Virginia Baptists and Religious Liberty: Margaret Meuse Clay
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Virginia Baptists and Religious Liberty: Margaret Meuse Clay

Virginia Baptist forebears persevered in pursuit of religious freedom

July 2, 2024
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by Nathan Taylor

It is no secret that Virginia Baptists embrace religious freedom as a central hallmark of our historical identity. Indeed, Baptists in Virginia played an influential role in the formation of our American tradition of religious liberty, summarized in the religion clauses of the First Amendment guaranteeing free exercise and no establishment of religion. As leading 18th century dissenters, our forebears were jailed for preaching without a license, fined for not attending the established church, and persecuted in numerous other ways. Original documents related to these events, such as the arrest warrant for Nathaniel Saunders and John Waller’s letter from prison, are preserved by the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. Of course, the struggle for full religious liberty continued for persons of color, as long as the promise of freedom remained unfulfilled.The principle of full religious freedom for all, informed by our diverse history, continues to guide, challenge and call us to the best impulses of our particular experience as a spiritual tradition - one originally formed by those who were persecuted by other Christians who used the government to control those with whom they disagreed. Indeed, our spiritual ancestors led the resistance against the unholy alliance of church and state. Historically speaking, we have been at our best when we have remembered that - and at our worst when we have forgotten it.

One compelling 18th century Virginia Baptist figure who experienced the struggle for religious freedom firsthand was Margaret Meuse Clay (1735-1832). Margaret came to faith and was baptized in the James River by Rev. Jeremiah Walker. According to church historian, pastor, and Virginia Baptist leader William Latane Lumpkin (1916-1997), “Ministers would frequently recognize her piety by suggesting that she lead in public prayer.” She was active in Chesterfield before a Baptist church was even organized there. A fascinating account held by VBHS reflects“…a traditional story of Margaret Clay’s Virginia trials, repeating it to succeeding generations. According to that story, Mrs. Clay was included in an early roundup of early Baptist teachers of Chesterfield.” Known for persecuting the Baptists, Archibald Cary was the magistrate at the time. “Margaret Clay and eleven others were at one time summoned to be tried at the courthouse for unlicensed preaching. The trial excited much interest throughout the country, and the courthouse area was thronged.” After the Baptists lost and were sentenced to be publicly whipped, the eleven male preachers received the brutal punishment first.Then, at the last moment, “…an unknown man pushed through the crowd, secured the attention of the authorities, and paid a fine by means of which Mrs. Clay was spared the whipping.” Margaret Clay continued to minister as a bold Baptist leader for many years thereafter. In his summary of the events, Dr. Lumpkin succinctly remarked: “Men stood in awe of her spiritual power.”[1]

As we reflect on the Virginia Baptist commitment to religious freedom for all people, we give thanks for the courageous preaching ministry of Margaret Meuse Clay and the many lives that were forever changed by her commitment to sharing the gospel - whatever the cost.

Rev. Dr. Nathan Taylor is executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society.

[1]William L. Lumpkin, “The Role of Women in 18th Century Virginia Baptist Life,” Baptist History & Heritage (July 1973). Lumpkin taught at Southern and Southeastern Baptist seminaries, pastored numerous Virginia churches and served as clerk, vice president and president of BGAV, as well as president of the VBHS and on the Historical Commission of the SBC.

Last Updated:    
July 10, 2024