Maintaining a Witness During Persecution: An Example from the Past

Jul 28, 2014

Our Baptist forebears did not allow the threat of persecution or even persecution itself to stop them from proclaiming the message of the gospel. This was equally true of the sixteenth-century proto-Baptists of Europe, seventeenth-century Baptists in England and eighteenth-century Baptists in America. One example of the fruitfulness of the faithfulness of Virginia Baptists to proclaim the gospel even while imprisoned survives in the testimony of Ambrose Dudley.

Ambrose Dudley (c. 1752-1825) was born in about 1752 in Spotsylvania County, Virginia.[1] He served as a Captain in the Virginia Militia during the Revolutionary War.[2] He moved to Kentucky in 1786 and served as the pastor of the Bryan’s Station Baptist Church[3] from October 22, 1786, until his death over thirty-nine years later on January 27, 1825.[4] He was recognized as a leader by the other pastors of the associations to which he belonged by being elected moderator twenty-five times.[5] Dudley preached all across the countryside and was instrumental in the organization of several churches in Kentucky during his lifetime.

At some point in 1776 or 1777 while stationed in Williamsburg,[6] Ambrose Dudley became “deeply impressed with his ruined condition as a sinner, being brought to feel that he had been all his life in an attitude of rebellion against an infinitely higher power than the King of England,—even the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.”[7] James B. Taylor records the incident:

During the early part of the revolution, he was commissioned to some office in the army, and while absent from home, his heart was pierced by the arrows of truth. He saw that he had all his days been waging war against his almighty sovereign, and in deep humiliation he cast himself before the throne, pleading for mercy. He was heard; his iniquities were forgiven; he became a loyal subject, and avowed his subjection by being baptized, according to the direction of his king.[8]

Each of these early accounts makes a not so subtle play on words regarding Dudley’s involvement in the war against the King of England and his realization that in his sinful state he was also at war against the King of all creation. His conversion brought him into subjection to a higher power than King George III. Dudley’s conversion experience would have brought a remarkable change in his life, since before he left on the march to Williamsburg “he was not only openly immoral, but it was understood that he was inclined to infidel opinions.”[9] This would have meant that Dudley was known, not only for his wicked lifestyle, but that he also held to agnostic, and perhaps even atheistic views.

What or who were the instruments of Dudley’s conversion to Christianity? William Pratt, who had personal communication with Dudley’s son Thomas, indicates that Dudley heard Lewis Craig[10] and John Shackleford preach through the prison bars in Williamsburg at which hearing he “was convicted of sin and led to the foot of the cross, where he found peace in believing in the ability and willingness of Christ to save.”[11] These men, along with other Baptists, were often imprisoned for their preaching as “disturbers of the peace.”[12] By labeling Baptist preachers as “disturbers of the peace,” they were able to be persecuted even though their preaching was not technically illegal. Semple provides one example of how these preachers might be accused. The lawyer would say to the court: “May it please your worships, these men are great disturbers of the peace; they cannot meet a man upon the road, but they must ram a text of Scripture down his throat.”[13] While there is no record of a Craig or Shackleford imprisonment in Williamsburg in 1776 or 1777, it is not impossible. One account does survive of an imprisonment with Lewis Craig and four others (John Waller, James Reed, James Chiles and William Mash) in Fredericksburg a decade earlier in June of 1768.[14] Not only does this account illustrate the manner in which Dudley may have heard the gospel ten years later in Williamsburg, but since it occurred in Dudley’s hometown it may also be an early instance of his exposure to the preaching of the Baptists.

After Craig and his four companions were sentenced, they were marched from the court to the Spotslyvania County gaol. As they walked through the streets of Fredericksburg they sang the Isaac Watts (1674-1748)[15] hymn, “Broad is the Road”:

Broad is the road that leads to death,
And thousands walk together there;
But wisdom shows a narrower path,
With here and there a traveler.

“Deny thyself, and take thy cross,”
Is the Redeemer’s great command;
Nature must count her gold but dross,
If she would gain this heav’nly land.

The fearful soul that tires and faints,
And walks the ways of God no more,
Is but esteemed almost a saint,
And makes his own destruction sure.

Lord, let not all my hopes be vain
Create my heart entirely new;
Which hypocrites could ne’er attain,
Which false apostates never knew.[16]

Could Dudley have heard these convicting lyrics as a sixteen-year-old boy? If so, it seems certain that he could never have forgotten the haunting words sang by these joyful “disturbers of the peace.” The prison bars did not stop these preachers from their preaching. Little cites Morgan Edwards record of their deportment while in the Fredericksburg jail:

During their stay they preached thro’ the bars & were means of making very serious impressions on the minds of 11 heads of families and some of their domesticks with many others. The populace did everything they could invent to keep the people off and to plague the prisoners, till at last they let the prisoners out in order to get rid of them.[17]

In a similar manner, Dudley must have heard the preaching of Lewis Craig and John Shackleford through the prison bars in Williamsburg in mid-1777.[18] The words coming out of the jail window were, what James B. Taylor called, “the arrows of truth”[19] which pierced the heart of this military man in his mid-twenties. Dudley was not ashamed to be identified with the persecuted minority of Baptists as he subsequently submitted to the public demonstration of his new faith in Christ by being immersed. James Welch records the bold response of Ambrose Dudley to the preaching of these prisoners.

This conviction of his sinfulness was succeeded by a truly penitent and contrite spirit, associated with joy and peace in believing. He was, at this time, in command of his company, and stationed at Williamsburg; and, notwithstanding his circumstances seemed most adverse both to the culture of religion, and to a public profession of it, he had too much firmness of purpose to yield to the influence of circumstances in so momentous a concern. He therefore publicly declared himself on the Lord’s side, by being baptized at Williamsburg; and, if I mistake not, it was done in the presence of the company he commanded, and of some of his fellow officers of the army.[20]

This remarkable expression of humility and boldness undoubtedly made an impression upon his company, as also would his subsequent resignation of his position of Captain in the Continental Army. Evidently Dudley wanted to make a complete break with his life prior to his conversion. It was also around this time (September, 1777) that Ambrose’s older brother, Robert, was killed in the Battle of Brandywine. Though this fact is not mentioned in any of the nineteenth-century biographical sketches, it may have been another factor in his decision to resign from the military and even his sudden soberness regarding his spiritual state. There may also have been a responsibility to return home and take care of family affairs as he assumed the role of the eldest surviving brother.

Ambrose Dudley died rather suddenly on January 27, 1825, after a short 24 hour illness at the home of his son, the eminent physician Benjamin W. Dudley, in Lexington, Kentucky. He had presided over the monthly church meeting less than two weeks prior. J. H. Spencer well summarized the end of this faithful man of God: “He continued to labor faithfully … till the Lord called him to the better country.”[21] Having responded to the call of the Lord Jesus Christ while serving as a Captain in the Continental Army so many years before, Dudley never resigned from that calling to gospel ministry until the heavenly commanding officer at last called His faithful servant home. May the Lord Jesus Christ find twenty-first century Baptists to be equally faithful to the Word of our King no matter the cost. Who knows who may be reached by our witness? Even if that witness has to come from behind bars.

[1] Although virtually every biographical reference says that Dudley was born in 1750, the entry from the 3rd Saturday in February 1825 in the Bryan’s Station Church Book indicates that Dudley died in his 73rd year, making 1752 the more likely year for his birth.

[2] Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the War of the Revolution, April 1775, to December, 1783 (Washington, D.C.: Rare Book Shop Pub. Co, 1914), 205.

[3] Also known as Bryants Station, or the Particular Baptist Church at Bryan’s.

[4] Bryan’s Station Baptist Church Records, 1786-1901 (Fayette Co., KY [manuscript located at Kentucky Historical Society]), Entries for 22 October 1786 and 3rd Saturday of February 1925.

[5] Dudley was moderator of the Elkhorn Association for a total of ten years: 1794, 1796, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1800, 1803, 1804, 1805, and 1808. He was moderator of the Licking Association for fifteen consecutive years: 1810–1824.

[6] James B. Taylor, Lives of Virginia Baptist Ministers (Richmond, VA: Yale & Wyatt, 1837), 200.

[7] James E. Welch, “Ambrose Dudley. 1778-1823” in Annals of the American Pulpit Vol. VI (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), 203.

[8] Taylor, Lives of Virginia Baptist Ministers, 200.

[9] Welch, “Ambrose Dudley,” 203.

[10] For details on the life of Lewis Craig, see Lewis N. Thompson, Lewis Craig: The Pioneer Baptist Preacher (Louisville, KY: Baptist World Publishing Company, 1910).

[11] William M. Pratt, “The Early Baptist Churches of Kentucky” in  Memorial Volume Containing the Papers and Addresses That Were Delivered at the Jubilee of the General Association of Baptists in Kentucky Held in Honor of the Semi-Centennial Anniversary of the Body, at Walnut-Street Baptist Church, Louisville, October 20-22, 1887 (Louisville, KY: J.P. Morton, 1888), 42.

[12] Robert B. Semple, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia (Richmond, VA: Pitt & Dickinson, 1894), 30.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Lewis Peyton Little, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia: A Narrative Drawn Largely from the Official Records of Virginia Counties, Unpublished Manuscripts, Letters, and Other Original Sources (Lynchburg, VA: J. P. Bell Co., Inc., 1938), 95.

[15] The English hymn writer Isaac Watts wrote over 600 hymns including “Jesus Shall Reign Wher’er the Sun,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Joy to the World,” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”

[16] Ibid., 97.

[17] Ibid., 98.

[18] When John Darnaby was well enough to rejoin his company in the Fall of 1777, Dudley had already resigned.

[19] Taylor, Lives of Virginia Baptist Ministers, 200.

[20] Welch, “Ambrose Dudley,” 203.

[21] Spencer, History of Kentucky Baptists, 1:114.

Steve Weaver

Since 2008, Steve Weaver has served as the senior pastor of Farmdale Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky. He and his wife, Gretta, have been married for twenty-two years and have been blessed with six children. Read More