James Ireland (1745–1806) Endures Insult in Prison for Preaching as a Baptist

[ABOVE—Placque beside Ireland’s church. It reads,
In memory of
1746 James Ireland 1806
Minister of the Gospel Born in Edinburgh, Scotland and converted in Frederick County, Va.
Baptized and ordained at Sandy Creek, N.C. Imprisoned at Culpeper,
Va. for preaching the gospel, organizer of Baptist churches,
pastor of Buckmarsh Baptist Church 1786 – 1806
His body lies in Buckmarsh Cemetery near here.
“Whether it be right in the sight of God
to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye,
for we cannot but speak the things
which we have seen and heard.” Acts IV: 19-20
In gratitude for the blessings of spiritual
religion and freedom of conscience won in part through
his sufferings this memorial is erected
by the Baptists of Virginia on the one hundred and twenty-
fifth anniversary of his death, May 5, 1931]

James Ireland was one of thirty Baptist preachers imprisoned in Viriginia during the three years 1768–1770. Warned that he would be arrested if he attempted to preach, he counted the cost and preached anyhow. He was standing on a table speaking in the open air when two men seized him and dragged him to prison for preaching without proper authority. The laws under which he was imprisoned had been repealed seventy years earlier, but that mattered little to the authorities. At that time, the Church of England was the established church of Virginia and some bigoted and ungodly churchmen were completely opposed to the work of any other denomination and cared not how they thwarted it.

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Housed with roughs and drunks in a cell infested with mice and spiders, Ireland did not have an easy time of it. The jailer, who also owned a local tavern, encouraged the drunks to beat him up. Nonetheless, Ireland persisted in preaching through his window bars and drew large audiences. Local authorities sought to break up the crowd by sending horsemen to ride among them, trampling and beating them. The jailer also allowed poisoned food to be delivered to the preacher. Perhaps the most disgraceful action taken against the godly convict was when two of his opponents pulled up a bench and urinated in his face as he tried to preach. In spite of all such abuse, and other attempts on his life (mentioned in the excerpt below), Ireland addressed letters of encouragement to his friends “From My Palace in Culpepper.”

Following William and Mary’s Toleration Act of 1770, Ireland obtained his release, having been incarcerated five months. He went on to become a mighty planter of Baptist churches.

The following excerpt is from a compendium by Raleigh Travers Green and Philip Slaughter.

Excerpt from Genealogical and historical notes on Culpeper county, Virginia

In 1769 or 1770, at a meeting in Pittsylvania County, Mr. Ireland was baptised by the Rev’d Samuel Harris, immediately returned to his home with credentials signed by eleven ministers, “and in the spirit and power of his Master devoted himself to the great work of preaching the gospel.”

But, his growing popularity and success excited the indignation of those who were in authority and brought down upon his head fierce persecution. “Being roughly seized by order of magistrates, he was thrust into the Culpeper jail because he had dared to preach without the authority or sanction of the bishop.” He was accompanied to prison amid the abuses of his persecutors, and while incarcerated in his cell not only suffered by the inclemency of the weather, but by the personal maltreatment of his foes. They attempted to blow him up with gunpowder, to suffocate him by burning brimstone, etc., at the door and window of his prison, and even to poison him. He states that he might speak of a hundred instances of cruelty which were practiced.