As one reads the early history of our Baptist forefathers, one of the continual similarities that is observed is their lack of formal education. How could men of such little academic accomplishment achieve so much? A case in point is the life of Samuel L. Straughan of Virginia, who was born in July of 1783.
His friends recognized the call of God upon his life, but it was not until March 20, 1806, that he was ordained. On that very day he received a unanimous call to the Wicomico Baptist Church, which was a small flock of perhaps two dozen people. Straughan, however, was soon to rank among the leading Baptist preachers in Virginia, for the church quickly increased to nearly three hundred members. The next year he was called also to pastor the Morattico Baptist Church. The spirit of revival invaded the congregations, and the man of God with little formal training was pastoring two prospering churches.
The secret of Straughan’s success seems to have been his insatiable love of the Word of God. He majored on the theme of the atonement of Christ, but his message was saturated with the Scriptures. He committed large portions of the Bible to memory, and so much of it did he quote in the pulpit, that it was not uncommon for hearers to count the passages in a single sermon, and they would often reach nearly a hundred. Pastor Straughan was mighty in the Scriptures and it is obvious that education can never replace the illumination of God’s Word!
David L. Cummins and E. Wayne Thompson, This Day in Baptist History
John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the son of Edward Hart, of Hopewell, a man of considerable importance, who raised a company of volunteers in the French war, and fought bravely in the campaign against Quebec.
John was born at Hopewell, New Jersey, grew up in high esteem among his neighbors, and became eminent for his honesty, kindness, modesty, and benevolence. He had no taste for political life, made few speeches, but was ready with brave sacrificing deeds. Such a man could not remain in the background during the period preceding the birth of his country’s nationality. He was identified with the cause of the patriots from the beginning.
When he entered the Continental Congress of 1774 he was about sixty years of age. He resigned the next year, and became Vice President of the Provincial Congress of New Jersey. He was again elected to Congress in 1775, and he was re-appointed to the same body by the convention of New Jersey in 1776, and took his place among the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In the same year he was chosen Speaker of the Assembly, and re-elected in 1777 and 1778. He was also an important member of the Committee of Safety, and particularly obnoxious to the British and Tories.
When, in 1776, the Legislature fled from Princeton to Burlington, to Pittstown, in Salem County, and to Haddonfield, where it dissolved, John Hart returned to find that his wife and children had fled to the mountains, that his crops were consumed, and that his stock had been driven away by the Hessians. Though the old man was a fugitive, pursued with unusual malice, sleeping in caves and in thickets, not permitted to visit his dying wife, his spirit was not broken, nor did he despair of the cause. After the battle of Princeton he came from his hiding place, and convened the Legislature at Trenton. He died May 11, 1779, worn out by his labors and privations.
In 1865, a fine monumental shaft of Quincy granite was erected by the State of New Jersey near the old Baptist meeting-house in Hopewell to honor his memory. It was dedicated July 4, 1865, with imposing ceremonies, among which was an eloquent oration by Joel Parker, governor of the State, upon the life and services of John Hart. This monument prominently exhibits the words, “Honor The Patriot’s Grave.” The following is an extract from Governor Parker’s address:
“As his public career was without blemish so was his private life pure and exemplary. He was a consistent member of the old Hopewell Baptist church, and gave to the congregation the, land on which the meeting-house was erected, and in which his remains are now deposited. He was a true patriot. I am of opinion, after a careful examination of the history of New Jersey during and immediately preceding the Revolutionary war, that John Hart had greater experience in the colonial and State legislation of that day than any of his contemporaries, and that no man exercised greater influence in giving direction to the public opinion which culminated in independence.”
William Cathcart, The Baptist Encyclopedia
One of the most famous occasions that Patrick Henry defended a Baptist on trial was the instance of John Waller, and his companions, being confined in the Spotsylvania “gaol”. Henry rode about 50 miles to the courthouse on the day of Waller’s second trial. Slipping in, Henry was unnoticed until the clerk began to read the indictments against the Baptist preachers. After the reading, Patrick Henry took the paper in which the indictment was written on and said:
“ ‘May it please your worships, I think I heard read by the prosecutor, as I entered the house, the paper I now hold in my hand. If I rightly understood, the king’s attorney has framed an indictment for the purpose of arraigning, and punishing by imprisonment, these 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 of a crime, that these men, whom your worships are about to try for a misdemeanor, are charged with,—with—what?’ Then in a low, solemn, heavy tone he continued—‘preaching the gospel of the Son of God?’ Pausing amid profound silence, he waved the paper three times round his head, then raising his eyes and hands to heaven, with peculiar and impressive energy, he exclaimed—‘Great God!’ A burst of feeling from the audience followed this exclamation. Mr. Henry resumed—‘May it please your worships, in a day like this,—when truth is about to burst her fetters,—when mankind are about to be aroused to claim their 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 today in this indictment,’—here he paused, and alternately cast his piercing eyes upon the Court and upon 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!’ A deeper impression was visible as he paused, and slowly waved the paper round his head. ‘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; 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 these American wilds,—from the moment they placed their feet upon the American continent, from that moment despotism was crushed, the 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 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 be tried? This paper says, for preaching the gospel of the Saviour to Adam’s fallen race.’ For the third time he slowly waved the indictment around his head, and lifting his eyes to heaven in a solemn dignified manner, and again looking at the Court, he exclaimed with the full power of his strong voice—‘What law have they violated?’ The scene now became painful,—the audience were excited,—the attorney was agitated,—the bench and bar were moved; and the presiding magistrate exclaimed, ‘Sheriff, discharge these men’.”
The Baptist preachers were set free and Patrick Henry won another victory in the fight for religious freedom! If it were not for Henry appearing that day the fate of these men could have been detrimental.
Lewis Peyton Little, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia
John Myles, in 1662, was ejected from the living of Ilston, in Wales, by the Act of Uniformity. Like a considerable number of Baptists in the time of Cromwell’s protectorate he was probably pastor of a Baptist church, and officiated as a preacher in one of the state churches. The law, in 1662, compelled him to surrender his relations to the Establishment, and subjected him otherwise to great sufferings if he would carry out his conscientious convictions. He had been a very active and successful Baptist minister. Backus represents him as the “father of the Baptist churches in Wales, which began in 1649.” This statement requires some modification, but it is certain that he was exceedingly useful in spreading the truth in the principality. And had he not been a man of strict conscientiousness he would have retained his living in the national church and sacrificed his religious principles. Many followed this course.
In 1663 he and his Baptist friends of Swansea, in Wales, came to Massachusetts, and located at a place to which they gave the name of their old home. They brought their church records with them, and they joined together “in a solemn covenant” (in a church organization) in the house of John Butterworth. John Myles was the pastor of the American Swansea church. He was a minister of great industry and zeal, and of fearless courage. When the Boston brethren suffered heavily from the persecuting laws of their Puritan brethren, Myles went to succor them, and give such counsel and encouragement as his wide experience would readily furnish. He stood his ground in Swansea against all discouragements and threatenings, and proved himself a tower of strength to the abused and persecuted Baptists. He remained the pastor of Swansea till his death, in 1683.
John Myles was distinguished for his learning, and remarkable for his piety, and such was the blessed influence which he exerted, and the deep impression which he left, that Backus writes of him in 1777, nearly a hundred years after his death, “his memory is still precious among us.”
William Cathcart, The Baptist Encyclopedia
William Screven emigrated to Boston from Somerton, England, about the year 1668. He became a successful merchant of the city. Desiring to form a dissenters’ church in Boston, he was informed that he would be violating the laws of Massachusetts Bay Colony. He moved to Kittery in the Province of Maine. After Massachusetts acquired the area of Maine, the authorities began to watch Screven closely because of his Baptist views.
Ultimately, Screven was charged first with not attending meetings on the Lord’s Day, from which he was exonerated. Later he was charged with making blasphemous speeches against the “holy order of pedobaptism”. Screven spent some time in jail for refusing to pay a bond of £100.
Evidently, he had become weary of the persecution, and not being able to find liberty of conscience nor freedom to worship God in Maine, Screven and his associates determined to seek freedom elsewhere.
After forming a church out of the Baptist church in Boston, most of Screven’s congregation took ship for the Carolinas. They settled on the Cooper River not far from the present city of Charleston. The move to Charleston took place by 1693. This was the first Baptist church of the South.
No Baptist church was traceable in Kittery after Screven and his company departed. In fact, nearly a century passed before one could find another Baptist church within the bounds of what is not the state of Maine.
E. Wayne Thompson, This Day in Baptist History