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Conversion of John Randolph of Roanoke

While it has been asserted that John Randolph of Roanoke was an Islamic convert to Christianity, the reliable references about him prove otherwise. While they do mention he had a religious conversion in 1818, this was one of depth of belief in the Christian faith he was brought up in.

Religious upbringing

One of Randolph's biographers, William Cabell Bruce, tells of his early background, saying “it cannot be doubted that, except during the period of his avowed infidelity in early life, he was subject to truly religious emotions…In his childhood, he received the religious instruction of a pious mother, and, in his later years took pride in the fact that he was born and baptized in the Church of England. In the prayer book, which he gave to his nephew, John St. George Randolph, on August 8, 1818, he wrote these words: ‘Your parents were born members of the Church of England. All your forefathers have been of that persuasion. You can have no good cause to desert it. Keep this book; and consider it, as next to the Bible (from which, indeed, it is for the most part extracted) entitled to your reverence. …He that refuses to go along with a devout reader of this service may suspect himself of a want of ‘vital religion.’ …I am rarely affected by extempore prayer, often in pain for the person praying, but, in whatever mood I find (myself), my feelings, whether of penitence or thanksgiving, respond to the supplications and prayers of our Venerable Church.”

Doubting Christianity in his boyhood

On Sept. 25, 1818 after his conversion (see below) he wrote Dr. Brockenbrough, who had apparently been skeptical of Randolph’s conversion to committed believer. Randolph said he was not surprised and described his experience of questioning Christianity in his boyhood.

Enlightenment authors

Randolph told Brockenbrough that the doctors skepticism of his remarks reminded him of his own skepticism as a youth which he developed after reading several authors of the Enlightenment. Randolph wrote “I cannot, however, express sorrow—for I do not feel it—at the impression which you tell me my last letter made upon you. May it lead to the same happy consequences that I have experienced—which I now feel—in the sunshine of the heart, which the peace of God, that passeth all understanding, alone can bestow! Your imputing such sentiments to a heated imagination does not surprise me, who have been bred in the school of Hobbes and Bayle, and Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke, and Hume and Voltaire and Gibbon; who have cultivated the skeptical philosophy from my vain-glorious boyhood—I might also say childhood—and who have felt all that unutterable disgust which hypocrisy and cant and fanaticism never fail to excit in men of education and refinement, superadded to our natural repugnance to Christianity. I am not, even now, insensible to this impression; but as the excesses of her friends (real or pretended) can never alienate the votary of liberty from a free form of government, and enlist him under the banners of despotism, so neither can the cant of fanaticism, or hypocrisy, or of both (for so far from being incompatible, they are generally found united in the same character—may God in his mercy preserve and defend us from both) disgust the pious with true religion.

Rooting for Muslims while reading about Crusades

Randolph's disgust with people who called themselves Christians being motivated by greed carried over to his reading about Christian history, "Very early in life I imbibed an absurd prejudice in favor of Mahomedanism and its votaries. The crescent had a tailsmanic effect on my imagination, and I rejoiced in all its triumphs over the cross (which I despised) as I mourned over its defeats; and Mahomet II himself did not more exult than I did, when the crescent was planted on the dome of St. Sophia, and the cathedral of the Constantines was converted into a Turkish mosque." Randolph then made a reference to Zanga a character from Edward Young's 1721 play the Revenge who is Spaniard Don Alonzo’s Moorish captive, who takes revenge on his conqueror for his humiliation. Randolph wrote "To this very day I feel the effects of [the performance at Williamsburg Theater of actor] Peter Randolph’s Zanga on a temper naturally impatient of injury, but insatiably vindictive under insult."

Adult reasons for doubt

After his conversion (see below) Randolph wrote Dr. Brockenbrough that his two main reasons for not enjoying Christianity in his adulthood was that he felt himself personally unworthy of its promises and his dismay that his Christian friends appeared to abandon him as to dedicate their time to personal goals.

Fear of unworthiness

Concerning the Episcopalian rite of the Lord's Supper Randolph reflecting on 1 Corinthians 11:27 ("Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink [this] cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.") he never participated in the rite despite his desire to do so. He cited these feelings in his letter to Brockenbrough, saying "Mine had been no sudden change of opinion. I can refer to a record, showing, on my part, a desire of more than nine years’ standing, to partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; although, for two-and-twenty years preceding, my feet had never crossed the threshold of the house of prayer. This desire I was restrained from indulging, by the fear of eating and drinking unrighteously. And although that fear hath been cast out by perfect love, I have never yet gone to the altar, neither have I been present at the performance of divine service, unless indeed I may so call my reading the liturgy of our church, and some chapters of the Bible to my poor Negroes on Sundays. Such passages as I think require it, and which I feel competent to explain, I comment upon—enforcing as far as possible, and dwelling upon, those texts especially that enjoin the indispensable accompaniment of a good lfe as the touchstone of the true faith. The Sermon from the Mount, and the Evangelists generally; the Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians, chap. vi.; the General Epistle of James, and the First Epistle of John; these are my chief texts."

Disgust with other Christians

"The consummation of my "conversion"—I use the word in its strictest sense—is owing to a variety of causes, but chiefly to the conviction, unwillingly forced upon me, that the very few friends which an unprosperous life (the fruit of an ungovernable temper) had left me were daily losing their hold upon me, in a firmer grasp of ambition, avarice, or sensuality. …When I was last in your town I was inexpressibly shocked…to hear, on the threshold of [a Community Bank]…words spoken, by a man second to none in this nation in learning or abilities; one, too, whom I had, not long before, seen at the table of our Lord and Saviour: ‘O do not want the Holy Ghost…or any other spirit in me. If these doctrines are true (St. Paul’s), there was no need for Wesley and Whitefield to have separated from the church.” The man called for a return of “the old church” which further disgusted Randolph as he saw it as a time when “this diocese was under Bishop "Terrick", when wine-bibbing and buck-parsons were sent out to preach ‘a dry clatter of morality,’ and not the word of God, for [fees of] 16,000 lbs of tobacco.”

Randolph's religious reflection upon joining Congress

Randolph’s serious reflection on religion was also in his mind when he took office in Congress. He wrote Dr. Brockenbrough on May 29, 1815 from Washington D.C., “I got here today. Tomorrow we are to begin our inquisition (a contested election [between Erastus Root and John Adams (New York)]). This business does not suit me at all. My thoughts are running in a far different channel. I never feel so free from uneasiness as when I am reading the Testament, or hearing some able preacher. This great concern presses me by day and by night, almost to the engrossing of my thoughts. It is first in my mind when I awake, and the last when I go to sleep. I think it becomes daily more clear to me. All other things are as nothing when put in comparison with it.”

In a May 21, 1815 Randolph wrote Key “If I could have my way, I would retire to some retreat far from the strife of the world and pass the remnant of my days in meditation and prayer; and yet this would be a life of ignoble security.”

Events of 1818

While Randolph's religious issues had been a subject of reflection for him his entire life this all came to a head in 1818.

Illness, depression, and isolation

Suffering from ill health and depression Randolph confined himself to his home and withdrew socially even from his favorite pastime of correspondence. He broke out of this pattern by writing his friend Francis Scott Key. On Feb. 9, 1818 he bemoaned the fact that all his neighbors where focused on commerce quoting John Milton’s Paradise Lost he complained that they were “all engaged with unremitting devotion to the worship of ‘The least erected spirit That fell from heaven.’ (Milton’s reference to the spirit of greed, Mammon from Luke 16 and Matthew 6:24. He felt his “solitude and dereliction…has not been without some good effect in giving me better views than I have had of the most important of all subjects; and I would not exchange it, comfortless as it is, for the heartless intercourse of the world. I know that ‘if a man says he loves God, and hates his brother, he is a liar; [a quote from 1 John 4:20]’ but I do not hate my brethren of the human family. I fear, however, that I cannot love them as I ought.” But God, I hope and trust, will in his good time put better dispositions into my heart. There are few of them, I am persuaded, more undeserving of love than I am.”

Randolph wrote Key again on March 2, 1818 saying “Every day brings with it new evidences of my weakness and utter inability, of myself, to do any good thing, or even to conceive a single good thought. With the unhappy father in the Gospel [at Mark 9:24], I cry out, ‘Lord! I believe, help thou mine unbelief.’ When I think of the goodness , and wisdom, and power of God, I seem, in my own eyes, a devil in all but strength. I say this to you, who will not ascribe it to affected humility. Sometimes I have better views, but again I am weighed down to the very earth, or lost in a labyrinth of doubts and perplexities. The hardness of my own heart grieves and astonishes me. Then, again, I settle down in a state of coldness and indifference, which is worse than all. But the quivering of our frail flesh, often the effect of physical causes, cannot detract from the mercy of our Creator, and to him I commit myself. ‘Thy will be done!’”

Travels to Richmond

Feeling better Randolph traveled to see his nephew in Richmond and wrote Key on April 29, 1818. He discussed poetry and felt moved by one poem, telling Key “I have ‘Read Manfred,” and was overpowered by the intense misery of the writer. Unless he shall seek refuge above, where alone it is to be found, it is to be feared madness, perhaps suicide, is his portion.” He considered writing the poet a note, but felt it too presumptuous. After having it recommended by Key he subscribed to an Episcopalian periodical, telling him “I do not take, but shall order the Christian Observer. I have seen many of the numbers, and found them admirable.”

Depression deepens

Biographer Hugh A. Garland says that after returning from Richmond Randolph fell deeper into depression possibly even “delirium.” Garland says “The subject of religion had become the all-absorbing theme of his meditations. God, freedom, and immortality; sin, death, and the grave; Christ, redemption, and free grace”.

Randolph was in such a state that “the only inmate of his household” Dr. Dudley announced that he could no longer stand it and was going to leave. This caused Randolph to write a letter in August, 1818 that seemed to threaten suicide “I have considered you as a blessing sent to me by Providence, in my old age, to repay the desertion of my other friends and nearer connections. It is in your power (if you please) to repay me all the debt of gratitude that you insist upon being due to me; although I consider myself, in a pecuniary point of view, largely a gainer by our connection. But if you are unwilling to do so, I must be content to give up my last stay upon earth…Without you, I cannot live here at all, and will not. …I love you as my own son—would to God you were! …I am going from home; will you take care of my affairs until I return? I ask it as a favor. It is possible that we may not meet again; but, if I get more seriously sick at the springs than I am now, I will send for you, unless you will go with me to the White Sulfur Springs. Wherever I am, my heart will love you as long as it beats. From your boyhood I have not been lavish of reproof upon you. Recollect my past life.”

Conversion at the springs

Randolph’s spirits were lifted upon visiting the springs and Garland reports that “he seems to have attained clearness and satisfaction on the subject of religion. He said they wanted him to go to the Springs, but he had found a spring here on his hill, more efficacious—a well—a fountain of living water [referring to Revelation 7:17].” On Sept. 7, 1818 he wrote Key saying “Congratulate me, dear Frank…I am at last reconciled to my God, and have assurance of his pardon, through faith in Christ, against which the very gates of hell cannot prevail. Fear hath been driven out by perfect love. I now know that you know how I feel; and within a month, for the first time, I understand your feelings and character, and that of every real Christian. …I am not now afraid of being “righteous overmuch,” or of “Methodistical notions.”

Randolph's own account of conversion events

In several of his letters Randolph described what happened around his conversion.

Brockenbrough letter

In his letter to Brockenbrough, Randolph included a note which was originally “in reply to a question from a friend…as I was weak from long vigilance, I requested him to write down, that I might, when at leisure, copy it into my diary. From it you will gather pretty accurately the state of my mind.”

The note said “I was born and baptized in the church of England. If I attend the Convention at Charlottesville, which I rather doubt, I shall oppose myself the and always to every attempt at encroachment on the part of the church, the clergy especially, on the rights of conscience. I attribute, in a very great degree, my long estrangement from god to my abhorrence of prelatical pride and puritanical preciseness; to ecclesiastical tyranny, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant; whether Roman Catholic or Protestant; whether of Henry V or Henry VIII; of the Cameronians of Scotland, the Jacobins of France, or the Protestants of Ireland. Should I fail to attend, it will arise from a repugnance to submit the religion, or church, any more than the liberty of my country, to foreign influence. When I speak of my country, I mean the Commonwealth of Virginia. I was born in allegiance to George III; the Bishop of London (Terrick!) was my diocesan. My ancestors threw off the oppressive yoke of the mother country, but they never made me subject to New England in matters spiritual or temporal; neither do I mean to become so, voluntarily.” Randolph also called for his fellow Christians to join him in avoiding “giving offence to the world, especially in all matters indifferent. …Let us take care to drive none away from God by dressing religion in the garb of fanaticism. Let us exhibit her as she is, equally removed from superstition and lukewarmness. But we must take care, that while we avoid one extreme we fall not into the other; no matter which.”

Late August letter

On August 25, 1818 Randolph also wrote another letter about his conversion, saying that he found the “peace of God which passeth all understanding…It is a miracle, of which the person, upon whom it is wrought, alone is conscious—as he is conscious of any other feeling—e.g. whether the friendship he professes for A or B be real sentiment of his heart, or simulated to serve a turn. God, my dear friend, hath visited me in my desolation; in the hours of darkness, of sickness, and of sorrow: of that worst of all sickness, sickness of the heart, for which neither wealth nor power can find or afford a cure. …I am now for the first time in my life, supplied with a motive of action that never can mislead me—the love of God and my neighbor—because I love God. All other motives I feel, by my own experience, in my own person, as well as in that of numerous ‘friends’ (so called), to be utterly worthless. God hath at last given me courage to confess him before men."

To describe his feeling about other people before his conversion he invoked Jonathan Swift who had written "Principally I hate and detest that animal called man; although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth." Randolph wrote "Once I hated mankind—bitterly hated them—but loved (like that wretched man, Swift) ‘John or Thomas.’ Now, my regard for individuals is not lessened, but my love for the race exalted almost to a level with that of my friends—I am obliged to use the word. I pretend to no sudden conversion, or new or great lights.. I have stubbornly held out, for more than a Trojan siege, against the goodness and mercy of my creator. …[Before] I sought, but not with sufficient diligence…(for I could command service, such as we often pay to God—lip service and eye service), desolate and abandoned by all that had given me reason to think they had any respect and affection for me, I knocked with all my might. I asked for the crumbs that otherwise might be swept out to the dogs, and there was opened to me the full and abundant treasury of his grace. When this happened, I cannot tell. It has broken upon me like the dawn I see every morning, insensibly changing darkness into light. My slavish fears of punishment, which I always knew to be sinful, but would not put off, are converted into an humble hope of a seat, even if it be the lowest, in the courts of God. …Should he withdraw it, as assuredly he will, unless with his assistance I humbly endeavor by prayer and self-denial, and doing of his word as well as hearing it, to obtain its continuance, mine will only be the deeper damnation. Of this danger I am sensible, but not afraid. I mean slavishly afraid. …I now know the meaning of words that before I repeated, but did not comprehend. I am no Balfour of Burley, but I have been, as I thought, on the very verge and brink of his disease; but I prayed to God to save me, and not to suffer me to fall a prey to the arts and wiles of Satan, at the very moment I was seeking his reconcilement. …Let me entreat you again to read Milton and Cowper. They prepared me for the ‘Samson’ (as Rush would say) among the medicines for the soul.”

Letter to William Meade

A few weeks after his conversion he wrote William Meade: “I can compare it to nothing so well as the dawning sun after a dark, tempestuous night.”

Effects

New understanding

After his conversion Randolph told Brockenbrough “I now read with relish and understand St. Paul’s epistles, which not long since I could not comprehend, even with the help of Mr. Locke’s paraphrase. Taking up, a few days ago, at an ‘ordinary,’ the life of John Bunyan, which I had never before read, I find an exact coincidence in our feelings and opinions on this head, as well as others.

Randolph participates in the "Lord's Supper"

On Randolph’s change of heart Dr. John H. Rice wrote to the Rev. Archibald Alexander, saying “John Randolph attended the sacrament when his sister joined with us, and seemed to be much impressed. He invited Mr. Hoge home with him and conversed much upon religion. Mr. Hoge is fully persuaded that he is, as it is expressed here, and exercised man.”

Behavior at services

At a service in 1822 Harvey stated that at religious services Randolph’s “figure, his voice, his solemnity of manner were so striking the persons present eyed him with no small curiosity, and I caught even the Reverend Clergyman’s gaze more than once fixed upon him; but he noticed them not, so completely were his feelings enlisted in the simple service of the altar.”

Later struggles

Biographer William Cabell Bruce reports that “as time elapsed, and Randolph’s spiritual convulsion abated, leaving him fully subject to all his natural impulses and all the excitement of public life, he became involved occasionally in inconsistencies between religious profession and practice, which were by no means edifying to a straight-laced Christian. …Bishop Meade…had grave doubts as to whether Randolph could be safely held up as an example of the full efficacy of Grace.” There was often an “incompatibility between the hair-triggered temper and religious decorum”.

Sources

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