Baptist Persecution in Colonial America & Religious Freedom


          H. Leon McBeth cites Joseph Dawson’s conclusion regarding the emergence of religious liberty in America, “If the researchers of the world were to be asked who was most responsible for the American guarantee for religious liberty, their prompt reply would be ‘James Madison.’ However, if James Madison might answer, he would as quickly reply, ‘John Leland and the Baptists.’”[1] This struggle for religious liberty was hard-fought. While no known Baptists were martyred in America, McBeth details, “many Baptists were severely whipped, forced to pay taxes to support the state church, had property confiscated, and suffered lingering imprisonments.”[2] The First Great Awakening and the Enlightenment, as McBeth reveals, “set the stage and influenced the nature and extent of [religious] freedom.”[3]

As the first settlers in New England were heavily influenced by Reformed theology, this led the Pilgrim Fathers to establish a form of theocracy. McBeth demonstrates, “Ironically, settlers who had just come from dissenter status in Old England established themselves as the official church in New England and persecuted those who dissented from them.”[4] Their laws required all citizens to support the Congregational Church established in New England. If one was unable or unwilling to pay, his or her belongings were seized and sold as auction, often at a fraction of their worth. McBeth details how, “Some dissenters were cast into jail until they paid their apportionment to support the official ministers, a practice which at some places so backfired that the ministers themselves paid the fines just to be rid of prisoners who were winning such a favorable hearing by preaching from jail windows.”[5] The persecution and restrictions placed on Baptists in Colonial America differed from what was encountered in England. In America, it was largely dependent upon the time and location and varied from mild harassment to severe persecution. For example, in 1679, the members of the First Baptist Church of Boston gathered for their first service to discover the doors had been nailed shut. On the other end of the spectrum, McBeth cites how, “the state church probably made one of their biggest mistakes when they imprisoned [the sickened] Elizabeth Backus, a widow and mother to Isaac Backus, the major Baptist spokesman for religious liberty in New England.”[6]

Baptists firmly believed in and fought for the freedom of religion. In an attempt to satisfy the uprising of Dissenters, “Exemption Laws” were instituted in order for non-Congregational Church attenders to apply to have their church taxes refunded, if they could proved they were regular church attenders and lived within five miles of a church in good standing, in that specific denomination.[7] These laws were cumbersome and mere smokescreens because they were only temporary, they were continually lapsing, and they required substantial resources for Separate Baptist church attenders to obtain the needed certificates. McBeth points out, “Baptists in America have a tradition not only of not only preaching and practicing religious liberty, but also of monitoring government legislation to protect the interests of Baptists and others.”[8] Out of this legacy came the formation of the Grievance Committee, which is the first organized religious lobby in America. The aim of this group was to gather and present evidence of Baptist’s suffering and persecution, in order to form legislation to alleviate religious discrimination.[9] Isaac Backus became a champion for the Baptist’s cause. His strategy revolved around two principles: (1) appealing not just to local authorities, but to London itself and (2) to stop paying church taxes and stop applying for the exemption certificates altogether.[10] This bold approach was highly successful because the last thing the Congregational Church wanted was for London leaders to seize and/or invalidate the Colonial charters. Additionally, as McBeth explains, “By deciding to ignore the human law in obedience to a higher law, the law of God… Baptists made more progress toward religious liberty in a year than they had made in the previous decade.”[11] Backus sought to show how the state church was treating Baptists the same way England had treated the colonies, so the tension of revolution within the colonies significantly strengthened his position.

Religious liberty in the Middle Colonies was much different than that found in the north. McBeth explains, “No church was established by law and two factors best account for the broad religious freedom allowed in the Middle Colonies: (1) the Quaker influence and (2) the religious pluralism that prevailed in that area.”[12] Pluralism was essential, due to the Middle Colonies being made up of primarily Catholics and Protestants, with neither group having large enough populations to dominate. McBeth demonstrates, “the Middle Colonies furthered the Baptist struggle for religious freedom by providing a model, [which proved non-government-sponsored religion was achievable,] and the Middle Colonies provided a haven where Baptists could flee when persecution became too severe elsewhere, [which allowed Baptist evangelization into the South.]”

In the South, law established the Anglican Church, and its influence could be felt all the way to Virginia and parts of South Carolina. McBeth illustrates, “Baptists and Presbyterians led the struggle for religious liberty in the South, along with statesman like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry and that Baptists endured hardships, especially the Separates.” John Leland was the primary spokesman for religious liberty in the South and Leland dealt with three primary hardships faced by Baptists: “(1) requirement to register meeting houses, (2) refusal of authorities to recognize the validity of Baptist-performed marriages, and (3) requirement to pay tithes in the form of tobacco and crops for the support of Anglican ministers.”[13] In the beginning of the 1760’s, McBeth illuminates just how bad things were, “Baptists in Virginia were whipped, fined, beaten by mobs, jailed, and/or exiled in an attempt to control them and between 1768 and 1777, at least thirty Baptist preachers in Virginia were imprisoned, whipped, or stoned, most of which were Separates.”[14]

The contributions of Baptists like Isaac Backus and John Leland can still be felt today. The fundamental issue facing every person is that one day, “each one of us will give an account of himself to God,”[15] so as Leland argued, “every man [and woman] ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he [or she] can best reconcile to his [or her] conscience.”[16] Leland believed religious establishments corrupted both the church and the state and alienated people from one another. Many feared Christianity would not survive without the support of the state to which Leland replied, “It is error, and error alone, that needs human support.”[17] The Baptists were unwavering in their quest to separate church and state and were fundamental in the development of the First Amendment. However, as McBeth concludes, “[While] Baptists bore the scars of religious persecution [required] to achieve religious liberty; it remains to be seen whether Baptists who live in comfort can preserve it, [despite the price those before them paid to be] the steadfast defenders of the First Amendment.”[18]


McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing, 1987.

[1] H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic Publishing, 1987), 283.

[2] Ibid., 252-253.

[3] Ibid., 254.

[4] Ibid., 255.

[5] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 256.

[6] Ibid., 256-257.

[7] Ibid., 258.

[8] Ibid., 262.

[9] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 262.

[10] Ibid., 263.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 266.

[13] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 268.

[14] Ibid., 270.

[15] Romans 14:12

[16] First published in New London, Connecticut, 1791. Reprinted in Greene, 181.

[17] First published in New London, Connecticut, 1791. Reprinted in Greene, 185.

[18] McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 268.