By Pastor Hal Mayer
Neither religious liberty nor toleration were features of the Virginia Colony in 1688. From the beginning, the colony believed they could only control its members by “religion and law”. They exercised despotism in both.”1 Strong religious laws were established with severe penalties for those who did not participate and for dissenters such as the Baptists. Many Baptist preachers refused to obtain a license from the government of the colony because they believed that their license was given them in God’s word, and they had no need of a human license.
Many examples may be given of Baptist preachers who were arrested, imprisoned, fined and even whipped because they believed that the right (and duty) to preach the gospel was God-given and inalienable, and quite beyond the pale of legislators and courts.
Joseph Anthony and William Webber were zealous, powerful and effective young ministers. hey were invited to preach to some of the inhabitants in Chesterfield County. The magistrate, discovering that they were turning many to “madness” (meaning to Baptist beliefs) and likely to do the established Church of England much harm, issued warrants, had them arrested and thrown in prison. After several weeks they were arraigned. Since they would not violate their conscience and agree to stop their itinerant preaching, they were left in jail for three long months.
While in prison, they preached through the iron grates of the prison windows. Many people attended the preaching on the street outside the prison cell, and many were converted to the Lord by virtue of these persecuted ministers. In fact, Chesterfield was the worst persecuting county in the whole colony. But few counties had a greater response to the principles of the Baptists than Chesterfield.2
“Such was the power of Joseph Anthony’s ministry while in jail, as he lifted up his voice and proclaimed Christ to the crowds without, that it was judged the best policy to dismiss him. The jailer was directed to shut the door of his cell, but to leave it unlocked, that it might be reported he had fled from prison. Mr. Anthony chose to continue. The door was then left open—still he remained.” A fellow prisoner tried to persuade him to escape, but he replied, “they have taken us openly, uncondemned, and have cast us into prison; and now, do they cast us out privily (privately)? Nay, verily, but let them come themselves and fetch us out.”3
Such courage is rare today. Most of us would take the opportunity to escape the jaws of punishment. But Mr. Anthony saw the trap. The authorities were going to accuse them of some evil by escaping from prison which they themselves would have orchestrated. Have you ever seen that kind of thing happen? How Many faithful souls have been accused of wrongdoing when the accusers themselves set them up for it?
How Mr. Webber and Mr. Anthony were released has not come down to us. But they saw a higher principle. Why could not the magistrates have just as openly brought them out of prison as they had put them in? Because the people’s sympathies were with the imprisoned men and it would have been terribly humbling to openly release them without putting their characters under a further cloud. How often we will settle for less than the complete vindication of the truth, while its enemies run roughshod over its supporters. We need more Webbers and Anthonys, don’t we?
- James, Charles, Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia, (New York; Da Capo Press, 1971) pp 17.
- Little, Lewis Peyton, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia, (Lynchburg, VA; J. P. BellC0., Inc. 1938) pp 209 – 213.
Joseph Anthony and William Webber were zealous, powerful and effective young ministers who were later imprisoned.