Located today as I’m browsing through an old 19th century newspaper (one of the perks of my job!)
PROSECUTION FOR PREACHING.
Patrick Henry vs. Intolerance.
Soon after Henry’s noted case of “Tobacco and the Preserves” as it was called, he heard of a case of oppression for conscience sake. The English church having been established by law in Virginia became as all such establishments are wont to do, exceedingly intolerant toward other sects. In prosecution of this system of conversion, three Baptist clergymen had been indicted at Fredericksburg for preaching the gospel of the Son of God contrary to the statute. Henry, hearing of this, rode some fifty miles to volunteer his services in defense of the oppressed. He entered the court, being unknown to all present save the bench and the bar, while the indictment was being read by the clerk. He sat within the bar, until the reading was finished, and the king’s attorney had concluded some remarks in defense of the prosecution, when he arose, reached out his hand for the paper, and without more ceremony, proceeded with the following speech:
“May it please your worship, I think I heard 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 the 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 misdemeanor, are charged with—what?” and, continuing in a low, solemn, heavy tone, “preaching the gospel of the Son of God?” Pausing amidst the most profound silence and breathless astonishment, he slowly waved the paper three times around his head, when, lifting his hands and eyes to heaven, with peculiar and impressive energy, he exclaimed, “Great God!” The exclamation—the burst of feeling from the audience—were all over-powering. Mr. Henry resumed :
“May it please your worships: in a day like this—when truth is about to be aroused to claim its natural and inalienable rights—when the yoke of oppression, that has reached the wilderness of America, and the unnatural alliance of ecclesiastical and civil power, are about to be dissevered—at such a period, when liberty—liberty of conscience—is about to wake from her slumberings, and inquire into the reason of such charges as I find exhibited here to-day in this indictment!” Another fearful pause, while the speaker alternately cast his sharp, piercing eyes on the court and the prisoners, and resumed : “If I am not deceived, according to the contents of the paper I now hold in my hand, these men are accused of preaching the gospel of the Son of God! Great God!” Another long pause, while he again waved the indictment around his head—while a deeper impression was made on the auditory. Resuming his speech:
“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—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 of conscience to worship their Creator according to their own conceptions of Heaven’s revealed will—from the moment they placed their feet upon the American continent, and, in the deeply imbedded forest, sought an asylum from persecution and tyranny,—from that moment, despotism was crushed—the fetters of darkness were broken, and Heaven decreed that men should be free—free to worship God according to the Bible. Were it not for this, in vain were all the 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 be tried? This paper says for preaching the gospel of the Saviour to Adam’s fallen race.” And in tones of thunder, he exclaimed, “What law have they violated?” While the third time, in a low, dignified manner, he lifted his eyes to heaven, and waved the indictment around his head. The court and audience were now wrought up to the most intense pitch of excitement. The face of the prosecuting attorney was palid and ghastly, and he appeared unconscious that his whole frame was agitated with alarm; while the judge, in a tremulous voice, put an end to the scene, now becoming excessively painful, by the authoritative declaration, “Sheriff, discharge those men.”
[excerpted from The Christian Observer, XXIX, No. 2 (12 January 1850): 1, columns 2-3.; emphasis added]