Patrick Henry: Defender of religious freedom


“Give me liberty, or give me death.”

These are the most famous words of Patrick Henry.

Though Henry was one of the leading men of the American Revolution, he is often overlooked. This is partly because he hailed from Virginia, whence came such men as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

My wife and I have had a lively interest in Henry, because she is descended from him.

This Independence Day weekend affords us time to take a look at this statesman and patriot.

It has been said of Patrick Henry that he was the Samuel Adams of Virginia; that is to say he was a fiery patriot, and one of the first to advocate independence from British rule.

In Henry’s day, many colonial lawyers went to England for training at the Inns of Court School of Law in London.

Others apprenticed themselves to experienced lawyers.

Patrick Henry was self-educated. He soon made a name for himself by his work among the poor, especially with the Baptist preachers.

While Henry was busy battling the British on the political front, there was also a social and spiritual battle going on, of which he was a leading figure.

Virginia Colony had a state religion, the Church of England, or the Anglican Church.

Dissenters did not necessarily have to attend its services, but the church, through taxes, made fearful inroads on Baptist tobacco.

In those days, tobacco often substituted for currency. And it was over this that Henry was thrust into the limelight in an early court case — the celebrated Parson’s Cause.

In 1758, a crop failure caused the price of tobacco to increase from two to six pennies per pound, greatly inflating the Anglican clergy’s salaries, because they were paid in tobacco.

Virginia’s House of Burgesses responded by passing the Two Penny Act, which allowed debts in tobacco to be paid at two pennies per pound, instead of the going rate of six pennies per pound.

But King George III of England vetoed the Act, which greatly affronted many Virginia legislators. And the Rev. James Maury, on behalf of himself and other Anglican clergy, sued to recover damages and his full salary.

Patrick Henry defended Hanover County and the Two Penny Act. His flashing oratory won the day, and although Maury won the case, he was awarded only a penny in damages.

During the trial, Henry had questioned King George’s authority, going so far as to refer to the king as a “tyrant.”

A murmur of “treason” went through the crowd, but the genie of liberty from state-sanctioned religion was now out of the bottle and wasn’t going back.

Henry fought for religious freedom on other fronts, as well.

Baptist preachers were not allowed to preach in Virginia Colony. Their meetings were forcefully broken up. Dozens of Baptist preachers were jailed, but they would still preach at the windows of their jail cells.

In one case, the authorities built a wall around the jail to stop the pastor from preaching, but his ingenious congregation simply raised a flag from the other side of the wall when they were assembled and ready to worship, and the service went on as usual.

Henry, though himself a Presbyterian, defended dozens of these preachers.

Patrick Henry’s love of liberty shined brightly as a leading light in the First Continental Congress in 1774.

He was the first to recognize the intentions of the king, and to declare the reality of what the outcome was to be. In one of his speeches — and he spoke often — he declared, “I am inclined to think the present measures lead to war.”

Later, when the Virginia governor refused to call the legislature into session, the delegates met without him in a church building. It was there that Henry’s famous words were spoken.

The speech was a masterpiece whose lofty tones and blazing content will never be equaled. It ended thus: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death.”

The Rev. Cordell Baker lives in Walla Walla and is retired from active ministry. He last served as pastor of an Independent Baptist Church in Tooele, Utah.


sewoolley 1 year ago

An excellent article. Well done. Thank you for offering it. Sometimes we need to be reminded that the idea of religious freedom enshrined in the first amendment to the Constitution did not come easily or quickly. As pastor Baker pointed out, the Anglicans (Episcopalians) were the official state church of Virginia, as well as Georgia. Congregationalists of the Calvinist variety were the state church of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Other expressions of faith were not well received in those places. Sometimes they were punished in courts of law. On the other hand, it was safe to be a Baptist in Rhode Island, a Quaker in Pennsylvania, and a Catholic in Maryland. Those colonies also allowed other denominations to be present without interference. The first amendment of the Constitution meant that no denomination (or religion) would again be state sponsored or privileged, something often honored more in the breech than in fullness. Even today we struggle with what religious freedom means. Fr. Steve Woolley (Episc.)


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