By / Jan 13

Saturday marks the 182nd anniversary of the death of John Leland, the most influential Baptist preacher of America’s Founding era.

Here are five facts you should know about this champion of religious liberty.

1. Leland was an active and productive pastor. From the age of 18 until his death at 86, he preached approximately 8,000 sermons, wrote numerous hymns, published about 30 pamphlets, and baptized 1,524 people. He also personally knew 962 pastors, out of which 303 he heard preach and 207 who visited him at his home.

2. Leland had an outsized influence on the establishment of religious liberty in America through his relationship with James Madison, the primary author of the U.S. Constitution. Leland, who was considered the “leader of the Virginia Baptists,” helped Madison get elected both as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and to the first Congress. Madison repaid Leland and the other Baptists by keeping his campaign promise to support a Bill of Rights that included the Establishment Clause.

3. For much of his early career Leland rarely spoke publicly about one of the key issues of his day—slavery. However, on returning to his home state of Massachusetts in 1791, he began to forcefully champion the emancipation of slaves. Leland thought the cause of freedom for Black Americans would be an opportunity for Christian youth:

If any of the slave-holders will neither give nor sell their slaves, here will be a great door opened for missionary labors. The pious youth, who are waiting for a gap, will now have a loud call to go and preach to the hard-hearted masters, and flatter them to give, and threaten them if they will not.

Although he continued to oppose slavery, Leland later in life began to denounce abolitionists as troublemakers. Many slaveholders, he said, “in heart are opposed to slavery, and would gladly set their slaves free, if they could be provided for.”

4. Leland once used a 1,234-pound block of cheese to spread the gospel. After helping Thomas Jefferson win the presidency, Leland decided to give the new chief executive a gift of cheese. According to Elihu Burritt, Leland asked everyone in his Cheshire, Massachusetts, congregation who owned a cow to donate a quart of milk (unless it was from a “Federalist cow”—a cow owned by a Federalist farmer—since that would “leaven the whole lump with a distasteful savour”). The milk was curded and molded using a large cider press. This Cheshire Mammoth Cheese—which measured four feet wide, and 15 inches thick—was too heavy to transport by wagon, so it had to be delivered by sleigh during winter.

As Leland wrote, “In November, 1801 I journeyed to the south, as far as Washington, 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; let in part by curiosity to hear the Mammoth Priest, as I was called.”

When he arrived in the capitol, Leland was invited to preach a message of religious liberty before Congress.

5. According to L. H. Butterfield, Leland was “dubious about seminaries and campaigns for [missionary] funds.” Although Leland, who was self-educated, was not opposed to secular education, he purportedly stuck “to the primitive Baptist principle that the power to evangelize is bestowed by divine rather than human means.” 

“In these things, however, I may be wrong,” Leland told a friend, “for I claim neither infallibility nor the spirit of prophecy. — May I, may you, may every one pray and search for himself, and believe, and act, and follow the clearest light.”

By / Jul 23

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss John Leland, religious freedom, Jeff Bezos the astronaut, COVID-19 surging once again, the start of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the six new sports debuting in Tokyo, the Milwaukee Bucks winning the NBA championship, and USA stove pipe hats. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Nathan Finn with “3 reasons Baptists should look to John Leland: Religious liberty, evangelism, and biblical justice,” Ben Harbaugh with “Explainer: Biden administration to nominate Ambassador for International Freedom,” and Policy Staff with “Explainer: Federal court strikes down discrimination against religious student groups on college campus.”

ERLC Content


  1. The Blue Origin suborbital space flight
  2. Covid hits the Capitol amid visit from infected Texas lawmakers
  3. Texas Democrats to break quorum in special session over voting rights
  4. new infections surge to highest point in 5 months
  5. Delta variant now accounts for about 58% of COVID-19 cases in US, CDC says
  6. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics
  7. Six new sports makes Tokyo 2020 the biggest Olympics ever
  8. 2020 Olympics could still be cancelled
  9. U.S. soccer suffers stunning defeat to Sweden in Olympics opener
  10. The Milwaukee Bucks are NBA champions for the first time in 50 years as Antetokounmpo scores 50 points
  11. USA stove pipe hats


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By / Jul 19

One of the values of Christian history is learning from past role models for the sake of present-day faithfulness. Baptist history is filled with such role models. Though none of them is perfect — who is except King Jesus? — they nevertheless offer a wealth of wisdom for those who are willing to learn from our history.

In recent days, I’ve become convinced that John Leland (1754–1841) is among the most important role models from Baptist history. Leland was a native of Massachusetts, though he spent many of his most fruitful years of ministry in Virginia. He became one of the most important Baptist leaders of his era, a time that coincided with the emergence of Baptists from their persecuted sectarian roots into a national denomination.

Three reasons to look to Leland

There are three reasons I believe contemporary Southern Baptists should look to John Leland as a key role model. 

Religious liberty: First, and most famously, Leland was unwavering in his commitment to what Baptists have often called the “First Freedom” of religious liberty for all people. This principle is a cherished Baptist distinctive that is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In God’s providence, Leland played a significant role in that signal moment in American history.

In 1788, James Madison of Virginia was running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Madison met with Leland in the hopes of garnering support from the Baptists in his district. The two men came to an agreement. Leland would encourage Baptists to vote for Madison. In return, Madison would advocate for full religious freedom. Madison won the election and subsequently authored the First Amendment that guaranteed religious freedom for all by rejecting the idea of an established state church. Leland was also a strong supporter of Thomas Jefferson, in part because of the latter’s commitment to church-state separation. In 1801, Leland famously gifted President Jefferson with a 1235-pound block of cheese from Massachusetts Baptists. In response, Jefferson invited Leland to preach at a Sunday worship service in the House of Representatives. Jefferson attended the service.

Personal evangelism: The second reason we should look to Leland is because of his zeal for personal evangelism. While Leland is best remembered for his tireless advocacy for religious liberty, he would have identified himself first and foremost as an evangelist. Leland preached over 8,000 sermons and baptized approximately 2,000 converts during the course of his ministry. In fact, one of the reasons Leland was such a strong advocate for religious liberty is because he wanted every individual to have the freedom to believe the gospel without confusion or compulsion. For Leland, defending religious liberty was not about commending an Enlightenment principle but rather was about advancing the Great Commission.

Biblical justice: A final reason Leland is an important role model for contemporary Baptists is because of his advocacy of biblical justice, which he understood to be compatible with his commitment to personal evangelism. In Leland’s day, the greatest public injustice was the system of race-based chattel slavery in the American South. Leland was arguably the most famous Baptist to argue against human enslavement. In 1791, he chose to leave Virginia and return to Massachusetts following the controversy that resulted from a strongly worded anti-slavery sermon. Though his views on how best to end the evil of slavery legally evolved over time, Leland maintained his belief that slavery was incompatible with Christianity and that Christian slaveowners should emancipate their slaves.

Leaning in to Leland’s legacy

Though times have changed, our world is not so different from that of Leland. Religious liberty is under fire in our own day, not so much from the specter of state-imposed religion but rather primarily from the threat of state-imposed secularism and culturally endorsed revisionist morality. The religious freedom of Christian bakers and florists is denigrated as hateful bigotry. Churches are coerced into closing their doors because of government overreach during a pandemic. Roman Catholics are forced to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives or medical procedures that violate their religious convictions. The list could go on. Baptists must remain firmly committed to our historic principle of religious liberty for all people.

Leland lived during the period when the irreligious South was finally becoming the Bible Belt because of the influence of the First and Second Great Awakenings. Today, what was once the Bible Belt may well remain overchurched in some places but it is increasingly underreached. This is even more the case in other parts of our nation. Research shows that across the USA, the share of citizens who claim to be Christian is shrinking while the percentage of “nones” is increasing at a rapid rate. Leland stands out as an evangelistic role model at a time when Southern Baptists are recommitting ourselves to sharing the gospel with all people and planting churches where there is minimal gospel witness.

Finally, our own day is threatened by culturally sanctioned injustice. While race-based slavery is outlawed in the United States and most other nations, various forms of both personal and corporate racism persist. The modern slavery of human sex trafficking harms women all over the world, often in our own communities. Millions of unborn image-bearers are legally murdered because of the tragedy of abortion-on-demand. Too many women are abused by powerful men, far too often in religious contexts by those in positions of spiritual authority. Minority groups are the victims of state-sanctioned genocide in other nations. Countless children are exploited by pornographers. This is just scratching the surface. Leland reminds us that evangelistic proclamation and the advocacy of public justice are complementary ministries.

There is no better time than now for Baptists to become reacquainted with the life and legacy of John Leland. May his holistic commitment to defending religious liberty, spreading the gospel, and advocating for justice encourage us to do likewise.

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]


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Humbly Passing the Torch to the Next Generation

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

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

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

[i]Works, 17-18.

[ii] Works, 15, 18.

[iii] Works, 19.

[iv] Works, 43-44.

[v]Works, 19.

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

[vii] Works, 19.

[viii] Works, 20.

[ix] Works, 35.

[x]Works, 24.

[xi] Works, 24.

[xii] Works, 24-25.

[xiii] Works, 25.

[xiv] Works, 26.

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

[xvi] Works, 25.

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

[xviii] Works, 29.

[xix] Works, 29.

[xx] Works, 29.

[xxi] Works, 29.

[xxii] Works, 30.

[xxiii] Works, 30.

[xxiv] Works, 31.

[xxv] Works, 31.

[xxvi] Works, 59-60.

[xxvii] Works, 59-60.

[xxviii] Works, 34.

[xxix] Works, 34.

[xxx] Works, 34.

[xxxi] Works, 39.

[xxxii] Works, 32-33.

[xxxiii] Works, 33.

[xxxiv] Works, 71.

[xxxv] Works, 33.

[xxxvi] Works, 32.

[xxxvii] Works, 32.

[xxxviii] Works, 66.

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

[xl] Works, 21.

[xli] Works, 21.

[xlii] Works, 21.

[xliii] Works, 22.

[xliv] Works, 26-27.

[xlv] Works, 28.

[xlvi] Works, 38.

[xlvii] Works, 38.

[xlviii] Works, 39.

By / May 14

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.

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.

By / Dec 13

On Friday, December 13, 2013, Robert P. George was honored as the recipient of the 2013 John Leland Religious Liberty Award. The following is a transcript of the Leland Award Lecture on Religious Liberty by Dr. George. 

On the tombstone of John Leland, the following words are inscribed: “Here lies the body of John Leland, of Cheshire, who labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men.”

Now, it would be naïve to suppose that tombstones never lie. But on this occasion a tombstone speaks the truth, for the man whose grave it marks truly did labor to promote Christian piety and, not unrelatedly, to protect the civil and religious rights of all men—the rights of Jews and Muslims, no less than the rights of Christians, and even the rights of unbelievers.

And John Leland’s concern for what we would today call human rights included the right of freedom generally. Leland was a fierce critic of slavery. Today, we may flatter ourselves with the conceit that we would loudly have opposed slavery had we lived prior to its abolition. But the truth, of course, is that very few of us would have done any such thing. But John Leland did it. He was an abolitionist when abolitionism wasn’t cool.

And so I can only say that I am immeasurably grateful to Dr. Moore and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for honoring my own efforts in the cause of religious freedom and other human rights with an award named for so great a hero—so great a Christian hero; so great an American hero.

Leland did more than raise his voice in support of the principles in which he believed. He was a citizen-activist. And so, for example, he played an instrumental role in guaranteeing that religious freedom would be enshrined in our Constitution through its inclusion in the First Amendment. His way of achieving that goal was wonderfully audacious: The good pastor informed his friend James Madison that he was prepared to run against him for public office unless Madison included a religious freedom provision in an amendment to the Constitution.

Although I’m not sure I would commend this particular approach to every pastor in dealing with our elected officials today, I would certainly endorse John Leland’s godly boldness as something every one of us can emulate as we petition those in power on a host of critical issues of justice and the common, including the great and foundational right of freedom of religion or belief.

That, of course, is exactly what the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has been doing since it was created. Richard Land and Russell Moore are men who walk in the footsteps of John Leland. As a Catholic, I can say they are my kind of Baptists! For a quarter century, first under Richard and now under Russell, the ERLC has been a force for justice and a voice speaking truth to power. As a co-laborer in defending the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and religious freedom and the rights of conscience, I am enormously proud of your dedication to causes that are central to human dignity and human flourishing.

These are vital and urgent causes here at home, to be sure, but they are no less vital and urgent abroad. And so this afternoon I want to focus my remarks on what we as a nation can and should be doing in the domain of international affairs to uphold what we rightly refer to as “the first freedom,” that is, the great human right of religious liberty. I do not on this occasion speak on behalf of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, but my remarks will certainly reflect my experience in working on the Commission.

First, I want to ask and answer as fully as I can in the few minutes we have together the question of why religious freedom matters. If we’re going to be the most effective advocates we can be for this crucial liberty, we must equip ourselves to give people the strongest possible arguments in favor of religious freedom so we can persuade them to join our cause.

Second, I want to focus on the sadly dire situation for religious liberty in so many places across the globe today.

Then, finally, I would like to emphasize how our nation can and must do a better job in its international diplomacy and foreign policy of defending religious freedom.

So why does religious freedom matter? Why should promoting and defending it abroad, no less than honoring it at home, be a high priority for our country?

Simply stated, religious freedom entails the right to be who we truly are as human beings. The fact is that as human beings, we are drawn to ponder life’s deepest questions and seek meaningful, truthful answers. Where do we come from? What is our destiny? Is there a transcendent source of meaning and value? Is there a “higher law” that pulls us above personal interest in order to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us?”

No matter how these questions are answered, one thing is indisputable: Human beings can’t stop asking them, and would be diminished precisely as human beings if they were to try to do so. And that suggests that the religious quest is a constitutive part of our humanity—an aspect of our flourishing as the kind of creatures we are, namely, rational, intelligent, and free actors.

And this, in turn, suggests that we must cherish and honor, preserve and protect, the right of persons to ask and answer these questions as best they can, and, within the broadest limits, to lead their lives with authenticity and integrity in line with their best judgments of conscience.

And so, both as individuals and together with others in community, religious freedom means the right to ponder life’s origins, meaning and purpose; to explore the deepest questions about human nature, dignity, and destiny; to decide what is to be believed and not to be believed; and, within the limits of justice for all, to comply with what one conscientiously judges to be one’s religious obligations—openly, peacefully, and without fear.

John Henry Newman once observed that “conscience has rights because it has duties.” We honor the rights of conscience in matters of faith because people must be free to lead lives of authenticity and integrity by fulfilling what they believe to be their solemn duties.

But authenticity and integrity are directly threatened whenever there is coercion or compulsion in matters of faith or belief. Indeed, coercion does not produce genuine conviction, but pretense and lack of authenticity Clearly, a coerced faith is no faith at all. Compulsion may cause a person to manifest the outward signs of belief or unbelief, but it cannot produce the interior acts of intellect and will that constitute genuine faith.

Therefore, it is essential that freedom of religion or belief include the right to hold any belief or none at all, to change one’s beliefs and religious affiliation, to bear witness to these beliefs in public as well as private, and corporately as well as individually, and to act on one’s religiously inspired convictions about justice and the common good in carrying out the duties of citizenship. And it is vital that religious liberty’s full protections be extended to those whose answers to life’s deepest questions reject belief in the transcendent.

Because the right to freedom of religion or belief is so central to human personhood, we would expect that in places where it is dishonored, societies would be less happy and secure. And according to a growing number of studies, that is precisely the case across the world.

These studies show that countries that protect religious liberty are more secure and stable than those that do not, and nations that trample on this freedom provide fertile ground for war and poverty, terror and radical movements.

In other words, not only do religious freedom abuses violate the core of our humanity, they do grave harm to the well-being of societies.

They do so politically – as religious freedom abuses are highly correlated with the absence of democracy and the presence of other human rights abuses.

They do so economically – as religious persecution destabilizes communities and marginalizes the persecuted, causing their talents and abilities to go unrealized, robbing a nation of added productivity, and reducing that nation’s ability to fight poverty and create abundance for its citizens.

They do so morally – since wherever religious freedom is dishonored, the benefit of religion in molding character is diminished, and with it, the self-discipline necessary to handle the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

And finally, they do so socially – since wherever religious freedom is abused, peace and security become ever more elusive.

For the United States, all of this has a direct bearing on our own security.

For example, of the four countries that hosted Osama bin Laden during his notorious life—– Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Pakistan—each is an incubator of terrorism in the form of violent religious extremism, and all have perpetrated or tolerated repeated religious freedom violations.

And as we all know, the 9/11 attacks on our country were plotted in Afghanistan, which was run by the Taliban which originated in Pakistan, with 15 of the 19 attackers coming from Saudi Arabia.

Clearly, religious freedom matters greatly. And sadly, according to a recent Pew study, 75 percent of the world’s people—more than 5 billion human beings—live in countries with governments that significantly restrict this fundamental right.

For example, in Burma, sectarian violence and severe abuses against ethnic minority Christians and Rohingya Muslims continue with impunity.

In China, conditions continue to deteriorate for Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims. To stem the growth of independent Catholic and Protestant groups, the government arrested leaders and shut churches down. Members of Falun Gong, as well as those of other groups deemed “evil cults,” face long jail terms, forced renunciations of faith, and torture in detention.

In Egypt, the government has failed to protect religious minorities, including Coptic Christians, from violence, while prosecuting and jailing people for “defamation” of religion.

In Iran, the government detains, tortures, and even kills members of religious minority groups, including Bahai’s and Christians, whose beliefs are viewed as a threat to the theocratic state and its draconian interpretation of Shi’a Islam, as well as targeting Shi’a reformers. Pastor Saeed Abedini remains in prison, in deteriorating health; and Iran continues using terrorism to export its extremism.

In Nigeria, protection of religious freedom continues to falter, as the terrorist group Boko Haram attacks Christians, as well as fellow Muslims who do not share their radical and violent interpretation of Islam. Nigeria’s government has failed to prosecute perpetrators of religiously-related violence that has killed more than 14,000 Nigerians, both Christian and Muslim, fostering a climate of impunity.

Saudi Arabia continues its absolute ban on all public religious expression besides its own extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam.

In Pakistan, religious freedom abuses have risen dramatically due to chronic sectarian violence targeting Shi’a Muslims and Christians.

The government’s continued failure to protect Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus, along with its repressive blasphemy law and anti-Ahmadi laws, have fueled religious freedom abuses and vigilante violence.

In Russia, the government uses extremism laws against certain Muslim groups and so-called “non-traditional” religious communities, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses, through raids, detentions, and imprisonment. In addition, massive violations of religious freedom and other human rights continue in Chechnya. Similar repression occurs across Central Asia as well.

And religious freedom violations are even occurring in Western Europe. France and Belgium bar students in state schools and government workers from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols, such as the Muslim headscarf, the Sikh turban, large crosses, and the Jewish yarmulke. France also forbids people from wearing any headgear in official identity document photos. Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland have banned kosher and halal slaughter. In 2011, the Dutch parliament’s lower house also passed such a ban, but an outcry from Muslim and Jewish groups forced the government to forge a compromise allowing religious animal slaughter to continue.

After a similar outcry in Germany last year against a lower-court ruling criminalizing religious circumcision of male infants, the German parliament is considering a law permitting this practice.

In Germany and Sweden, government authorities have told Christian and Jewish parents that they cannot homeschool their children for religious reasons. And United Kingdom officials are forcing Catholic adoption agencies to shut down because they follow the moral criteria of their faith—criteria that are by no means idiosyncratically Catholic—in placing orphaned children in homes that provide a mother and father and not in same-sex headed households.

All of these abuses violate not just American religious freedom standards, but international standards and covenants as well, beginning with Article 18 of the landmark 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads as follows:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

As an independent, bipartisan, federal advisory body, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is firmly committed to these standards.

As a key part of its mandate, USCIRF monitors religious freedom worldwide and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and to Congress.

Based on our monitoring of religious freedom conditions, we have seen a number of discernible patterns to religious persecution.

First, we have seen the following categories of religious freedom violations engaged in or tolerated by governments:

• state hostility

• state sponsorship

• state enforcement

• and state failure.

The second pattern we have seen is that in each of these categories, Christians are among the persecuted.

And a third pattern we’ve noted is the persistence of anti-Semitism worldwide, including in the nations of Western Europe, where it again appears to be on the rise.

As to the categories of religious freedom abuses I just mentioned, state hostility involves the government actively persecuting people or groups on account of their beliefs.

State sponsorship refers to the government actively promoting—and sometimes even exporting—ideas and propaganda, often of a violent, extremist nature, that include hostility to the religious freedom of others.

State enforcement refers to the government actively applying laws and statutes such as anti-blasphemy codes to individuals, often members of religious minorities, thus violating freedom of expression as well as freedom of religion or belief.

And state failure means the government is neglecting to take action to protect those whom others are targeting due to their beliefs, creating a climate of impunity in which religious minorities or dissenters are threatened, intimidated, or even attacked and killed.

When it comes to state hostility toward religions, one of the worst persecutors is, as we’ve seen, Iran’s theocratic regime.

Regarding state sponsorship of radical ideology which targets the religious freedom of others, Saudi Arabia continues to export its own extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam through textbooks and other literature which teach hatred and even violence toward other religious groups.

Regarding state enforcement of laws and statutes that repress freedom of expression and religion, Egypt and Pakistan enforce anti-blasphemy or anti-defamation codes, with religious minorities bearing the brunt of the enforcement.

Regarding state failure to protect religious freedom, Egypt and Pakistan do not protect their citizens against religion-related violence. Ironically, both nations’ enforcement of blasphemy codes fuels some of the worst violence by encouraging vigilantes to target perceived transgressors. In Pakistan, both Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim who was Governor of Punjab province, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who was Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs and a valiant religious freedom advocate, were murdered in 2011 for opposing its blasphemy law.

In every country that I’ve mentioned today, one key fact stands out dramatically: Christians are among the persecuted. The sheer size and scope of this persecution is astonishing, as is the deep gravity of the situation faced in country after country for followers of Christ.

Each year at this time, American Christians look joyfully ahead to celebrating the birth of the Savior. Yet in many other places their fellow believers approach the season with a mixture of fear and dread. And the reason is sadly obvious. In many nations in which Christians are in the minority, Christmastime is a favorite time for violence against them.

Last year, five died in an attack in Nigeria on Christmas Day. A year before that, also on Christmas Day, bombs exploded in or around churches in five municipalities in Nigeria, with 40 people perishing in Madalla alone. The prior year, on Christmas Eve of 2010, also in Nigeria, a number of churches were attacked in Maiduguri, killing 6 and wounding 25.

That same year, on Coptic Christmas Eve, gunmen murdered seven Coptic churchgoers leaving a midnight mass in Naga Hammadi, Egypt.

And on the day before Christmas Eve, in 2009, bombs exploded in Iraq next to the Syrian Orthodox Church of St. Thomas and Chaldean Church of St. George in Mosul, leaving several people dead.

Ironically, it is in the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, that both persecution and the flight of the persecuted cloud the future of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Unless circumstances change, many are asking whether a graveyard will one day replace the cradle.

In Egypt, violence against Coptic Christians, the region’s largest non-Muslim religious minority numbering 8 million, has reached alarming proportions. While Hosni Mubarak’s military-backed regime failed to punish attacks against Copts and other religious minorities, Mohammed Morsi’s election to the presidency in 2012 was followed by incendiary rhetoric leading to more violence both before and after his ouster this July. Since mid-August, following a merciless military crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters, several Copts have been murdered and Brotherhood sympathizers have assaulted more than 200 Christian religious structures, homes, and businesses.

In Iraq, violence against Christians has surged since Saddam Hussein’s fall. In the ensuing decade, extremists have raped, tortured, and murdered Christians or driven them from their homes. Meanwhile, Prime Minister al-Maliki’s government has failed to bring perpetrators to justice. Once home to approximately one million Christians, Iraq has half that number today.

Many Iraqi Christians sought refuge in Syria, where fellow Christians and Muslims once had co-existed peacefully. President Bashar Assad, however, treated his people as members of sectarian groups that competed for his favor, not as individual Syrians with equal rights under the law. Once people demonstrated for their rights, Assad’s regime fired on them, while turning sectarian groups against each other. For Christians, the resulting civil war has been nothing less than catastrophic.

In Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is mainly the government that severely represses Christians and other religious minorities. As we have seen, Saudi Arabia bans churches and any public religious expression that conflicts with its own interpretation of Sunni Islam. Iran subjects Christians and other religious minorities to harassment, arrests, intense surveillance, imprisonment, and even death. Pastor Abedini, whom I mentioned a few minutes ago, is an American citizen born in Iran who languished in prison for the “crime” of daring to participate in Iran’s underground house church movement.

Even a casual glance at the facts on the ground reveals that the forces of religious extremism are behind much of the persecution Christians and others endure today. These forces seek to defeat pro-freedom movements, dominate and radicalize the Muslim world, and curb or eliminate non-Muslim influence. Since Christians remain the region’s largest non-Muslim community, they are prime targets. The most violent among these extremists offer Christians and other religious minorities—such as Mandaeans and Yazidis in Iraq—three options: convert to their radicalized view of Islam, risk being killed or maimed, or leave their country.

In looking at the plight of Christians, especially those in the Middle East, those who know Jewish history see something hauntingly familiar. The three options I just mentioned as being offered to Middle East Christians are exactly what Czarist Russia in the 1880s offered Russian Jews. A leader in the Russian Orthodox Church at the time expressed the grisly hope that, and I quote, “one-third of the Jews will convert, one-third will die, and one-third will flee the country.”

In the end, one-third did leave, while the two-thirds that remained rarely knew a moment of safety and peace, as they and their children were subjected to horrifying pogroms. Only a few decades later, many of their descendants perished in the Holocaust.

And as for the Middle East itself, Iraq’s Jewish community provides a somber example of what the future may hold. Like Iraq's Christians, the Jews were there for more than 20 centuries. As of 1947, the country's Jewish population exceeded 50,000. Today only a handful of Jews remain.

People professed shock when it was revealed that in 2010, Mohammed Morsi, who was later elected Egypt’s president, depicted the Jewish people as “descendants of apes and pigs,” whom Egyptian children and grandchildren must be taught to hate “down to the last generation.”

Yet his comments were no worse than those of Iranian leaders, who have denied the Holocaust and permitted state-run media to broadcast anti-Semitic messages and hateful cartoons. Nor are they worse than the lies and defamations against Jews and Judaism that one finds in the media elsewhere in the region, including in Egypt itself.

Outside of the Middle East, in post-Soviet Russia, skinhead groups commit acts of anti-Semitism in the name of Russian nationalism. In Belarus, the anti-Jewish utterances of President Lukashenko and the state media are coupled by a failure to identify or punish the vandals of Jewish cemeteries and other property.

Even in Western Europe, anti-Semitism has been making a comeback. Since 2000, anti-Jewish graffiti increasingly have appeared in Paris and Berlin, Madrid and Amsterdam, London and Rome, and synagogues have been vandalized or set ablaze in France and Sweden.

In Malmo, Sweden, physical attacks have fueled a Jewish exodus. In France, according to a recent report by the security unit of its Jewish community, “unprecedented violence” took place last year. There were 614 anti-Semitic incidents in 2012, compared to 389 in 2011. Earlier this February, a woman was arrested in Toulouse after trying to stab a student at a Jewish day school where four Jews were shot and killed in March of last year.

Who are the perpetrators of these hateful acts in Europe?

Some are neo-Nazis. Others claim to act in the name of Islam.

Compounding the problem are four factors.

First, European officials remain reluctant to identify the ideological or religious motivations of perpetrators.

Second, surveys show that anti-Semitic attitudes among Europe’s population are shockingly widespread.

Third, these surveys confirm that some of this bias manifests itself in harsh and unbalanced criticisms of the state of Israel. While no nation is beyond reproach, when such criticism includes language intended to delegitimize Israel, demonize its people, and apply to it standards to which no other state is held, we must call it what it is—anti-Semitism.

And finally, as I’ve previously noted, a number of European governments and political parties have added fuel to the fire by backing restrictions on vital religious expression such as the donning of religious garb in public or the performance of kosher slaughter and circumcision. And as I’ve noted, they have proposed or enacted similar kinds of restrictions on practitioners of other religions, including Christianity and Islam.

What drives these governments and parties is an attempt to grant secularist ideology dominance in the public square by prohibiting or placing serious restrictions on religious expression or practice. It is an extremist view of state-church separation which seeks to relegate religion to the purely private domain of the home, church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, and establish secularism as the state religion, or pseudo-religion. And let me add that this is no different in principle from attempts by theocratic forces to grant monopoly power in the public square to one particular belief over others, including ideologies—such as communism—that reject any and all religious beliefs.

Both are a violation of the religious-freedom ideal of a free and open marketplace of ideas and beliefs thriving in the public square.

There is one more point I’d like to make about the persistence of anti-Semitism. It’s one that my dear friend, Britain’s former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks has made. One of the ways in which hatred of Jews has endured is by expressing and justifying itself in terms of the dominant discourses of time and place. Thus in the medieval period in the West, the so-called “Age of Faith,” anti-Semitism (or anti-Judaism) was expressed in theological terms, with the Jews portrayed as having been rejected by God and being completely replaced by the church, in contradiction to the plain words of St. Paul in the New Testament. In the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, when nationalism was in vogue, anti-Semitism was expressed in nationalistic terms, with Jews presented as universal, cosmopolitan enemies of the nations in which they lived. Today, when the dominant mode of discourse is the language of human rights, anti-Semitism is expressed by accusing Jews of violating human rights in the name of national aspirations embodied in Zionism, or by the practice of male infant circumcision.

Thus far, I’ve shared with you reflections on why religious freedom matters and what the landscape for religious freedom looks like across the world. I’ve discussed the main kinds of violations of religious freedom that USCIRF has been concerned with. And I’ve discussed the nearly universal persecution of Christians and the stubborn persistence and resiliency of anti-Semitism.

All of this leads to the question: What is being done about religious freedom abuses worldwide?

Here is where the proverbial rubber meets the road.

In 1998, when Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act, or IRFA, which created our Commission—and with it, a religious freedom office in the State Department headed by a religious freedom ambassador-at-large—it charged us not only with monitoring the status of religious freedom overseas, but with making concrete policy recommendations—to Congress, to the Secretary of State, and to the President.

Most of our recommendations focus on how Washington can prod or encourage countries to improve their religious freedom records. But in addition to charging us with making these recommendations, Congress also gave the IRFA law some real teeth through a groundbreaking enforcement mechanism. It required annual review and designation of “countries of particular concern,” defined as those governments engaging in or allowing “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” religious freedom violations. These nations are by definition the world’s worst religious freedom abusers.

Measuring each nation against this objective standard, USCIRF’s job in the process is to recommend, based on its review, which countries the State Department should designate as CPCs. Once the State Department agrees on a designation, the IRFA law allows for the possibility of sanctions to be imposed on such nations. While the law provides any administration, including the current one, with flexibility in how it will pressure these countries, the review and designation process is not discretionary. Simply stated, the IRFA law requires every administration, without fail, to engage fully in the job of designating countries. Whatever one’s view of appropriate penalties for violators, there can be little disagreement on the imperative of bearing witness to abuses. And that is what the designation process is—at minimum—supposed to do.

Unfortunately, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have consistently designated countries that clearly meet the standard for offenders. The Bush administration issued several designations in its first term but let the process fall off track in its second. The Obama administration issued designations only once during its first term, in August 2011—more than three years ago.

The result is that some of the world’s worst violators—such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Vietnam—are escaping the accountability that the IRFA law is meant to provide. This is not acceptable. It is the President’s solemn duty to see to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. And the requirements of the International Religious Freedom Act are among the laws of the United States. Fulfilling these requirements is not optional.

And there is more: Even those countries which currently are designated as CPCs are escaping accountability on the sanctions end. Under the law, while CPC countries remain designated until removed from that status, any corresponding penalties on these nations expire after two years. This past September, when the administration failed to take action, IRFA related sanctions attached to Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan expired. And while these countries are subject to sanctions under other U.S. laws, allowing the religious freedom sanctions to expire sends the disturbing message that the United States will not implement its own law on religious freedom.

And let me reiterate that partly as a result of being religious freedom violators, some of these same countries are notoriously unstable places and incubators of terrorist ideology, so clearly, we have a national security interest in holding their feet to the fire on this pivotal liberty.

To be fair, the Obama administration through the State Department has taken a number of positive steps which underscore the importance of religion to foreign policy, including the establishment of a new working group, a new faith-based office, and a new strategy. But the problem is that all three of these initiatives are about religious engagement alone. None of them address the question of how to stop gross religious freedom offenders from persecuting people. By letting the process of designating offenders atrophy, the United States surrenders its leverage against offending governments.

We at USCIRF take our role and obligations under the International Religious Freedom Act seriously. Those of us who are commissioners, irrespective of party affiliation, and our extraordinarily able and dedicated staff, review the religious freedom records of countries diligently and with great care before making our recommendations. It is time for the executive branch to take its own IRFA obligations and responsibilities seriously by making designations and doing so in a timely manner.

Once it does, I truly believe it can make a difference. When combined with diplomacy and other tools, the prospect or reality of being designated a CPC and being sanctioned can move repressive governments to make changes. In the past, we have seen that happen with countries like Vietnam and Turkmenistan. Because a CPC designation is rightly perceived as a statement by the United States about its relationship to an offending nation, it can create political will for reform where none would otherwise exist. And it can strengthen the hand of reformers, thus providing what London School of Economics graduate student Rachel George calls an “anchor” for the promotion of human rights.

And so, let me conclude by saying that for those of us who care about religious freedom, we have a job to do.

First and foremost, each of us as citizens needs to make the case to our fellow Americans on behalf of supporting religious freedom abroad. We need to explain why this matters for our country and for our world.

We must tell others the story about what is happening to victims of religious persecution around the world. We must not let them be forgotten or let their plight be ignored.

And then, as we increase our numbers on the ground, we can move Washington to do the right thing by supporting religious freedom. We must make it clear to those in public office that we expect them to honor religious freedom both at home and abroad, and that we intend to hold them electorally accountable if they fail to do that. We must insist that religious freedom be given the priority it is due under the International Religious Freedom Act in the conduct of our international diplomacy and foreign policy. Trade considerations are important; geopolitical strategic considerations are important; but religious freedom is important, too. It is not a second-class concern—at least not since IRFA became the law of the land.

I have not spoken much today about domestic religious freedom issues. I do not want to close, however, without saying this: The first and most important way in which the President of the United States can promote religious freedom abroad is by honoring religious freedom here at home. Again, speaking for myself, and not on this occasion as Chairman of USCIRF, I call on President Obama to withdraw the HHS mandates that threaten religious freedom in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act—and to do so before being compelled to withdraw those mandates by the Supreme Court in the lawsuits now pending. Indeed, the administration should—across the board, at home and abroad—embrace a robust view of religious liberty, one going beyond the mere “freedom of worship’—one that respects the right of religious believers and religious institutions to honor the requirements of their consciences without governmental interference, except in those circumstances—mercifully rare in our own country—where restrictions on religious freedom are necessary to protect the religious freedom of others or to prevent violence or other intolerable harms.

In thinking about the challenges and opportunities before us today in advancing the cause of religious freedom and the rights of conscience, I thank God for the work and witness of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and for the other organizations—some affiliated with particular faiths, others non-sectarian—that are standing shoulder to shoulder with the ERLC in the front lines of the battle: I commend the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the American Center for Law and Justice, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Religious Freedom Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown, the Manhattan Declaration, the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, and all who have dedicated themselves to this great cause.

Over two hundred years ago, one citizen made a historic difference for religious liberty in our country. Let us follow in the footsteps of John Leland and stand tall for religious liberty—truly America’s first freedom, and the birthright of every member of the human family.

Thank you, and God bless you.