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.
THE REV. DAN WHITE IS THE PASTOR OF NORTH COLUMBIA CHURCH IN APPLING.