John Weatherford (c. 1740–1833) Preached from His Prison Cell Window

[ABOVE—Historic marker near Weatherford’s burial site]

You remember Patrick Henry as the Virginia orator who said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” He was also a champion of religious liberty. Before the American Revolution, some of the colonies had established churches. Virginia’s was the Church of England or Episcopalian Church. Some of its parsons pushed hard to restrict the preaching of other denominations. Persecution was strongest in Chesterfield and Culpeper counties. At one point, 44 Baptists preachers were in jail in Virginia at the same time for ignoring laws against preaching. One of those preachers was John Weatherford. It was Patrick Henry who paid his fines and his prison board, securing his release. Years later, the two men were neighbors.

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John Weatherford spent five months in jail. During that time, he refused to be silenced but preached through the bars of his cell window. The first couple times this happened, the authorities took no action, but when the crowds persisted in gathering, they resorted to the tactics described below by R. H. Winfree.

Excerpt from R. H. Winfree’s Account of Weatherford’s Treatment.

Some base fellows cut his hands with knives as he thrust them through the bars of the prison window. These scars he carried to his grave, being remarked upon by those attending his burial. In order to prevent their (the people) hearing, a brick wall was erected ten or twelve feet high before the prison and the top thereof lined with glass bottles set in mortar to prevent the people from sitting on the top of the wall to hear the Word. Weatherford devised means to overcome this.

A handkerchief was to be raised by the congregation on a pole above the wall, as a signal that the people were ready to hear. His voice being very strong, he could throw it beyond the impediments and convey the words of life and salvation to the listening crowd. Souls were blessed and converted by his preaching. Of those who felt they had experienced the renovating influence of Divine grace, nine wished to follow their Master by being buried in baptism.