The preacher they tried to kill
By Thomas Ray
James Ireland was born in 1748 to an affluent Scottish family. His future was filled with promise, but a youthful indiscretion forced him to abandon his home and immigrate to America. Settling in Northern Virginia, he obtained employment as a schoolmaster.
Although Ireland had been raised in a godly Presbyterian home, he would later confess that at this time in his life, “I had not the fear of God before my eyes. I was not only willing to be wicked but I studied to be so.” He not only joined in the wicked amusements of his companions, but he became a leader and inventor of wickedness. Ireland possessed the ability to accommodate himself to every crowd. With the religious he could moralize; with the well-bred, he could be polite; with the merry, he would be the life of the party; and with the obscene, he could be profane. But God, who is rich in mercy, had determined to pluck him as a brand from the burning.
A godly young man, who was concerned about James Ireland’s spiritual destiny and knew of his love of poetry, requested that Ireland compose a poem on a religious subject. Happy to comply with his friend’s suggestion, James composed a poem he titled, “The natural man’s dependency for Heaven.” This composition made Ireland realize that all his hopes for heaven were useless. Convicted and burdened by his sin almost to the point of despair, Ireland began a thorough and diligent study of God’s Word. There he discovered that Jesus was a perfect sacrifice for his sin.
He was like a man raised from the dead. He began to tell everyone what great things God had done for him. Not long after his conversion he was baptized by the renowned Samuel Harris and then licensed to preach. His fame as a preacher produced several invitations, one of which was from a Mr. Manif in Culpepper County. Upon his arrival, Ireland was informed that if he preached the authorities would arrest him. Ireland in recounting this event said, “I counted the cost, freedom or confinement, liberty or a prison; it admitted of no dispute. Having adventured all upon Christ I determined to suffer all for Him.” The authorities, true to their threats, arrested Ireland and confined him in the Culpepper jail.
The authorities believed Ireland’s arrest would silence his voice. But to their dismay, great crowds gathered around the jail to listen to his sermons. Unable to disperse the crowds by violence or to silence Ireland, the authorities determined to permanently dispose of their prisoner. Their first attempt on Ireland’s life occurred when they placed gun powder under the jail. Fortunately, the only damage was to the jail. Disappointed but not deterred, his enemies attempted to suffocate him by burning brimstone and Indian pepper at the jail door. Ireland survived by breathing through the cracks in the walls. Enraged by their failure, Ireland’s adversaries bribed the doctor who was treating him for a fever to place poison in his medicine. This diabolical plot almost cost James Ireland his life. Although he survived his ordeal, there was rarely a day that he was free from the consequences of his ill treatment.
As we have observed, Ireland’s imprisonment was intended to silence his voice and to curtail his influence. However, his imprisonment had the opposite effect. To his enemies’ dismay, many of the leading citizens of Culpepper County were converted by his sermons. His letters, which he wrote and signed, “From my Palace in Culpepper,” had a profound effect upon both Baptists and non-Baptists and resulted in several conversions. Eventually he was released from prison, but it was not the end of his persecution or the physical attacks upon his person. However, he persevered and eventually built a Baptist meetinghouse in Culpepper County, a place previously known as the devil’s stronghold. James Ireland, sufferer for Christ, entered into his rest on May 5, 1808.