James Ireland was born in England, but through rebellion and a calloused heart he sailed to America. Upon his arrival, he took charge of a school in the northern part of Virginia. At this time he had not the fear of God before his eyes. “I could soon,” he says, “join in the wicked amusements of those around me without remorse, and being of an aspiring disposition, it did not suit my taste to be a common accomplice with them, but an active leader in all their practices of wickedness.” But God, who is rich in mercy, had determined to pluck him as a brand from the burning. He became deeply concerned about the salvation of his soul, having perceived that all his former hopes for heaven were flawed. After much reading of the Word of God, he was at length brought to behold the beauty and sufficiency of Christ. “My head,” he observed, “was like a well of water, while the tears ran down for several hours without intermission; and, of all the tears I ever shed, these were the sweetest. My hard heart was melted into contrition, while I was laid low in the dust before God, under the sweet impression of his goodness to me.”
Immediately after his baptism he returned home, and in the spirit and power of his Master devoted himself to the great work of preaching the gospel. Soon, he found that bonds and imprisonment awaited him. His growing popularity and success excited the indignation of the rulers of the established church, and brought down upon his head fierce persecution.
It was in Culpepper, Virginia that Ireland was conducting a service and was disrupted by the magistrates. Ireland stated, “The magistrates instantaneously demanded of me what I was doing there…I replied, that I was preaching the gospel of Christ to them; they asked, who gave me authority so to do. I answered, 'He that was the author of the gospel had a right to send forth whom He had qualified to dispense it'. They retorted upon me with abusive epithets, and then inquired if I had any authority from man to preach. I produced my credentials, but these would avail nothing, not being sanctioned and commissioned by the bishop. They told me that I must give security not to teach, preach, or exhort, for twelve months and a day, or go to jail. I chose the latter alternative.”
Ireland would be in the Culpepper jail for a total of five months. They attempted to blow him up with gunpowder, but the quantity obtained was only sufficient to force up some of the flooring of his prison. There was also an attempt made by Elder Ireland’s enemies to suffocate him, by burning brimstone at the door and window of his prison. A scheme was also formed to poison him. But the mercy of God prevented. He states, that he might speak of a hundred instances of cruelty which were practiced.
When Ireland would preach through the little iron grate to people that assembled outside the jail, his persecutors would ride horses through the crowd trampling down the people. Clubs were shaken over the heads of people threatening them to never attend there again. The negroes attending were stripped and subjected to stripes for simply listening to Ireland preach. When Ireland would preach the gospel of his dear Redeemer to the people, some got a table and stood upon it for the purpose of making their water in his face. Although the treatment in the Culpepper jail was severe, Ireland would still sign his letters of correspondence, “From my palace in Culpepper”.
A final attempt to end the life of Ireland was made when the authorities imprisoned a drunken wretch with him. The drunk was by profession a Roman Catholic. His stature was of an enormous size and was intended to put this Baptist heretic to death. However, Ireland showed him all the kindness that he had to offer. He shared his bed and board with him, taught him the alphabet, and even bought him a New Testament. Ireland would instruct him in the ways of religion and won him to Jesus Christ. The next time that Ireland was engaged in preaching through the iron grates, some ruffians grabbed him by the hair of the head and held his face against the grate. The new convert grabbed them by their hair and held them against the grate until Ireland was finished preaching. He said, “He would take care of the preacher if the preacher would not take care of himself.”
Although Ireland faced many persecutions both in and out of prison, he remained faithful to his Master. He was an itinerant preacher in Rockingham, Shenandoah, Page, Rappahannock, Culpeper, and Fauquier counties. He planted South River (now Happy Creek), Smith’s Creek, Bethel, and Water Lick Baptist churches. Ireland was pastoring the Buck Marsh Baptist Church in Clarke County, Virginia at his death.
He had labored nearly forty years in his Lord’s vineyard, and during a great part of the time through much infirmity of body. He was always distinguished as an able minister of the New Testament rightly divining the Word of Truth. He endured all things, as seeing Him who is invisible.
James B. Taylor, Virginia Baptist Ministers