grandnephews of Rev. William Fristoe.
 Semple, Robert Baylor, History of the Baptists in Virginia, p. 29-30. “Their prosecutor said, ‘May it please your Worships, these men are great disturbers of the peace; you cannot meet one of these men along the side of the road, but they must ram a text of scripture down your throat’.” See also: Benedict, David. A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America, and Other Parts of the World, 1813, London, Lincoln & Edmands.
 Lindman, Janet, Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 45. See also: Little, Lewis Peyton, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia, Lynchburg, Va.: J.P. Bell Co., 1938, p. 368: “A warrant for Nathaniel Saunder’s arrest, dated August 21, 1773, also included William McClanahan, who became his fellow prisoner.”
 Little, Lewis Peyton, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia, Lynchburg, J. P. Bell Co. Inc., 1938. Other recorded acts of persecutions included, “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,” and “shot with a shot-gun.”
 Little, Lewis P., Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia, Lynchburg VA: J. P. Bell and Co., 1938, p. 339. Weatherford’s wife, Martha “Patsy” Sublett, was a 2nd cousin of Rev. Rene Chastain, and a 1st cousin, 3 times removed, of four brothers, the western mountain men Andrew Whitley, Milton Green, Solomon Perry, and William Lewis “Bill” Sublett. Phillip Allen Sublett, the friend of John M. James and William Whitley in Lincoln County, Kentucky, was Patsy Sublett’s brother.
 Youell, Claude Lindsey, “Rapid Ann Church,” A Church History of Madison County, Virginia, Strassburg, Virginia, Shenandoah Publishing House, 1926, pp. 87-88. The chapter identifies the persecution of Banks and Dulaney, and Rev. George Eve who secured the first license to perform marriages in Madison County. Others identified are Joshua Leathers and Daniel James, a brother of John M. James who pastored this church from 1806 to 1820. Leathers’ nephew, Thomas Paul Leathers raced his steamboat, Natchez, against the steamboat, Robert E. Lee.
 Scheel, E. M., Culpeper, A Virginia County’s History through 1920, Culpeper Historical Society, 1982, p. 51.
 Jones, M. S. ed., An 18th Century Perspective: Culpeper County, Culpeper Historical Society, 1976, p.63
 Little. Others also would become well known by John M. James during settlement in Kentucky. Among those were Eleazar Clay (first cousin of statesman Henry Clay), William Marshall, Elijah Morton, Andrew Tribble, David Barrow, Thomas Mastin, Younger Pitts, David Thomas, Rane Chastain, and Daniel Marshall.
 Durso, Keith E., No Armor for the Back: Baptist Prison Writings, 1600s-1700s, Macon, Georgia, Mercer University Press, 2007, pp. 233-235.
 Ragosta, John A., Wellspring of Liberty, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 67.
 Ragosta, p. 38.
 Armitage, Thomas, History of the Baptists, Chapter VIII, “The Baptists of Virginia,” p. 729. Earlier reported in The Christian Observer, XXIX, No. 2, January 12, 1850.
 The Christian Observer, XXIX, No. 2, 1850.
 Ryland, Garnett, The Baptists of Virginia, 1699–1926, Richmond, VA: Virginia Baptist Board of Missions and Education, 1955, p. 31.
 James, Charles F., Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia, Lynchburg, VA: J. P. Bell, 1900; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1971, p. 62.
 Olree, Andy G., Pride, Ignorance, and Knavery: James Madison’s Formative Experiences with Religious Establishments, pp. 228-229. Additional relatives of Rev. William Marshall are Naomi and Prudence Vardeman as daughters-in-law, the brothers of the Younger Gang as second great-grand nephews, and the brothers’ sister Josie Younger, the wife of John Jarette of Quantrill’s Raiders. The siblings’ mother Bersheba Leighton Fristoe-Younger is the granddaughter of another dissenting preacher from Overwharton Parish, Rev. Robert Fristoe. James Fears, a founder of the Flat Lick Baptist Church with John M. James, baptized Rev. Robert Fristoe. See Burnett, J. J., Sketches of Tennessee’s Pioneer Baptist Preachers. Nashville, Tenn.: Press of Marshall & Bruce Company, 1919, pp. 160 – 161. Authorities persecuted Fristoe’s brother, Rev. William Fristoe, for preaching. See Simpson Jr., William S. Virginia Baptists Ministers, 1760-1790, Vol II, Richmond VA, 1886, p. 76.
 Armitage, Thomas, History of the Baptists, Chapter VIII, “The Baptists of Virginia,” p. 798. See also: Ragosta, p. 55.
 American Archives, Fourth Series, 1775, III, p. 383.
 Journal of the Convention of 1775, p. 17.
 Little, Lewis Peyton, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia, Lynchburg, VA., J.P. Bell Co., 1938, p. 368. Also quoted in Thompson, E. Wayne Thompson “Wars Waged from Prison to Revolutionary Battlefields,” p. 345. See also: Eaton, David W. Historical Atlas of Westmoreland County, Virginia, The Dietz Press, Richmond, 1942, p. 38.
 In 1844, Capt. Philip Slaughter recalled that “at first he (McClanahan) regularly preached to his men.” See Scheel, E. M., Culpeper, A Virginia County’s History through 1920, Culpeper Historical Society, 1982, p. 51.
 Armitage, Thomas, History of the Baptists, Chapter VIII, “The Baptists of Virginia,” pp. 733, 799.
 As noted in The Report of the Virginia State Library, Vol.6-7, Virginia State Library, p. 48; f. 271: MS. “Religious Petitions,” 1776. “This paper is signed by about 10,000 names. The immense manuscript is made up of segments pasted together and, in many cases, lists of names are written out by the same hand. No prominent Virginians are included…Probably dissenters of all denominations are represented, and possibly persons of no persuasions.”
 1998 World Almanac and Book of Facts, pg. 378, “Estimated Population of American Colonies, 1630-1780.” Source: Bureau of the Census, U.S. Dept. of Commerce. For the enslaved populace, see Holton, Woody, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina, 1999.
The New York Times “The Far-Right Christian Quest for Power”…religious fervor with conspiracy theories, even calling for the end of the separation of church and state.