By / Aug 25

For the past nine years, I have spent a considerable amount of time among evangelicals in the millennial generation. Most of them I know are theologically minded and committed to such biblical priorities as evangelism, discipleship, the pursuit of justice, and global missions. They want to change the world. They want to be spiritual radicals.

Yet, when it comes to evangelical engagement of the public square, many range from ambivalent to downright pessimistic. They are especially critical of how their parents’ generation engaged politics. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard millennials criticize the Religious Right, denounce the close ties between (white) evangelicals and the Republican Party, and mock leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. (Admittedly, the latter deserves most of it.) They argue that culture means more than politics, they believe that soul care is more important than statecraft, and they complain that too many evangelicals seem obsessed with politics. And to be clear, almost all of these millennial critics are theological conservatives who are pro-life, pro-marriage (traditionally defined), and pro-religious liberty.

I’ve become convinced that many of these jaded millennial evangelicals think the way they do because they aren’t aware of some of the most thoughtful and winsome role models they could draw upon, especially from the previous generation. This is why Owen Strachan’s new book is so important. The Colson Way: Loving Your Neighbor and Living with Faith in a Hostile World (Nelson, 2015) is an appreciative biography of Charles “Chuck” Colson (1931–2012), one of the leading evangelical public intellectuals from the mid-1970s to his death in 2012. I believe this is a timely book for a kairos moment among evangelicals navigating American culture.

Over the course of eight chapters, Strachan provides a narrative biography of Colson’s life that focuses on the latter’s spiritual journey, ministry accomplishments, and influence upon American evangelicals. Colson was raised in a family without much means, yet he became a driven overachiever with degrees from two elite universities: Brown and George Washington. He was a Marine officer, a successful attorney, and a dedicated political activist. After landing a key job in the Nixon Administration, Colson developed a reputation as Nixon’s “hatchet man” who was willing to do anything to advance the cause—even the ethically questionable. He became caught up in the backlash against the Watergate Scandal, leading to his eventual conviction for a crime that he technically didn’t commit. Yet, in the midst of this season of crisis, Colson was converted to faith in Christ. His seven months in an Alabama penitentiary pricked his nascent Christian conscience regarding the need for redemptive prison reform.

Following his incarceration, Colson wrote a bestselling spiritual autobiography—the first of dozens of influential books—and founded Prison Fellowship, a parachurch ministry dedicated to promoting evangelism and spiritual flourishing among prisoners. He became increasingly attracted to Christian worldview thinking and was mentored by a number of leading evangelical theologians and apologists, including Francis Schaeffer, Carl F. H. Henry, and R. C. Sproul. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the entrepreneurial Colson helped launch a number of other ministry initiatives, including his Breakpoint radio program, the Wilberforce Forum (now the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview), Evangelicals and Catholics Together (with Richard John Neuhaus), and the Manhattan Declaration. Though Colson remained a political conservative until his death in 2012, he was always more of a thoughtful fellow traveler with the Religious Right rather than a card-carrying leader in the movement. Most important, he remained an evangelist with a particular burden for prisoners.

The Colson Way is not a critical scholarly study of Colson’s life and thought, but it is a well-researched biography that is meant to both inform and encourage readers. Strachan does a fine job of avoiding hagiography while also writing with a spiritual intent. Each chapter includes Strachan’s own reflections on Colson, his interaction with relevant Scripture texts, and suggestions for personal application—especially for millennial readers. The Colson Way is not just a biography of an influential man; it is a call to action.

For younger evangelicals who care about both evangelism and social justice, Colson offers a wise role model who seamlessly integrated both biblical concerns into his own spirituality and activism. For millennials who are theological and moral conservatives, but are hesitant to cast their lot uncritically with the GOP (or any other political party), Colson provides an example for how to engage in politics without becoming rankly partisan. For younger millennial believers who are unapologetically evangelical, but who also believe that the Church transcends their particular ecclesial corners, Colson points to a vision of Christian unity and cooperation that is both convictional and strategic—what Colson’s fellow Southern Baptist and frequent collaborator, Timothy George, calls an “ecumenicity of the trenches.”

I’m a little bit too old to be classed with the millennials. (I’m on the tail end of Generation X.) But I can speak first-hand to the way that Colson can help a younger evangelical think through these questions. When I was a college student, Chuck Colson’s books helped rescue me from a reactionary piety and changed the way I think about the Christian life. I learned from him that worldviews matter, cultural engagement is more than political engagement, and the Church is bigger than I thought it was. I believe he can teach millennial evangelicals the same lessons. I’m thankful that Owen Strachan has offered millennials—and the rest of us—such a helpful introduction to Colson’s vision of the Christian life. My prayer is that this book will play a role in helping an entire generation of believers embrace the Colson way of following King Jesus.

By / May 14

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]

Preaching

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]

Persecution

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.

By / May 14

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

[leland-statesman]

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.

By / May 12

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

Introduction & Overview of John Leland’s Life

John Leland was born in Grafton, Massachusetts on May 14, 1754, and he died at age 86 on January 14, 1841 in Cheshire, Massachusetts.[i]

As a child he was not favored among his teachers. One teacher said this of him, “John has more knowledge than good manners.”[ii] Leland remembered the following:

In early life I had a thirst for learning. At five years old, by the instruction of a school dame, I could read the Bible currently, and afterwards, in the branches of learning, [I was] taught in common schools, I made as good proficiency as common. But what proficiency soever I made in learning (owing to a stiffness of nature and rusticity of manners) I could never gain the good will of my masters, nor was I a favorite among the scholars.[iii]

He wanted to be a lawyer, but his wishes were disappointed.[iv] Leland wrote about his lack of resources and how he read the Bible a lot as a child: “As my father had no library, and I was fond of reading, the Bible was my best companion.”[v]

As an adult he stood almost six feet tall, and was thin and spare.[vi] He married Sally Devine of Hopkinton, Massachusetts on September 30, 1776,[vii] and they had eight children.[viii]

Leland was known as the “Mammoth Priest.”[ix] He began preaching at age 18 in 1774, and he preached approximately 8,000 sermons over the course of his life.[x] It is described that Leland, “traveled distances, which, together, would form a girdle nearly sufficient to go round the terraqueous globe three times.”[xi] He baptized 1,524 people.[xii] The oldest person he ever baptized was 90 years old, in 1800. The youngest person he baptized was 9 years old, in 1788.[xiii] The number of Baptist ministers he personally knew was 962. Out of these he heard 303 of them preach, and 207 of them visited him at his home. Leland published about 30 pamphlets.[xiv] It also appears he was able to sing, and play the fiddle. He put these talents to work for the preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, “On Sunday, after service, I told the people that I had opened a dancing school, which I would attend one quarter gratis: that I would fiddle the tune which the angels sung, if they would dance repentance on their knees. The project succeeded; the dancing school gave way, and my meetings were thronged.”[xv]

A simple obelisk of blue marble marks John and Sally Leland’s grave. It says, “Here lies the body of the Rev. John Leland, of Cheshire, who labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men. He died January, 14, 1841, aged 86 years and 8 months.”[xvi]

John Leland was first and foremost a sinner saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Second, he was a preacher-evangelist. Third, he was a statesman-patriot. These three aspects of his life serve to outline the following summary of his life.

I. John Leland – Sinner Saved by Faith Alone in Jesus Christ Alone

Leland recounted that his early life consisted of indulging in sin. Even though his father and mother were believers, and John read the Bible a lot, it appears that he didn’t experience conviction for his sin until age 18, in 1772. It was at this time that he described how his sin began losing all the sweetness it once had.[xvii] A young woman he had been to many dances with was converted and then baptized.[xviii] Her conversion urged him to consider his life: “Reading the Bible and meditating on the shortness of time, and the importance of being prepared for death and judgment, occupied the chiefest of my time.”[xix] He made a vow to God that he would, “forsake all sinful courses and seek the Lord, if he would direct me how.”[xx]

For years he struggled with knowing his eternal condition, because he didn’t meet what he believed were pre-requisites of true conversion:

For a number of months before I had settled hope of my interest in Christ, the plan of atonement, by the blood of the Lamb, appeared to me as plain as ever it has since. Once, I remember to have broke out thus, when walking in the road: “O what a complete Saviour is Jesus, every way suited to my needs: I can be saved no other way – I do not wish to be saved any other way – but fear I shall never be saved in that way.”[xxi]

He spoke publicly about the Bible for the first time in February of 1774. The occasion was a dispute with a preacher who came through town. He described that the preacher was, “unclear in his mind about how salvation was given freely by grace.”[xxii] Leland didn’t believe he was a Christian at the time, but that the Lord used this event to give him saving faith in Christ and assurance:

I felt confident in myself that I did tremble before the greatness, and rejoice in the goodness of God; and spake with myself thus: “I am converted, and will not believe Satan anymore when he tells me otherwise.” . . . . My desire was to be searched, not deceived . . . . My heart was greatly attached to Scripture. I have not yet forgot the burning desire – the soul-longings that I had to know what was the mind of God, contained in his word. I would read – then pray – then read and pray again, etc. that I might know the truth as it is in Jesus.[xxiii]

Shortly after this he was convinced again that he was not a Christian, but upon reading Proverbs 30:5 he believed the Scripture to be pure and he felt his soul yield up to Christ and trust in Him. After this event – despite many trials, temptations, lingering doubts in future years, and feelings at times that he was not converted – he never again said he did not know Christ or that he was unconverted.[xxiv]

Leland – A Repenting Sinner

Even though he was a believer he could see more evil in him than he could see or even believe there was in the young converts under his preaching.[xxv] He writes, “I found more corruption in me than can be described.”[xxvi] In June of 1774 Elder Noah Alden, of Bellingham, baptized him at Northbridge with seven others.[xxvii] That year he also became a member of the Bellingham church.[xxviii]

He was not a Deist or Universalist.[xxix] He clearly did not apply the promises and precepts addressed to believers in Scripture to non-Christians. Also, he did not apply the terrors of the law to, “them who are in Christ Jesus.”[xxx] He held that God is sovereign, but also that men are responsible for their sin,[xxxi] “That God is good, and that men are rebellious; that salvation is of the Lord, and damnation of ourselves, are truths revealed as plain as a sunbeam.”[xxxii] He preached that salvation is by Christ’s work alone:

Repentance for bad works, and the practice of good works, I strive to preach; but, as repentance will not expiate crimes, and the deeds of the law will not justify, redemption by Christ is essential. The salvation of God includes three things: first, something done for us, without us; second, something done for us, within us; third, something done by us.[xxxiii]

His balance on this point is instructive even as debates continue today.

Regarding baptism, he wrote that it doesn’t put away the filth of our sin, but that it “figures out” the salvation of a soul, “which is by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead: who died for our sins and rose again for our justification.”[xxxiv] Leland exhibited the convictions of a true evangelical.[xxxv] The further sketches of Leland’s life go on to describe how he would speak of his convictions:

He insisted, in absolute and unqualified terms, on the great fundamental truths of the gospel, the necessity of regeneration, faith and repentance; but, on points not essential to salvation, though his opinions were no less firmly established, and he never shrunk from advocating them on proper occasions, yet he did not censure or denounce those who differed from him, nor exclude from fellowship, as Christians, any who gave evidence of a gracious change, whatever might be their peculiar doctrinal views.[xxxvi]

Leland – A Man of Humility

Even though he preached thousands of sermons to thousands of people he recognized his sin and was humbled by the justice and perfections of God:

My only hope of acceptance with God, is in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. And when I come to Christ for pardon, I come as an old grey-headed sinner; in the language of the publican, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ . . . . O, that the God of all grace would keep me in his holy care, and never suffer me to make shipwreck of faith and a good conscience, but make me faithful unto death, that I might finish my course with joy and receive a crown at last.[xxxvii]

He placed no hope of his own eternal rest in the things he had or the things he did, but in the finished work of Jesus Christ alone. He fought his sin to the end of his life:

The sins of childhood – the vices of youth – the improprieties, pride and arrogance of riper years; with the presumptuous and blasphemous suggestions of my mind, up till the present time, lie heavy on my mind, and sink my spirits very low. It is true, I have had a hope for more than fifty years, that my sins were atoned for by the blood of Jesus Christ, and forgiven for his name’s sake; but I still find them attached to my character, and must forever, for truth cannot decease.[xxxviii]

In fact, Leland expresses repentance and sorrow for sin and wasted years again and again in his autobiography: “Nothing of importance happened in 1789,”[xxxix] – “1804…I continued two years, which, (as it respects my ministry,) was a gap of lost time,”[xl] – “1829…Nothing singular with respect to myself has occurred in the course of the last year,”[xli] – “1830…Another year of my unprofitable life is gone. Nothing worth recording has taken place with me in the year.”[xlii] He believed his life and work to be feeble; yet, he knew that God was great. In a letter to his daughter three years before his death, on August 8, 1838, he wrote, “My life is not in my own hands, but I commit it, and all that I have, to the care of that Gracious Being who has fed and preserved me through an unprofitable life.”[xliii] He was a weak and humble man who had a great Savior, Jesus Christ.

Leland – A Man of Prayer

His humility drove him to his knees. John Leland’s utter dependence upon Christ made him into a man of prayer. At least two things are constant themes throughout his life: (1) He was always preaching the gospel. (2) He was always praying. This is plain to see again and again. The events of his life were accompanied by the conviction, and the strong urge to pray.[xliv] He described it as a “spirit of prayer”, and often this resulted in praying for the conversions of his hearers, but also in praying for safety during times of danger.[xlv] Here’s how he started many of his prayers, “Supremely great, infinitely glorious, highly exalted, everywhere present, all-wise and eternal God.”[xlvi] His prayers spoke of the great and awesome God revealed in the Holy Bible.

Last Years

Leland believed firmly that men were not able to change hearts by will power. In his later years he observed younger preachers emerging with a different view:

January 28, 1835. – I have been preaching for sixty years to convince men that human powers were too degenerate to effect a change of heart by self-exertion; and all the revivals of religion that I have seen have substantially accorded with that sentiment. But now a host of preachers and people have risen up, who ground salvation on the foundation that I have sought to demolish. The world is gone after them, and their converts increase abundantly.[xlvii]

He believed that men couldn’t save themselves, but only God could “effect a change of heart.” He attributed this view, of a degenerate mankind, to be part of the soil out of which the revivals he had witnessed in his life flourished.

As an old man, Leland felt like his life and work were eclipsed, but in his humility he resolved to pass the baton of ministry to the next generation:

May 14, 1830. – 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.[xlviii]

He was content to see the Lord work how He decided was best. This being said, his next entry describes how he assumed that God was done with him a little prematurely. The Lord had plans to use him in the great ingathering that was taking place:

July 11. – Why art thou cast down, O my soul! The morning cometh as well as the night. Since writing the above note, God has graciously poured out his spirit in Hancock. Yesterday I baptized ten, which, together with three scattering ones, raises my baptismal list to fourteen hundred and eighty-four.[xlix]

He had seen many changes throughout the course of his life. The last thing he wrote in his autobiography recounted this:

July 4, 1835. – It is now fifty-nine years since the independence of the United States was declared. In this length of time the inhabitants have increased from three to fourteen millions. The changes that have taken place are innumerable. Sixty-five years ago I was old enough to observe the face of things, and see what was going on: had I been in a dead sleep the sixty-five years, and were now awake, such a change has taken place in the face of the earth, in architecture, in all the arts, in costume and regimen, and in the forms of religion, that I should doubt whether I had awakened in the same world. The love of money, sexual correspondence, diseases and death, however, remain stationary.[l]

He remained humble to the end. Toward the end of his life he said, “Bury me in an humble manner. I want no encomiums; I deserve none. I feel myself a poor, miserable sinner, and Christ is my only hope.”[li]

[i] Works, 9, 49, 50. I updated some of the spellings in quotations throughout this biography in order aide to readers.

[ii] Works, 10.

[iii] Works, 10.

[iv] Works, 10.

[v] Works, 10.

[vi] Works, 72. His biographer wrote that the sketch included in this brief biography was closer to the likeness of his appearance than any written description could ascertain.[vii] Works, 19.[viii] Works, 29.

[ix] Works, 32.

[x] He didn’t write his sermons, so unfortunately there are not many left in existence: “[A]s it is well known that he never wrote even the heads of his sermons, the memories of his hearers are the only source from which we can now draw, for even these.” Works, 46.

[xi] Works, 35.

[xii] Works, 39.

[xiii] Works, 38.

[xiv] Works, 35.

[xv] Works, 24, 27, 28. He wrote at least 10 hymns that are preserved on pages 322-9 of his works.

[xvi] Works, 50. Leland requested that this be the phrase written on his grave marker if anyone was going to write something about his life. (48) On the south side it says, “Sarah, consort of Rev. John Leland. She died October 5, 1837, aged 84 years.” Lastly, on the north side it says, “This monument was erected by the children of the deceased, to point out the resting-place of their revered parents.” (50)

[xvii] Works, 11.

[xviii] Works, 11.

[xix] Works, 11.

[xx] Works, 11.

[xxi] Works 12.

[xxii] Works, 13.

[xxiii] Works, 14.

[xxiv] Works, 14. One can really get a sense of this by reading his autobiography.[xxv] Works, 15.

[xxvi] Works, 15-16.

[xxvii] Works, 16.

[xxviii] Works, 19.

[xxix] Works, 10, 24, 47. He was converted under the preaching of Elhanan Winchester who later became an American Universalist “evangelist”. Scarberry Law Piece, 746. Leland clearly did not follow Winchester’s theological trajectory.

[xxx] Works, 68.

[xxxi] Works, 68-69.

[xxxii] Works, 68.

[xxxiii] Works, 69.

[xxxiv] Works, 38.

[xxxv] Sample’s Virginia Baptists, 1810.

[xxxvi] Works, 51.

[xxxvii] Works, 35.

[xxxviii] Works, 37.

[xxxix] Works, 29.

[xl] Works, 32.

[xli] Works, 37.

[xlii] Works, 37.

[xliii] Works, 46.

[xliv] Works, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 20, 21, 26, 29, 30, 31.

[xlv] Works, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 20, 21, 26, 29, 30, 31.

[xlvi] Works, 66.

[xlvii] Works, 39.

[xlviii] Works, 38.

[xlix] Works, 38.

[l] Works, 40.

[li] Works, 49.