“If I were Washington I would summon all the American officers, they should form a circle around me, and I would address them, and we would offer a libation in our own blood, and I would order one of them to bring a lancet and a punch-bowl and we would bare our arms and be bled; and when the bowl was full, when we all had been bled, I would call on every man to consecrate himself to the work by dipping his sword into the bowl and entering into a solemn covenant engagement by oath, one to another, and we would swear by Him that sits upon the throne and liveth for ever and ever, that we would never sheathe our swords while there was an English soldier in arms remaining in America.” – Reverend John Ryland
Such were the words of the Baptist preacher, who in reality represented the sentiments of nearly every colonial Baptist church at the time of the War for Independence. So passionate was this denomination for the cause of liberty that, as the Declaration of Independence says, they pledged and sacrificed their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” for the cause.
Though the effects of the Great Awakening were still manifest years after it had occurred, persecution of this particular Christian religion existed and even increased leading up to the American Revolution. Deemed fanatical, even “too patriotic” at times, it was the Baptists, who by standing steadfastly for their convictions, were great sources of influence to society in the immediate days leading up to the Revolution.
A prime example of their steadfastness was in the statewide detainment of many ministers, who for “preaching the gospel contrary to the law,” were imprisoned after refusing to refrain from speaking publicly. Others within the state were later incarcerated as well, while still others’ property was seized, damaged, and destroyed. Cathcart states, “No legal effort was left untried to stifle their earnest efforts to win the lost to the cross.”
Yet for all the collective efforts of other religions and the state, such persecutions had no effect on them. Their resistance to such terrible laws was based on a loyalty to a higher power. They believed and lived as if “unrighteous laws were conspiracies against God and the best interests of our race, plots of the Evil One, to be met by exposure and stern resistance, disobedience to which was loyalty to Jehovah.” Such commitment would soon inspire the everyday colonist to resist the tyranny of Great Britain in the years to come.
When that time to fight for independence came, Baptists were among the first and foremost of its enthusiastic supporters. The Baptist General Association of Virginia addressed its state convention, stating, “to a man they were in favor of the Revolution.” Numbers of pastors volunteered in their local militias almost immediately, some serving in the capacity of chaplain while others led their units into battle.
More served as legislators within state bodies and the Continental Congress during the war, enacting legislation which aided in unifying the diverse colonies, bringing a swifter end to the war than many anticipated. And still more preached the cause of liberty from the pulpit, encouraging the people that the fight for freedom was indeed the very cause of Christ.
Even after the Revolution was won, the impact of Baptists still continued on. The state convention being equally divided on the question of adopting the Constitution, Reverend James Manning of Massachusetts was highly influential in procuring the necessary votes needed to ratify the document. In a similar situation as well, the minister John Leland from Virginia was also able to convince a number of delegates to support the resolution also.
Additionally on the adoption of the First Amendment, great credit belongs to the Baptists who strove for the protection of religious liberty as part of our Constitution. Virginian delegates, fresh from legislatively freeing religion from the state during the Revolution, were able to pour in their knowledge and experience from this matter into the broader one at hand. As a result, their insight guaranteed the demise of the complex English-born union between church and state within America.
America owes a great debt it can never repay to the Baptist denomination. Though persecuted by many a man they fought alongside in the conflict with Britain, they never responded in kind. Their passion for freedom to worship God in spirit and in truth instead fueled their ready forgiveness. It also inspired many a patriot to take up arms to fight for liberty, so that the rights they sacrificed so much for would be preserved for generations to come in America’s future.
May we be blessed as we remember our heritage. May we be inspired to fight for liberty as these Baptists did. May we be encouraged to preserve our long and hard-fought freedom, that we may pass it down intact to the next generation, no matter the cost.