James Madison, Baptists, and the Sad Ironies of History

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by Shane Rhyne

In the 1770s, one of my ancestors was in a Virginia jail. He and other men were imprisoned for the crime of being Baptists.

It is a forgotten chapter of American history and, apparently, Baptist history—that the idea of our nation being a land of religious liberty was not quite as cut and dry as you might think.

To be a Baptist in the American colonies was to be a member of a minority—a religious group whose outsider status was frightening to the mainstream, whose beliefs were often misunderstood or misinterpreted, and whose very existence was criminalized.

Baptists preachers like my ancestor went to jail for writing and preaching the Gospel without a government license from Virginia, a license the Baptists believed was an unjust religious test.

I have no record if my ancestor was subjected to the same punishments that other Baptists met in those days. In the colonies it was not unheard of to subject a Baptist to the lash or to “baptize” them by holding them underwater to the point of drowning until they recanted their beliefs. (Waterboarding is not a new invention.)

These Virginia prisoners found a lawyer who took pity on their plight. His name was James Madison.

It is suggested that Madison’s memory of these men was very much on his mind when, more than a decade later, he wrote the text that has guided so much of our nation’s history:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The current administration seems dead-set on pushing Madison’s vision for the First Amendment right up to the breaking point. Religious testing and banning of immigrants to our country based on the predominant religion of their nation is in direct opposition to what so many of my, and your, ancestors stood for over the past two and a half centuries. It is un-American.

It appears that in addition to their sense of history, my Baptist brothers and sisters have also lost their sense of irony. Why else would so many of them gleefully cast aside their legacy as fighters for religious liberty and instead willingly play the role of Virginia jailer?

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