The Reverend John Leland was not a man to mince words when it comes to religion and politics. Candidates who advertise their personal faith, he insisted, should be avoided by the voters.
"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 denominate candidates," he continued, "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."
As America comes out of another round of elections, in which the line between faith and electioneering is being aggressively blurred, Leland's words seem extraordinarily current. In fact, however, his comments come from an Independence Day oration he gave in Cheshire, Massachusetts, more than two centuries ago.
On July 5, 1802, Leland, a Baptist preacher and staunch religious liberty advocate, held forth on the importance of choosing public officials who will defend the Constitution and its separation of church and state. "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."
"It is turnpiking the way to heaven by human law in order to establish ministerial gates to collect toll," he continued. "It converts religion into a principle of state policy, and the gospel into merchandise. Heaven forbids the bans of marriage between churches and state; their embraces, therefore, must be unlawful."
Today, when some prominent Baptist preachers denounce such church-state separation and urge evangelicals to "vote Christian," Leland's words may sound strange. But Baptists in Revolutionary-era America were in no position to try to take over the government. Persecuted minorities in many states, they fought against official preference in matters of religion.
Leland, like many of his coreligionists, believed government interference in matters of faith violated the will of God and individual freedom of conscience. 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." Leland is little known to most Americans today. But he and other evangelical Christians played a critical role in establishing religious liberty and its constitutional corollary, church-state separation.
Born in Grafton, Massachusetts, on May 14, 1754, Leland said he spent his teenage years in "frolicking and foolish wickedness." But at 18 he converted to Christianity and became 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 state-established Anglican (Episcopal) Church and ensure equal rights for all.
The Baptist preacher insisted that religion is hurt more by government favor than 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. "
Thanks to the leadership of Enlightenment thinkers such as Madison and Jefferson and the grassroots organizing of devout Christian believers such as Leland, the Virginia legislature in 1786 adopted Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom. That groundbreaking law served as a model for other states as they moved toward religious liberty guarantees, and it paved the way for the church-state separation safeguards in the U.S. Constitution.
According to historian Anson Phelps Stokes, "The Baptists played a large part in securing religious freedom and the abolition of the State-Church in Virginia, and Leland was their most effective advocate."
Leland also 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 were alarmed because it lacked a Bill of Rights. Leland and other Baptists were particularly worried that the Constitution included no guarantee of religious freedom, and they joined the rising chorus of opposition.
In an August 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 Constitution unless these concerns were met, Madison assured Leland and the other Baptists 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 his home state of Massachusetts, where he continued his religious and political work. In a pamphlet titled "The Rights of Conscience Inalienable," he advocated a free market of religious ideas.
"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. . . . f his doctrine is false, it will be confuted, and if it is true, (though ever so novel,) let others credit it."
Leland added, "Truth disdains the aid of law for its defense—it will stand upon its own merit. It is error, and error alone, that needs human support; and whenever men fly to the law or sword to protect their system of religion, and force it upon others, it is evident that they have something in their system that will not bear the light, and stand upon the basis of truth."
Leland did not hesitate to bring his principles into politics on behalf of religious freedom. He supported Jefferson's candidacy for president in 1800, and after his longtime ally was elected, the Baptist minister came up with a unique way to celebrate.
On New Year's Day, 1802, Leland showed up at the White House with a 1,325-pound wheel of cheese. A placard that accompanied the tribute on its way to Washington proclaimed it: "The Greatest Cheese in America for the Greatest Man in America!"
Jefferson, who was often brutally abused by establishment-minded clergy, was deeply gratified by Leland's dramatic gesture, and fragments of the cheese were reportedly still being served to Jefferson's guests two years later (although one diner found them "very far from good").
The U.S. Constitution and the broad-minded policies of Jefferson and Madison protected religious freedom at the national level, but in Leland's time (before the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment), states remained free to promote favored faiths and oppress religious minorities. Leland never accepted that discriminatory policy as just, and he relentlessly fought government-backed religious establishments in his own state as well as neighboring Connecticut.
In 1820, in his Short Essays on Government
, Leland argued for religious liberty on the broadest possible basis. "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 triumphed. In 1831 the Massachusetts legislature separated church and state, and two years later the action was overwhelmingly ratified by popular vote.
In 1788 Leland 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."
Leland died on January 14, 1841. His tombstone 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."
Historians find the epitaph, which Leland himself composed, to be very revelatory. In Revolution Within the Revolution , 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."
Leland certainly did not let his civic work get in the way of his Christian evangelism. According to The Baptist Encyclopedia , his 15 years of preaching in Virginia involved more than 3,000 sermons, 700 baptisms, and the creation of two churches. By 1820 he estimated that he had given nearly 8,000 sermons over the course of his preaching career and had baptized 1,278.
Leland even gave sermons along the way as he hauled his mammoth cheese to Jefferson's White House. "Notwithstanding my trust, I preached all the way there and on my return," he recalled, "had large congregations; led in part by curiosity to hear the Mammoth Priest, as I was called."
Basing his views on both his theology and his political philosophy, Leland was a church-state separation purist who never veered from support of freedom. He opposed Sunday laws, all special privileges for the clergy, state-paid chaplains, and any government aid to religion. He said Baptists did not want the "mischievous dagger" of government help.
Leland gave his last sermon on January 3, 1841, just six days before his death at age 88. "Next to the salvation of the soul," he once observed, "the civil and religious rights of men have summoned my attention, more than the acquisition of wealth or seats of honor."