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John Leland: the consistent separationist.

James Byrd of Vanderbilt University noted that John Leland's life spanned an age of massive changes that fundamentally altered American culture. (1) Born in May 1754 in Grafton, Massachusetts and dying in Cheshire, Massachusetts in January 1841, John Leland began life as a colonial and ended it as a respected citizen of the state of Massachusetts and of the United States of America. From the time he experienced a call from God to be a minister until his death, Leland was a patriot and a Christian. He is best known to religious and secular historians of early American history as a staunch supporter of religious liberty and separation of church and state.

This paper will analyze some of his arguments for religious liberty and the separation of church and state, all of which are grounded in his understanding of the Gospel and how the Christian church should function. Leland's political theory derived from his theological convictions, and he held these two important positions consistently throughout his life. From his earliest writings as a young minister to his last diary entry a few days before his death, John Leland presented religious liberty as an inalienable right and separation of church and state as the political expression of that right. (2)

In his young years, Leland was raised in a home where religion was not emphasized. As a youth, he led a wild life until, at the age of eighteen, he heard a voice saying, "You are not about the work you have got to do." He explored various expressions of Christianity in his area of Massachusetts, and eventually settled on becoming a Baptist due to his agreement with the Baptist understanding of baptism being for adult believers only. In 1774 he preached his first sermon at a gathering of dissenters, and Rev. Noah Alden of the Bellingham Baptist Church baptized Leland in June of that year. (3) Leland did not join the church immediately, but after a few months he presented himself for membership.

The Bellingham Church ordained Leland in 1775 and supported an eight-month preaching trip he made to Virginia. Upon his return to Massachusetts in 1776, he married Sally Divine, and together they journeyed to Culpeper County, Virginia, arriving in March 1777, where Leland was a part-time preacher at the Mt. Poney Baptist Church. Leland soon left Culpeper and moved to Orange County where he helped establish two churches. Over the next fourteen years, the Leland family grew to include eight children, and his preaching took him far afield. (4) He held positions of responsibility among Virginia Baptists as a member of the General Committee of Correspondence, an associational representative, and one of the preachers who helped unite Baptist factions into the United Baptists of Virginia. On the political front he influenced Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason as they struggled with establishing religious liberty in Virginia and the ratification of the U. S. Constitution.

John Leland moved his family back to New England in 1791, and for the remainder of his life lived on the family farm in Cheshire, Massachusetts. During the forty-nine years he lived in Massachusetts, Leland traveled thousands of miles, preached thousands of sermons, was elected to the state legislature, wrote essays decrying the establishment of religion in Massachusetts, and farmed. (5) In his memoir, The Writings of the Late John Leland, Including Some Events in His Life, Written by Himself, the preacher gave statistics for his work up to 1825. He noted that he traveled enough to go around the planet three times; he preached almost 8,000 sermons and baptized 1,278 people; and he knew 962 Baptist ministers, 231 of whom visited him at his home? During his last sixteen years he added to his statistics scores of miles, sermons, and folks baptized.

Sally Divine died in 1837. Leland continued to work as, what he called, a "Bible evangelist" up to his death. After he preached his final sermon the first Sunday of 1841, he contracted pneumonia. While he lay ill, preachers from several denominations and many cities visited Leland. He rallied to speak with his visitors, often giving them tobacco to smoke from his own pouch. But the eighty-six-year-old hadn't the strength to recover, and he died at the end of the month. (7) Politicians, religious leaders, and ordinary folks North and South mourned Leland's death. In discussing his funeral arrangements with his children, Leland wrote down what he wanted inscribed on his tombstone:
 Here lies the body of the Rev. JOHN LELAND, of Cheshire, who
 labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and
 religious rights of all men. (8)

While not formally educated, Leland read extensively in the areas of theology, church history and political thought. His writings include references to thinkers who influenced him, including John Milton, Roger Williams, Richard Fuller, John Locke, John Gill, and John Wesley. (9) Leland filtered everything he read through his understanding of the Bible. The Bible was central to his faith, and he wrote several treatises on its role in the life of a Christian. (10) Almost everything he wrote contained multiple references to Scripture and arguments for theological positions drawn solely from the Bible. Scripture was authoritative for Leland, and he saw the Bible as the supreme guide for Christians. (11)

Leland began preaching within a few months of entering the ministry. He never had great confidence in his preaching, but he gained a reputation for depth, wit, and a dynamic presentation. During his many preaching tours, there is no record of any church refusing Leland's offer to preach. Leland once wrote: "I have preached in four hundred and thirty-six meeting houses, thirty-seven courthouses, several capitols, many academies and schoolhouses; barns, tobacco-houses and dwellinghouses: and many hundreds of times on stages in the open air." (12) His preaching focused on practical issues, not on theological creeds or doctrines. Using plain speech, Leland emphasized the saving grace of God, the need for salvation, and the "right" of persons to accept or reject God's offer. (13)

His commitment to the proclamation of the Gospel based on his reading of Scripture made Leland a formidable presence in both Virginia and Massachusetts. His passion for the Gospel fed his commitment to religious liberty and separation of church and state because he believed women and men had to be free to choose Christ, that religion was "a matter between individuals and their God--a right inalienable." (14) The state should not intervene, because it did not have the authority to come between God and individuals.


Although in Virginia for only fourteen years, Leland left a strong legacy for both the Baptists and the general population. He founded two churches that had a combined membership of 500 when he left in 1791, and he did preaching tours throughout Virginia and as far south as South Carolina. (15) Most of his essays on religious liberty and separation of church and state came from his time in Massachusetts, but we know of specific incidents in Virginia when Leland's perspective influenced the defeat of a General Assessment Act, the passage of the Statute for Religious Liberty, and the ratification of the U. S. Constitution.

By 1779, Virginians had freedom from taxation for religious purposes and also the right to worship freely. However, dissenting ministers legally could not perform weddings, and there were questions about who paid the taxes on land previously owned by the Anglican Church. (16) In 1784 Governor Patrick Henry submitted a bill to the legislature, titled "Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion," that called for a tax to be assessed on all taxpayers for the support of religious teachers. Virginia Baptists organized the General Committee for Baptist Associations to fight the adoption of Henry's bill and to work for removal of all traces of establishment in Virginia law. Leland was a member of this committee. Working with James Madison and other legislators, the General Committee successfully stopped Henry's bill and eventually ended all public financial support for religion. (17)

Thomas Jefferson, whom Leland admired greatly, first introduced his "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom" to the Virginia legislature in 1779. Defeated at that time, Jefferson continued to agitate for religious liberty through the U. S. Constitutional ratification debates and his Virginia bill was reintroduced in 1785. (18) The General Committee, especially Leland, threw their support behind Jefferson's bill and it passed, becoming law in January 1786. "Leland's influence was a great factor in winning the support of Jefferson's bill for complete separation of church and state...." (19) Leland felt this was a personal victory for himself and for Mr. Jefferson. An admirer of the Virginian's political theories since the publishing of the Declaration of Independence, Leland wrote that Jefferson was the "patriarch of liberty, the man of the people, the defender of the rights of man and the rights of conscience, and the greatest statesman that the world had ever produced." (20) For the rest of his life, Leland took great pride in his role in the passage of the Statute and he viewed Virginia as the example other states should follow in establishing religious liberty.

Politically, John Leland is best known for influencing James Madison to introduce the Bill of Rights immediately after the ratification of the U. S. Constitution. The story of why Madison submitted the First Amendment ensuring the free exercise of religion and preventing the government from establishing a religion, is shrouded in the mists of legend. What scholars do know is that John Leland lived in Orange County, not far from Ashland, Madison's home, and Monticello, Jefferson's home. James Madison expected to be elected to the Ratification Convention from Orange County, and he was a staunch supporter of the Constitution he helped write. In January and February of 1788, while serving in the U. S. Congress in New York, Madison received letters urging him to return to Virginia because adoption of the Constitution was threatened. Captain John Spencer wrote that Madison needed to visit Leland's home and talk with him. Spencer explained that the Baptists of Orange County did not believe the proposed Constitution provided sufficient protection of religious liberty. (21) Madison and Leland discussed the issue, and Madison promised to introduce the Bill of Rights as soon as the Constitution was ratified. At that point, Leland threw his support to Madison, and Madison kept his word. The Bill of Rights was passed in 1791. (22) Leland considered the Constitution, with the Bill of Rights, to be one of the greatest documents ever written. (23)


Returning to Massachusetts in 1791, Leland continued his commitment to religious liberty and separation of church and state by attacking legislation he believed abridged freedom of conscience or tended to establish one religion over another. The Massachusetts Constitution did not guarantee religious liberty in the same terms that the national document did. Leland believed certain taxes paid by the people supported the Standing Order of the Congregational Church. Particularly, Leland worked against a law that assessed taxes for the support of religious teachers in a community. (24) He also tackled Sabbath laws that restricted travel and work, saying that the government did not have the authority to make or unmake holy days, and that laws differed markedly from state to state, making the laws ridiculous.

Sermons and broadsides were Leland's favorite means of attack. In 1802 he preached a sermon titled "A Blow at the Root" that he then published. In this sermon he blasted the taxation policy of Massachusetts. He accused the state of taxing people to pay ministers, of taxing communities to build churches, and of mixing ministerial and town taxes so that citizens would be ignorant "of the assessment." (25) Elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1811, John Leland spoke often on religious freedom and against restrictive Sabbath laws. Although he served only one term, Leland never stopped agitating for complete religious liberty and disestablishment in Massachusetts. (26)

Separation of Church and State

John Leland cared deeply about political issues, especially as they related to religion. His concern stemmed from his biblical and theological understanding of the Christ-event and what it meant to be a Christian. In three of his more famous essays--"The Rights of Conscience," "A Blow at the Root," and "The Government of Christ as Christocracy"--Leland explained his rationale for being a separationist, (27) a rationale ungirded by his commitment to soul liberty, freedom of conscience, and religious liberty. (28) Soul liberty is the theological principle from which Leland worked, and he supported separation of church and state as the political expression of that principle. (29)

In the 1791 publication "The Rights of Conscience," Leland asserted that "every man must give an account of himself to God" and that "religion is a matter between God and individuals." (30) With each person responsible before the Lord for his or her own actions and decisions, how could government intervene, to impose one religious perspective on all people? He explained how the principles of democracy best serve the kingdom of God and that the U. S. Constitution protected those principles. Leland strongly believed that the American government was founded on a compact, the Constitution, and that compact could be altered only by the will of the people, not by legislators. (31) He wrote that Constantine struck the church a serious blow when he meshed it with the state, and that Constantine "did the Christian Church more harm than all the persecuting emperors ever did." (32) For Leland, employing civil force to coerce religious belief or conformity never worked. As he put it, "[True] religion can, and will prevail best, where it is left entirely to Christ." Alliance with the state only corrupts true faith. (33)

In a speech honoring a public fast day, titled "A Blow at the Root," Leland presented a familiar refrain. Liberty of conscience is "the right that each individual has, of worshiping his God according to the dictates of his conscience, without being prohibited, directed or controlled therein by human law, either in time, place, or manner. Religion is in all times and places, a matter between God and individuals...." (34) In this plea to end taxation for ministerial support and government favoritism of the Sabbath laws, Leland outlined cogent reasons not to legislate religion. Even though written more than two centuries ago, his reasons for the separation of church and state remain timely. He taught that legislating religion ...'

* makes the Constitution more like a catechism than a rule of political life;

* makes the opinions of fallible humans the test of orthodoxy for all;

* reduces religion to a state policy and makes preachers ministers of the state;

* tempts people to embrace the favored religion without searching after truth conscientiously;

* stops critical analysis of the errors of a national religion;

* makes conformists arrogant and represses dissenters;

* creates and upholds a power Jesus never created;

* makes people give up their own judgments because they think it is a crime to think and speak for themselves;

* is the parent of all persecution;

* destroys the peaceable, harmless and amiable qualities in people that religion fosters;

* supports deism and infidelity because those that support the established religion don't live by its rules;

* that religious tests for office create civil workers who are villains. (Good people will not take an oath for that with which they disagree, but villains will.) (35)

Leland understood that when politics and religion mix, no good can come to religion or to the body politic.

Leland valued patriotism and believed Christians should be good citizens. Because of his belief in soul liberty, he did not think the government could coerce good citizenship by forcing a particular religious expression on people. In "The Government of Christ is a Christocracy," written in 1804, Leland asserted that, at the same time, one can be a good citizen and an enemy of God. (36) He might dislike a person's lifestyle, he might deplore the lack of religious commitment expressed by someone, but he still valued the ability of an individual to be a good citizen. Citizenship was about civil order and peace, not about a person's religious convictions or lifestyle choices. Even when Leland did not like the religious choices someone made, he defended their right to make them. Turks, Jews, Pagans--all were responsible only to God for their religious beliefs, and all must be free to make uncoerced choices. Leland once declared, "A man has an indefensible right to believe what is not true, and perform worship that is hypocritical or delusive." (37) For Leland, by God's grace, Americans had the freedom to be religious idiots and still be good citizens.

Leland acknowledged the need for government but considered it an evil necessary to keep greater evils from overcoming society. He wrote, "Civil government is certainly a curse to mankind; but it is a necessary curse, in this fallen state, to prevent greater evils." (38) Laws were established to control the disobedient citizens, and the legitimate powers of government kept people from working ill on their neighbors, and in no way affected "the rights of conscience." (39) For Leland, the church, true religion, is not governed by human laws but by the laws of Christ; thus, the state cannot control it, (40) and should be kept from attempting to do so. Yet a Christian has the responsibility to be a good citizen, to live a godly life, to fight corruption, and to guard against intrusions by the state into the religious realm.

At the age of seventy-six, John Leland wrote that "as long as I can use my tongue or my pen, I will never lie dormant when religious liberty is threatened." (41) Leland continued preaching, writing, and giving speeches in favor of soul liberty and separation of church and state until he died. His last diary entry, written just days before his death, contained comments on the inauguration of William Henry Harrison as President of the United States. Leland thought Harrison won the office by trickery, but he wrote that he would pray for Harrison and allow the historians to sort out the truth or falsehood of the presidential campaign. (42) He was a good citizen to the end.

John Leland loved America. He once wrote, "Nothing is more plain than that the Almighty set up the government of the United States in answer to the prayers of all the saints, down from the first proclamation of the gospel." (43) He meant that. For Leland, democracy was the best form of government because power came from the people and each citizen was responsible to participate in the process. Yet he clearly distinguished between his love for America and his commitment to separationism and religious liberty. Faithful Christian living meant responsible citizenship, but good citizenship was not dependent upon a citizen's religion, or lack thereof. Matters of religion rested between God and individuals, not between the government and individuals, and Leland fought to keep that truth before the public and the lawmakers.

In 1835 he wrote: "Sixty-five years ago I was old enough to observe the face of things, and see what was going on; had I been in a dead sleep the sixty-five years, and were not to awake, such a change has taken place in the face of the earth, in architecture, in all the arts, in costume and regimen, and in the forms of religion, that I should doubt whether I had awakened in the same world." (44)

John Leland's observations were acute. America underwent massive alterations during his lifetime, and he was responsible for some of those changes. Often called an "eccentric," always thought of as an irritant by those he opposed, beloved by those to whom he ministered, John Leland proved himself to be a good citizen and a good Christian. His commitment to the Baptist ideal of soul liberty and its concomitant political expression in the separation of church and state helped the fledgling republic chart and stay on a course that made the United States the first nation in world history to recognize and value religious liberty as an inalienable right. Was he the only person demanding religious liberty and separation of church and state? Not in the least; tens of thousands of Baptists, in addition to many non-Baptists, signed petitions for religious liberty and church-state separation in the 1770s and 1780s. But for more than sixty-five years, during a crucial and formative period of American history, John Leland kept a spotlight on soul liberty and separation of church and state, and he was a consistent advocate for principles now deeply embedded in the American psyche. He lived up to his epitaph's claims:
 Here lies the body of the Rev. JOHN LELAND, of Cheshire, who
 labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and
 religious rights of all men. (45)

Editor's Note: In the following essay, well-known Baptist historian Rosalie Beck provides a reader-friendly overview of the life and ministry of John Leland, legendary American Baptist evangelist and leading advocate of church-state separation. Leland's work as a Baptist encompassed the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and included both North and South. Today, Leland is best known for his writings and activity on behalf of freedom of conscience, religious liberty for all, and church-state separation. Collectively, his views on these matters were broadly representative of Baptists of his era and prior. Beck, accordingly, focuses on the relationship between Leland's theological and political positions.

(1) James Byrd, Baptist Classics Seminar, September 2009, Atlanta, Georgia.

(2) Brent Walker, Baptist Classics Seminar, September 2009, Atlanta, Georgia.

(3) L. F. Greene, The Writings of Elder John Leland Including Some Events in His Life, Written by Himself with Additional Sketches, &c. (New York: G. W. Wood, 1845), "Events in the Life of John Leland," 10-14. Greene is the main source for Leland's writings and hereafter will be referenced as "Greene."

(4) Greene, "Events in the Life," 19. Leland wrote that in 1778 he traveled from Virginia to the Pee Dee River in South Carolina, preaching all the way.

(5) C. A. Browne, "Elder John Leland and the Mammoth Cheshire Cheese," Agricultural History 4 (October 1944): 146.

(6) Greene, "Events in the Life," 35.

(7) Greene, "Further Sketches of the Life of John Leland," 41, 46, 49.

(8) Browne, "Elder John Leland," 152-153.

(9) Glenn Jonas, Baptist Classics Seminar, September 2009, Atlanta, Georgia.

(10) Greene, "Events in the Life," 14.

(11) Greene, "Circular Letter of the Shaftsbury Association, 1792," 197.

(12) Greene, "Events in the Life," 35.

(13) Browne' "Elder John Leland," 152.

(14) Greene, "Speech Delivered in the House of Representatives of Massachusetts on the Subject of Religious Freedom [1811]," 353.

(15) Greene, "Events in the Life," 19, 32.

(16) Charles E Irons, "The Spiritual Fruits of Revolution: Disestablishment and the Rise of the Virginia Baptists," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 109 (2001):170.

(17) Emerson Proctor, "John Leland: A Biographical Sketch,", accessed 6 September 2009. Madison's famous "Memorial and Remonstrance," in which he lines out his position on church and state, was the result of this political tussle.

(18) Jefferson represented the United States in France from 1784-1789 with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. His interest in the Statute echoed across the Atlantic Ocean. "Thomas Jefferson,", accessed 27 October 2010.

(19) Browne, "Elder John Leland," 145.

(20) Ibid., 146.

(21) Proctor, "John Leland." Leland wrote a letter to George Washington on behalf of the General Committee in which he affirmed the only reason Baptists worked to ratify the Constitution in Virginia was because they trusted Washington to keep their religious freedom intact (Greene, "Further Sketches," 53).

(22) Greene, "Letter to G. N. Briggs," 676. In this 1837 letter, Leland noted that he and Madison had a meeting about the Constitution in 1788.

(23) Leland once said, "Among its beautiful features-the right of free suffrage to correct abuses, the prohibition of religious tests to prevent all hierarchy, and the means of amendment which it contains within itself to remove defects as fast as they are discovered, appear the most prominent" (Browne, "Elder John Leland," 147),

(24) Browne, "Elder John Leland," 146.

(25) Ibid.

(26) Ibid., 152.

(27) William Brackney, "Leland, John (1754-1841)," in Historical Dictionary of the Baptists (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1999), 255.

(28) Loyd Allen, Baptist Classics Seminar, September 2009, Atlanta, Georgia.

(29) Brent Walker, Baptist Classics Seminar, September 2009, Atlanta, Georgia.

(30) Greene, "The Rights of Conscience, &c.," 181. Leland wrote this essay to challenge restrictive laws in Connecticut, even though he did not live there.

(31) Ibid., 180.

(32) Ibid., 181-183.

(33) Ibid., 192.

(34) Greene, "A Blow at the Root, &c.," 239 249.

(35) Ibid., 251-253.

(36) Greene, "The Government of Christ a Christocracy," 246.

(37) Greene, "Short Sayings," 580.

(38) Greene, "The Virginia Chronicles," 103.

(39) Ibid., 118.

(40) Greene, "Corresponding Letter of the Shaftsbury Association, 1796," 231.

(41) Greene, "Extracts from a Letter to Hon. R. M. Johnson [1830]," 567.

(42) Greene, "Posthumous and Miscellaneous," 741.

(43) Greene, "Miscellaneous Essays: Extracts from Number Two," 410.

(44) Greene, "Events from the Life," 40.

(45) Browne, "Eider John Leland," 152-153.

Rosalie Beck is an associate professor in the religion department of Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
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Author:Beck, Rosalie
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1U5VA
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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