Local History and the First Amendment

Print More

It is not a well-known story that local Connecticut Valley history is tied to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, granting freedom of religion, speech and press. Several forces converged on Granby at its inception as the Salmon Brook Ecclesiastical Society in 1740. Local residents had petitioned long and hard to break up the Simsbury society into four smaller ones. Now folks in Granby were finally able to own their own destiny, pick their own pastor and build their own meeting house with their taxes being used locally. 

The first outside force was the Great Awakening of the 1730s. Jonathan Edwards, the first American theologian, had experienced people “awakened” to their “sinfulness” at his Northampton church. These “awakenings” continued down through the Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He was not a showman but read his messages methodically in a quiet voice. This culminated in 1740 in Enfield (on Route 5), with his best known message, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” This was a frightening sermon regarding man’s casual response to his fate without God. Some thought it unreasonable to frighten people into heaven, but he thought of it as frightening people away from hell.

Congregational churches, including the Salmon Brook Society, experienced splits where people were either “New Lights” or “Old Lights.” New Lights were people experiencing a new relationship with God from the revivals. The Old Lights were the traditionalists whose liberalized membership policies fostered the decline of spiritual fervency that had been on the wane for some time among second and third generation Americans. As a result of the split in its own ranks, the Salmon Brook Society could not agree on its first pastor for 12 years.

The next force was a man named George Whitefield. He was a skilled 27-year-old itinerant preacher from England, with a strong voice, oratory skills and a confrontational style. He preached in fields as he was often barred from churches. He made seven trips to the colonies, one to the Connecticut River Valley in 1740–1741. He often preached to thousands, even in Suffield, but was not invited to the Salmon Brook Society by the Old Lights. The Connecticut Old Lights later banned itinerant preachers. He preached the need of a second birth and that Jonathan Edward’s grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, was responsible for the dead men in the church pulpits of the valley, as they had no conversion experience. This also fed the New Light fervor, but Whitefield himself admitted that many of his New Light Congregationalists were becoming Baptists. Baptists believed that water baptism follows the conversion experience, not something done as infants. 

Two key New Light Baptists were Shubal Stearns of Tolland and Daniel Marshall of Windsor. Stearns was a skilled preacher and church planter while Marshall was a disciple maker and organizer. During the 1750s, they both left New England for North Carolina where their church planted as many as 5,000 Baptist churches in two generations in the five southern colonies (Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland). The only problem was that the Episcopal Church of England was the state church in all five southern colonies. As such, persecution of these independent-minded, common-man, Baptists occurred, particularly in Virginia.

The persecution in Culpepper and Orange counties of Virginia was most violent, as over 40 pastors saw jail time and even more harm during the 1760s and 1770s. Jaime Ireland went to the Culpepper jail for refusing to stop preaching, but continued preaching from his cell to crowds that grew due to the persecution. The opponents rode horses through the crowds, urinated in his face, attempted to blow him up with gunpowder, poisoned him and tried to suffocate him by burning brimstone under the floor of the cell. They poisoned his family, resulting in the death of one of his children. John Weatherford was in prison for five months and had his arms lacerated when his hands were out the window bars while preaching. His jail fees upon his release were paid by Patrick Henry.

All this was happening in the backyard of men who would become founding fathers including Henry, George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. The persecution deeply distressed Madison (then 20 years old). This combined with Henry’s hatred for the church’s taxation policies culminated in the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. Jefferson also authored the Statute of Virginia for Religious Liberty and asked that it later be noted on his tombstone. Madison did not think in terms of tolerance but rather every man’s right to worship per the dictates of his conscience. This was the result of another New England connection. John Leland was a young Baptist pastor from Massachusetts who came to Virginia during the years of persecution. He not only coached Madison on liberty of conscience versus tolerance, but was very politically active organizing the Virginia Baptists into an association in the following years.

The final steps to the First Amendment started in 1787, after the Revolutionary War was won and the federalist debates on the form of central government were completed. The ratification of the U.S. Constitution was in jeopardy in the key state of Virginia because it lacked any protection for personal liberty of the people. As a result, Madison, a key author of the Constitution, promised John Leland that he would propose a group of amendments to the Constitution upon ratification, with the first amendment being for religious freedom. This promise was in exchange for Leland’s Baptist Association vote of approval for the initial Constitution. Upon ratification of the Constitution in 1789, Madison submitted the Bill of Rights (10 separate amendments) including the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion that was ratified in 1791. That completes the historical trail from Granby to the First Amendment and may we not forget the history of events or the sacrifices made for the freedoms that we enjoy today.

Sources: Mark Williams, A Tempest in a Small Town; This Day in Baptist History (David Cummins); Whitefield’s Journal; Jonathan Edwards, Writings on Revivals; Internet/Wikipedia for general historical information.