The Preacher and the President

Eric C. Smith March/April 2023

At America’s founding, an eccentric pastor, a radical vision for religious liberty, and an extraordinary legacy

On New Year’s Day, 1802, Thomas Jefferson received one of the most legendary presidential gifts in American history: a gigantic wheel of cheese, 13 feet in circumference and weighing 1,235 pounds. A paper sign draped over its red crust declared it to be “THE GREATEST CHEESE IN AMERICA FOR THE GREATEST MAN IN AMERICA.” The cheese had traveled all the way from Cheshire, Massachusetts, a small community of dairy-farming, freedom­-loving Baptists, exultant over Jefferson’s recent election. The Cheshire Baptists claimed their “Mammoth Cheese” to be a mere “pepper-corn of the esteem which we bear to our chief magistrate.” They had entrusted their tribute’s safe conduct to their leader, and perhaps the nation’s most ardent Jeffersonian, Elder John Leland.

Like the Mammoth Cheese, John Leland looms larger than life on the landscape of early America. Born in 1754 in Grafton, Massachusetts, he emerged as part of a new breed of popular American preachers in the late eighteenth century. The revivals of the First Great Awakening had introduced a new spirit of religious individualism in the American colonies, and Leland carried these impulses to unprecedented new lengths. He resisted formal training and church ordination, resting his ministry on a direct, supernatural call to preach. He dismissed also the historic confessions and traditions of the church, undertaking a private study of the New Testament that would lead him into the burgeoning Separate Baptist movement. Once among the Baptists, Leland eschewed the restraints of a settled pastorate for the freewheeling life of an itinerant revivalist. For more than 65 years he plied his trade with remarkable industry, preaching more than 8,000 sermons, baptizing more than 1,500 converts, and traveling a total distance that would “girdle the globe four times.”

Leland’s style resonated powerfully with ordinary Americans. They preferred his homespun farmer’s clothes to the traditional cleric’s gown and identified with his sunburnt neck and calloused hands. They delighted in his plain speech, humorous stories, and sarcastic gibes at society’s elites, and they found his direct, passionate message about the new birth to be a refreshing change from their customary pulpit fare. The guardians of the old religious order found Leland insufferably vulgar, but Virginia Baptist Robert Semple considered him “the most popular [preacher] of any that ever resided in this state,” and in rural New England, Leland enjoyed a “love amounting almost to idolatry.” The religious scene in early America is loaded with colorful characters, but Leland stands out in any crowd.

Apostle of Liberty

In the broader story of America, Leland is perhaps most significant for his tenacious defense of religious liberty. He spent his life proclaiming, along with the gospel of Jesus, “the inalienable right that each individual has, of worshipping 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.” Leland forged his fierce convictions from the wrong side of two colonial religious establishments.

Growing up in Grafton, Massachusetts, Leland felt the heavy hand of the Congregation­alist Church at a young age. He tore away from his own infant baptism ceremony at the age of 3; his nurse had to drag him back to the font with a bloody nose. His instinctive revulsion at religious coercion intensified when he joined the Separate Baptists around age 20. New Englanders still looked upon Baptists as backward enthusiasts and social outsiders in the 1770s. Along with the social marginalization, the Baptists chafed at supporting Congregation­alist ministers and meetinghouses with their tax dollars, and at the indignity of applying for government permission to attend their own churches. Many Baptists of the era suffered fines and the dispossession of their property for failing to comply with the system. When Leland moved to Virginia in 1776, he encountered a more extreme religious oppression. For the previous decade, angry mobs had disrupted Baptist meetings and subjected their followers to beatings and near drownings; authorities regularly threw Virginia’s Baptist ministers into prison. Leland resolved to spend his life fighting these injustices.

Two of Leland’s Virginia neighbors provided him with the necessary resources. Neither James Madison nor Thomas Jefferson identified with evangelical faith. But both deplored religious oppression as well as the concept of “religious toleration,” which implied that the freedom to worship was a privilege granted by the state, rather than an inalienable human right. Madison and Jefferson won the hearts of Virginia’s religious dissenters by insisting that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” Their Religious Freedom Bill of 1779, which dis­established the Anglican church in Virginia, inspired even greater celebration.

Leland would carry these principles back to his native New England in 1791, but not before a historic meeting with Madison.

In the spring of 1788 Madison found himself desperately seeking election as a delegate to Virginia’s ratifying convention for his new federal Constitution. Madison had assumed an easy victory, counting on the support of the Baptists he had served so diligently for the previous decade. Yet Madison’s proposed Constitution had made no provisions for religious freedom, and Leland and the Baptists refused to support it. They planned to support Madison’s Anti-Federalist opponent for the convention, blocking ratification in Virginia. On the advice of friends, Madison hurried to find Leland, just days before the election. In a private meeting, Madison reportedly pledged to push through a Bill of Rights that would include a religious freedom amendment. On the strength of that promise, Leland and the Baptists swung their support to Madison, and the rest is history. When Madison left for Congress in 1789, Leland assured him that he would be watching carefully from Virginia. “One thing I shall expect,” the preacher wrote to the future president, “that if religious Liberty is anywise threatened, that I shall receive the earliest Intelligence.”

When Leland returned to New England in 1791, he immediately threw himself into the Baptist struggle for full religious equality in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He wrote letters and newspaper editorials, he published tracts and made speeches, and he even served a term in the Massachusetts House of Represent­atives, in 1811. The title of a 1791 publication indicates the vigor with which he entered the fight: The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, and Therefore Religious Opinions not Cognizable by Law; or, The High-Flying Church-Man, Stripped of His Legal Robe, Appears a Yahoo (1791). “Religion is a matter between God and individuals, the religious opinions of men not being the object of civil government, nor . . . under its control,” Leland thundered. “Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has with the principles of mathematics.” After 15 years in Virginia, Leland now spoke fluently the language of liberty.

More Than Toleration

It is not difficult to hear the echoes of Jefferson and Madison in Leland’s writings. He observed, for instance, that government’s “toleration” of religious diversity “sounds humane and benevolent, but has a deadly root.” After all, he reasoned, “If government has power to grant it as a favor, it has equal power to withhold it. In such cases, the citizens enjoy their liberty by a tenure no better than the good will of those in power.” Yet Leland also believed religious freedom to be rooted as deeply in biblical principles as in those of the Enlightenment. These included the individual’s responsibility before God at judgment, the theological distinction between the church and the state under the new covenant, the necessity of a personal, supernatural conversion to be made right with God, and the power of the gospel to change hearts apart from political coercion. “If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment,” he declared, “let men be controlled by it in religious matters, otherwise, let men be free.”

With unusual consistency of thought, Leland demanded that religious freedom must be applied to all, including Deists, Catholics, Muslims, and even atheists. “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,” he contended. “Instead of discouraging him with proscriptions, fines, confiscations or death, let him be encouraged, as a free man, to bring forth his arguments and maintain his points with all boldness; then if his doctrine is false it will be confuted, and if it is true (though ever so novel), let others credit it. When every man has this liberty, what can he wish for more?”

As an evangelist, Leland wished to persuade all men to follow Christ, but enlisting the government’s assistance to make Christians belittled the power of the gospel, violated the sacred rights of conscience, and corrupted true faith into a worthless, nominal Christianity. These fundamental convictions drove Leland to tirelessly advocate for religious dis­establish­ment in the early nineteenth century. He lived to celebrate this achievement in Connecticut, in 1818, and in Massachusetts, in 1833.

Unique Thank Offering

Leland’s passion for individual freedom moved him to praise “America’s God” for “raising up a Jefferson” in the presidential election of 1800. He realized that many found such political enthusiasm unbecoming in a minister, but he simply could not contain himself. “Pardon me, my hearers, if I am over-warm. I lived in Virginia fourteen years. The beneficent influence of my hero was too generally felt to leave me stoic. What may we not expect, under the auspices of heaven, while Jefferson presides, with Madison in state by his side.” His Jeffersonian jubilation inspired Leland to call on the residents of Cheshire, Massachusetts, to offer up every available quart of milk in a cheesy memorial to God’s good providence. More than 900 dairy cows contributed to the mammoth cheese—not a single Federalist among them, according to Leland.

He embarked on the famous transport by sled, upon the first good snowfall that winter. All the way down Leland attracted crowds and newspaper coverage. In New York he even received an offer of $1,000 to rent the cheese for a 12-day show. He refused, of course. For Leland, Jefferson’s election had secured the precious individual freedoms of the ordinary Americans he loved; he refused to sully the sacred thank offering for filthy lucre. Jefferson himself received the gift so warmly that he invited Leland to preach before Congress on January 3, 1802. With the president in attendance, Leland preached from Matthew 12:42, “And, behold, a greater than Solomon is here,” alluding both to the Savior and to the Sage of Monticello.

The same day that he received the cheese, Jefferson wrote perhaps the most famous words regarding church-state relations in American history. In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, Jefferson affirmed their shared belief that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God.” He also commended the American people for prohibiting Congress from making any law “ ‘respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” Jefferson’s opponents seized on the wall metaphor as proof of his antagonism toward all religious expression in American public life. But whatever Jefferson’s intent with the image, Leland often pointed out that America did not become a secular wasteland under its third president. To the contrary, the massive revivals of the Second Great Awakening demonstrated that religion flourished when left free.

Enduring Passion

Leland remained politically active until his death in 1841, authoring newspaper pieces, making speeches, and offering toasts for Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans who followed him. Under Leland’s leadership, the community of Cheshire became such a Republican stronghold that the first vote cast for a Federalist candidate was immediately cast out as mistaken. In his later years Leland would lead the Cheshirites to support Andrew Jackson, who was honored by Leland for his defense of individual rights and the separation of church and state. In a testimonial to Leland’s influence among the Jacksonian Democrats, Martin Van Buren always called on the aging evangelist when he passed through Berkshire County. “He was a very prince among democrats of his day,” recalled Boston Baptist B. T. Welch.

Some of Leland’s brethren criticized his “almost mad devotion to politics,” fearing that “he magnified his office as a politician at the expense of lowering it as a Christian minister.” Leland admitted that he could get carried away, but he also believed that the principles of republicanism and religious freedom were at stake in the young American nation. “Next to the salvation of the soul, the civil and religious rights of men have summoned my attention, more than the acquisition of wealth or seats of honor,” he would claim near the end of his life. “Many [political] meetings . . . I have attended, and many pieces I have written, with a view of pleading the rights of man against the claims of aristocrats.” As Leland fought for this vision, he leveraged his influence through every means at his disposal—including cheese.

Article Author: Eric C. Smith

Eric C. Smith, Ph.D., is the senior pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Savannah, Tennessee, and an associate professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His most recent book, John Leland: A Jeffersonian Baptist in Early America, was published by Oxford University Press in 2022. He is also the author of Oliver Hart and the Rise of Baptist America (OUP, 2020) and Order & Ardor: The Revival Spirituality of Oliver Hart and the Regular Baptists of Eighteenth-Century South Carolina (USC Press, 2018).