Elder John Leland is not a well known name in American history, but in any study of the history of Baptists in America his name appears frequently. He was an important figure in the struggle for religious freedom during the period when that was achieved. Leland was born on May 14, 1754, in Grafton, Massachusetts, which is about forty miles west of Boston. His life spanned the period in which many crucial events took place in our country and in which many of our civil rights were written the organic law of the United States. Near the end of his life he said, “Next to the salvation of the soul the civil and religious rights of men have summoned my attention, more than the acquisition of wealth or seats of honor.”
He described his early experiences as being filled with “frolicking and foolish wickedness, but in 1772, when he was eighteen years old, he had a deep spiritual experience. He said of it, “When I was returning from my frolicks or evening diversions, the following words would sound from the skies, ‘you are not about the work which you have got to do.'” Soon after this, he said, “the charms of those youthful diversions, which had been sweeter to me than the honeycomb, lost all their sweetness.”
He went on to describe a severe struggle within himself. As he put it, “At times, I would feel as if my whole soul was absorbed in the fountain of love, and devout prayer was the breath of my heart; at other times, I would feel such amazing languor and want of will, that if I might have had all the glories of heaven for the asking, I would not have sincerely done it”. This, he said, “gave me a very poor opinion of myself.” “Indeed, from than time till this,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I have had a constant falling out with myself.” Sometime after this, in June of 1774, he was baptized by Elder Noah Alden, of Bellingham, Massachusetts.
Almost from the time of the experience related above, he began to speak in the churches he attended near his home. However, Leland did not actually join any church until early in 1775, when he joined the Bellingham Church. About six months later this church gave him a license, as he put it, “to do that which I had been doing for a year before.” In October of 1775 he went on an extended preaching tour to Virginia, returning home after eight months. Soon after this trip, in September of 1776, he tells us, “I was married to Sally Divine, of Hopkinton; and immediately started with her to Virginia.”
At the time when Leland arrived in Virginia the Baptists of that state were in the midst of their struggle against the Established Church. They were also fast becoming a force which would have to be reckoned with in the affairs of the state. But it had not always been so, and they were only now emerging from a rather infamous reputation.
As soon as they began to grow in numbers, this naturally brought attention to them from the authorities, which in turn led to persecution. Men in power sought diligently to find ways and means to put down these “disturbers of the peace.” Semple says that it was not certain that any law in force in Virginia authorized the imprisonment of men for preaching. They were, therefore, dealt with for disturbing the peace.
The first instance of actual imprisonment in Virginia took place in Fredericksburg in 1768. John Waller, Lewis Craig, James Childs, James Reed, and William Marsh were haled before the magistrate and arraigned as disturbers of the peace. At their trial one lawyer accused them thus: “May it please your worships, these men are great disturbers of the peace, they cannot meet a man upon the road, but they must ram a text of Scripture down his throat.” They were offered their freedom if they would promise to preach no more in the county for a year and a day. This they refused to do, and they were carried to the jail, singing a hymn as they went. While they were in jail, they continued to preach through the grates. Leland says there were about thirty of these people imprisoned during this period.
A fact that added to the ridicule heaped upon these early Baptists was that they were, for the most part, poor and unlearned. They were everywhere thought of as “a pack of ignorant enthusiasts.” The ministers of the Baptists came from among the common people. They believed in a divine call to the ministry, and that it came to men in all walks of life. Therefore it was possible for a man who could hardly write his name to believe himself called of God.13 “The Baptist preachers,” says David Benedict, “were, in almost every respect, the reverse of the established clergy; without learning, without patronage, generally very poor, plain in their dress, unrefined in their manners, awkward in their address; all of which by their enterprising zeal and unwearied perseverance, they either turned to advantage, or prevented their ill effects.”
On May 6, 1776, a convention met in Williamsburg, which H. J. Eckenrode calls “probably the most noteworthy assembly ever held in Virginia.” It was this convention that passed resolutions instructing the Virginia delegates in the Continental Congress to propose a declaration of independence. They also made preparations for a bill of rights and a constitution for Virginia. It is the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason, that contains the momentous declaration of religious rights. Instead of Mason’s wording, “[T]hat all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion,” young James Madison succeeded in securing its amendment to read, “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.” This was a very important distinction for the Baptists, one to which they had long held. They believed that toleration implied a favor granted, but equality recognized an inalienable right. When the legislature met the next fall, it was deluged with petitions from various dissenting groups. Among them was a memorial from the Hanover Presbytery (Presbyterian) and one from an association of Baptist ministers and delegates who met at Dover in Goochland on December 25, 1776. These petitions brought on what Thomas Jefferson called “the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged.” Though the acts passed at this time exempted dissenters from religious taxes, it left other major issues unresolved and the debate went on for nine more years.
Madison led the fight in the Virginia legislature against these encroachments upon religious rights until they were finally defeated in 1786. When the legislature met in 1785 it was deluged with petitions from various dissenting groups. Madison then pressed his advantage and introduced Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. It was enacted on January 16, 1786. Of this bill Eckenrode says, “The ‘act for establishing religious freedom’ added no new principle. In combining complete liberty of opinion with forbidding taxation for church support, the act merely expressed the results of the revolution, but it served its purpose as a landmark and an obstacle to any reversion to the past.” Jefferson considered this Bill one of the three greatest accomplishments of his life, along with the Declaration of Independence and the creation of the University of Virginia.
It is difficult to say what part John Leland played in this campaign. Very soon after the passage of this bill, he appears as a legislative agent, along with Reuben Ford, in an effort to obtain repeal of an act incorporating the Episcopal Church. Of his sentiments, however, there can be no doubt, and since immediately after this he was appointed to a position of leadership, he was surely active in this work. In the Virginia Chronicle he said, “A general assessment, (forcing all to pay some preacher,) amounts to an establishment; if government says I must pay somebody, it must next describe that somebody, his doctrine and place of abode.”
While all of this was going, the Baptists were experiencing a tremendous revival. It began in about 1785 and continued until 1791. Thousands upon thousands were converted, and when it was over the Baptist were more numerous than any other sect in Virginia. Leland reached the peak of his evangelistic activity in 1788. In the period from October of 1787 to March of 1789, Leland says that he baptized four hundred people, three hundred of which were baptized in 1788.
This revival was also attended by the presence of physical and emotional demonstrations. Leland says that it was nothing unusual for a great part of the congregation to fall prostrate on the floor. Many people would entirely lose the use of their limbs. At associations it was not uncommon for several preachers to exercise their gifts at the same time in different parts of the congregation. Some preachers greatly encouraged this sort of thing, and Semple admits that in some congregations much confusion and disorder resulted. “Many ministers who had labored earnestly to get Christians into their churches,” he declared, “were afterwards much perplexed to get hypocrites out.”
When Madison did return to Virginia, a letter was waiting for him when he arrived at Federicksburg suggesting that he stop by on his way home to visit “an influential Baptist leader,” as Irving Brant put it. That leader was John Leland. The letter, dated February 28, 1788, was from Captain Joseph Spencer. He warned Madison that the Constitution had enemies in Orange County, the Baptists being among them. He pointed out John Leland as being one of their leading men and sent Madison a copy of a list of objections Leland had to the Constitution. Spencer went on to suggest that Madison stop by and visit Leland on his way home since it was right on his way.
The objections referred to in the letter were prepared by Leland at the request of Thomas Barbour, an opposition candidate in the Orange County election. Most of the objections reflected Leland’s fear of some aspects of the government being to far removed from the popular will. He specifically objected to it, because there was only a Bill of Rights in it and that there was no specific guarantee of Religious Liberty in it.
Meanwhile a meeting of the General Committee of Baptists was held at Willaim’s Meeting House on March 11, 1788. This group took up the question; “Whether the new Federal Constitution which had now lately made its appearance in public, made sufficient provision for the secure enjoyment of religious liberty.” It was unanimously agreed that it did not.
Then followed the famed meeting between James Madison and John Leland, which is a celebrated event in local history, though neither of these men left any direct testimony about such a meeting. However, everything that is known certainly suggests that it did take place, and that it did indeed influence the outcome in Orange County, Virginia of the election to the Virginia ratifying convention.
One source of evidence purports to come directly from Leland himself. In a letter dated April 15, 1857 Governor G. N. Briggs of Massachusetts related the details of a visit he paid to Leland’s home, apparently not many years before Leland’s death. In the course of their conversation Briggs quotes Leland as saying that Madison came to see him “to talk with me about the Constitution.”
Briggs went on to say that they met again very soon before the electors on the stump. He used quotation marks in his letter, apparently indicating that he was quoting Leland directly.
Mr. Madison first took the stump, which was a hogshead of tobacco, standing on one end. For two hours, he addressed his fellow-citizens in a calm, candid and statesman-like manner, arguing his side of the case, and fairly meeting and replying to the arguments, which had been put forth by his opponents, in the general canvass of the state. Though Mr. Madison was not particularly a pleasing or eloquent speaker, the people listened with respectful attention. He left the hogshead, and my friends called for me. I took it–and went in for Mr. Madison; and he was elected without difficulty.
Later in life Leland himself made two statements in his writings which seem to corroborate the authenticity of this event. Writing in 1834, he spoke of having talked with Madison in 1788, saying, “Mr. Madison said to me in 1788, ‘the states have surrendered to the general government a certain quantity of their rights; but it is most likely, if ever the general government is dissolved, it will proceed from the jealousy of state authority.” At the same time he spoke of his reservations about the Constitution; “When the Constitution first made its appearance in the autumn of 1787, I read it with close attention, and finally gave my vote for its adoption; and after the amendments tool place, I esteemed it as good a skeleton as could well be formed.” These statements certainly comport with the details of the meeting. It is quite clear that the Baptists were convinced by Madison, and they did support him in this election.The fact remains, however, that the Baptists, and John Leland in particular, had wanted a written guarantee of religious liberty in the Constitution. It does not appear that there were hard feelings toward Madison on the part of the Baptists. On the contrary, they were warm friends. However, Patrick Henry now tried to keep Madison out of the first Congress by spreading rumors that he not only opposed any amendments whatever, but that he had also ceased to have strong feelings about the rights of conscience.
From the vantage point of two hundred years of history, it would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in securing these inherent rights. John Leland certainly played a very important part in this struggle. One authority on church-state issues names him along with George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Samuel Davies as the five most important men in this struggle. The Baptist historian of Virginia, Robert Semple, also placed him very high on the list of influential Baptists, saying, “Mr. Leland, as a preacher, was probably the most popular of any who ever resided in this State.”
In the Spring of 1791 Leland and his family took leave of Virginia to return to his native Massachusetts. That trip was made by way of the sea, and Leland tells of a great storm they encountered. At the height of the storm the ship’s captain came to Leland’s cabin and said, “We shall not weather it many minutes. Leland says of it, “This he said, (as I judged,) not to terrify the sailors, but for my sake. The sense of it, to me, was this: ‘Leland, if you have got a God, now call upon him.’ But there was no need of this admonition, for I had begun the work before; and can now say, that that night is the only one of my life that I spent wholly in prayer. That I prayed in faith, is more than I can say; but that I prayed in distress, is certain.”
Arriving in Connecticut, he tarried there for several months to do some preaching and to become involved in the struggle for religious liberty there. In New England the Congregationalist was the established church, and concessions to dissenters were even more grudging than those of the Anglicans in Virginia. Leland wrote several tracts soon after returning to New England demanding not toleration, but full equality for all religious groups. Among them was a tract entitled, Rights of Conscience Inalienable, and Therefore, Religious Opinions Not Cognizable By The Law, in which he asserted that the consciences of men cannot be surrendered to the state. He wrote, “Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.” He was to continue his efforts to achieve such freedom in his native Massachusetts. This was to be a long struggle, because Massachusetts was the last state to enact complete religious freedom, finally, in 1833.
Leland and his family settled in the village of Cheshire, Massachusetts in February of 1792, and lived there, except for a few years, for the rest of his life. He became pastor of a church known then as the Second Baptist Church, although Leland was never entirely comfortable as a settled pastor. Though he maintained his connection with this church for most of his life, it is clear that he was not its pastor for most of that time. As Butterfield put it, “He was always willing to preach, pray, and baptize, but he was happier as in independent evangelist, free to go where the spirit directed, than as a settled pastor, however devoted his flock might be to him.”
It may be safely concluded that the epitaph that Leland desired to be on his tomb, and indeed it was on it, was an appropriate one. It read, “here lies the body of John Leland, who labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men.”