Chesterfield, VA Memorial to “Apostles of Freedom.” Future President James Madison described the Chesterfield jail as a “diabolical, hell conceived principal of persecution.” Two of the seven Baptist ministers imprisoned there for Religious Liberty migrated to Georgia and helped Georgia Baptists respond to the state’s attempt to establish state supported religion in Georgia. CHARLES JONES
GEORGIA – Each generation must determine how to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” That is, how to live and proclaim the gospel within their culture to honor God. Today Christians are struggling to live the gospel in the context of a worldwide pandemic, the economic aftermath of the Great Recession, and heightened racial and political unrest.
Georgia Baptists, in the days following the Revolution (1775-1783), struggled to confront new challenges and threats. They choose to address them by blending their many voices into one for the good of their churches, new state, and the kingdom of God. In 1784, the Georgia Baptist Association was organized to address the Georgia Assembly concerning legislation which threatened religious liberty.
Currently, Americans are taught the value of separation of church and state. Many who were raised under the Anglican (state) Church did not shared this value. They believed if religion is good for the people, then it was states’ responsibility to provide “religious services” for the people.
Even the Puritans who had come to the New World seeking religious freedom established a state church. Those disagreeing with Puritan laws were often punished by banishment from the colony. Dissenters of either state-imposed theology, polity, or hierarchy were limited in ways to respond. This concept of the state’s responsibility for religion carried over into Georgia during the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary eras.
When Georgia’s new Constitution was passed in 1777 it barred clergy from holding elected office in the legislature, effectively removing dissenting voices from the deliberative process. (Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia Vol 1, Franklin-Turner, Atlanta, GA 1908, p. 297)
In the south, before the Revolution, dissenters like Baptists and Presbyterians were required to have state issued licenses (approval of an Anglican clergyman) to be ordained and conduct worship. All citizens were required to pay a tax, called a “tithe,” to support the state church regardless of denominational affiliation. The Anglican church had educational requirements for its clergy that dissenters took issue with. Dissenters believed ministers were “called by God” not the product of an education. Furthermore, there was lingering resentment because it had been the “educated Anglican clergy” who lead the persecution against “ignorant Baptists.”
Georgia Baptists would have been alarmed in 1783 when Georgia’s Governor recommended the following: “… every encouragement ought to be given to introduce religion, and learned Clergy, to perform divine worship, in honor of God; . . . For this purpose, it will be your wisdom to lay an early foundation for endowing Seminaries of learning: . . . And here I must remind you of some provision of this kind, made under a former government here;” (Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia Vol 2, Franklin-Turner, Atlanta, GA 1908, pp. 512-513)
This was a call for a state church led by “learned Clergy,” whose education was underwritten by the state. The governor’s proposal was based on the precedent that “provision of this kind, was made under a former government here.” This was a reference to the tax or “tithe” and “glebe lands” which were farms whose income supported the local Anglican parishes.
The Georgia legislature voted to establish the school in 1784 to train ministers which was supported by a land grant (glebe lands). This school became the University of Georgia.
This was followed in February 1785 by passage of “An act for the Establishment and Support for the Public Duties of Religion.” This was the establishment of a state church supported by taxes and included measures for state approval of minister selection.
This was not only taking place in Georgia, but similar legislation was being proposed in Virginia. Virginia and Georgia Baptists had suffered persecution under the state church and in both states Baptists led opposition to state support of religion.
Georgia Baptists were changing as well and this included ministers and laity who had recently migrated from Virginia, some of whom had suffered from persecution under the state church. Their experiences in Virginia became a part of Georgia Baptists’ story as well. Some of those included:
- Daniel Marshall (1706-1784) who was the elder statesman of Georgia Baptists. He had been arrested in Georgia and tried for preaching without a license in St. Paul’s Parish. Earlier, while preaching in Pittsylvania County, Virginia he had been persecuted in the form of “harassment.”
- David Tinsley (1749-1801) had migrated from Virginia in 1785 where he had been whipped and imprisoned in Chesterfield County for more than four months in 1773-74. Future President James Madison described the Chesterfield jail as a “diabolical, hell conceived principal of persecution.” Tinsley was one of seven preachers who preached through the open window of his jail cell while incarcerated.
- Jeremiah Walker (1747-1792) spent four months in a Chesterfield County jail cell with David Tinsley. Walker moved to Georgia in 1785 where his brother Sanders Walker (1740-1805) was a pastor in Elbert County. Walker represented Baptist interests several times before the Virginia Assembly. In 1782, he was appointed by his association to attend the Virginia Assembly to present petitions he had helped prepare.
- Abraham Marshall (1748-1818) of Georgia had not been arrested or imprisoned but like others his family had suffered. His father Daniel had been arrested in Georgia and “harassed” in Virginia. His father-in-law John Waller (1741-1802) had been whipped, dragged out of the pulpit, imprisoned in five different county jails for a total of 113 days in Virginia. Like Saul of Tarsus, Waller had persecuted Baptists but was moved by their plight and their humble response which led to his conversion and call to ministry. Few men and their families suffered any more than John Waller for religious freedom. Waller spent the latter days of his ministry in South Carolina not far from Kiokee.
Even before the Revolution there had been a migration to Georgia in 1771-1772 of Baptist families following the persecution of Baptists and Quakers after the battle of Alamance in North Carolina. Following the Revolution there were laypeople like Noah Lacy who had been members of churches in Virginia whose ministers were persecuted and imprisoned migrating to Georgia. Lacy was ordained to the ministry after his move to Georgia.
For these Georgia Baptists, religious persecution by the state was more than a rumor, it was something they had personally experienced. They were not going to replace one form of tyranny with another. This compelled them to organize a new association in Georgia to voice their concerns.
The few Georgia churches, who were members of the Congaree Baptist Association of South Carolina, organized to become a united voice for Baptists in Georgia. Taking the name of a state (Georgia) was a break with precedent in naming an association but surely would have lent more credence as they petitioned the state legislature.
In May 1785, the Association met at the Kiokee Meeting House and composed a petition to the Georgia legislature which was delivered by Silas Mercer and Peter Smith at the legislature’s fall assembly. A portion of this petition is the only surviving documentation from the early years of the association. The response of the Georgia legislature was to repeal the earlier bill establishing state support for religion in Georgia.
In the years which followed, more of the formerly persecuted Baptists from Virginia migrated to Georgia. One minister of note who arrived in 1793 was Thomas Maxwell (1740-1837) who had been imprisoned for four months in the Culpepper jail. While preaching through the open windows covered with a metal grate, he rubbed his nose against the grate to the point of bleeding creating scars which became a reminder of his suffering for the sake of the gospel.
The ramifications for the organization of the association are many, but three notable ones stand out. 1) Baptists are at their best when they work together; 2) The organization of the Georgia Association laid the foundation for future cooperation; and 3) Religious freedom and separation of church and state are sacred concepts to Baptists that should never be taken for granted.
Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia, by Lewis Peyton Little, J.P. Bell & Co. Lynchburg, VA 1938
A History of the Baptist of Georgia with Biographical Compendium, by Samuel Boykin, James P. Harrison & Co., Atlanta, GA 1881
Georgia Baptist Historical and Biographical, by Jesse H. Campbell, H.K. Ellyson, Richmond, VA 1847