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The heart and soul of these United States page 2
Thomas Kidd's op-ed column about the Founding Fathers and Christianity--was America founded as a Christian nation

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Date published: 7/3/2011


Presbyterian dissenters were relatively polite, simply arguing that the government should afford them toleration. They complied with procedures to procure special licenses to preach. The Baptists, by contrast, were utterly belligerent. They scoffed at licenses and held services--and outdoor baptisms--wherever they saw fit. By the late 1760s, Baptist churches were growing so fast that Virginia authorities unleashed a storm of persecution on them.

In a 1771 episode in Caroline County, a Baptist pastor named John Waller was confronted during a service by the local Anglican parson and a sheriff's posse. The parson shoved the butt end of a whip into Waller's mouth, forcing him to stop preaching, and the posse dragged him outside and horsewhipped him.


Similarly, in Culpeper, a Baptist itinerant named James Ireland was jailed, and his followers (especially African-Americans) whipped. Even at the jail, Ireland could not escape his tormenters, who tried to suffocate him by burning brimstone and "Indian pepper" outside his cell. Undeterred, Ireland preached to the remnant of his congregation through the cell grate, only to have hooligans urinate on him. All told, more than 30 Baptist pastors were jailed for illegal preaching in the years leading up to the American Revolution.

Young patriot leaders such as James Madison--who grew up a traditional Anglican but whose spiritual views became more liberal over time--deplored the persecution of the Baptists, and became passionate about the cause of religious liberty. Once the Revolution broke out, and independence was declared, evangelicals cooperated with Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others to enshrine religious freedom in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Despite Baptist demands, the state did not disestablish the Anglican Church until after the war. In 1784, leading patriot Patrick Henry proposed that the state move to a plural Christian establishment: Instead of all religious taxes going to support the Anglican Church, Henry suggested that people should be able to choose the church that would receive their religious taxes. But to Madison and the evangelicals, this was unacceptable. They wanted the government to stop financially supporting churches, and argued that under disestablishment and full religious freedom, churches would flourish, not fade.

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Thomas S. Kidd teaches history at Baylor University and is senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of "God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution" and the forthcoming "Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots."