As Americans it is all too easy to take for granted those religious freedoms that we enjoy today. As Baptists we are doubly prone to forget what the landscape of religious tolerance looked like in our soil just a few centuries ago. One helpful antidote to this chronological and historical ignorance is to read the accounts of those who have gone before us, those who experienced grave hardship for their religious and often Baptistic convictions. As the editors note in the introduction, of the forty-five Baptist preachers that were jailed in late eighteenth-century Virginia, only two — James Ireland and Joseph Craig — left autobiographical accounts of their hardships. Therefore we owe an immense level of gratitude to both these men who, even in the midst of trying circumstances and in their last days, found time to put to paper all they underwent for the sake of Christ.
This dual autobiography of sorts recounts the lives of two men, James Ireland and Joseph Craig. The bulk of the work (160 of the 214 pp.) consists of Ireland’s life and testimony, while a briefer section comes from Craig. Were it not for their own written accounts preserved till this day, there is hardly a reason to suppose they would have been remembered elsewhere. They led simple, ordinary lives in an earthly sense. But in these accounts we are given a profound glimpse of many of the hardships our Baptist forbears underwent.
James Ireland, known growing up as “little Jamie Ireland,” was born in 1748 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was reared in an affluent, Presbyterian home. After some adventures at sea, the age of eighteen he came to Shenandoah County, Virginia, where he would become the headmaster of a small school. He developed an uncanny ability to adapt his morals—at least the perception of them—to those around him. As he would later write, “With the religious I could moralize a little; with the well bred I could be polite: with the merry I could be antic, and with the obscene I could be profane” (43). Slyly morphing his morality, he quickly became a favorite of all whom he associated with and met.
At some point a Baptist friend and preacher, a certain Nicholas Fane, impressed with Ireland’s poetic abilities, prevailed on him to write out a poem on brotherly love (43-47). Shortly thereafter he joined his friend in the singing of the poem and then is asked to compose yet another one on man’s dependence for heaven. As Ireland would later view it, this occasion along with others showcase the “overruling hand of Providence” in his life (50). It was the words of this second poem that were the means of his conviction of sin: “… O how dreadful will it be, / When the wicked with terror / The enraged Son of God will see, / Darting forth beams of horror” (52). Initially this conviction of sin only caused him to want to “reform” his life and become a “praying person” (60). But eventually, with the preaching of a certain minister, he at last experience conversion: “I viewed then the glorious Redeemer as my Saviour; my whole soul ran out by faith on Him as such; and my faith was enlarged, and I can say from my heart I believed unto righteousness” (94).
Soon after this Ireland experienced a call to ministry and began progressing in his understanding of Christian doctrine. His honed his preaching abilities and ultimately joined the Separate Baptists, after his baptism by immersion and ordination at the Sandy Creek Association in North Carolina in 1769. His reputation for powerful preaching and his Baptistic affiliation caught the attention of the colonial leaders, which ultimately landed him in jail. Many viewed the Baptist’s success with suspicion and envy. Thus by the mid-1760s local courts began cracking down on the Baptists as a group.
Ireland faced much opposition. He recounts several attempts on his life and harm to his person. But in the midst of all the antagonism he displayed great joy and confidence in the Lord, faithfully preaching the gospel and calling on sinners to believe on Christ. While Ireland died when he was only fifty-eight years old, he faithfully discharged a ministry of forty years, having served three churches in the midst of turbulent life.
The brief remainder of this work is devoted to Joseph Craig. He recounts the experience of great conviction of sin for a period of fourteen or so years. It was not until he was twenty-three, married and already involved at some level of preaching, that he writes of a conversion experience. “I was praying the power of God came on me,” he writes, “and it seemed to me, drove from my heart all sin and darkness, and my love to God seemed plainer and stronger than ever” (183). Craig was an eccentric man, also of poetic sensibilities and earnest desire to see many trust in the Savior. Even his last written words are an appeal for his daughters to trust in Him “of whom Moses and the Prophets did write” (205; cf. Jn. 1:45).
The Baptists, even prior to the American Revolutionary War, called on the colonial establishment to grant religious liberty and freedom of conscience. We see his mostly in the leader of Roger Williams and his interaction with the Massachusetts Bay Colony and then the subsequent founding of Rhode Island, build around religious freedom and liberty. With this work the reader is granted a small glimpse into the daily hardships of those who identified with the Baptists. It is no understatement to say that the Baptists experienced some of the worst persecution in late eighteenth-century colonial America. This volume included an appendix, adapted from Lewis Peyton Little, listing several of the ways Baptists were persecuted in Virginia: imprisoned, drownings, driven away from homes, whipped, beaten, incapacitated, fined, pursued, pulled down and hurled, poisoned, threatened with guns, assaulted by mobs, etc. It is hard for the modern reader to fully comprehend the intensity of this antagonism, but at the very least one can begin to understand with the accounts of Ireland and Craig. As one reviewer notes, “The stories of James Ireland and Joseph Craig remind readers why it is vital to protect religious freedom in the modern era.”
Moreover, this work ought to produce in us a deep appreciation for the religious freedom we so bountifully enjoy today and often take for granted. It was not until January 16, 1786, that the Virginia Legislature passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (6). One then can be grateful that in some small way the lives of Ireland and Craig, along with other Baptists, brought to the forefront of the American conscience the inhumane and senseless sufferings of the Baptists and other dissenting groups.
And lastly, a work like this ought to remind us that we live simple and ordinary lives. Not every Christian is called and gifted to be a renown scholar or church reformer, but he is indeed called to be a faithful follower of the Lord Jesus Christ in his generation. The lives of Ireland and Craig are but another reminder that God uses the weak things of this world to shame the wise. While we have breath we are called to proclaim Christ and joyfully absorb the ire of a world that hates Christ yet is in desperate need of his saving love and mercy.
For the modern reader who wants to yet again appreciate his religious freedom and the price paid by his Baptist forbears there is no greater work than this edited volume of two men who faithfully served God in their generation. They experienced God’s saving love in Christ and it is that same love they displayed to all around them. We are in desperate need for this even in our day.
 Jerry L. Faught, “Review of Esteemed Reproach: The Lives of Reverend James Ireland and Reverend Joseph Craig,” Baptist History and Heritage 42, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 116.