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A Voice from the Past

The Christian Philosophy of Patrick Henry [Part Two]

By James M. Wells

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Doctrinal Influences Upon Patrick Henry’s Ideas About man and Government

The wide range of doctrinal influences which Patrick Henry encountered in his youth is very marked in studying his actions. Henry’s life-long membership in the Episcopal Church is, for example, vary evident in his personal dealings with others. He had none of the condemnation of the Calvinist in his social relationships. There is no record of an instance wherein he condemned the liberality of the Virginia aristocracy in their exuberant pursuit of enjoyment. He was heralded by many as a very pleasing host. His zest for life, and his almost boyish love of laughter and practical jests among his family and friends, are a matter of record. There is much evidence of Episcopalian liberality, too, in his ability to ignore personal slights and hostilities in working with other leaders to achieve political objectives. Although a staunch personal abstainer, Henry could move around the stately ballrooms and levees of Richmond and Williamsburg with as much ease as any member of the Tidewater aristocracy of his day.

Whenever one leaves the realm of purely personal relationships with his contemporaries, however, and enters the realm of public duty, he finds a marked difference in attitude upon the part of Patrick Henry. He himself pointed out this very subtle, yet very important, difference in viewpoint:

I know sir, how well it becomes a liberal man and a Christian to forget and forgive. As individuals professing a holy religion, it is our bounden duty to forgive injuries done us as individuals. But when to the character of a Christian you add the character of patriot, you are in a different situation. Our mild and holy system of religion inculcates an admirable maxim of forbearance. If your enemy smite one cheek, turn the other to him. But you must stop there. You cannot apply this to your country. As members of a social community this maxim does not apply to you. When you consider injuries done to your country, your political duty tells you of vengeance. Forgive as a private man, but never forgive public injuries. Observations of this nature are exceedingly unpleasant, but it is my duty to use them.

Patrick Henry was, by self-admission, a Calvinist in his ideas of public life. He was strikingly reminiscent of John C. Calhoun in this respect, for Calhoun had the same intermingling of stern Presbyterian Calvinism and liberal episcopacy. Like Calhoun, this mixture produced in Henry a man of amazing single-mindedness of purpose, great powers of persuasion, and unswerving disregard of those who would undermine his self-assurance. Like Calhoun, Patrick Henry could fit himself into neither the Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian view of man and government but was a peculiar mixture of both.

Patrick Henry was not unlike the Baptist friends in their officially stated determination to “…love all Christians as brethren.” He was ever vigilant—ever watchful—for the opportunity to advance the cause of freedom of Christian worship. Yet this liberality applied only to Christians, for he would have no truck or sympathy with the deist or agnostic. As pronounced as his liberality toward all Christians was, Henry was determined that he would do all in his power to stop the spread of French deism among the American people. Although Patrick Henry demonstrated an almost Quaker-like determination to avoid purely personal controversy; yet, in his political career, he could be unabashedly Calvinistic in his condemnation of those who would further non-Christian doctrine. He could possess all of the flexibility of the Episcopalian in his ability to compromise, to bend with the political tide—in regard to methods and means—yet when it came to principle and to his idea of his Christian duty as a public servant and leader, there was much of his ancient ancestor, John Knox, in his rugged determination and steadfastness of purpose. Might there always have been, not far beneath the surface of Henry’s pleasant exterior, the fear that Calvin was right in his belief that not all were elected to salvation! In his dealings with many Virginia’s political leaders, who war admittedly influenced by the French “God of Reason,” might not Patrick Henry have remembered and feared the stern dictates of those terse Presbyterian preachers who had warned him in his youth that the non-Christian was “…of nature…so dead, so blind, and so perverse, that neither can…” they “…feel when…pricked, see the light when it shines, nor assent to the will of God when it is revealed…” Beyond a doubt the first and foremost guiding principle of Patrick Henry’s life was to follow the “light” of God’s will in his life—to serve that ever-present God who would, if one were steadfast, cover his servants “…by a pillar of cloud by day, and guide their feet though the night by a pillar of fire…” toward eternal salvation and peace.

The long years of solitary thought in the semi-frontier Virginia of Henry’s boyhood home had enabled him to blend and melt the variety of religious doctrines to which he was exposed into a peculiar, yet amazingly tenacious, Christian philosophy; a set of beliefs which was innately his own; a set of beliefs which could not be categorized—which could not be labeled Episcopalian or Calvinistic, or which could fit comfortable into any other sectarian label—yet, a set of beliefs which were ever prominent in his daily thoughts. Although these beliefs were rigid and consistent after their own individual fashion, the influence of the divergent mixture is to be seen in a certain hint of self-doubt. Toward the end of his life, Henry stated that he reproached himself because he had not give “decided and public proofs of being a Christian.” This statement was made despite consistent references—which references in the modern political arena would undoubtedly give rise to charges of religious fanaticism—in his speeches and public statements to his ever-present God.

Might not the depth of Henry’s religious convictions and peculiar admixture of constant self-questioning and self-judgment be the real source of his amazing power of oratorical ability—which ability, more than any other one single factor, had won for him a reputation in the annals of American history? The overwhelming mass of tributes to Henry’s speaking ability defy the imagination of the reader. The bitterest of Henry’s personal enemies heralded him ad the foremost of American orators of his day. He was labeled by John Randolph as “Shakespeare and Garrick combined.” The tributes of the founding fathers of America to Henry’s oratorical abilities filled pages in the works of his biographers. Henry’s bitterest critic, Thomas Jefferson, wrote years later in his autobiography, “I attended the debate at the door of the lobby of the House of Burgesses, and heard the splendid display of Mr. Henry’s talents as a popular orator. They were great indeed; such as I have never heard from any other man. He appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote.” Contemporary after contemporary stated that they found themselves completely senseless as to place or time while listening to Henry’s speeches. Almost all of them described a peculiar groping of hesitancy in the initial remarks and then a flow of oratory which produced the effect of an almost ethereal quality upon the listener. Whenever Henry was speaking “…a death-like silence prevailed” in the audience. All of Henry’s biographers referred to the well-substantiated “storm scene” at the Virginia Ratification Convention where Henry, in his warning against adoption of the Constitution, spoke of celestial concern over the proceedings. William Wirt Henry related the account of an observer, as follows:

Henry pointed…to those celestial beings who were hovering over the scene, and waiting with anxiety for a decision which involved the happiness of misery of more than half the human race. To those beings he had just addressed an invocation that made ever never shudder with supernatural horror, when lo! A storm at the instant arose, which shook the whole building, and the spirits which he called seemed to have come at his bidding. …Availing himself of the incident, with a master’s art he seemed to mix in the fight of his ethereal auxiliaries, and rising on the wings of the tempest, to seize upon the artillery of Heaven, and direct it against his adversaries. The scene became unsupportable; and the house rose without the formality of adjournment, the members rushing from their seats with precipitation and confusion.

Many contemporaries of Patrick Henry have described his manner of speech as highly reminiscent of the Calvinist preachers of the day, who exhorted their flock with threats of eternal damnation. Might not the key to Henry’s effectiveness, like that of these frontier preachers, have lain in an overwhelming self-conviction—a complete faith that he was fulfilling his Christian duty in imparting God’s will for the American nation to his audience? Might not this speaking ability have sprung form a personal assurance that he had the support of a power far greater than his mortal listeners? Might not the key to this amazing ability have rested in his oft repeated statement that to be silent would be “treason to God?” That this was the case is evident in observing his political career.

Chapter III

Leadership of Revolutionary Virginia

A recapitulation of the political career of Patrick Henry, for the purposes of studying his ideas of government and of the nature of men, quite naturally falls into three divisions: first, that early portion of his career, during which he rose to acknowledged leadership of his state and to prominence as a national revolutionary spirit; second, his unsuccessful fight against the American Constitution at the Virginia Ratification Convention, which was the fullest expression of his philosophy of government and of man; and, third, that controversial period shortly before his death when he came out of retirement to challenge the Jeffersonian leadership then dominant in Virginia.

It is the purpose of this portion of the report to resurvey that period of Patrick Henry’s career during which, to quote his foremost opponent, James Madison, he reached a position of “omnipotence in Virginia.” Curing this time, the influence of Henry’s Christian philosophy is markedly evident in his attempts to secure religious freedom for all Christian groups in Virginia, to secure the freedom of the American colonies from the oppression of the British Kind, and to secure for America that greatness which he felt was her “manifest destiny,” through safeguarding the West. These factors may be explained best by a recapitulation of the more outstanding incidents of this portion of his career. The complete philosophy of the Virginia leader unfolds during this period and by noting certain factors in would have been possible to predict his future course of action.

Leadership and Disestablishment

The rise of Patrick Henry into a position of political leadership in Virginia enabled him to bring about religious toleration for all Christian groups in the state. This struggle for religious freedom began with the Parson’s Cause case and ended with the establishment of a new government—a government which granted religious freedom to all of its citizens.

The Parson’s Cause

The first appearance of Patrick Henry which gave him statewide recognition an prominence was his role as defense lawyer in the celebrated “parson’s Cause Case.” William Wirt Henry presented the background of the case in the following manner: The legislature of Virginia had passed legislation which would have enabled the clergy of the established Anglican of Episcopal Church of the colony to be paid in coin at the rate of twopence per pound of tobacco instead of in tobacco itself as their salary had formerly been based. The legislature had defended its actions as being necessitated by a tobacco shortage due to drought and by the corresponding rise in the price of tobacco, which would, therefore, have worked a hardship on the parishioners if they had been forced to meet the salary payment in tobacco. The King, upon plea of the clergy, had disallowed the act. Thus, lower courts had been forced to declare it null and void. It remained only for the clergy to sue for damages resulting form having been paid their yearly salary on the twopence scale. The case in Louisa County had attracted great attention. Patrick Henry was at this time a relatively unknown country lawyer; yet he managed to sway the jury with his eloquence to the extent that it brought in a verdict of one penny damages for the clergy—a decided blow to their pocketbooks.

Henry cited two reasons why the court should find only one penny damages and thereby uphold the spirit of the Two-Penny act; first, the King by disallowing the Act had broken the compact between Crown and subject; second, the clergy had failed to serve the purpose for which they were ordained and, therefore, should be punished. These ideas Henry was to follow devotedly with amazing tenacity and consistence until his death.

Henry maintained that government was a conditional compact composed of twin dependent covenants—the government of the King promising protection on the one hand, and the people pledging obedience and support on the other. He maintained that a violation of these covenants by either party discharged the other from its obligation. As the Two-Penny Act had been a good law and designed for the general welfare, the disallowance was an instance of misrule; therefore, the King had departed from his role as the father of his people and had degenerated into a tyrant. The people, then, were released from their obligation to follow his order regarding the Act. At this point Patrick Henry heard the first murmurs of “treason!” from a Virginia audience.

As for the clergy, by their refusal to acquiesce to a law designed to meet the general welfare of the public, they had counteracted the aims and purposes of their organization. As a result, instead of the respect due to them as useful members of the state, they should be considered as enemies of the people. In the case before the court, then, they should, instead of being awarded damages, be punished. Henry proceeded to attack the Anglican clergy with vigor. He asked, “ Do they manifest their zeal in the cause of religion and humanity by practicing the mild and benevolent precepts of the Gospel of Jesus?” and replied “…Oh, no, gentlemen!...These rapacious harpies would, were their powers equal to their will, snatch from the …widow and her orphan children their last milch cow!” He continued his allegory in a violent tone and concluded by saying, “they would snatch…the last bed, nay, the last blanket from the lying-in woman!” The parsons labeled Henry’s speech as violent demagoguery designed to win popularity with the people; yet, an examination of Henry’s statements before and after this time show him to be a firm and unyielding foe of the establishment of religion. Henry concluded the case in hand by declaring that the issue was whether or not they would be free and make their own laws, or whether or not they would rivet the bonds of slavery by deciding for the Parsons. This insistence of self-government in local matters was to be the beacon that Henry held forth through the Revolution.

The case itself accentuated a revolt against establishment which Chitwood held had begun with the great Presbyterian and Calvinistic revival of Patrick Henry’s youth and which culminated in the American Revolution. Miller maintained that revolution and disestablishment were inseparable forces in the Southern colonies. He pointed out that it was the Presbyterian Church which taught the moral righteousness of rebellion against a dictator. Patrick Henry became the acknowledged leader of both disestablishment and rebellion.

Growth of the Demand for Disestablishment

As was so often to be the case, Patrick Henry was the leader of a ground swell of popular sentiment among the people of Virginia in this demand for disestablishment. Chitwood finds that the Anglican clergy was replete with “low ethical standards.” The aristocracy, or at least a large portion of them, supported the church and continued their persecution of the Baptists, Presbyterians, and other minority groups up until the very eve of the American Revolution. These common people were innately religious. They responded to the emotionalism and followed the ruggedness of the Calvinistic doctrines. Thus, as the non-Anglican sects grew, a revolt also grew against the establishment of the Episcopal Church. An increased distaste was seen for the government of the King—whom the Anglicans held to be supreme, and whose government supported the Church. The supremacy of the King is stated among the last six articles of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith of the Episcopal Church. The Episcopalians were, at the same time, becoming more convinced that the Anglican Church formed the “most genteel pathway to Heaven” and that the other groups were “low and vulgar.” This spirit of disestablishment was growing also in the Northern colonies, under the guidance of Samuel Adams—the same Samuel Adams who was to join with Patrick Henry in pushing the American Revolution into fruition.

Several reasons are evident for Henry’s avowal of disestablishment. Undoubtedly he opposed the admixture of church and state. He stated, “In my weak judgment, a government is strong when it applies to the most important end of all government—the rights and privileges of the people. To Patrick Henry the foremost right of the people was religious liberty. As he stated at the Constitutional Ratification Convention in Richmond, “The great and direct end of government is liberty. Secure our liberty and privileges and the end of government is answered.” He demanded protection of religious freedom by a Constitutional amendment before Virginia should ratify the Constitution. After the Convention had ratified the document over his protests, he had persuaded them to stipulate among the conditions of ratification the provision that “liberty of conscience…cannot be cancelled, abridged, restrained or modified by any authority of the United States.” He went on to persuade the Convention to refer amendments to the national Congress for ratification. One of these would protect conscientious objectors, and another stated:

That religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and therefore all men have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience, and that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established by law in preference to others.

The statement was in part an almost exact duplication of the sixteenth article of the Virginia Bill of Rights, which some of his biographers credit to the authorship of Patrick Henry. These statements were the mere culmination of a long struggle by Henry for religious freedom for all of the various Christian groups within the Old Dominion. As a boy, he must have listened to the backwoods pastors proclaim that favorite tenet of the Presbyterian Chruch which state,

…God alone is Loar of the conscience, and hat left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men; and that the rights of private judgment; in all matters that respect religion, are universal and inalienable.

That boy must have taken these lessons to heart, for her learned them well. In his first case, the Parson’s Cause, he struck a blow for disestablishment. Nor was the unaware apparently of the consequences of his actions. He had begged his respected uncle, the Anglican divine, not to go into the courtroom and had added, “in this controversy, both my heart and judgment, as well as my professional duty, are on the side of the people.” The Tidewater Aristocracy had at about this time begun a systematic religious persecution of dissenters which was to last up until the Revolution. Patrick Henry was never too busy during this period to represent various groups of dissenters in court—often without charge. By the time of the Revolution he was, in the eyes of John Adams, the “acknowledged leader” of Virginian disestablishers. Nor were the dissenters unappreciative of his efforts. The Baptists heralded the election of Henry as Governor of Virginia in 1776. He replied to their congratulations in the following letter:

I am happy to find a catholic spirit prevailing in our country, and that those religious distinctions, which formerly produced some heats, are now forgotten. Happy must every friend to virtue and America feel himself to perceive, that the only contest among us, at this critical and important period, is who shall be foremost to preserve our religious and civil liberties. My earnest wish is, that Christian charity, forbearance and love may untie all different persuasions as brethren…

In addition to his innate love of liberty, Patrick Henry cited other reasons for desiring freedom of religious conscience. He said that “Virginia suffered from slavery and lack of religious freedom.” He went on to compare the slow growth of Virginia’s population in comparison with that of Pennsylvania and concluded that “a general toleration of Religion appears to me the best means of peopling our country.” This would also, he felt, increase industry and home-manufactured products and would provide for Virginia the “…means of becoming the most prosperous” state on the continent; for “the free exercise of religion hath stacked the Northern part of the Continent with inhabitants….A Calvinist, A Lutheran, or Quaker, who hath felt these inconveniences in Europe, sails not to Virginia, where they are felt perhaps in a (greater degree).

Nor was Patrick Henry sympathetic with the cries of the Episcopal clergy that they were being persecuted because they had fought against wickedness and vice. He proclaimed, “Reprehension seldom is the duty of a minister. A good life is the best lecture.” If the clergy of the established church had merely censured those who were wicked in accordance with their duty, they would not be under attack. For he held that “if it happens that a life is so wicked as to become notoriously offensive,…such a man ceases to be popular. For I dare, affirm, that vice never in any country was held in reverence for its own sake, and so far as a man is openly wicked, he is unpopular.” Henry concluded that if a minister were being censure merely for doing his duty, that the minister would be upheld by all sensible men. This was not the case in regard to the clergy of the established church.

Henry could not sanction a government which persecuted Christians in order to further an established church which the people felt had become more licentious with each passing day. The government of the King was not serving its purpose when it had encroached upon religious liberty in order to perpetuate the Anglican Church, for Henry held that “…liberty ought to be the direct end of your government….Liberty, the greatest of all earthly blessings—give us that precious jewel, and you may take everything else.” Undoubtedly the evils of an established church preyed heavily upon the mind of the man who led Virginia into the path of Revolution against the divinely ordained King of the British Empire! The Revolution brought to America a new form of government—a government wherein all men might worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences.


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