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