While preaching the gospel, James Ireland was grabbed by the collar and given the choice of either ceasing what he was doing or be thrown into prison. He chose the latter and spent 5 months confined to an uncivilized cell, where (under the encouragement of government officials) angry religious bigots built fires of noxious fumes outside his window that he might suffer more for his sins. Others stood on benches and urinated through the iron bars onto Ireland’s face.
John Waller was leading Christian worship without the permission of the local theocratic government, when he was accosted by the local religious chieftain, who verbally abused him and then had him whipped bloody by constables. Waller soon returned to his open air pulpit, proclaiming that the he did not feel his wounds, as God had poured love into his soul. For this crime Waller spent 113 miserable days sweltering in one of the many primitive jail of this sub-tropical country.
John Weatherford, also imprisoned for Christian ministry, served five months in a filthy jail cell, where he continued to preach through the bars to those anxious to hear the Gospel. Angry at this, some of the local population lashed at him with knives and even built a wall ten feet tall to separate him from his flock.
Dave Barrow was almost drowned when, in the middle of a Christian service, an angry mob forced his face into a mud puddle and held it there. Archie Roberts was indicted for singing Christian hymns. Witnesses told of other Christian ministers being dragged from their homes, taken from pulpits and beaten with sticks and canes, worship services broken up by mobs who than pulled pastors down and hauled them about by their hair. Some were even shot. All with the approval of the religious governing authorities.
These civil rights abuses did not occur in some sub-Saharan Africa Muslim nation. Nor did they take place in any of the impoverished theocratic dictatorships of Turkestan or Asia. These Christian men (and women) were persecuted for their beliefs in colonial Virginia, the cradle of American democracy. From 1760 to 1778, the Anglican government of Virginia engaged in an active campaign to eradicate the rapidly growing Baptist denomination.
The location of these official persecutions was also the area that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, Patrick Henry and James Madison called home. (Virginia was not the only example of religious intolerance: In Massachusetts’s the empowered Calvinists had hung a few Quakers and imprisoned many more. A burgeoning Protestant population in Maryland, which had been established as a sanctuary for Catholics, had become successful in declaring practicing Roman Catholicism a criminal offense.) The significance that this religious tyranny played in determining the course of revolution should not be understated. It was this tendency of the state sanctioned Christian religion, to persecute even other Christians, that so disgusted our nation’s founders that they went to great lengths to ensure that any new government would endorse no one religion over any other. Virginia herself later became a champion for religious tolerance.
In his book “Founding Faith” (2008, Random House) Steve Waldman, tells how James Madison, a conservative Christian by even that day’s standard, was so dismayed at what he saw that it caused him to ask “Is an Ecclesiastical Establishment absolutely necessary to support civil society in a supreme Government?”. Although that idea was the prevailing wisdom of the time (even by other non-religous and Deist founders) apparently he thought not. Madison decided to use Pennsylvania’s constitutional example of civic religious tolerance while formulating his ideas for a fee American government.
Though many of the founding fathers were Christian (and many were not) and many of our democratic ideals have their roots in Judeo-Christian (as well as Greek, Roman and Native American) principles at no time did the majority of our early leaders ever intend for this to become a country that favored one particular religion over any other. They saw firsthand the illicit offspring that such a marriage can and will produce.