by Joseph L. Conn
The Rev. John Leland has some advice for American voters: When you go to the polls, avoid candidates who wear their personal piety on their sleeves.
“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.”
Leland’s wise counsel could have been delivered this year. In fact, it was part of an Independence Day oration he gave July 5, 1802, in Cheshire, Mass. Leland, a minister and staunch religious liberty advocate, held forth that day on the importance of defending the Constitution.
“Be always jealous of your liberty, your rights,” he thundered. “Nip the first bud of intrusion on your Constitution…. Never promote men who seek after a state-established religion; it is spiritual tyranny the worst of despotism.”
In the pantheon of American heroes of religious liberty, Leland is often unjustly overlooked. He shouldn’t be. And since this year marks the 250th anniversary of his birth, it’s an appropriate time to recall his contribution to freedom of conscience.
Born in Grafton, Mass., on May 14, 1754, Leland left the Congregationalism of his youth to become an itinerant Baptist preacher. After visiting Virginia in 1775, he and his wife Sally moved to that state, and he soon became a prominent figure in both religious and political life.
Leland served as a member of the Baptists’ “General Committee,” a group formed in 1784 to agitate for religious liberty. He and other dissenting clergy fought alongside James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in the battle to overturn Virginia’s established Anglican Church and ensure equal rights for all.
Leland believed that government interference with matters of faith corrupted religion and violated individual freedom. According to scholar Edwin Gaustad, Leland declared that persecution, inquisition and martyrdom all derived from one single “rotten nest-egg, which is always hatching vipers: I mean the principle of intruding the laws of men into the Kingdom of Christ.”
The Baptist preacher insisted that religion is hurt more by government favor than it is by government oppression. Experience has informed us, he wrote, that “the fondness of magistrates to foster Christianity has done it more harm than persecutions ever did.”
Observed Leland, “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 took these deeply held views into the political arena and helped win civil liberties we still enjoy today.
“The Baptists played a large part in securing religious freedom and the abolition of the State-Church in Virginia,” writes historian Anson Phelps Stokes in his Church and State in the United States, “and Leland was their most effective advocate.”
Thanks to the leadership of Enlightenment thinkers such as Madison and Jefferson and the grassroots organizing of devout believers such as Leland, Virginia in 1786 adopted Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom. That monumental measure served as the guidestar for other states as they too adopted religious liberty, and it paved the way for the religious liberty guarantees in the U.S. Constitution.
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 other states criticized the absence of a Bill of Rights. Leland and other Baptists were particularly angry that this draft of the Constitution included no guarantee of religious freedom, and they joined the rising chorus of opposition.
In an Aug. 8, 1789, letter to President George Washington written by Leland, the Baptists’ General Committee said its members feared that “liberty of conscience, dearer to us than property or life, was not sufficiently secured.”
Recognizing that the states might not ratify the proposed national charter unless these concerns were met, Madison assured Leland and his co-religionists 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.”
In 1791, Leland moved back to Massachusetts, where he continued his religious and political work. In a pamphlet called The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, he railed against government interference in religion.
“Government,” he said, “has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse, or loss of property, for his religious opinions…. [I]f his doctrine is false, it will be confuted, and if it is true, (though ever so novel,) let others credit it.”
A firm Democratic-Republican in Federalist Massachusetts, Leland supported Jefferson’s candidacy for president in 1800. After his old ally was elected, the Baptist minister came up with a unique way to celebrate the occasion. On New Year’s Day, 1802, Leland showed up at the White House with a 1,325-pound wheel of cheese, the product of 900 cows. A placard that accompanied the tribute on its way down from Cheshire proclaimed it, “The Greatest Cheese in America for the Greatest Man in America!”
Jefferson was delighted with the Baptists’ gift, and fragments of the cheese were reportedly still being served at his table in 1804 (although one guest declared them “very far from good.”)
The U.S. Constitution and the presidential policies of Jefferson and Madison protected religious freedom at the national level, but at that time, states remained free to impose restrictions. Leland continued to lobby for full religious freedom everywhere, attacking religious establishments in his own state as well as neighboring Connecticut.
In 1820 in his Short Essays on Government, Leland demanded church-state separation and equal rights for all.
“Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another,” he wrote. “The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”
Leland’s views finally prevailed. In 1831, the Massachusetts legislature approved the separation of church and state, and two years later it was overwhelmingly ratified by popular vote.
Leland died on Jan. 14, 1841. The epitaph on his tombstone, which he composed, reflects the passions of his life: “Here lies the body of John Leland, who labored 67 years to promote piety, and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men.”
In Revolution Within The Revolution, church historian William R. Estep says, “The order of these phrases is significant, indicating that Leland considered himself first and foremost a minister of the gospel and only secondarily a political activist.”
Whatever his priorities, Leland was a relentless friend of liberty and a church-state separation purist. He opposed Sunday laws, all special privileges for the clergy and any government aid to religion. He said Baptists did not want the “mischievous dagger” of government help. In 1788, he introduced a resolution at the Baptists’ General Committee meeting in Virginia denouncing slavery as “a violent deprivation of the rights of nature and inconsistent with a republican government” and urging the use of “every legal measure to extirpate this horrid evil from the land.”
Thus it is a shame that Leland’s inspirational life and noble work are nearly unknown to the general public today. The Virginia Baptist Historical Society (which provided assistance with this article) still celebrates Leland, but few people outside progressive Baptist circles know about him. At a time when television preachers and misguided politicians rail against church-state separation and individual freedom, a bracing sermon from Leland is very much in order.