There is an inclination, on the part of many, to enjoy the fruit of the tree without even ever looking up to see whence it came. -- Lewis Peyton Little
One of the most cherished books in my library is Lewis Peyton Little's Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia. 1 Since I have the distinction and blessing of being a 7th generation Virginian, this book holds a singularly special place, both in my heart and on my bookshelf. The book is a chronology of persecution against Virginia Baptists by the established state church " the Church of England, or Anglicans " during Colonial times.2 While this book's primary focus is on Baptist persecution, Virginia's civil magistrates (with the blessing of the tax-supported Anglicans) were also fond of persecuting Presbyterians and Quakers. Oddly enough, these branches of the Christian Faith found one of their most stalwart defenders in Patrick Henry, whose father's side of the family had a long and rich heritage with the Anglican Church, though Henry's mother was a devout Presbyterian. The preaching of Samuel Davies, which Henry was exposed to in his mother's church, put in the bosom of young Henry a fire for religious liberty that could not be quenched. That fire helped lead to America 's independence.3 It is probable that the persecution and suffering of Elder John Weatherford stirred Patrick Henry's heart to contemplate his own relationship with Christ. Weatherford's story, and Henry's involvement in it, should also stir our hearts as we consider American culture's increasingly hostile stance towards orthodox Christianity.
John Weatherford was born in Charlotte County, Virginia in 1740. He began preaching the gospel in 1761. According to one biographer, "He became at once a zealous and successful herald of the cross," and "it was his honor to suffer persecution for the sake of Christ."4 The persecution that Weatherford endured is something that 21st century American Christians can scarcely imagine:
The rulers of the Episcopal Church were much vexed at the success of Mr. W. Wherever he went, his ministry was attended by crowds and many were converted through his instrumentality. It was a source of great mortification that a plain man, without any pretensions to learning, should so far obtain the confidence of the people.5
The Church's "mortification" was manifested through the civil authorities' actions against Weatherford when he was arrested on May 15, 1773. The official Court record of Chesterfield County, Virginia for June 4, 1773 reads as follows:
"John Weatherford appearing in Court being taken up by a Warrant issued by Archibald Cary Gent. for that purpose and acknowledging themselves to be of the religious Sect called Baptists and that they had practiced preaching and assembling the people together"without having any License for so doing. On consideration of the premises the Court adjudging them on that account guilty of a Breach of the peace & good Behaviour".6
The Price of Freedom
The records go on to state that a fine was assessed and that Weatherford was to remain in jail until such fines were paid. Since Weatherford had no money, he "remained." What is noteworthy for our purposes is what occurred during Weatherford's incarceration and how he came to be freed. Weatherford was so loved by those in the area who were familiar with his ministry, that during his five months imprisonment in the Chesterfield County jail, "his brethren and admirers flocked on Sunday to the village and thronged the yard of the jail." This show of support and eagerness to hear the gospel inspired Weatherford all the more and he "would lift the window and thrust his hands through the bars that he might shake hands with his loyal friends." Weatherford preached to the assembled multitude and several "experienced the renovating influence of Divine grace, nine wished to follow their Master." Not all gathered were appreciative. On at least one occasion "men of the baser sort" stood on both sides of the window and as Weatherford extended his hands during preaching, they cruelly slashed his hands with knives until he "would scatter his blood on his hearers or on the ground."
Dr. William White, a prominent physician and Virginia Baptist of the 19 th century, later told of seeing Weatherford's wounds as a child when he attended the preacher's funeral:
I was barely tall enough to look into the coffin. The hands of the veteran minister lay ungloved upon his breast with palms downward. I noticed the stiff and bloodless look they had and saw white and rigid seams extending across the back of each hand. The fact impressed me at the time, but I kept silence, and a thousand times I dare say I recalled those singular marks on the hands of the dead preacher". They were the marks of the Lord Jesus " martyr marks of God's hero.7
Patrick Henry soon heard of Weatherford's plight. The situation stirred Henry's strong sense of justice and he attempted to intervene. Henry was able to secure an order of release, but the jailer was adamant -- he would not release his prisoner until all fines and jail fees were paid. This was a considerable sum. Henry departed, but not long afterwards, someone anonymously paid the amount due and John Weatherford was again a free man. Providentially, twenty years later, Patrick Henry moved to Charlotte County and became a neighbor of Weatherford's, who was at that time shepherding a small country flock close by. As the two of them discussed their common labors in struggling for religious liberty in the young republic, Weatherford, for the first time, learned that it was Patrick Henry who had paid his fine. Weatherford would henceforth always speak of Mr. Henry "with a glow of affection."8 Weatherford was not the only Baptist preacher that was the beneficiary of Henry's kindness and zeal for righteousness. Others would write that:
they were so fortunate as to interest in their behalf, the celebrated Patrick Henry; being always the friend of liberty, he only needed to be informed of their impression, without hesitation, he stepped forward to their relief. From that time until the day of their complete emancipation, from the shackles of tyranny, the Baptists found in Patrick Henry, an unwavering friend.9
After preaching for almost eighty years, John Weatherford was gathered to his fathers on the 23rd of January, 1833. Weatherford was the last survivor of all the Baptist preachers that had been imprisoned in Virginia for their faith. Patrick Henry's admiration for Weatherford, and other Virginia Baptists, greatly influenced his own political philosophy and devotion, and confirmed his commitment for the cause of religious liberty in America . Both of these men are branches of the tree from whence comes the fruit of our liberty. May we never forget to look up.
1. Lewis Petyon Little, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia. (Lynchburg, VA: J.P Bell Co., 1938).
2. The Anglican Church was renamed the Episcopalian Church after the American Revolution.
3. Davies' preaching also sowed in Henry's heart the seed that would be watered by the great revival that took place at Hampden-Sydney College in 1787. This revival resulted in the conversion of over half of the students at Hampden-Sydney and more than thirty of them entered the ministry as Presbyterian preachers. God brought the increase and Henry experienced "a deep Christian conversion experience." It was during this same revival that the renowned Archibald Alexander, who would go on to become the first professor of the newly formed Princeton Theological College in 1812, was converted.
4. James B. Taylor, Virginia Baptist Ministers (New York: Sheldon & Co., 1860), 51-53.
5. Taylor, 51-53.
6. Little, 335-336.
7. Little, 344.
8. Weatherford sent 5 pounds currency to Henry in payment for his services, but it was promptly returned.
9. Little, 346-347.