John Leland: How a Baptist preacher helped ensure religious liberty

By Steve Weaver
Dec 6, 2013

I was recently travelling through Virginia and was amazed at the history that I saw at almost every turn. Driving on state highways from Fredericksburg to Monticello was like travelling in a time machine. First, we saw a sign marking the location where the legendary Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men, which resulted in the amputation of his left arm and eventually in his death because of pneumonia that developed in his recovery. Then we drove through the Civil War battlefields of Chancellorsville and the Wilderness. Markers along the highway indicated the location of various sites, including the home that served as General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters during the campaigns. As we made our way toward Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, we neared Montpelier, the home of James Madison. I had just finished telling my wife and kids about the role Baptists played in the guarantee of religious liberty in the first amendment of our Bill of Rights when I saw a small park with a sign labeled Leland-Madison Memorial Park. I quickly pulled to the side of the road and led my family over to a monument commemorating John Leland’s role in the crafting of the first amendment.

Beneath the relief of John Leland, the monument reads:

ELDER JOHN LELAND
COURAGEOUS LEADER OF
THE BAPTIST DOCTRINE
ARDENT ADVOCATE OF THE PRINCIPLES
OF DEMOCRACY
VINDICATOR OF SEPARATION
OF CHURCH AND STATE.

NEAR THIS SPOT IN 1788, ELDER JOHN LELAND AND
JAMES MADISON, THE FATHER OF THE AMERICAN
CONSTITUTION HELD A SIGNIFICANT INTERVIEW
WHICH RESULTED IN THE ADOPTION OF THE
CONSTITUTION BY VIRGINIA. THEN MADISON,
A MEMBER OF CONGRESS FROM ORANGE PRESENTED
THE FIRST AMENDMENT TO THE CONSTITUTION
GUARANTEEING RELIGIOUS LIBERTY, FREE SPEECH AND
A FREE PRESS. THIS SATISFIED LELAND AND HIS
BAPTIST FOLLOWERS.

PRESENTED BY EUGENE BUCKLIN BOWEN, PRESIDENT
BERKSHIRE COUNTY, MASSACHUSETTS CHAPTER
SONS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION.

We have the first amendment, in large part, due to the efforts of American Baptists such as Isaac Backus and John Leland. Leland, a prominent Baptist preacher at the turn of the 19th century, had petitioned his Virginia legislator, James Madison, directly regarding his concern that more needed to be done to ensure religious liberty in the new country than the “Religious Test” clause of Article VI, paragraph 3 of the Constitution. Since Baptists represented a significant portion of the vote in Madison’s district, Leland’s threat to run for Madison’s seat in the House of Representatives resulted in a visit by Madison to his home. Coming out of that meeting was a compromise that included Leland agreeing not to run for Madison’s seat and Madison agreeing to champion Leland’s and his fellow Baptists’ concern for religious liberty. Madison kept his word and pushed for the Bill of Rights. Without Baptist involvement in the political process, it is at least possible that the protection of religious liberty from Congress would not exist.

Baptists have historically defended the principle of religious liberty. Since Baptists have always believed in churches made up only of professing, baptized believers, they have always rejected the idea of a state church union which results in a church composed of all citizens. In the 16th century, the European Anabaptists opposed the use of the sword to mandate matters of the conscience. Seventeenth-century proto-Baptists such as Thomas Helwys (in England)  and Roger Williams (in Colonial America) spoke directly to the governing authorities appealing for religious liberty. Baptists have always stood on the side of religious liberty for all. In fact, it was a group of Baptists in Danbury, Conn., concerned about the infringement of the newly formed federal government upon the consciences of American citizens, to whom Thomas Jefferson responded in a letter with the famous expression of “separation of church and state” that has become such an important part of the American discussion concerning religious liberty. This expression was a summary of the rights guaranteed in the first amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

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