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The Life of John Leland: Preacher Evangelist

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Note: This is the second entry in a three part series on the Life of John Leland.

II. John Leland – Preacher Evangelist

New England 1773-1774

“No sooner was my mind exercised about the salvation of my soul, than it was agitated about preaching,” said Leland. Here’s how he described his call to the ministry:

From a sense of my insufficiency, I trembled at the attempt; but what was said to a king in another case, was now spoken to a feeble youth: “Be ye strong, therefore, and let not your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.” I finally surrendered, and devoted my time and talents to the work of the ministry, without any condition, evasion or mental reservation.[i]

In 1773 he began preaching with some other boys. They preached in homes, at various meetings, and they even arranged preaching tours.[ii] After about 6 months the church at Bellingham gave him a license to do what he had already been doing a year before.[iii]

1775 – Culpepper, Virginia

He traveled to Virginia for the first time in 1775 for eight months, and on September 30, 1776 he married Sally Devine of Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Shortly after, they decided to settle in Virginia. A family member recounted about Sally as they moved south:

[T]he God in whom she trusted fortified her heart and strengthened her hands, and when he, to whom her faith was plighted said, “I go to proclaim a Savior’s love in a land overrun with British soldiers and American tories, and trodden down by a dominant established clergy,” she replied like Rebecca, “I will go.” Her faith was firm in him who had said, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”[iv]

They stayed in Philadelphia and Fairfax along the way, and they finally settled in Culpepper in March of 1777. He joined the church at Mount Poney and was ordained, “by the choice of the church,” to preach there half of the Sundays.[v] 

Itinerant Preacher in Virginia 1777 to 1792

Once in Virginia he describes, “I spent all my time traveling and preaching, and had large congregations.”[vi] They then moved to Orange County, where he preached 12 to 14 times a week.[vii] In 1779 he preached at camp meetings, at funerals, and at any occasion that opened up. In October he described how he was impressed with eternal realities, “Souls appeared very precious to me, and my heart was drawn out in prayer for their salvation. Now, for the first time, I knew what it was to travail in birth for the conversion of sinners.”[viii] On January 14, 1825 he wrote:

I have preached in four hundred and thirty-six meeting-houses, thirty-seven court-houses, several capitols, many academies and school-houses; barns, tobacco-houses and dwelling-houses: and many hundreds of times on stages in the open air. Not the place, but the presence of Christ, and my right temper of mind, makes preaching solemnly easy and profitable. My congregations have consisted of from five hearers to ten thousand.[ix]

In 1784 he traveled to Philadelphia and stayed 6 weeks. There he preached at the University, in houses, and in the streets.[x] He remembered one event, writing:

Accordingly, I appointed a meeting to preach one afternoon at five o’clock, at the sign of the Blue Bell. When I went, but few appeared. I stepped upon a stick of ship timber and began by singing: on which the people came running from every lane, and continued to increase until preaching was over, when I judged there was about three hundred people. I then appointed to preach there again, when there were about twice as many.[xi]

He was a circuit preacher. Between 1784 and 1785 he preached all over between Philadelphia and North Carolina.[xii] In 1786 he planned a long circular string of meetings,[xiii] and in June of 1787 he was ordained by the laying on of hands:

In June, 1787, I was ordained by laying on of hands. The ministers that officiated, were Nathaniel Saunders, John Waller and John Price. By this, not only a union took place between myself and others, but it was a small link in the chain of events, which produced a union among all the Baptists in Virginia, not long afterwards.[xiv]

God started to work an awakening during this time. Leland was appointed to preach even by local Baptist Associations.[xv] At one occasion he was so overcome with emotion that he couldn’t speak because he was weeping. His remembrance of this elicited this comment, “I am but a poor preacher, at best, and the sermon which I then preached was hardly middling, but the effect on the people was amazing.”[xvi] He was a popular speaker. Sample’s brief biography in Virginia Baptists bears this out:

Mr. Leland, as a preacher, was probably the most popular of any that ever resided in this state. He is, unquestionably, a man of fertile genius. His opportunities for school of learning were not great; the energetic vigor of his mind quickly surmounted his deficiency . . . His preaching, though immethodical and eccentric, is generally wise, warm and evangelical . . . There are not many preachers, who have so great command of the attention and of the feelings of their auditory. In effecting this, his manner has been thought, by some, to approach too near to the theatrical.[xvii]

In 1790 Leland traveled to New England to see his father and relations, and as he went he preached along the way there and back again. The trip took four months.[xviii] The following winter he made plans to move to New England.[xix]

Itinerant Preaching along the Eastern Coast from New England 1792-1804

On March 31 he started traveling with his wife and eight children. They traveled by land to Fredericksburg, and then took a ship to New England.[xx] They hit a terrible storm that he described writing, “The distress, which I had at that time, so affected my nervous system, that I did not entirely recover from it for more than ten years.”[xxi]

They moved to Cheshire on February 29, 1792, which was his “chiefest” home ever since.[xxii] From there he continued his itinerant preaching ministry throughout New England and New York.[xxiii] He still arranged preaching tours in Virginia. In 1797 he was gone for 6 months preaching on his way down and on his way back.[xxiv] He made plans to go to Virginia again in 1799, but God started to work an awakening in Cheshire. Before he traveled 100 miles he decided to go back to Cheshire where he preached every day or night until the following March.[xxv]

He didn’t see himself primarily as a local church pastor. He wrote this in clarifying his views in a dispute in the Shaftsbury Association at Cheshire, “Putting all together, the best conclusion that I can form, is, that church labor and breaking bread is what the Lord does not place on me, any more than he did baptizing on Paul.”[xxvi] He was a believer in church order and church discipline, and even submitted himself to be excommunicated if the church so decided that was necessary.[xxvii]

In December of 1813 he started for Virginia again, “preaching on the way to Washington, I crossed the Potomac into Virginia the last day of January 1814. I was in the state eighty days, in which time I traveled seven hundred miles, and preached more than seventy times.”[xxviii] On his way back to New England he preached in Dr. Straughton’s meeting-house in Philadelphia on the evening preceding the meeting of the great Convention which formed the plan of the missionary society.[xxix]

He was planning to move his family westward away from Cheshire, but as he was riding his horse on a prospecting journey the horse fell and broke Leland’s leg. At the advice of his family they did not make the move.[xxx]


He preferred to use few words chosen carefully and spoken clearly: “Brevity is the soul of wit, the nerve of argument and the bone of good sense, but loquacity palsies attention, massacres time, and darkens counsel.”[xxxi] In 1806, while back in Cheshire, he was troubled by his lack of his knowledge of, “how to address a congregation of sinners, as such, in gospel style.”[xxxii] He described his trouble writing, “that I did not preach right, which was the cause why I was so barren in myself and useless to others.”[xxxiii] This may be the point when he began to preach in the “expository style”. The author of his “Further Sketches” writes:

His preaching, in latter years of his life, was almost entirely of the expository kind. He would frequently, after naming his text, go back a number of verses, or to the beginning of the chapter, and comment upon each clause in succession, and sometimes the close of the sermon would come without his having reached his text at all. But “it is no matter,” he would say, “so long as I keep within the lids of the Bible. Indeed, it makes but little difference what text I take, I must come to the third of John before I close. If I take an Old Testament text, I must preach a New Testament sermon.” . . . The predominant influence of his preaching was to produce solemnity of feeling, and deep conviction of truth.[xxxiv]

In the midst of his troubled heart he kept preaching, and saw more converted and coming to be baptized.[xxxv]

In 1809 he went on a preaching tour through New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and back to Massachusetts.[xxxvi] On this journey Isaac Backus (co-founder of Brown University) even asked Leland to help baptize some of the people who were being saved in his congregation.[xxxvii] The further sketches describes his preaching style:

In his preaching, he sometimes, by a single sentence, presented before the mind a view of eternal things, which left an indelible impression on the memory[xxxviii] . . . His manner, however, was far from being affected or theatrical; and he did not deem it inconsistent, either with real solemnity, or with the spirit of true piety, to mingle, not only in his writing and conversation, but in his preaching, occasional strokes of humor or of satire. But the “facetious tales” had always a higher object in view than to excite a smile, or “court the skittish fancy.” They were brought in illustration of some important truth, which he wished to exhibit in the clearest light, and to impress forcibly upon the mind; effects which their aptness was well calculated to produce. The shafts of satire, too, pointed though they might be, were not dipped in the gall of malice or ill will, nor aimed at anything which he esteemed valuable or sacred.[xxxix]


In York he had a meeting at the edge of Warwick. Colonel Harwood, with six others, came to stop Leland from preaching. Here are the events of this meeting:

“Sir,” said the Colonel, “I am come to stop you from preaching here today.” Without any time to think, I gave a heavy stamp on the floor, and told him in the name of God to forbear. He replied, “I did not come to fight, but to stop you from preaching.” A Mr. Cole Diggs, son of a counsellor [sic.], was there, and said, “Col. Harwood, you are a representative in the General Assembly, and the Assembly has just made a law to secure religious rights of all, and now you come to prevent them. What does that look like?” Said the Colonel, “Mr. Diggs, I only came to prevent unlawful conventicle, for this meeting draws away people from the church!” Mrs. Russell, the mistress of the house replied, “Ha! Colonel, I think it a pity people cannot do as they please, in their own house.” “Madam,” said the Colonel, “I did not come to dispute with ladies.” And here the fracas ended.  The Colonel and Co. went off, and the meeting was continued.[xl]

The Colonel said Leland made no more of him than if he had been a dog, so he determined not to bother him anymore.[xli] Some of the Colonel’s servants were then baptized. Also, the wife of Captain Robert Howard, who was a vestryman in York, wanted to be baptized too. Howard threatened Leland with a whip of cow-skin to, “lash me out of the county.”[xlii] God penetrated Howard’s heart though, and Leland baptized him too.[xliii] He recounted baptizing a woman even as her husband approached with a gun with the expressed intent to kill.[xliv] He even remembered a time that a man attacked him with a sword for his preaching of the gospel.[xlv] There’s no doubt that these persecutions were part of his tireless efforts to fight for religious liberty.

Later in life, at age 77, he came under accusations from others as well. Even as he fought to preach the gospel and for religious liberty, others were coming against him:

The year past I have had a large epistolary correspondence with distant friends; and have been advertised in the newspapers, through the states, as an infidel and an outcast. May the Lord increase my faith and make me more holy, which will be the best refutations of the libel.[xlvi]

Humbly Passing the Torch to the Next Generation

He was humble at the news of the Great Awakening carrying on without his involvement:

It is now said that there is a great ingathering into the fold of Christ in all the country around; but according to appearances, I am left behind. Well, let me, like John the Baptist, be full of joy, that others increase while I decrease. I have had my day, and must now give way to the young. The unchangeable God has one class of servants after another to work in his vineyard.[xlvii]

His meekness can be seen in this comment on his life’s work of preaching the gospel six years before his death at 80 years of age, “It is now sixty years since I began to preach. But ah! how little I have done! and how imperfect that little!”[xlviii]



[i]Works, 17-18.

[ii] Works, 15, 18.

[iii] Works, 19.

[iv] Works, 43-44.

[v]Works, 19.

[vi] Works, 19. After traveling to South Carolina in 1777 to 1778 he discerned that he was away too much to be a blessing to his church, “I was too young and roving to be looked up to as a pastor. Difficulties arose, the church split, and I just obtained dismission and recommendation.”

[vii] Works, 19.

[viii] Works, 20.

[ix] Works, 35.

[x]Works, 24.

[xi] Works, 24.

[xii] Works, 24-25.

[xiii] Works, 25.

[xiv] Works, 26.

[xv] i.e. the “Ginger-Cake Sermon” preached for the Association in Caroline, 28-29.

[xvi] Works, 25.

[xvii] Works, 65. Sample’s Virginia Baptists, 1810

[xviii] Works, 29.

[xix] Works, 29.

[xx] Works, 29.

[xxi] Works, 29.

[xxii] Works, 30.

[xxiii] Works, 30.

[xxiv] Works, 31.

[xxv] Works, 31.

[xxvi] Works, 59-60.

[xxvii] Works, 59-60.

[xxviii] Works, 34.

[xxix] Works, 34.

[xxx] Works, 34.

[xxxi] Works, 39.

[xxxii] Works, 32-33.

[xxxiii] Works, 33.

[xxxiv] Works, 71.

[xxxv] Works, 33.

[xxxvi] Works, 32.

[xxxvii] Works, 32.

[xxxviii] Works, 66.

[xxxix] Works, 66. See the example on pgs. 66-68.

[xl] Works, 21.

[xli] Works, 21.

[xlii] Works, 21.

[xliii] Works, 22.

[xliv] Works, 26-27.

[xlv] Works, 28.

[xlvi] Works, 38.

[xlvii] Works, 38.

[xlviii] Works, 39.

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