Happy Birthday, John Leland!: Remembering An Overlooked Hero Of Church-State Separation

Despite Leland’s wonderful words, he’s not so well known today. It’s a shame. Leland should not be a relic, confined to rarely read books on dusty library shelves, because his ideas are still relevant. In fact, plenty of faith leaders in this county could stand to take a page or two from his book.

Tomorrow is the birthday of an unsung hero of church-state separation: the Rev. John Leland.

Leland, born in Grafton, Mass., on May 14, 1754, became a nomadic Baptist preacher after abandoning the Congregationalism of his early years. He eventually moved to Virginia in 1775, where he quickly became a prominent religious and political figure.

Despite living in an era of fervent faith and well-established state churches, Leland was a vocal advocate for church-state separation. He believed that government meddling with matters of religion was bad for both faith and individual freedom.   

“Persecution, like a lion, tears the saints to death, but leaves Christianity pure; state establishment of religion, like a bear, hugs the saints but corrupts Chris­tianity,” Leland once said.

That statement was not simply a one-off for Leland, who consistently advocated for religious freedom resting on the principle of church-state separation. In fact, Leland played an important role in securing the Bill of Rights. When the Constitution was first submitted to the states in 1787, many in Virginia and elsewhere criticized the lack of a Bill of Rights. Leland and other Baptists were particularly upset that this draft of the Constitution included no guarantee of religious freedom.

In response, James Madison, who had worked with Leland (and Thomas Jefferson) in a successful effort to disestablish Virginia’s Anglican Church in the 1780s, told Leland and his religious allies that he would work to add a Bill of Rights if they would support ratification. The deal was accepted. Virginia ratified the Constitution, and Madison kept his promise. The First Amendment he helped craft forbids the government to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Leland was a man far ahead of his time. Indeed, he recognized that political candidates who wrap themselves in faith should be viewed suspiciously.

“Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion in choosing representatives,” observed Leland. “It is electioneering intrigue. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes. If pure religion is the criterion to [decide upon] candidates, those who make a noise about it must be rejected; for their wrangle about it proves that they are void of it. Let honesty, talents and quick dispatch characterize the men of your choice.”

Given that stance, it’s no surprise Leland was a friend and ally of Jefferson. When the Sage of Monticello was elected in 1800 to lead the young nation, Leland, who by then was back in Massachusetts, got to work on a unique gift that took a little time to put together and deliver: On New Year’s Day in 1802, Leland arrived at the White House with a 1,325-pound wheel of cheese, the product of 900 cows.

A placard on this “mammoth cheese” declared that it was, “The Greatest Cheese in America for the Greatest Man in America!” This giant cheese was a big deal. It even inspired an ode. (Fun fact: later that same day, Jefferson penned his famous letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association that contains the “wall of separation” reference.)

Leland holds a rare distinction in American life: He helped end state-established churches in three states. He assisted Jefferson and Madison in Virginia, and some years later lobbied successfully for the end of Massachusetts’ official church. During that struggle he took time out to consult with anti-establishment forces in Connecticut too. He once observed, “Never promote men who seek after a state-established religion; it is spiritual tyranny, the worst of despotism.”

Despite Leland’s wonderful words, he’s not so well known today. It’s a shame. Leland should not be a relic, confined to rarely read books on dusty library shelves, because his ideas are still relevant. In fact, plenty of faith leaders in this county could stand to take a page or two from his book.

Leland’s tombstone reads, “Here lies the body of John Leland, who labored 67 years to promote piety, and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men.” It’s a fitting tribute – but it should not be Leland’s last.

If you get a chance this weekend, hoist a toast to John Leland. You might accompany that with a little cheese.