Exactly when the first Baptist believers settled on the lands south of the James River in the late 1600s is hard to determine from the surviving records.
But according to an ancient grand jury document citing them for not attending the established Anglican church, some of these dissenters may have practiced their faith in relative secret and isolation for nearly 25 years before — three centuries ago on May 19, 1714 — their prayers for a pastor of their own were finally answered.
That's when an assembly of English Baptists convening near London — responding to plaintive letters from their distant but almost certainly related brethren in Isle of Wight, Surry and Prince George — formally appointed two "messengers" to go "to Virginia with all Convenient Speed" and "propagate the Gospel of Truth."
Though Thomas White died on the voyage across the Atlantic, Robert Norden survived. And the congregation he began ministering to across the river from Jamestown in 1715 not only ranks as Virginia's first Baptist church but also the original home of the deep spiritual beliefs that impressed Thomas Jefferson and James Madison so much they made religious freedom a cornerstone of the newly independent nation in the late 1700s.
"It's toehold — a beginning — a start in a place where dissenters from the established faith were not welcome — especially after they became a force to be reckoned with later in the 1700s," said Fred Anderson, executive director of Virginia Baptist Historical Society at the University of Richmond.
"And what set them apart was this strong belief that every person — every non-believer — had the right to exercise their own conscience. Their great contribution to America was the idea of religious freedom for everybody."
Such high regard for individual freedom ran directly counter to Virginia's Colonial government and established church, which — even after England adopted the Act of Toleration in 1689 — continued to discourage and frequently harass anyone who did not "conform" to the tenets of the Anglican faith.
The Quakers were a particularly reviled target of local magistrates, courts and Anglican priests alike, who sometimes worked diligently to harass them with legal charges, threats of jail and fines, Colonial Williamsburg historian Linda Rowe said.
But Baptists such as Matthew Marks, a Southside planter who was cited by a Charles City court in 1691 for failing to attend church, became frequent targets of official repression, too.
Nearly 25 years later, conditions were still so bad that Norden not only had to apply to the Prince George court for a license as an "Annabaptist preacher" but also was required to appear and swear allegiance to the King of England, who headed the Anglican Church.
Then he had to affirm that his Baptist beliefs didn't make him a heretic or an enemy of the state.
"I, Robert Norden, do sincerely promise and Solemnly Declare before God and the World that I will be true and faithful to his Majesty King George," he avowed on June 14, 1715.
"… and I do Solemnly promise and Declare, that I do from my heart abhor, detest and renounce as impious and Heretical that Damnable Doctrine and Position that Princes Excommunicated or Deprived by the Pope of any Authority of the See of Rome may be deposed or Murthered by their subjects …."
A new church
That same day the Prince George court issued a license to Marks for the use of his home — known as Burleigh — as a public meeting house "for those persons called Annabaptists."
But Norden also began meeting with Baptists in Isle of Wight and Surry, making the exact location of the first church impossible to pin down without controversy.
Though early 1800s Baptist historian Robert B. Semple put the church in Prince George, several other authorities — including historian Thomas Armitage in his 1881 "A History of the Baptists" — favor a relatively nearby site at Mill Swamp in Isle of Wight.
So does a 1920 tract written by Parke Poindexter Deans, who cites a 1756 letter in which Norden's successors to the pulpit join 10 church members known to own land in Isle of Wight in describing their congregation as being located in Isle of Wight.
"This early period is a bit of a puzzle," Rowe said, "and there's a lot that we don't know."
Anderson seconds that observation, comparing the period's notorious lack of records to "working with pre-history."
"I think our best conclusion is that Norden had one church with several branches," he adds.
"There just weren't that many Baptists in one place."
Still, Norden and his flock stood out from the Anglican planters, not only in their beliefs and style of worship but also in their deliberately plain and simple dress.
Their meeting houses would have been comparatively plain and simple, too, Anderson said, after the congregation grew large enough to stop holding services in private homes.
According to a report sent back to the English Baptists — who bolstered the new church with financial support — Norden baptized 18 new members within a very short time and organized meetings that attracted people from miles around.
Two more messengers were sent in response to the potential he described for planting the Gospel, and — in 1729 — another may have penned a letter listing as many as 40 members in Isle of Wight and another 30 in Surry.
What happened to the enclave in later years is still a mystery, Anderson says, citing sometimes disputed evidence that the church died out after suffering from doctrinal differences and the migration of some of its members to North Carolina.
But by then the seed had been planted — and Baptists began showing up in such numbers that the Virginia colonial government and church's uneasy habit of intolerance swelled into a campaign of persecution.
Beatings, whippings, dunkings and arrests became increasingly common in the latter part of the 1700s, as did reports of mobs storming into Baptist meetings and — in one case — dragging the preacher out by his hair, Anderson said.
Slaveholders were among the sect's most impassioned enemies because of the Baptist teaching that all men were equal before the Lord.
"The life of dissenters became much more difficult in the mid-1700s," Rowe adds, citing a 1747 proclamation from Gov. William Gooch urging "all Magistrates and Officers to discourage and prohibit as far as they legally can all Itinerant Preachers…."
"There were more of them. They were appealing to enslaved African-Americans. They were a bigger threat."
Roots of freedom
That state-sponsored persecution — and the determined way in which Baptists, in particular, resisted — had a profound effect on both Jefferson and Madison during the Revolutionary era.
Often working in concert with members of the faith, they became champions of religious liberty through such pioneering documents as the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, the 1786 Act Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom and the 1791 First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In every case, they triumphed through the powerful argument found in the first words of the Virginia act: "Whereas, Almighty God has created the mind free…."
"The early Baptists never felt they had the right to dictate to others. That was invading something they held sacred," Anderson said.
"And that belief is where the roots of religious freedom and the rights of the individual come from."
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783. Find more Hampton Roads History stories at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.
Want to go?
Virginia Baptist Heritage Festival
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, May 17
Where: Stern Plaza and the Virginia Baptist Historical Society at Boatwright Memorial Library, 28 Westhampton Way, University of Richmond
Information: 804-289-8434. http://www.baptistheritage.orgCopyright © 2015, CT Now