This state historical marker is found on VA 640 just south of the VA 57 intersection, at the entrance to Shockoe Baptist Church.
One of Pittsylvania County's most significant roles in American history is that of a birthplace of religious freedom.
Before the American Revolution the Anglican Church was tax-supported, and “dissenting” Christian groups were discouraged and often persecuted.
The dissenting Baptists found fertile ground for church-planting and church growth in Pittsylvania County, thanks to the efforts of such men as Dutton Lane, who founded Virginia's first Separate Baptist church here in 1760. Samuel Harris of Pittsylvania, a former Anglican vestryman, member of the House of Burgesses, and Colonel of the militia, became the leading figure in the Baptist movement in Virginia.
Because of the depth of Baptist sentiment in Pittsylvania, it is understandable that this county became home to the beloved Baptist preacher John Weatherford during his last 10 years. Weatherford had suffered more persecution than most for his preaching, carrying scars to the grave. While imprisoned for preaching in 1773 in Chesterfield County, he had continued to preach to large crowds through the jail window, his hands extended through the bars. His extended hands proved a tempting target for knife-wielding ruffians who slashed his hands.
Eventually Patrick Henry secured Weatherford's release from jail, and paid his fines, acts for which Weatherford was ever after deeply grateful. (When Weatherford sent 5 pounds currency to Henry in payment for his services, it was returned.) Henry's admiration for the Baptists greatly affected his own personal philosophy and devotion and also his public life. (Later, in 1787-88, Henry apparently experienced a deep Christian conversion experience during a revival which spread from Hampden-Sydney College, and became an active personal evangelist during his later years.) It is through the influence of first Patrick Henry and later Thomas Jefferson that the principles of religious freedom became foundational to the U.S. Constitution.
In 1872 Chatham physician Dr. William White recalled that as a boy he had attended Weatherford's funeral 39 years earlier and seen the famous Chesterfield County scars. He said, “I was barely tall enough to look into the coffin. The hands of the veteran minister lay ungloved upon his breast with palms downward. I saw white and rigid seams extending across the back of each hand….”
This monument, erected in 1906 by the Pittsylvania Baptist Association, is found in the Shockoe Baptist Church graveyard. Weatherford's actual gravesite is a quarter of a mile farther west.
For many years the grave of John Weatherford lay neglected and almost forgotten. Area Baptists in 1906 erected a monument nearby in the Shockoe Baptist church graveyard (Weatherford served as Shockoe's pastor during his last years), eloquently stating:
“Elder John Weatherford, Baptist Minister. Born in Charlotte County 1740. Lay in jail in Chesterfield County in 1773 five months for preaching. Moved to Halifax in 1813; to Pittsylvania in 1823; died January 23, 1833.
“Erected in 1906 by Churches of the Roanoke Association.
“A sufferer for Conscience Sake.
“An Earnest and Faithful Minister of the Gospel.”
A state marker was placed on the nearest roadside in 1959. The grave itself, about a quarter of a mile west of Shockoe Church, is now maintained by the church.
John Weatherford again proved to be an endearing character in June 1987 as played by Col. Joseph H. Cosby (President Emeritus of Hargrave Military Academy) in the production of the musical “All Men Shall Be Free,” written by Frances Hallam Hurt, and sponsored by the Pittsylvania Historical Society. Weatherford's descendant the Rev. T. Anthony Pollard of Danville played the role of Samuel Harris in the same production.
More detailed information concerning John Weatherford and the early Pittsylvania County Baptists is found in Maude Clement's History of Pittsylvania County (available for purchase from the Pittsylvania Historical Society), and in Lewis Peyton Little's book Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia (available for circulation from the Pittsylvania County Public Library).
This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.
Copyright © 1989–2006 Henry H. Mitchell.