Patrick Henry was born to John and Sarah (Winston) Henry on May 29, 1736. The house was in the forest in Studley, about 16 miles from Richmond, Virginia. John and Sarah Henry had nine children, two boys and seven girls. Patrick was named after John’s brother, the Rev. Patrick Henry. His parents were dissenters, and Patrick was self-educated under the direction of his father.
Chief Justice Chase stopped at the area when passing through on a train, and said: “What an atmosphere, and what a view! What glorious mountains! No wonder that Patrick Henry grew here!”1
At the age of 15, his father made him an apprentice to a county merchant. After one year of training, Patrick and his older brother, William, were set up in business with a country store, with their father purchasing the stock for it. They were too generous with lending people credit, and just after a year, the store had to close its doors. It fell on Patrick to settle the store’s affairs, and while doing this, at the age of 18, he married Sarah Shelton. She brought with her 300 acres of poor land and six slaves. To this was added property that his parents gave him, and he determined to support himself as a farmer.
In 1757, he lost by fire his house and most of his furniture. He sold some of his slaves to cover the loss and get stock for a store that he opened in 1758, hoping both the store and the farm would support his family. But, he was too free with extending credit, and the area farmers’ tobacco crops failed, and he found himself in debt after two years. The store was closed in 1760. As his store was in the process of being closed, he determined to try getting licensed to practice law. He spent about a month and a half learning from a couple of books, and then went for his exams. The lawyers were inclined to refuse to even offer the questions because of his poor appearance and lack of formal training. But he won the license, was admitted to the bar, mostly out of desperation to support his family. He grew to appreciate the fact that God had directed him all along. At that time churches needed help, and God had directed him to be ready to do so. The Anglican Clergy was forcing their parishes to pay more money in 1763.
In 1765, Patrick Henry was elected to the Virginian legislature, and that was the beginning of his becoming a leader in the American Revolution.
St. Johns Church, Richmond, Virginia
Patrick Henry is most famous for his “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech, which was drawn from the book of Jeremiah and given on March 23, 1775. It was used at the close of his message to the Virginia Convention, in St. Johns Church, Richmond, Virginia. George Washington was among those in attendance who fully supported Patrick Henry’s speech and received several new officers as a result of it. Today, American textbooks are trying to dechristianize his quote by leaving out where it was given and the most potent part of it: “Forbid it, Almighty God!”
Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave …. It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, “Peace! Peace!” but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!2
He was known during the revolution as “Boanerges”—Son of Thunder (from Mark 3:17). He was very outspoken, and had a part in starting the Revolution by calling the King and his parliament tyrants. This was ten days after he was first elected to the Virginian legislature.
Baptists in Virginia were fined, beaten, imprisoned, poisoned and constantly under attack. Their services were regularly interrupted by snakes or hornet nests being thrown into their meetings. Baptismal services were routinely interrupted and both the pastors and those being baptized here held down under water until they nearly drowned. The persecution of them was both severe and very real.
The British Government and the federal Episcopal Church were determined to stamp out Baptists forever. In their zeal, they tried all kinds of laws and forms of persecution all to no avail. Finally they decided to use the laws of disturbing the peace. To carry out their anti-Christian behavior, they had three pastors (Lewis and Joseph Craig and Aaron Bledsoe) arrested in Fredricksburg, Virginia, where they were holding a meeting around 1770. The pastors were put under heavy bonds for their appearance in court two days later. The news of this arrest spread like wide-fire, causing a great deal of alarm among Baptists throughout Virginia. The news reached Patrick Henry, and he mounted his horse and rode the very rough terrain of 50 miles on horseback. He wanted to confirm the news as well as attend the trial. Patrick Henry arrived and was looking for a seat when the three pastors were brought in and put in a crude dock. The magistrates with their wigs and gowns took their dignified positions. The royal prosecutor then arraigned the preachers with great staged seriousness and gravity, for “preaching the gospel contrary to the law, to the disturbance of the general peace.” Patrick Henry, whose speech against the crown had made him famous, was just beginning to be recognized by some in the crowd. He jumped to his feet, immediately attracting everyone’s attention and said, “May it please your worships, what did I hear read? Did I hear that these men whom your worships are about to try for misdemeanor are charged with preaching the gospel of the Son of God? Great God!” He then took the indictment from the prosecutor, and reading that the charge was for nothing else than the crime of preaching, he waved the indictment above his head three times while shouting each time, “Great God! Great God! Great God!” The prosecutor turned pale, and the prosecutor was shamed out of the courtroom. The court recovered and the trial continued, with the prosecutor putting on a frenzied rant. The pastors were condemned and the pastors given a chance at freedom should they promise to quit preaching. The pastors rejected the offer, and were marched off under guard to the jail. As they went through the streets of the town, the pastors sang “Broad is the road that leads to death.” The British government used the same tactics all across the colony of Virginia, to the point Baptists simply met for services outside the jail walls so their pastors could still preach the God’s Word to them. This whole scene propelled Patrick Henry into major action in support of Baptists.
Baptists owe a great deal to the famous efforts of Patrick Henry, who proved to be an unwavering friend, throughout the long struggle for freedom from tyranny and religious oppression. Baptists won limited places through licensing, but being zealous to propagate the gospel, they longed for liberty to preach the gospel everywhere, and to every creature. Patrick Henry was the one who came to their aid and saw the battle through to victory, starting first with making things right in Virginia and then insisting, and fighting valiantly that the same laws made in part of the Virginia constitution be made a part of the Federal constitution. The formal battle for freedom lasted 27 years, but in the end, the Baptists had won victory for all!
Years later, the great Baptist pastor, John Weatherford, retired due to ill health and he became the neighbor to Patrick Henry. As the two sat and talked about their patriotic days, Weatherford found out that it was Patrick Henry that had paid his fine and argued to get him released from prison. It had been done anonymously at the time. Weatherford had been imprisoned in 1773 in the Chesterfield prison, but would not stop preaching even from his cell. At first he preached from the prison door. When that was stopped, he preached through the grate in his cell window. His enemies were determined to stop even this, so they raised a great wall that was higher than the grate. To overcome this obstacle, the congregations put a rag on a long pole where he could see it through the grate, and so know people were there to listen. His strong voice carried out of the cell, over the wall and was easily heard. Angry men would ride on horseback and try to disperse the crowds that came. Others marched through the crowds with drums, trying to beat out his voice. Nothing would stop the crowds from gathering or Weatherford from preaching. In fact the more the godless tried to stop him, the more came to listen and the more were saved. In a great wrath the constable slashed Weatherford’s wrists with knives and his blood ran down the prison walls and even fell on his listeners. Then suddenly, his fine was paid anonymously, and he was released after five months in jail. It had been Patrick Henry that came to his aid.
After Virginia declared its independence, Patrick Henry became involved in setting up the government and writing the state constitution. He was their first governor and helped promote religious freedom in Virginia, but made it clear that he did not want “separation of church and state.” He believed that a republic could not survive without virtue, morality, or religion.
The great pillars of all government and of social life [are] virtue, morality, and religion. This is the armor, my friend, and this alone, that renders us invincible.3
During the War for Independence, Patrick Henry and his family attended regularly a Baptist Church pastored by Dr. Richard Furman, Sr., who was in Virginia during part of the War. This pastor had begun as a “boy preacher” and knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew very well. Crowds flocked to hear the young preacher, and at the age of 19 he was ordained the pastor of the High Hills Church in New York. Being a Baptist, and not a member of the Established Episcopal Church, he was restricted from speaking in some places. It was at his church that the area pastors met to set up measures to remove the discrimination that non-Episcopal church people experienced. Dr. Furman’s leadership and influence in this matter was so great that Lord Cornwallis put a high price on his head. Patrick Henry and his family wanted to acknowledge their appreciation of the ministry of Dr. Furman, and so presented him with a book on rhetoric, something the Furman family has prized.
At one point he said:
It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians, not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ!4
George Washington, as President, offered Patrick Henry several positions, including U.S. minister to Spain or France, but Henry would not accept even one. He was governor of Virginia five times.
Married two times, Patrick Henry had 17 children and 77 grandchildren. They were his joy and delight.
A friend came to visit Patrick Henry during his retirement and found him reading the Bible. The great politician said:
Here is a book worth more than all the other books which ever were printed; yet it is my misfortune never to have, till lately, found time to read it with proper attention and feeling.5
Patrick Henry became so concerned about the influences of the French godless revolution that he came out of retirement to run for public office. He spoke of how French philosophy was at war with the majesty of Heaven and the welfare of earth, and that it was poisoning the minds of Virginia’s youth. He won the election, but before he could take the office, he died on June 6, 1799 of an intestinal blockage.
After writing up his will, he said:
I have now disposed of all my property to my family. There is one thing more I wish I could give them and that is faith in Jesus Christ. If they had that and I had not given them a single shilling, they would have been rich; and if they had not that, and I had given them all the world, they would be poor indeed.6
After his death, a copy of the Stamp Act Resolves was found with his will. On the back of it, he had written:
This brought on the war which finally separated the two countries and gave independence to ours. Whether this will prove a blessing or a curse, will depend upon the use our people make of the blessings, which a gracious God hath bestowed on us.
If they are wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable.
Righteousness alone can exalt them as a nation. Reader! Whoever thou art, remember this, and in thy sphere practice virtue thyself, and encourage it in others.7
AMG Bible Illustrations, electronic ed., Logos Library System; Bible Illustrations Series (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2000).
David Barton, The Articles of David Barton (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2007).
Frederick Barton, Favorite Scripture Texts of Famous People (Redding: Pleasant Places Press, 2005), p. 251.
James R. Beller, America in Crimson Red: The Baptist History of America (Arnold, Missouri: Prairie Fire Press, 2004), pp. 166, 235, 236, 241, 242, 281, 395.
David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America; The Baptist Denomination in America (Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1813; 2003), p. 75.
Biographical Entries from the Christian History Library (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 2007), “Marshall, John.”
Christian History: The American Revolution. electronic ed. Carol Stream IL: Christianity Today, 1996; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996.
Mark Couvillon, “The Galary—Christians in the Cause.” Christian History Magazine: Christianity & the American Revolution (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1996) Issue 50.
Federer, W. J. Great Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Quotations Influencing Early and Modern World History Referenced According to Their Sources in Literature, Memoirs, Letters, Governmental Documents, Speeches, Charters, Court Decisions and Constitutions. St. Louis, MO: AmeriSearch, 2001. Note
Galaxie Software, 10,000 Sermon Illustrations (Biblical Studies Press, 2002; 2002) “Quote.” Note: source of the quote about his will.
Verna M. Hall, The Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America, Vol. I. Christian Self-Government, Founders Edition (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 2006), p. 346.
William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry; Life, Correspondence and Speeches (New York: Charles Scribner's sons, 1891), Vol. 1, frontispiece, p. 7, 13, 19.
JoAnn A. Grote; Patrick Henry; American Statesman and Speaker; Revolutionary War Leaders series; Chelsea House Publishers; c 2000.
Paul Lagass and Columbia University, The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. (New York; Detroit: Columbia University Press; Sold and distributed by Gale Group, 2000) “Henry, Patrick.”
J.W. Porter, The World's Debt to the Baptists (Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1914; 2003), p. 84.
B.F. Riley, The Baptists in the Building of the Nation (Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1922; 2003), pp. 95, 96.
William M. Thayer, From Poorhouse to Pulpit (Redding: Pleasant Places Press, 20055), p. 215.
Roger William Heritage Archives Editors, Baptist Biographies (Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 2003; 2003) “Furman, Richard, Sr.”
Thomas Jefferson Villers, “Fidelity to our Baptist Heritage” Baptist Fundamentals (Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1920; 2003), pp. 37, 38.
1 AMG Bible Illustrations, electronic ed., Logos Library System; Bible Illustrations Series (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2000).
2 Christian History Magazine-Issue 50: Christianity & the American Revolution (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1996).
3 David Barton, The Articles of David Barton (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2007).
4 Galaxie Software, 10,000 Sermon Illustrations (Biblical Studies Press, 2002; 2002).
5 Frederick Barton, Favorite Scripture Texts of Famous People (Redding, California: Pleasant Places Press, 2005; 2005), 251.
6 Galaxie Software, 10,000 Sermon Illustrations (Biblical Studies Press, 2002).
7 William J. Federer, Great Quotations : A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Quotations Influencing Early and Modern World History Referenced According to Their Sources in Literature, Memoirs, Letters, Governmental Documents, Speeches, Charters, Court Decisions and Constitutions (St. Louis, MO: AmeriSearch, 2001).