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The Life of John Leland: Statesman

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


III. John Leland – Statesman Patriot[i]

John Leland’s first memories were the death of George II[ii] and the coronation of George III, coupled with some melancholy accounts of the French and Indian war.[iii] His biographer wrote:

The great object, (next in importance to his mission as a preacher of Christ,) for which he seems to have been raised up by a special Providence, was to promote the establishment of religious liberty in the United States.[iv]

Leland understood that being a minister of the gospel was not antithetical to being a vocal citizen and an influential statesman. Here’s how his biographer described Leland’s commitment:

[A]s long as he could speak with his tongue, wield a pen, or heave a cry to heaven, whenever the rights of men, the liberty of conscience, or the good of his country were invaded by fraud or force, his feeble efforts should not lie dormant.[v]

His influence in politics can be seen particularly surrounding the following four events.

1. The Religious Assessment Controversy (1781-1787)

John Leland and James Madison’s father became acquainted through Leland’s request for permission to preach at the Pine Stake Church at Mountain Run in 1781.[vi] In 1783 Virginia Baptists associated in the Baptist General Committee, which was formed to, “consider all the political grievances of the whole Baptist Society in Virginia.” Mark Scarberry has written that the Committee served, “the exclusive role of presenting any Baptist ‘petition, memorial, or remonstrance’ on behalf of any Baptist Association to the state legislature.”[vii]

In 1784 Patrick Henry brought a bill in the Virginia Legislature for a “religious assessment”. Henry was a strong advocate for individual liberty, but he was also for the sponsoring or “establishing” of a religion. James Madison publicly opposed Henry’s bill, and later in 1785, Madison anonymously wrote Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.[viii] In 1786 Leland was appointed to represent Baptist interests at the Virginia Legislature by the Baptist General Committee.[ix] L. H. Butterfield has noted that the Baptists were Madison’s only allies at first in the religious assessment controversy.[x] The Baptist Committee asked the Virginia Legislature for the, “repeal of the act incorporating the Episcopal Church.” The Episcopal Church was trying to protect, “the extensive property it held under the old establishment.”[xi] The Episcopal Church had obtained the property and land from the colonial governments or by taxation of all the people. Therefore, the Baptists thought the property and land should belong not only to one denomination.[xii]

In 1787 Leland and Reuben Ford brought a report to the Baptist Committee that the Virginia Legislature repealed, “the provisions for incorporation and governance of the Episcopal Church, but not the provisions that allowed the Episcopal Church to keep the glebe lands and other property.”[xiii] Madison voted against taking the glebe lands and the property from the Episcopal Church. These events proved that Madison was a friend of the Baptists and religious liberty. This is the context for the relationship Leland would forge with Madison, which would secure religious liberty in the Establishment Clause.

2. Philadelphia Convention, Confederation Congress, and Virginia Constitutional Convention (1787-1788)

James Madison was the primary author of the Constitution of the United States, and on September 17, 1787 the Philadelphia Convention approved and signed it. Shortly after, at the Confederation Congress in New York, the federalists blocked any proposed changes and ruled out a bill of rights. They closed by deciding to send the Constitution as it was to the states for ratification. It was common knowledge that if Virginia did not ratify the Constitution, that the Constitution would have failed overall.[xiv]

James Madison & The Virginia Constitutional Convention

Virginia was trending against the Constitution, and they were going to have a Constitutional Convention on June 2, 1788 to vote on whether or not to ratify. Each county could send two delegates, and Madison eventually decided to run in his home county of Orange. The election for delegates from Orange County was set for March 24, 1788. Madison felt it was inappropriate to campaign publicly, but this would soon change, because of the influence of the Baptists.[xv]

The Influence of the Baptists

On January 30, 1788 Madison received a letter from his father describing that the Baptists were generally opposed to the Constitution in its present form. He urged him to come back in early March to campaign, because some were waiting to form their final opinion until they heard from him in person.[xvi] Madison’s uncle also urged him to come and campaign. In the letters Madison was receiving he kept hearing about the influence of the Baptists. One name was particularly prominent, John Leland, “The leader of the Virginia Baptists.”[xvii]

Madison Goes to Virginia Because of the Baptists

Letters from John Dawson[xviii] and Joseph Spencer[xix] mentioned John Leland by name. The influence of Patrick Henry and George Mason, both against ratification in Virginia, finally convinced him to come back.

Madison left New York on March 4, 1788. He stopped in Philadelphia for about a week, and then proceeded to Mount Vernon on March 18, 1788 to spend a day with George Washington. On the morning of March 20, 1788 he left Mount Vernon and arrived in Fredericksburg later in the evening. When he arrived in Fredericksburg he received a letter from Joseph Spencer. It included a letter from John Leland to Thomas Barbour.[xx] Spencer wrote that Barbour, “was prejudicing the weaker class of people against the Constitution and winning supporters through misrepresentations.”[xxi] He wrote further, urging Madison to meet with Leland:

[I]n a general way the Baptists, the preachers of that society, are much alarmed fearing religious liberty is not sufficiently secured, they pretend to other objections, but be removed by some one capable of the task, I think they would become friends to it, that body of people has become very formidable in light of[xxii] elections, as I can think of no gentleman of my acquaintance so suitable to the task as your self, I have taken the liberty to request it of you, several of your connections in Orange join me in [this] opinion, that it would answer a valuable purpose, for I am certain that people rely much on your integrity and candor, Mr. Leland & Mr. Bledsoe and Sanders are the most public men of that society in Orange, therefore as Mr. Leland lies in your way home from Fredericksburg to Orange [I] would advise you will call on him & spend a few hours in his company . . . my fears are that except you and your friends do exert yourselves very much you will not obtain your election in Orange, such are the prejudices of the people for in short there is nothing so vile, but what the Constitution is charged with, hope to see you in Orange in a few days . . . Enclosed you’ll receive [Leland’s] objections, which was sent by me to Barbour, a copy I took, this copy was first designed for Captain Walker, but as I hoped you’ll be in this state in a few days [I] thought [it] proper to send to you, by which means you’ll be made acquainted with their objections and have time to consider them should you think it an object worth your attention.[xxiii]

Leland’s letter outlined ten objections to the Constitution, and he was especially critical of the vote against a bill of rights and no guarantee of religious liberty. [xxiv] Without the support of Virginia Baptists, Madison was, “seriously at risk of being excluded from the convention unless he could overcome Leland’s well-formed objections.”[xxv]

By this time Madison may also have heard that on March 7, 1788, the Baptist General Committee had considered, “[w]hether the new Federal Constitution . . . made sufficient provision for the secure enjoyment of religious liberty,” and had “agreed unanimously, that, in the opinion of the General Committee, it did not.” From 1786 to 1788 Leland was part of the Baptist General Committee. His particular role was that of a messenger to the General Assembly, which was appointed to draft and present memorials respecting the Incorporating act, the application of the glebe lands to public use, etc.[xxvi] Leland probably had a strong influence on the Baptist General Committee’s March 7 resolution, “Perhaps the only way to blunt the statewide effect of the Committee’s resolution would be to change the mind of the key figure.”[xxvii]

Madison Meets with John Leland[xxviii]

These are the events that led to the famous meeting between James Madison and John Leland that likely took place on March 22, 1788.[xxix] If Madison wanted to have an influence in seeing the Constitution ratified he had to win this election,[xxx] and Madison left himself less than four days for local campaigning. In order to win, he first had to win John Leland’s support. Leland waited to publicly endorse Madison until after Madison’s speech on Sunday, March 23.[xxxi]

The meeting between Madison and Leland had at least three effects. First, it influenced Leland’s position. A vote for candidates who supported the ratification of the Constitution did not equate to a vote against any future amendments or a bill of rights. Second, it influenced Madison’s position to embrace an active pursuit of religious freedom by way of amending the Constitution and pushing for a bill of rights. Third, this meeting seems to have been the key explanation for why Madison won the election. The county was leaning against the Constitution. Each voter could vote for two candidates, and Madison and Gordon were elected as Orange County’s delegates:[xxxii]

James Madison (federalist)             202

James Gordon, Jr. (federalist)       187

Thomas Barbour (antifederalist)   56

Charles Porter (antifederalist)        34

On June 25, 1788, after rejecting a motion to ratify it conditionally with amendments,[xxxiii] the delegates to the Virginia Convention ratified the Constitution by a vote of 89 to 79.[xxxiv] The Constitution was ratified by Virginia based on Madison’s promise to the electorate that he would pursue amendments to the Constitution, and that if it was ratified their proposals for amendments would be considered, “Without Madison at the ratifying convention to oppose Patrick Henry, it seems likely the result would have been different.”[xxxv] News of Virginia’s ratification influenced New York to ratify the Constitution later in July by a close vote of 30 to 27.[xxxvi]

Leland was influential in electing Madison, but this was only the first step to securing religious liberty. To make amendments by adding the Bill of Rights, he had to help Madison get elected to the first Congress as a representative from Commonwealth.[xxxvii]

3. Madison’s Election to the First Congress, Federal House of Representatives (February of 1789)

Madison’s position prevailed over Patrick Henry’s in Virginia, but Henry hoped to make major changes to the Constitution.[xxxviii] Madison would oppose major changes to the constitution but supported making minor amendments.[xxxix] Because of this, Henry embarked on an anti-Madison campaign in Virginia. This was no small bump in the road. When it came to Virginia politics in general, and the Virginia General Assembly in particular, Madison commented that Patrick Henry was “omnipotent.”[xl] Under Henry’s influence Virginia denied Madison a Senate seat.[xli] Further, Henry and others levied the false charge that Madison would not work to amend the Constitution.[xlii]

Patrick Henry’s Politics

The election for the federal House was set for February 2, 1789, and Madison’s prospects for election were slim. First, the Virginia legislature sought Madison’s defeat by gerrymandering a Congressional district lumping Orange County with a number of anti-federalist counties.[xliii] Second, Virginia created a one-year residency requirement to limit the counties for which candidates could run.[xliv] Third, it seems that Patrick Henry’s support for Madison’s reappointment to the Confederation Congress, which met in New York, was an attempt to keep him physically out of the state while they recruited James Monroe, a strong anti-federalist, to run against him.[xlv]

Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson on December 8, 1788 explaining that even if he returned to the Commonwealth he would probably lose.[xlvi] Despite his prediction, he decided to go back to campaign anyway. He planned to arrive in Alexandria on December 18, 1788, and then travel to Orange on December 26. Again, Madison needed the support of Baptists in his district if he was going to win, and they were largely neutral between Monroe and Madison.[xlvii] Madison was publicly questioning if a bill of rights was necessary, but his main goal in his questioning was that he wanted to prevent a conditional ratification with previous amendments.[xlviii] Mark Scarberry outlines five reasons that Madison hoped he could win: (1) His history of working with Baptists for religious freedom, (2) He could be more effective because of his greater experience in government and his familiarity with the system, (3) His association with George Washington, (4) The confidence of the Baptists that he would consider a bill of rights, and (5) The personal support he’d receive from John Leland and other Baptist leaders.[xlix]

The way Madison fought the false-charges that many were accusing him of was by launching a letter writing campaign and by making a number of personal appearances in Orange, Culpeper, and Louisa Counties.[l] In his letters and public appearances he pledged to, “sponsor a bill of rights in the First Congress and work diligently toward its passage.”[li]

Leland seems to have been very involved in Madison’s campaign: “Little direct evidence has survived of Leland’s role in the campaign, but it seems to have been substantial.”[lii] On July 1, 1788 Madison sent a copy of his “Federalist Papers” to his father and also, “one for Mr. Leland – the other for Mr. Bledsoe.”[liii] Even as he depended on Leland and the Baptists during the election for the Virginia Ratification Convention, now he needed them to be elected to Congress. George Nicholas wrote Madison on Friday, January 2, 1789 speaking of Leland’s influence and of how they should ask Leland to exert himself for their efforts.[liv] On Monday, January 12, 1789 Madison’s assistant, Benjamin Johnson, left a message with Leland’s wife, Sally, asking him to let Madison know where the, “Baptist ministers of the [Congressional] district would be holding their planned political meeting.”[lv] The clearest evidence of Leland’s help is seen in his letter to Madison after he won the election. In the letter he refers to his “undertaking” in Madison’s cause in a humble way. Further, he congratulated Madison, and then he made requests of Madison to keep him informed about the national debt.[lvi] Leland also put an emphasis on his main concern:

One thing I shall expect; that if religious liberty is anywise threatened, that I shall receive the earliest intelligence . . . I take the liberty of writing thus to you, lest I should not be at home when you pass by on your way to Congress.[lvii]

Madison Wins with the Support of Leland and the Baptists

Here were the election results:

James Madison                    1,308

James Monroe                     972

Madison won by 336 votes. Also, he won by a large margin in many of the counties that had a lot of Baptists:

Orange County (home to both Madison and Leland)

James Madison                    216

James Monroe                     9

Louisa County (where Leland pastored a church)

James Madison                    228

James Monroe                     124

Culpeper County

James Madison                    256

James Monroe                     103

Leland wasn’t the only Baptist leader to help Madison though. George Eve helped as well. Eve even defended Madison at a Baptist meeting after he had received a letter from him explaining that he would work for the adoption of a bill of rights.[lviii]

Madison Keeps His Promise – The Bill of Rights & Religious Liberty

After his election, Madison brought the amendments that became the Bill of Rights, further unifying the country and establishing religious liberty. Religious liberty, also known as the “Establishment Clause”, was outlined and protected in the very first Amendment. Here is the Amendment that Leland and so many others worked tirelessly to establish:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no Law respecting an Establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of Speech, or of the press; or the Right of the People peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.[lix]

Mark Scarberry writes of Leland’s response to Madison’s work to establish the Bill of Rights: “When Congress sent the Bill of Rights to the states for ratification, Leland sent word to Madison that the Baptists were ‘entirely satisfied.’”[lx] In 1834, at 80 years of age, Leland 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.”[lxi]

4. Jefferson’s Election as President

After moving back to New England in 1792 Leland, “commenced anew the warfare against religious intolerance, and the defence of the cause that had so signally triumphed in Virginia.”[lxii] He published his tract Rights of Conscience Inalienable when in New London.[lxiii] He had to fight many years in New England to bring religious liberty by ending the Congregationalist establishment.[lxiv] Mark Scarberry has written, “[O]nce he had been settled in Cheshire, Massachusetts for eight years, he so influenced Cheshire voters that tallies like 188 to 1 and 223 to 2 in favor of the Republican candidate for governor were typical; in the 1804 presidential election, the tally was 181 to zero in favor of Thomas Jefferson.”[lxv]

The Mammoth Cheese

On New Years Day in 1802 Leland met with Jefferson in Washington, D.C. In his autobiography he described that he was in charge of a cheese sent to President Jefferson, “Notwithstanding my trust, I preached all the way there and on my return. I had large congregations; led in part by curiosity to hear the Mammoth Priest, as I was called.”[lxvi] The cheese has come to be called the “Mammoth Cheese”. It weighed in at 1,235 lbs., and it was said that it was produced from the milk of good Republican cows.[lxvii]

On January 3, 1802 President Jefferson invited Leland to preach before both houses of Congress on the text “Behold a greater than Solomon is here.” (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31) Congress had Sunday worship services in the House chamber since 1800.

Legacy as a Statesman

The events of Leland’s life as a statesman patriot provide part of the context for how we should understand the development and observance of Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States. Leland’s involvement makes it clear that the Establishment Clause was not created in order to discourage religious leaders from participating in politics.[lxviii] Even Jefferson’s concept of a “wall of separation” comes from a letter to Connecticut Baptists written one year into his presidency on January 1, 1802.[lxix] How would they have understood the “wall of separation”? Leland was influential New England at the time, and his pamphlet The Rights of Conscience Inalienable would have been widely influential, especially among Baptists.[lxx] Mark Scarberry writes:

Leland remained a staunch Jeffersonian Republican (and, later, a Jacksonian Democrat) his entire life and continued to use his religious influence as a very popular Baptist preacher to advance that party’s cause – apparently without any objection from Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, or Van Buren – until his death in 1841.[lxxi]

Here’s how Lyman Butterfield, an editor of Thomas Jefferson and the Adams family papers, described John Leland’s influence:

Leland played a substantial part in molding [an] American tradition that is full of meaning to all of us today—the separation of church and state in the United States . . . In 1774, when Leland was converted to the Baptist faith, the Baptists were generally regarded as a set of ignorant enthusiasts, without social standing, without legal sanction for their religious services or for marriages performed by their ministers. In Virginia Baptist preachers were being regularly thrown into prison as strollers and vagabonds; mob actions breaking up their services went unpunished by the magistrates; their petitions to the legislature for relief from these oppressions were largely disregarded. In Massachusetts and Connecticut Baptists were fined and their property was distrained for taxes to pay Congregational ministers whose teachings were repugnant to them, and to build and repair meeting houses they would not attend. Much of Leland’s sixty-seven year career as a Baptist evangelist was expended in fighting to remove these disabilities—not only for Baptists but for persons of all faiths, Christian and non-Christian, and even for those who held no recognized religious faith. When he died the battle for complete religious freedom in the United States had been very largely won, though this was not a battle in which there could ever be a final victory.[lxxii]

In this world, religious freedom is not a battle in which there could ever be a final victory. May God, in His grace, raise up yet more to tirelessly preach the gospel and defend and uphold religious liberty for the glory of God.

To live like him, is to mourn over the sins of the earth, and hold up God’s everlasting truth to a dying world. To die like him, is to stand on the confines of earth, looking off into eternity, and to depart with the ‘prospect of heaven clear.’ To rest, at last, like him is, we doubt not, to rest forever in the Paradise of God.[lxxiii]


[i] Regarding the picture above: White, J. Eugene Artist Finds History Colorful Work Field published in the Baptist Standard on March 13, 1964. John Leland and James Madison at Orange, Va. by Erwin M. Hearne, Jr. (1963)

[ii] Works, 16.

[iii] Works, 9.

[iv] Works, 52.

[v] Works, 56.

[vi] Scarberry, Mark S. John Leland and James Madison: Religious Influence on the Ratification of the Constitution and on the Proposal of the Bill of Rights found in the Penn State Law Review, Vol. 113, No. 3, 2009, 751.

[vii] Scarberry, 753.

[viii] Scarberry, 752.

[ix] Scarberry, 755.

[x] Butterfield, L. H. Elder John Leland, Jeffersonian Itinerant, 176.

[xi] Butterfield, 177.

[xii] Scarberry, 755-756.

[xiii] Scarberry, 756.

[xiv] Land, Richard The Divided States of America, What Liberals and Conservatives Get Wrong About Faith and Politics (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 123. See also, Scarberry, 770.

[xv] Scarberry, 759-60.

[xvi] Scarberry, 760.

[xvii] Scarberry, 761.

[xviii] Scarberry, 761.

[xix] Scarberry, 763-4. Updated language for ease in reading. Bold and italics are my emphasis.

[xx] Scarberry, 762.

[xxi] Scarberry, 763.

[xxii] I have rendered the original, “formible in pint of,” as, “formidable in light of.”

[xxiii] Scarberry, 763-4. I updated the spelling and some punctuation for ease in reading. Bold and italics are my emphasis.

[xxiv] Scarberry, 764-5.

[xxv] Scarberry, 765-66.

[xxvi] Works, 52.

[xxvii] Scarberry, 766

[xxviii] There is much circumstantial evidence that indicates that Madison took Spencer’s advice to meet with John Leland on his way to Orange County. We find the six points of circumstantial evidence that Scarberry outlines to be convincing: [767] First, Madison had a strong motive, and Leland was on the way to Orange. [769] Second, after this date Madison seems to have regularly stopped by Leland’s home while traveling. Leland wrote a year later, “I take the liberty of writing thus to you, lest I should not be at home when you pass by on your way to Congress.” [769] Third, the election results show that Madison did something to sway the Baptists and particularly Leland’s vote. Later in life Leland wrote that he, “was in the vigor of life when the national constitution was formed and gave [his] vote for a friend to its ratification, and ha[s] never repented it.”  [769] Fourth, Madison was expected to arrive for dinner on March 22, but he didn’t arrive as expected. [770] Fifth, the tradition that they met was alive and well before the time of Madison’s death (June 28, 1836), and before the time of Leland’s death (January 14, 1841). [770] In a public eulogy on July 18, 1836, John Strode Barbour (lawyer, Virginia state legislator, and member of Congress) discussed at some length the close alliance between Madison and the Baptists and said that Madison’s election to the Virginia ratifying convention in 1788 was owing to his changing the minds of two Baptist ministers on the eve of the election: “The celebrated John Leland was one of them . . . and I speak but the voice of faithful tradition in saying that these changes were decisive in the election . . . [Madison’s] soft and assuasive and lucid elocution changed two ministers of the Gospel of the Baptist Church on the day preceding the election that conversation carried him to the Convention. The celebrated John Leland was one of them. ” [771] Sixth, the testimonies of George N. Briggs and Maria Newton Marshall. In an 1857 letter written for and printed in the Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit, Briggs shared his memory of a conversation he had with Leland in 1837 saying Madison visited Leland the day before the election, “Mr. Madison spent half a day with him, and fully and unreservedly communicated to him his opinions . . .” [772-773]

[xxix] James Madison and John Leland met sometime between Madison’s receipt of Spencer’s letter on March 20 in Fredericksburg, and his public speech in Orange on March 23. It’s most likely that they met on March 22, 1788. See Scarberry 770.

[xxx] Scarberry, 770.

[xxxi] Scarberry, 773.

[xxxii] Scarberry, 769.

[xxxiii] By a vote of 80 to 88.

[xxxiv] Scarberry, 778.

[xxxv] Scarberry, 776.

[xxxvi] Scarberry, 777.

[xxxvii] Scarberry, 779.

[xxxviii] Scarberry, 778.

[xxxix] Scarberry, 778.

[xl] Scarberry, 779.

[xli] Scarberry, 779.

[xlii] Scarberry, 779.

[xliii] Scarberry, 779-780.

[xliv] Scarberry, 780.

[xlv] Madison and Monroe were close friends, and Monroe would eventually succeed Madison as President.

[xlvi] Scarberry, 781.

[xlvii] Scarberry, 784.

[xlviii] Scarberry, 785.

[xlix] Scarberry, 785-786.

[l] Scarberry, 787-788.

[li] Scarberry, 788.

[lii] Scarberry, 788.

[liii] Scarberry, 788.

[liv] Scarberry, 790.

[lv] Scarberry, 790.

[lvi] Scarberry, 789-790. “If Mr. Madison can get leisure enough in Congress it would please my fancy to have a list of all the names of the members of Congress; in which state they reside, and which House they fill: and it would inform my mind to have an account of all our national debts; to what powers they are due, and at what [percent]; and likewise of our internal debt. And it would give me further satisfaction to know (after the trial) whether the duties arising from commerce are sufficient (without a direct tax) for supporting the federal government, and the payment of our interest upon debts. No doubt, there will be printed statements, at proper times; but I am so little acquainted with the literary and political world, that without the aid of a particular friend, I shall never see them. If I could see all the laws I should be glad, altho’ in person, I have little use for them.”

[lvii] Scarberry, 790.

[lviii] Scarberry, 792-795.

[lix] One Nation Under God… Our Founding Documents (Nashville: For Faith & Family Publishing, ), 46.

[lx] Scarberry, 797.

[lxi] Works, 39.

[lxii] Works, 55.

[lxiii] Works, 55.

[lxiv] Scarberry, 797.

[lxv] Scarberry, 789.

[lxvi] Works, 32.

[lxvii] Scarberry, 740.

[lxviii] Scarberry, 739.

[lxix] Jefferson, Thomas The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume VIII (Washington: Taylor & Maurey, 1854), 113.

[lxx] Later in 1809 he would even help Isaac Backus in his ministry in Connecticut.

[lxxi] Scarberry, 738.

[lxxii] Butterfield, 156-7.

[lxxiii] Works, 72. This is from the closing portion of the sermon preached at Leland’s funeral.

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