Before Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, he wrote his own epitaph. Did he mention any of his political offices? No. Jefferson wanted only three accomplishments listed on his gravestone: author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
In the latter effort, Jefferson was influenced by the ideas and experiences of a Baptist community he met while living at Monticello in the 1770s. Many of his Baptist neighbors later moved to western North Carolina, where they played a major role in the religious, social, and political life of our own state. But they had already left their mark on Jefferson — and, through him, the history of American freedom.
To be a Virginia Baptist in the years before the American Revolution was to risk fines, imprisonment, or worse. The colonial authorities wanted to halt the growth of Baptist, Methodist, and other denominations that questioned the power and tax funding of the Anglican Church.
In 1768, government officials in Spotsylvania County arrested Baptist minister Lewis Craig for preaching without a license. He was imprisoned for 43 days. That didn’t stop him. After his release, he helped other Baptist churches get their start, as did his brother Elijah Craig, a minister in neighboring Orange County.
If you keep moving westward from Spotsylvania through Orange, your next stop is Albemarle County. In the early 1770s, a small group of Albemarle residents began to meet in a barn to hold Baptist services. Rev. Elijah Craig sometimes visited to preach and advise the new congregation. In 1773, some members of the congregation founded their first formal church, Albemarle Baptist Church.
The listed founders of Albemarle Baptist included two of my 5th-great grandfathers, Thomas Coffey and Thomas Fields, plus some four dozen other residents, white and black. During its first few years, the church relied on visiting ministers – the Craig brothers among them – plus elders and deacons recruited from the membership. One was a 6th great-grandfather of mine, Rev. John Barlow.
During the mid-1770s Thomas Jefferson became acquainted with Albemarle Baptist Church, which was located close to Monticello. Although Jefferson was officially an Anglican, and privately a Christian freethinker, he apparently enjoyed an occasional visit to Albemarle Baptist for church services.
According to a story later told by First Lady Dolly Madison, who had it from Jefferson himself, one day Jefferson asked the pastor of the church, Andrew Tribble, to dine with him at Monticello. When Tribble asked Jefferson what he thought of the self-governing structure of Albemarle Baptist, Jefferson replied that it had “struck him with great force” and that “it would be the best plan for government of the American colonies.”
There is no question that the travails of the Albemarle Baptists and other religious dissenters during the 1760s and 1770s had a strong impression on Jefferson. He came to believe that the legislature should put explicit protections of religious liberty into Virginia law. In 1777, Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of his bill for Religious Freedom. After additional tinkering, he introduced it in 1779. It was approved several years later.
Among other provisions, it stated that to “compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”
While Lewis Craig, Elijah Craig, and their Baptist colleagues in Albemarle County had significantly influenced the drafting of Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, they weren’t around to see it enacted. Tired of waiting for the government to end its oppression of them, they left Virginia for less-oppressive climes. For example, in the early 1780s the Craig brothers led their Baptist congregations west to settle in Kentucky. (Somewhat improbably, given his faith, Elijah Craig later built a distillery and essentially invented the bourbon whiskey industry of Kentucky.)
Even before that, however, much of the Albemarle Baptist congregation had already sought their freedom in a different direction – moving southward to the North Carolina mountains. They left an impressive legacy behind them. Now it was time to create another.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.