From Crisis to Liberty – John Leland and the Liberty of Conscience [Biographical Sketch]

johnleland200There are times when I am asked why I am a Baptist, what are the driving principles of the Baptist name and message that motivate me to maintain the title and distinctives?

I guess if you break it all down there are many things I can look back on for inspiration, the doctrine of believer’s baptism, the tenacious conviction that the Bible is the only sufficient authority in all matters of faith and practice, the heart wrenching persecution they all endured for the cause of religion and freedom. Truly it is a testimony which left in a trail of their blood. While I certainly hold to all of the above, it was their fight for individual soul liberty or liberty of conscience that is the freedom to worship God according the dictates of our conscience. America is truly blessed to have this freedom, especially when compared to other countries and the lack of freedom they all have in this regard.

Throughout history of the church there were stand out individuals and movements that fought for some kind of liberty, the Donatists and their plight against Augustine, Wycliffe called the Morning Star of the Reformation, whose work also included putting the Bible into the hands of the common man. We can’t forget Luther whose 95 Theses against the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church ushering in the Protestant Reformation. These and many other great stalwarts of the faith advanced the cause in one form or another for religious liberty leaving an indelible mark in the sands of time.

America in her infancy had many great men of the faith who advanced the cause for Soul Liberty, Roger Williams, Obadiah Holmes Isaac Backus, Isaac Case, John Clark with his Lively Experiment Charter (which took twelve years to obtain) and many others and of course the focus for today’s article – Elder John Leland.

John Leland’s life, ministry and politics were full of purpose and accomplishment. His heart was as much in the ministry as it was in his politics. His life without doubt was full and as a saved man was very evangelistic and undaunted when it came to religious liberty. Without his efforts we would not have the First Amendment freedoms that we have today.

He was born right here in my home state in Grafton. He lived from 1754-1841 and at eighteen got matters settled with God, got baptized and began serving in ministry shortly thereafter. Sixty Seven years he served in ministry. His labors included over 1,500 baptisms, he preached sometimes up to fourteen times a week. Like Wesley who traveled two hundred and fifty thousand miles on horseback during his ministry, Elder John Leland traveled over a hundred thousand miles on horseback. I can’t imagine doing that in a car let alone on the back of a horse. Although he subscribed to that of the Philadelphian Confessions of Faith, he did have some reservation in that it could become an idol of sorts and contradict his convictions concerning liberty. He believed that the established church would require strict adherence to their particular creeds, confessions thus limiting free thought and expression.

Leland’s evangelistic journeys included trips down south; this is the main point of this article, his time in Virginia and his role with regards to the Constitution and later the Bill of Rights through Madison.

Virginia was a hotbed of persecution. Freedom of religion was a foreign thing to them. At the hands of the established church the Baptists suffered a great deal. The Virginia charter of 1606 stated that, “The presidents, councils and ministers should provide that the true word and service of God should be preached and used according to the rites and doctrines of the Church of England.” Pg 381 Volume 1 Many of our forbears were jailed, whipped and forced into slavery if they did not abide by the rules of the state run church, which also included mandatory worship in state churches. The author John T Christian rightly noted that “Virginia was the great battle ground for religious freedom”. The stage was set and the time was now for action.

With the Articles of the Confederation of the United States weakening a new constitution was needed. After much discussion and debate a new constitution was drawn up and in 1787 sent to the states for ratification. America in Crimson Red -The Baptist History of America pg 289 by James R. Beller

With the Constitution being presented for ratification there was uncertainty that it would pass. The Baptists were concerned that without a clause to protect religious liberty it would have allowed for a state run church across the board. Leland would have fought hard against the passing of the Constitution, as it stood, after all who can blame them for not wanting to pay taxes that support the doctrines, buildings of Anglican churches and their pastors and be jailed for practicing worship independent of the state?

MA and Virginia were key states particularly Viriginia. While laboring here in MA Isaac Backus helped to get the Constitution passed, Leland was in Virginia. With everything in place, the battle ground being set, with full support of the Baptists behind him Leland was all in.

The outlook for the acceptance of the Constitution in Virginia didn’t look good. In Orange County, Leland and Madison were both running for Legislature and Leland looked strong and most likely would have been elected. Madison hearing that the possibility of his being elected was diminishing decided to meet with Leland. After an afternoon of talks the two men came to an agreement; Leland would withdraw from the race and throw his support behind Madison. In return Madison would work to implement a religious clause (1st Amendment) that would grant religious liberty for all. Our first Amendment to the Constitution was the result of these two men meeting and working together.

Baptists were largely the reason that Madison was elected to the House of Representatives and according to Sargent, helped to secure the 1st Amendment and in Sargent’s words – the Baptist Amendment – which granted full religious freedom to all Americans” Landmarks of Church History Book II pg 427

Because of the significance of this series of events there is a memorial set up to commemorate it. This memorial is located in Orange County Virginia. Someday hope to see this in person.

The monument reads:
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 Dowden, President, Berkshire County, Massachusetts Chapter, Sons of the American Revolution.

While this is only a snapshot of this man’s life and work there is warrant for further research and study. Something I plan to do soon. When I am asked what makes Baptists great? My response is, because of their relentless pursuit of religious freedom! Author John T. Christian notes in Volume 1 of his work that, “J.S. Barbour, of Virginia, in 1887, in an eulogy of James Madison said: “…the credit of adopting the Constitution of the United States properly belonged to a Baptist clergyman, formerly of Virginia, by the name of Leland…” pg 392

Some of the sources used for this article:
John T Christian – History of the Baptists Volume 1
William Cathcart – Baptist Patriots and the American Revolution
James R. Beller – American in Crimson Red The History of Baptists of American

Internet Sources: – The Pulpit and the American Revolution – John Leland – Historical Marker Data base