John Leland: Tireless Champion of Religious Liberty

Political Sermons, Founding Era, 1754-1841, John Leland bio

John Leland (1754–1841). A key figure in the rise of religious liberty in America, the Baptist minister John Leland had two careers, one in Massachusetts, the other in Virginia. His only formal education was in the elementary schools of Grafton, Massachusetts, his birthplace, yet he became well educated and widely read. Having experienced a “sign from God,” he became a minister and went to preach in Orange County, Virginia, in 1776. During his fourteen years in Virginia, he led the fight to disestablish the Episcopal Church, to secure religious freedom, and to ratify the Constitution. He became a friend, constituent, and important ally of James Madison and made indispensable contributions to Madison’s election to the first United States Congress in 1789. Madison, particularly in fulfillment of a campaign promise to Leland, George Eve, and other Baptists (and with George Washington’s support) insisted upon adoption of the Bill of Rights as amendments to the Constitution. Leland’s views and importance are comparable to those of Isaac Backus.

In 1791 Leland returned to Massachusetts, where he spent most of his last fifty years. There and in Connecticut he proposed that the state constitutions be changed as he fought for disestablishment of the Congregationalist Standing Order and for religious liberty for Baptists and others deprived of constitutional protection. Religious liberty was secured in Connecticut in 1820, and Leland finally saw the Congregational system in Massachusetts overthrown in 1833. Leland was a liberal in politics, as well as in religion; he supported the Jeffersonian Republicans—and, later, the Jacksonian Democrats—and strongly opposed slavery and the slave trade. In 1811 he was elected on the Republican ticket to the Massachusetts legislature, his second public office, for he had served as an Orange County delegate to the Virginia convention that ratified the federal Constitution in 1788.

Leland’s nineteenth-century biographer L. F. Greene appraised him this way: “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 . . .” (Writings of Elder John Leland [1845] pp. 50–51). Leland’s 1831 autobiographical sketch hardly mentions politics, for his mission was evangelism, and he calculated the thousands of miles he had traveled, tabulated his 1,515 baptisms, and wrote as his epitaph: “Here lies the body of John Leland, who labored ——— to promote piety, and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men.” (We can fill the blank with “67 years.”) In 1834 he wrote: “The plea for religious liberty has been long and powerful; but it has been left for the United States to acknowledge it a right inherent, and not a favor granted: to exclude religious opinions from the list of objects of legislation” (ibid., pp. 38–39).

Leland was “as courageous and resourceful a champion of the rights of conscience as America has produced,” according to Lyman H. Butterfield. “In his very individualism Leland was 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. . . . John Leland therefore has a place in our history as well as in our folklore” (“Elder John Leland, Jeffersonian Itinerant,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Oct. 15, 1952).

Source: Sandoz, Ellis. “Political Sermons of the American Founding Era.” Vol. 2 (1789-1805), [1991], Chapter 37.

Gathered from a variety of sources these Political Sermons (and excerpts) are compiled and edited – with occasional commentary – by The Moral Liberal, editor in chief, Steve Farrell.