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Religious freedom champion John Leland also active in public policy, Land says

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Labeled an “ignorant, illiterate, clownish creature” by a critic of his day, history more accurately regards Baptist minister John Leland as a tireless and selfless spokesman for the freedom of religious expression in early American history, said Richard Land in a May 2 address at Beeson Divinity School.

“John Leland was an evangelist of the heartfelt conversion to Jesus Christ. With awakening fire he championed the cause of those who had been disenfranchised and excluded from the main areas of religious involvement,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in an address on religious liberty during a National Day of Prayer emphasis.

Neither Leland or his contemporary, Thomas Jefferson — both noted champions of the separation of church and state — perceived that concept to preclude active interaction of ministers, politicians and public policy, Land stressed in his address at the Birmingham, Ala., school affiliated with Samford University.

Perhaps best known for his crucial role in securing a constitutional guarantee of religious expression within the First Amendment through his friend, James Madison, Leland crusaded for an absolute freedom that was versatile in its expression, Land continued.

“He believed absolutely in soul freedom; he believed that for anybody to try to coerce anyone else in things of a spiritual nature or in matters of conscience was indeed the rape of the soul.” Land noted that Leland was equally vociferous in his condemnation of practice of slavery at the dawn of U.S. history.

Land said he had never given an address on an historical figure when that person seemed to be staring at him, as he gestured upward toward the dome of the Beeson chapel. A fresco image of Leland is featured among the “great cloud of witnesses” whose likenesses adorn the outer ring of the dome. The Beeson building was constructed to resemble 16th century Italian Renaissance architecture.

Licensed in his native Massachusetts to preach in 1775, Leland was an itinerant evangelist whose circuit stretched from the wilds of South Carolina to the refined communities within Philadelphia, Land recounted.

Baptists in Virginia were well known for their strong support for the war for independence from Great Britain and for their aggravation with the established church, Land said. History records that in the decade immediately preceding the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, more than 500 Baptist preachers were jailed for “disturbing the peace,” that is, preaching the gospel without getting a license from the state and the Anglican-run state church, Land explained.

While holding to the absolute freedom of the conscience, Land explained that Leland’s theology did not subvert God’s rule over the individual’s conscience. “For him the ultimate authority was not individual conscience but the Word of God. That was to be the ultimate rule of life, and though free from human control, the conscience was to be in strict subordination to the law of God,” Land said.

Baptists were adamant in opposing the concept of state government church, Land said, describing their stance as: “We believe in liberty; we don’t need a license from any earthly or government authority to obey the divine commands to preach the gospel.”

Writing in his work, “The Virginia Chronicle,” Leland made clear his disdain for the state church: “No national church can, in its organization, be the Gospel church. A national church takes in the whole nation, and no more; whereas, the gospel church takes in no nation but those who fear God, and work righteousness in every nation.”

Leland argued that the very thought of “a Christian commonwealth” ought to be “exploded forever.”

Under Leland and others’ influence, Virginia Baptists — who were more numerous than other faithful in the state and who chaffed under the rigid establishment that gave preference to the Anglican denomination — were ambivalent about the Constitution because, in Leland’s words, it failed to make “sufficient provision for the secure enjoyment of religious liberty.” And there was little doubt that without Virginia’s support, the Constitution would not be ratified, Land continued.

Leland went so far as to craft and to circulate an anti-ratification tract, which criticized the proposed Constitution for its failure “to contain an explicit memorial of those individual rights that the citizens had not surrendered when they entered willingly into this contract called the Constitution.”

A political deal, apparently cemented in a meeting between Madison and Leland in March 1788, provided the quid pro quo that assured acceptance of the Constitution by Virginia delegates. Leland would get the Baptists to support the Constitution and Madison would make an absolute promise to go to the first Congress and work to get a Bill of Rights added to the Constitution, Land said. Both parties were true to their word.

Leland’s stand on the institution of slavery, while less known than his views on religious liberty, was no less close to his heart, Land said. He left Virginia in 1791 to return to Massachusetts, aware that he would still struggle under the oppression of a strong state church there but nonetheless needing relief from Virginia Baptists’ refusal to denounce slavery.

“It is not my intention to drop the ministerial vest, and assume the politician’s garb today; but after adding that slavery is a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, inconsistent with republican government, destructive of every humane and benevolent passion of the soul, and subversive to that liberty absolutely necessary to ennoble the human mind, let me ask whether Heaven has nothing in store for poor Negroes better than these galling chains,” proclaimed Leland in his farewell address to his fellow Virginia Baptists.

He castigated apologists for slavery, going so far as to propose the federal government emancipate the slaves, compensate the slaveholders and provide both land and a subsistence to the former slaves to allow them to resettle as freemen, Land said, noting that Leland asked, “Can money be applied to better use than liberty for these human beings who are deprived of their natural rights by force and not a crime?”

While critical of the government-sponsored church as “a champion of the separation of church and state,” Leland felt no remorse in interjecting himself in the nation’s political dialogue, not only in calling on the government to free and assist the former slaves, but in his contempt for the concept of a national bank, Land said. Leland also campaigned unsuccessfully to amend the Constitution to require the direct election of federal judges.

In fact, his direct involvement in the presentation of the famed mammoth cheese to President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 — an event that sparked sharp criticism of the Baptist evangelist as “the cheese monger” and worse — underscored Leland’s belief that people of faith should not be denied entrance into the marketplace of ideas and public policy, Land said.

“He has bequeathed to us a great heritage that a person’s relationship with God is so holy and so important that no mere human being can interfere with it, but he didn’t intend that to mean that we were not to be salt and light,” Land said.

Leland accompanied the cheese — a 1,235-pound, 15-foot thick gift from the town of Cheshire, Mass. — upon its presentation to his friend, Thomas Jefferson, at the White House. He used the occasion, Land said, to remind the president that evil remained in the country, including slavery, and to reflect upon the remedies, the “beautiful features,” in the Constitution: “The right of free suffrage, to correct abuses” as well as “the prohibition of all religious tests.”

The cheese was presented at the White House in the morning, Land said, and later that same day, Jefferson penned a letter in response to an inquiry from the Danbury (Ct.) Baptist Association, saying that the First Amendment had erected “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

Clearly, Jefferson saw no contradiction between his concept of church and state separation and having a gift personally presented to him at the White House with a promise of continued prayer by a prominent Baptist preacher on the morning of the very day he wrote to the Danbury Baptist ministers, and less than 48 hours later attending a Sunday morning worship service where that minister — John Leland — preached from the Speaker’s podium in the well of the U.S. House of Representatives, Land said.

“John Leland was a great man of God,” Land concluded. “We are indeed fortunate to count him as part of our legacy and heritage.”

Additional (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library. Photo title: LAND SPEAKS ON RELIGIOUS LIBERTY.

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  • Dwayne Hastings