Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Virginia, the Battleground for Religious Liberty

Virginia was known as the great battleground for religious liberty. The colony was founded by members of the Church of England, and no other church was tolerated. The Charter of 1606 provided that "the presidents, councils and ministers should provide that the true Word and service of God should he preached and used according to the rites and doctrines of the Church of England"

The bloody military code of 1611, the first published for the government of the colony, required all men and women in the colony, and any who should afterwards arrive, to give an account of their faith and religion to the parish minister, and if not satisfactory to him, they should report often to him for instruction. If one refused to go, the governor could whip the offender for the first offense. For the second refusal, he would be whipped twice and would acknowledge his fault on the Sabbath day in the congregation, and for the third offense, he would be whipped every day until he complied.

Efforts to legislate religion continued under Sir William Berkeley, who passed the following law on December 14, 1662: "Whereas many schismatical persons out of their averseness to the orthodox established religion, or out of new fangled conceits of their own heretical inventions, refused to have their children baptized. Be it therefore enacted by the authority aforesaid, that all persons that, in contempt of the divine sacrament of baptism, shall refuse when they carry their child to lawful minister in that country to have them baptized shall be amersed two thousand pounds of tobacco, half to the publique."

Of course such statutes were directed at the Baptists, whose principles and convictions dictated that they baptize only believers on their confession of faith and who believed pedobaptism to be a Romish invention carried over into Protestantism by the Reformers. The Church of England increased her membership by pedobaptism, but the Baptists by evangelism and proselytizing.

This difference of belief caused a head-on confusion between the established religion, the Church of England, which tenaciously held to pedobaptism, and the lowly Baptists, who repudiated it and baptized all who believed and gave their testimony to their faith in Jesus Christ and His finished work on the cross for their salvation.

Hawkes, the historian of the Episcopal Church of Virginia, said, "No dissenters in Virginia experienced, for a time, harsher treatment than did the Baptists. They were beaten and imprisoned; and cruelly taxed the authorities’ ingenuity to devise new modes of punishment and annoyance."

Despite the persecution, the Baptists continued to increase in influence and number. The very nature of salvation by grace alone repudiates persecution of any kind and any system that endeavors to legislate its principles and doctrines of human works.

Thank God for our Baptist forefathers who clearly defined the gospel of the grace of God in the face of the persecution that a tyrannical religious system brought to bear upon them.

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