Baptists gave America the Bill of Rights
From 1787 to 1789, the states of the newly formed American nation debated whether or not to replace the original Articles of Confederation with a new Constitution. Baptists in Virginia and other states were generally opposed to the new Constitution because it contained nothing to prohibit the formation of state churches. Baptists had experienced serious persecution by the established churches in Virginia and Massachusetts during colonial times, and they were worried about history repeating itself.
Virginia Baptists wrote to George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson to express their concerns. Without Baptist support, Virginia would not pass the new Constitution, killing its chances for adoption. So Madison asked John Leland, 1 a leading Virginian pastor, to give him in writing the specific grievances of Baptists. Leland replied with ten objections. Madison then “struck a deal” with Virginian Baptists promising, in exchange for their support, to present their objections as amendments to the Constitution. Baptists gave their support, Virginia voted to ratify the Constitution, and the Constitution became the supreme law of the United States. Immediately after ratification, Madison presented ten amendments to the Constitution (derived from Leland’s ten objections), and they are now known as the Bill of Rights.
So who is most responsible for the American guarantee for religious liberty? Historians from Joseph Dawson to Leon McBeth answer, “John Leland and the Baptists” (Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, p. 283). Sometime during the cookouts, the ballgames, and the fireworks, let us remember to thank God for the legacy of our Baptist forefathers.
Happy Fourth of July!
This article republished with permission. Originally published on June 29, 2013 by Dr. Kenneth Keathley, Professor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Keathley blogs at his Web site, Theology for the Church.
The ERLC’s Washington office (called “Leland House”) is named for Pastor Leland.^