Three Baptist ministers had been indicted at Fredericksburgh for preaching the Gospel contrary to the statute.
Patrick Henry hearing of this rode some fifty miles to volunteer his services in defence of the oppressed. He entered the court, being unknown to all present save the Bench and the Bar, while the indictment was being read by the clerk.
He sat within the bar until the reading was finished, and the king’s attorney had concluded some remarks in defence of the prosecution, when he arose, reached out his hand for the paper, and without more ceremony proceeded with the following speech:
“May it please your Worships, I think I heard read by the prosecutor, as I entered this house, the paper I now hold in my hand. If I have rightly understood the king’s attorney of the colony has framed an indictment for the purpose of arraigning and punishing by imprisonment, three inoffensive persons before the bar of this court, for a crime of great magnitude, as disturbers of the public 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 if a crime, that these men whom your Worships are about to try for a misdemeanor, are charged with - - - -What?” and continuing in a low, solemn, heavy tone, “Preaching the Gospel of the Son of God?” Pausing amidst the most profound silence and breathless astonishment, he slowing waved the paper three times around his head, when, lifting his hands and eyes to heaven, with peculiar and impressive energy, he exclaimed: “Great God!”
The exclamation, the burst of feeling from the audience were all overpowering. 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 unalienable 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 awake from her slumberings, and to inquire into the reason of such charges as I find exhibited here to day in this indictment!”
Here followed another long pause on the part of the speaker, while he again waved the indictment around his head, and a deeper impression was made on the auditory. Resuming his speech, “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 oppressor’s hand, becomes his servile, his abject slave; he licks the hand that smites him, he bows in passive obedience to the mandates of the despot, 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 settlement in these American wilds, for liberty, for civil and religious liberty, for liberty of conscience to worship their Creator according to their own conceptions of heaven’s revealed will, from the moment that they placed their feet upon the American continent, and in the deeply imbedded forests, sought an asylum from persecution and tyranny, from that moment despotism was crushed, the fetters of darkness were broken, and heaven decreed that man should be free, free to worship 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,” continued the speaker, “permit me to ask 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.”
Then in tones of thunder he exclaimed; “What law have they violated?” While the third time, in a low, dignified manner, he lifted his eyes to heaven, and waved the indictment round his head.
The court and audience were now wrought up to the most intense pitch of excitement. The face of the prosecuting attorney was pallid and ghastly, and he seemed unconscious that his whole frame was agitated with alarm; while the judge, in a tremulous voice, put an end to the scene, now becoming excessively painful, by the authoritive declaration: “Sheriff, discharge those men.”
-- From Reminiscences of Baptists Of Virginia by William Smoot