Persecuted forefathers helped win religious freedom

  • Follow Your Faith

Occupations ranging from kick-boxing instructors to aestheticians must be licensed by the state of Georgia. In fact, some 200 professions require a license to work in Georgia. One profession that is not on the list is pastor. I can thank my pastor forefathers for this.

The Rev. Dan White is the pastor of North Columbia Church in Appling.  SPECIAL
The Rev. Dan White is the pastor of North Columbia Church in Appling.

It wasn’t always this way. Before the First Amendment was added to our Constitution, pastors had to have government approval to work. Magistrates could and did issue warrants to arrest pastors who refused to be licensed by the Church of England.

In the 1740s, New England was set on fire by the preaching of evangelist George Whitefield, who called sinners to repent and be born again. This awakening spun off new unlicensed churches led by unlicensed pastors and itinerant evangelists who rebelled against the British government. The seeds of rebellion were planted by these courageous men. They grew into the American Revolution and blossomed into religious freedom.

During the following decades, Great Awakening-type revivals blazed like a wildfire across the Colonies. These revivals were led by defiant pastors who were often harassed, beaten or arrested for preaching without state approval. Their stories fill the history books.

One of them, Jack Waller, preached to large crowds at outdoor meetings. At one of these meetings, Waller was confronted by the sheriff of Caroline County, Va., in 1771. He was horsewhipped, had his head beaten into the ground and the butt of a gun jammed into his mouth. Undeterred, the wounded preacher, covered in his own blood, went back to the stage and preached again.

In Chesterfield County, Va., John Weatherford was arrested and imprisoned for preaching in 1773. Nevertheless, he continued to preach to large crowds through the jail window with his hands extended through the bars. His hands were slashed by knife-wielding thugs as the sheriff passively approved.

Daniel Marshall, who was from Connecticut, was converted in New England’s Great Awakening. He crossed the Savannah River into Georgia and preached in Augusta. He was promptly arrested by the magistrate and jailed for preaching without a state license. Marshall eventually settled on Big Kiokee Creek in Columbia County, and established the first Baptist church in Georgia. Like many dissenting pastors, he supported and served in the Revolutionary War and was again imprisoned in Augusta by the British.

The Revolutionary War that broke out in April 1775 against the misuse of power by King George III was as much against his tyrannical control of religion by the state as it was against “taxation without representation” and his suppression of basic civil and judicial rights.

Religious freedom followed the war with the ratification of the first constitutional amendment in 1791. No more would the state be in control of religion or require pastors to be licensed.

With government regulations out of the way, the unfettered church exploded in America with power. In the Cane Ridge, Ky., revival of 1801, 25,000 people gathered to hear the Gospel.

Back in 1774, separatist pastors Isaac Backus and James Manning were prophetic. They believed that “as the principles of liberty spread, so also would true religion and that America would be the grand theatre on which the Divine Redeemer will accomplish glorious things.”

Today, 118 million Americans attend the church of their choice in 350,000 congregations led by pastors free from state control. These pastors and their congregations accomplish glorious things for the kingdom of God and the betterment of society.

Whether a churchgoer or not, all of us owe a debt of gratitude to our persecuted forefathers of faith who stood up and helped win religious freedom for America.


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raytheist 06/28/13 - 11:27 am
Religious freedom still secure

Thank you for this history lesson. In America today, there continues to be ZERO threat to religious freedom. I wish everyone understood the history behind it and why this freedom remains today. And it isn't just for Christians and their pastors. It also goes for Jews and their rabbis, Muslims, and their imams, Buddhists and their monks, and all the other religions, spiritual pathways, philosophies, etc. Everyone is equally entitled to believe as they wish on such personal matters. It is also for this reason that under the Constitution itself, there shall be no religious test for public office, so that one day we may find ourselves with a Hindu-believing President or maybe an atheist. Because it doesn't matter much what the President believes in his personal life, but how he fulfills the role of President in defending the Constitution for us all.

deestafford 06/29/13 - 11:33 am
Rev White, I want to thank you for this column.

The history of religion in the US is one of the most ignorant subjects we have. I bet you could query many pastors and ask them to explain what the Great Awakening was and what impact it had on the Founding of the country and you would get many blank stares.
I firmly believe few pastors preach about the toils and tribulations religion faced in the early years of the colonization of this country. Maybe your column will help that. I've never been to seminary, but I wonder how much emphasis is placed on this subject.

Once again, thank you and try to get your fellow pastors to wake up.

Dan White 06/29/13 - 05:39 pm

Ray and Dee - thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

Ray - I didn't have room to say all I wanted to in regards to religious freedom. Your comments are spot on. Some of the evangelicals argued against the religious freedom amendment stating that other "alien" religions which you mentioned would gain adherrants even out growing the Christian faith. Those arguing for religious freedom said there was nothing to fear if and since Christ was the true relgion and that Christianity would spread unfettered once government regulations were removed. It is odd that most evangelicals supported Deist Thomas Jefferson for President because of his platform of religious liberty against John Adams, the incumbent President. Their support of Jefferson helped make Adams a "one-termer."

Dee - I graduated from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1976 with a 3 year Masters of Divinity and have taken post grad courses at Erskine Seminary. The core curriculum at NOBTS required us to take Baptist History and the History of Christianity. The Great Awakening was mentioned but that was about it as I recall.

I am now semi-retired and have always wanted to study more about the Great Awakening. For the past 4 or 5 months, I have read extensively about the Great Awakening and the awakenings that followed. It is a period, as you stated, that is not part of Christian religious education in churches today. I, like you, cannot remember sermons or sermon illustrations about it. I don't think many pastors have studied it or understand its significance in the religious liberty we hold dear today.

What really piqued my interest is that my wife is a direct descendent of Rev. Daniel Marshall, and we live about three miles from his home place in Appling. I found, purchased, and read the biography of Marshall and his son, Abraham, and the tremendous way God used them in bringing faith to thousands and establishing churches everywhere they went.

We have just returned from our first Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) annual meeting held in Greensboro, NC. To our delight and great surprise, the Baptist Women in Ministry gives out the Martha Stearns Marshall (Daniel Marshall's wife) award and scholarship to a worthy female seminarian. Plus, they sponsor and encourage Martha Stearns Marshall month in February which advocates for each CBF church to enlist a woman to preach at one or more services during that month. Martha was a dynamic preacher who preached to thousands in Great Awakening-type revivals. Contemporaries of hers raved about the effectiveness of her ministry, and historians continue to write about this trail-blazing woman preacher. In fact, it was her preaching to the magistrate in Augusta and in the court room that helped win the release of her husband from jail. Moreover, the magistrate,Samuel Cartledge, was converted then and there and later became the first pastor of Reed Creek Baptist Church in Columbia County which later changed their name to Abilene Baptist Church, a megachurch today on Washington Road. Amazing!

Churches who blessed and allowed women to preach like Marshall's Separate Baptists gave another reason for persecution by some who believed in male only preachers which was the standard doctrine for the Church of England in that day and other denominations with persecution carried out by the State in some instances of churches who had women preachers and/or evangelists. With religious freedom, churches were free from persecution by the State when women stepped up to preach.

And yes, I do hope that more will emphasize the roll of our persecuted forefathers of the faith in their dynamic effect upon religious liberty. With the Chronicle posting our guest columns online, I often receive emails from people across the USA. It is amazing how our work gets out to so many thanks to the Chronicle!

If we in the church do not do this, it won't get done. The history books used in public schools do not mention the effect of the persecuted preachers in regards to the Revolution or religious liberty. They approach this period from a strictly secular bias in that it was a Revolution for civil and judicial liberties only. I know. I am a retired history teacher. May the truth be told as we celebrate the upcoming July 4th Indepedence Day!

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