Patrick Henry (May 29, 1736 - June 6, 1799) was a prominent figure in the American Revolution, most remembered for his "Give me Liberty, or give me Death!" speech. He was a delegate to the First Continental Congress. He was commander-in-chief of the Virginia state militia during the Revolutionary War. He was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. He authored much of the Virginia state constitution, and our national Bill of Rights. He was elected governor of Virginia four consecutive terms. When he chose to retire, they elected him a 5th time. But he insisted that it was time for him to retire. He was an advocate of republicanism, especially in his denunciations of corrupt government officials, and his defense of liberty.
Patrick Henry was one of the most influential advocates of basic God given rights. He defended persecuted Baptists in colonial Virginia. The British Government and the federal Episcopal Church were determined to stamp out Baptists forever. Baptists were fined, beaten, imprisoned, poisoned and constantly under attack. Their services were regularly interrupted by snakes or hornet nests being thrown into their meetings. Baptismal services were routinely interrupted and both the pastors and those being baptized here held down under water until they nearly drowned.
In 1770 three pastors (Lewis and Joseph Craig and Aaron Bledsoe) were arrested in Fredricksburg, Virginia, where they were holding a meeting. The royal prosecutor then arraigned the preachers with all gravity, “For preaching the Gospel of the Son of God in the colony of Virginia.” As he was reading the charges, Patrick Henry, representing them, jumped to his feet and made this speech:
“May it please your worships: I think I heard read by the prosecutor as I entered this house the paper I now hold in my hand. If I have rightly understood, the king's attorney of this colony has framed an indictment for the purpose of arraigning, and punishing by imprisonment, three inoffensive persons before the bar of this Court, for a crime of great magnitude-as disturbers of the peace. May it please the Court, what did I hear read? Did I hear it distinctly, or was it a mistake of my own? Did I hear an expression as if a crime, that these men, whom your worships are about to try for a misdemeanor, are charged with what?
Henry then took the indictment from the prosecutor, and reading:
"'For preaching the Gospel of the Son of God!'"
"GREAT GOD!," Henry continued, "May it please your worships: There are periods in the history of man, when corruption and depravity have so long debased the human character, that man sinks under the weight of the oppressor's hand, and becomes his servile, his abject slave; he licks the hand that smites him; he bows in passive obedience to the mandates of the despot, and in this state of servility he receives his fetters of perpetual bondage. But, may it please your worships, such a day has passed away! From that period, when our fathers left the land of their nativity for settlement in these American wilds, for LIBERTY, for civil and religious liberty, for liberty of conscience, to worship their Creator according to their conceptions of Heaven's revealed will; from the moment they placed foot on the American continent, and in the deeply imbedded forests sought an asylum from persecution and tyranny, from that moment despotism was crushed; her fetters of darkness were broken, and Heaven decreed that man should be free-free to worship God according to the Bible. Were it not for this, in vain have been the efforts and sacrifices of the colonists; in vain were all their sufferings and bloodshed to subjugate this new world, if we, their offspring, must still be oppressed and persecuted. But, may it please your worships, permit me to inquire once more, for what are these men about to tried? This paper says, 'For preaching the Gospel of the Son of God.' Great God! For preaching the Gospel of the Savior to Adam's fallen race. WHAT LAW HAVE THEY VIOLATED?!"
The Court and audience were now wrought up to an intense pitch of excitement. The prosecuting attorney was shamed and appeared stunned; while the judge, in a tremulous voice, put an end to the scene which had become excessive, by the authoritative declaration, "Sheriff, discharge those men." When the court recovered and the trial continued the prosecutor went into a frenzied rant.
The two Craigs and Bledsoe were condemned, but given a chance at freedom if they promise to quit preaching. The pastors rejected the offer, and were marched off under guard to the jail. As they went through the streets of the town, the pastors sang “Broad is the road that leads to death.”
The British government used the same tactics all across the colony of Virginia, to the point Baptists simply met for services outside the jail walls so their pastors could still preach the God’s Word to them. This whole scene propelled Patrick Henry into major actions in support of Baptists.
Patrick Henry also defended Jeremiah Moore, another Baptist preacher. Moore was converted to the Baptist cause from the established Church of England in the late 1760's. During the early years of his ministry he found that it was against the law to preach any doctrine that did not conform to the tenets of the Church of England. He was thrown in jail in Alexandria three times. While in jail awaiting trial Moore would preaching to huge crowds from the jail windows. On one of those occasions when he was finally brought to trial he was defended by Henry. Justice Charles Broadwater railed on Moore saying, "You shall lie in jail until you rot!." Henry is reported to have said, "Great God gentlemen, a man in prison for preaching the gospel of the Son of God?" Jeremiah Moore was acquitted.
Another Baptist pastor, John Weatherford, retired due to ill health and became Patrick Henry's neighbor. As the two sat and talked about their patriotic days, Weatherford found out that it was Patrick Henry that had paid his fine and argued to get him released from prison. It had been done anonymously. Weatherford had been imprisoned in 1773 in the Chesterfield prison, but would not stop preaching even from his cell. At first he preached from the prison door. When that was stopped, he preached through the grate in his cell window. His enemies were determined to stop even this, so they raised a great wall that was higher than the grate. To overcome this obstacle, the congregations put a rag on a long pole where he could see it through the grate, and so know people were there to listen. His strong voice carried out of the cell, over the wall and was easily heard. Angry men would ride on horseback and try to disperse the crowds that came. Others marched through the crowds with drums, trying to beat out his voice. Nothing would stop the crowds from gathering or Weatherford from preaching. In fact the more the godless tried to stop him, the more came to listen and the more were saved. Then suddenly, his fine was paid anonymously, and he was released after five months in jail. It had been Patrick Henry that came to his aid.
During the War for Independence, Patrick Henry and his family attended regularly a Baptist Church pastored by Dr. Richard Furman, Sr., who was in Virginia during part of the War.
After the war President George Washington offered Patrick Henry several positions, including U.S. minister to Spain or France, but Henry did not accept any of them.
“It can not be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians, not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ! For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”
“The Bible is worth all the other books which have ever been printed.”
“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government - lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”
“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
“It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts... For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth, to know the worst, and to provide for it.”
“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains or slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take but as for me; give me liberty or give me death!”
“Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains. A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom. No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue; and by a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”
“Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined.”
“From that period, when our fathers left the land of their nativity for settlement in these American wilds, for liberty, for civil and religious liberty, for liberty of conscience, to worship their Creator according to their conceptions of Heaven's revealed will; from the moment they placed foot on the American continent, and in the deeply imbedded forests sought an asylum from persecution and tyranny, from that moment despotism was crushed; her fetters of darkness were broken, and Heaven decreed that man should be free-free to worship God according to the Bible."
Patrick Henry wrote in his last will and testament:
“I have disposed of all my property to my family. There is one thing more I wish I could give to them, and that is the Christian religion. If they had that and I had not given them one cent, they would be rich. If they have not that, and I had given them the world, they would be poor.”
Patrick Henry on Religious Freedom
Patrick Henry by Pastor Clinton Macomber
The Life and Times of Jeremiah Moore by John D. Sinks
Origin of the Baptists, Chapter One by Samuel Howard Ford
Reflections on Virginia's Baptist Heritage by Homer Massey
First Baptist Church of Alexandria
The Separate Baptist Revival and Its Influence in the South by James H. Sightler