The Pulpit and the American Revolution: John Leland

Leonard O. Goenaga

Article Series: The Pulpit and the Patriots

WEEK 7: The Pulpit and the American Revolution: John Leland (1754-1841)

A sixth and final Pulpit patriot to be presented is a second Baptist, John Leland.  Although having been formally educated only in elementary school, Leland is regarded as highly influential in developing the Revolution’s concept of religious freedom. Leland had initially planned to campaign against the ratification of the Constitution out of fear that experiences he and other Baptists had had regarding established state churches would be expanded at a federal level.[i] Given his influence, this spelled trouble for the ratification, since Baptists held significant political sway within Virginia, North Carolina, and other such states. Due to the impact such opposition could have, James Madison met with Leland, and the two came to an agreement. Leland would remove his opposition in exchange for a protection as given in the First Amendment. With Madison coming up on his end, Leland was to become a fiery supporter of the Constitution. Also, not to be outdone by the Baptist Backus, Leland’s zeal for evangelism was first and foremost, as noted by performing 1,515 baptisms.[ii]

Besides exerting direct personal influence upon the Founders, Leland’s sermons were influential and widely read. One in particular that continues the Baptist focus of religious and civil liberty is entitled The Rights of Conscience Inalienable and delivered in 1791.[iii] Within the sermon, Leland argues in favor of the following observations:

1. That the law was not made for a righteous man, but for the disobedient … 2. That righteous men have to part with a little of their liberty and property to preserve the rest … 3. That all power is vested in and consequently derived from the people … 4. That the law should rule over rulers, and not rulers over the law … 5. That government is founded on compact … 6. That every law made by the legislators inconsistent with the compact, modernly called a constitution, is usurpive in the legislators and not binding on the people. …7. That whenever government is found inadequate to preserve the liberty and property of the people they have an indubitable right to alter it so as to answer those purposes … 8. That legislators in their legislative capacity cannot alter the constitution, for they are hired servants of the people to act within the limits of the constitution.[iv]

From these observations, Leland then proposes to answer the question: “Are the rights of conscience alienable, or inalienable?”[v] After arguing for them being inalienable, he then speaks to the error of established churches, of which he provides five arguments.[vi]

Leland also had a tremendous personal influence on James Madison. It was primarily at his and other Baptists petitions that James Madison would later propose the adoption of a Bill of Rights, perhaps explaining the initiating role religious liberty has within the first amendment. Leland was also to have direct influence in the affairs of the State, serving as both a delegate to the Virginia Convention to ratify the Federal Constitution in 1788, and as an elected Republican to the Massachusetts legislature in 1811.[vii] Besides his influence with Madison, and his direct involvement in the Constitutional Convention and the legislature, historians recognize Leland’s influence. Of Leland, his biographer L. F. Greene stated,

Through a long life, Elder Leland sustained, with uniform consistency, the two-fold character of the patriot and the Christian. For his religious creed he acknowledged no directory but the Bible. He loved the pure, unadulterated word of truth, His political creed was based upon the ‘sufficient truths’ of equality, and of inherent and inalienable rights, recognized by the master spirits of the Revolution.[viii]

Lyman H. Butterfield describes Leland as “a representative American of his time. Self-reliant to the point of eccentricity and a tireless fighter for principle, he was without arrogance, and the reminiscences of those who knew him speak most often of his humor, his gentleness, and his humility,” and that “John Leland therefore has a place in our history as well as in our folklore.”[ix]

The Pulpit and the American Revolution: John Leland Political Sermon

Come with us now back to the days of the American Revolution to read and feel the impact of John Leland’s The Rights of Conscience Unalienable (1791).


The Moral Liberal Research Writer, Leonard O. Goenaga, is a Baptist Associate Pastor (assigned to the Youth) at Glory of God Christian Fellowship, Raleigh, North Carolina; a Mentor (Computer Lab/Technology) at the Wake Forest Boys & Girls Club; a husband (to Katrina); and rugby coach. He holds a B.A. in Political Science (with a specific concentration in Political Theory, Social Contract, and Constitutionalism), a second B.A. in Religious Studies (with a concentration in World Religions and Early Christianity), a Master of Divinity in Christian Ethics, and an A.A. in Entrepreneurship. He has begun Ph.D with a concentration likely centered on an analysis of Locke’s Social Contract, H.L.A. Hart’s Legal System, American Constitutionalism, and Baptist Ecclesiology of Covenant. Visit his website at Leonardooh.com


Footnotes:

[i] Richard Land’s essay on “Religious Liberty in the Founding and Development of America”, as found in First Freedom, The Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty. Ed. T. White, J. G. Duesing, M. B. Yarnell III: 105-108.

[ii] Ellis Sandoz. Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805: 39.

[iii] Ibid. 37. On religious liberty, Leland parallels Backus, “religion is a matter between God and individuals, religious opinions of men not being the objects of civil government nor any ways under its control.”

[iv] Ibid. 37

[v] Ibid. 37

[vi] Ibid. 37. “1. Uninspired fallible men make their own opinions tests of orthodoxy, and use their own systems,” “2. Such establishments not only wean and alienate the affections of one from another on account of the different usages they receive in their religious sentiments, but are also very impolitic,” “3. These establishments metamorphose the church into a creature, and religion into a principle of state,” “4. There are no two kingdoms or states that establish the same creed or formularies of faith” and “5. The nature of such establishments, further, is to keep from civil office the best of men.”

[vii] Ibid. 37

[viii] John Leland, and L. F. Greene. The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland Including Some Events in His Life. New York: Printed by G.W. Wood, 1845: 50–51.

[ix] Lyman H. Butterfield.  “Elder John Leland, Jeffersonian Itinerant,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. Worcester, Mass: American Antiquarian Society, 1843.


The Moral Liberal highly recommends: Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805 (2 Volume Set)