We are certainly living in interesting times when it comes to the relationship between the church and the government in America. The most recent event that has once again brought this relationship into the spotlight is the mandate in President Barack Obama’s massive healthcare bill that employers must provide health insurance to their employees that includes not just birth control but also hormonal pills that are specifically designed to cause the death of an unborn child. This mandate to cover abortion drugs caused an initial uproar in the Catholic community which then quickly spread to the evangelical community with prominent voices such as Chuck Colson, Richard Land (of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission), Rick Warren, and Franklin Graham all voicing their opposition to the mandate and calling on those who object to this overreach of government and trampling upon the rights of conscience to stand up to the administration and demand changes.
With this issue garnering so much attention recently, it is worth looking back in American history to the roots of our religious liberty and specifically at a Baptist minister named John Leland who fought hard to make sure that future generations would be able to practice their faith (or non-faith) freely and that the government would never be able to dictate to the church what they could and could not do with regards to rights of conscience. So let’s spend a little time looking at John Leland, his background, and what we can learn from him about our current situation in the United States.
The Formative Years
John Leland was born in Grafton, Massachusetts, on May 14, 1754.1 Leland’s first experience with religious subjugation happened when he was only three years old. Leland’s father desired to see his son baptized and sent for a minister to baptize him as well as several of Leland’s other siblings. Leland found out that the minister was coming to their home to baptize him and the idea of baptism terrified him. He said:
“I was greatly terrified, and betook myself to flight. As I was running down a little Hill, I fell upon my nose, which made the blood flow freely. My flight was in vain; I was pursued, overtaken, picked up and had the blood scrubbed off my face, and so was prepared for the baptismal water.
All the merit of this transaction, I must give to the maid who caught me, my father and the minister; for I was not a voluntary candidate, but a reluctant subject, forced against my will.”2
Leland penned this account later in life. It illustrates that from an early age he felt the impact of having a religious idea imposed on him that he did not understand or agree with. While he was only three years old when the event occurred, he remembered it for the rest of his life. The attempted forced baptism helped to create in Leland a mindset that valued religious liberty and that desired to see that liberty extended to all people. This early event was a catalyst that started Leland down a path to fight for the religious liberty of the American people as whole.
John Leland did ultimately convert to Christianity when he was twenty years old. He realized that the baptism of his childhood had been forced upon by an outside influence. He had never taken the faith that his father had been attempting to impose on him to heart.3 This experience taught Leland that a religion that is forced upon a person is not a true religion. Only when Leland voluntarily submitted himself to the tenets of the Christian faith did he begin to take the teachings to heart for himself. Because of this experience, Leland recognized that forcing a particular religious belief or practice upon a person is ineffective and should be avoided.
It must also be noted that John Leland was a Baptist. Leland’s Baptist roots not only provided him with a vibrant and growing religious community to back his future work, but also a solid theological foundation from which to launch an effort to see religious freedom guaranteed in America.
Virginia: Leland’s spark
The newly married John Leland moved to Virginia with his bride in 1776. He quickly discovered that Virginia was on the frontlines of the battle in deciding how the church and the state should relate to one another. In Virginia, the Episcopal Church had established by the government as the official church of the state.4 Early in Virginia’s history, the government passed laws intended to deeply entrench the state supported church and restrict the growth and propagation of other denominations. These laws were not heavily enforced in Virginia’s early years, but by the time Leland reached the state the government had begun to crack down on dissenters.5
The wealthy state of Virginia had seen an increasing number of people moving into the state to establish homes and businesses. These people brought with them an ever increasing diversity of religious denominations. The new and growing religious diversity in Virginia began to threaten the state supported church as the saw their monopoly over religion slipping away. This threat led to ever increasing persecution of those who did not hold to the religious beliefs of the state church. Leland, as a Separate Baptist, was part of a group that was among the most heavily persecuted.6
It was into this volatile environment that John Leland moved and chose to begin his ministry. He was ordained in a church at Mount Poney and he began a fifteen year ministry in the state of Virginia. His time in Virginia was not without difficulties. Leland himself felt the heat of the Anglican persecution. Once, while preparing to baptize a woman, he was bullied by the woman’s husband who did not want the baptism because of its violation of Anglican doctrine. The angry man threatened the preacher with a gun, but Leland went forward with the baptism.7 This sort of religious oppression was not something Leland kept quiet about and he stated that each person possesses a “liberty of conscience” which is an “inalienable right that each individual has, of worshipping his God according to the dictates of his conscience, without being prohibited, directed, or controlled therein by human law, either in time, place, or manner.”8 He believed that each person had a right to worship God as they saw fit and that the government should not be able force their religious views onto an individual or a denomination.
Leland and Madison
John Leland’s victories for the cause of religious liberty in Virginia opened up an even greater door for him. The influence and relationships that he had built during the Virginia struggle would allow him to transition to fighting for the issue on the national stage. The year 1787 saw the establishment of the United States Constitution. It was an important step in developing the legal and political framework necessary to see the young nation survive. Leland recognized the importance of the document, but he was not completely satisfied with it.26 He even went so far as to use his considerable influence to mount a campaign against the ratification of the document. His reason for campaigning against the document was due to its lack of a guarantee of religious liberty.27 The Virginia Baptists again sought to have their voices heard by putting John Leland at the forefront of the issue. Leland was to run against James Madison in an effort to be elected to the ratifying convention.
While John Leland executed his campaign, he wrote down a list of ten objections that he and the Baptists had to the new Constitution. Among those issues was lack of a guarantee of religious liberty in the document. James Madison realized that Leland wielded a great deal of influence over the Virginia Baptists. He recognized that without the support of the Baptists, his odds of being elected to the ratifying convention were greatly diminished. Madison requested a copy of Leland’s objections to the Constitution so that he could review them. Madison desired to Virginia accept the Constitution and recognized that an influential voice like Leland’s could sway the Baptist vote in favor of the document. This led to Madison and Leland engaging in a great deal of political wrangling as each sought to insure their causes would be heard. 28
Leland and Madison met personally to discuss the issue of the Constitution a number of times. During their meetings they worked out the details of what would be necessary to gain the support of Virginia Baptists for the Constitution. After their meetings, Leland delivered a promise to Madison that he would have the support of Virginia Baptists.29 With the confirmation that Madison would indeed continue to fight for religious liberty at the ratifying convention, Leland dropped out of the race and offered his endorsement to Madison.30
John Leland understood the importance of the Constitution to the young United States. He recognized that it had a great power to unify the people of the United States in that the states would have to offer their support before the document could be passed into law. Leland also realized the power of including a clause guaranteeing religious liberty in the document and how such a clause would firmly establish the idea of religious liberty in the minds of future generations. He was willing to run for the ratifying convention against a friend and ally in order to see the cause of religious liberty get a voice on the national level.
That’s right, John Leland and a group of Virginia Baptists were instrumental in seeing the establishment clause included in the Constitution. It was Christians who fought hard to make sure that government would stay would of religious affairs. So when someone holds up the First Amendment and claims that it is somehow to protect government from the church, they need to go back and read history. The establishment clause was born out of a need not to keep religious values out of government, but rather to keep the government from endorsing a church or establishing a state church. Those 18th century Virginia Baptists wanted to be able to practice their faith freely and without the government imposing a set of values on them or favoring one church over the other and that’s why they fought for the establishment clause. Today the government is effectively ignoring the establishment clause by forcing religious institutions to act against their conscience and by creating favored churches and religious groups.
Now, some of you might be scratching your head here. John Leland was clearly fighting against a state established a church. A church that was supported by the taxes of other Christians, non-Christians, and people of no religion even if they disagreed with the theological positions of the government endorsed church. You would be right in catching that. However, I think you can also clearly see the parallels with what is happening today. In the 18th century the government was endorsing a theology and a set of values by favoring a particular church above others and imposing those values on others even if they fundamentally disgreed.. Today, the government is doing something very similar. The government is imposing a set of values on many individual Americans and religious institutions that violate the religious consciences of those individuals and organizations. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, the government is also in effect creating a favored religious class (or non-religious as it may be) of those denominations and religious leaders who will step in line with the ideas they are trying to impose and in some cases even endorse those values. So you see, the situation really isn’t that different. In both cases you had government imposing in religious matters and rights of conscience and in both cases you effectively had government choosing religious winners and losers.
Now, let’s get back to John Leland. In 21st century America, religious people (especially those of the conservative bent) are sometimes viewed as trying to establish some type of theocracy in America where Christian values are imposed on all. This is patently absurd and as is often the case takes the ideas of a tiny fringe and applies them to a much larger and more diverse group. The fact is that both today and in American history it has been religious people, especially those of a more conservative (conservative by today’s standards but mainstream then) bent who have fought hard for religious liberty for all. Yes, a Christian will vote their values and try to get people elected who reflect those values (just like someone who is not a Christian). However, it has historically been Christians who are biggest advocates of religious liberty and the rights of conscience.
Now lets spend a little time looking at what Leland actually wrote in the 18th century with regards to state endorsed/supported religion. This is helpful for us to examine today as Christians again face a government attempting to tell the church put aside their rights of conscience. All these Leland quotes are in the public domain and the book they are quoted from can be found in full on Google Books for anyone interested in reading the full document. My comments will be in italics.
“Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.” -John Leland, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable” Religion is a very personal thing and should be between a man and his God. Government has no right to dictate to someone how they can practice their faith. There are times when religious freedom is abused (e.g. Warren Jeffs) and government rightly steps in to protect innocent people. But as a general rule, and this reflected in our founding documents, the government should leave the church alone.
“Religion is a matter between God and individuals: the religious opinions of men not being the objects of civil government, nor in any way under its control.” – -John Leland, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable” Again, government should stay out of trying to dictate to religious organizations how they should manage their house.
“Uninspired, fallible men make their own opinions tests of orthodoxy, and use their own systems, as Pocrustes used his iron bedstead, to stretch and measure the consciences of all others by.” -John Leland, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable” This is where you can see one religion/denomination being favored over another with the contraception mandate. Those churches that accept the mandate are the real churches, the caring churches, the ones who have the right orthodoxy. Or so the implication would be by the government. Government does not get to tell churches what is orthodox and with the contraception mandate they are favoring those who would toe their line while painting those who oppose it as fringe groups, anti-progress, anti-woman, etc. Essentially making those religious groups into second class citizens in the same way the Baptists were in 18th century Virginia because they would not toe the government line.
“Is uniformity of sentiments, in matters of religion, essential to the happiness of civil government? Not at all. Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men, than it has with the principles of mathematics.” -John Leland, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable” When government begins to dictate to churches that they must do something that is against their beliefs they have effectively overstepped the bounds of what government should be able to do. Government can’t change a mathematical equation nor can government change the consciences of men. This is also a good reminder that morality can’t be legislated. Christians should know this better than anyone because Christians recognize that only with the total change of heart that comes when Jesus saves a person can there be a real shift in their moral compass. Yes, Christians will vote their values and urge their representatives to support legislation that reflects those values but Christians also should recognize that legislation does not change hearts and won’t create a “uniformity of sentiments.” Only by Jesus working in the lives of people will there be real change.
“Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing, i.e., see that he meets with no personal abuse, or loss of property, for his religious opinions.” -John Leland, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable” Here you can clearly that Leland wanted people to be free to practice whatever religious beliefs their conscience dictated. This is why you have seen Christians across denominational lines (Catholics and Protestants of various stripes) and with different theological beliefs standing up to the government’s imposition on the church. Christians are, or should be, the biggest advocates of religious liberty for all. Christians and other religions should be free to practice and proselytize and people are also free to have no religious beliefs at all. Government should be in the business of making sure religious liberty is protected for all and not forcing churches to act in a manner that is inconsistent with their beliefs.
The battle for religious liberty is an old one in America and one where we would do well to look to history and men like John Leland to help guide us as we will undoubtedly continue to face challenges to our rights of conscience in the future. By way of conclusion, I want to share a portion of a letter written by an even older Baptist, Roger Williams. He too was a champion for religious liberty and provides a very apt metaphor for how church and government should relate.
“There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one
ship, whose weal and woe is common, and is a true picture of a
commonwealth, or a human combination or society. It hath fallen
out sometimes, that both papists and protestants, Jews and
Turks, may be embarked in one ship; upon which suppose and I
affirm, that all the liberty of conscience, that ever I pleaded for,
turns upon these two hinges—that none of the papists,
protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship’s
prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular
prayers or worship, if they practice any.
I further add, that I never denied, that notwithstanding this
liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command the ship’s
course, yea, and also command that justice, peace and sobriety,
be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the
passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services,
or passengers to pay their freight; if any refuse to help, in person
or purse, towards the common charges or defense; if any refuse to
obey the common laws and orders of the ship, concerning their
common peace or preservation; if any shall mutiny and rise up
against their commanders and officers; if any should preach or
write that there ought to be no commanders or officers, because all
are equal in Christ, therefore no masters nor officers, no laws nor
orders, nor corrections nor punishments; —I say, I never denied,
but in such cases, whatever is pretended, the commander or
commanders may judge, resist, compel and punish such trans-
gressors, according to their deserts and merits.” Roger Williams in “A Letter to the Town of Providence,” dated January 1654
1 Isaac Backus, A History of New England (Newton: Backus Historical Society, 1871), 473.
2 John, Leland, The Writings of the Elder John Leland: Including Some Events in His Life (New York: G. W. Wood, 1845), 10.
3 Joe L. Coker, “Sweet Harmony vs. Strict Separation: Recognizing the Distinctions Between Isaac Backus and John Leland,” American Baptist Quarterly 16 (September 1997), 243.
4 Albert W. Wardin, “Contrasting Views of Church and State: A study of John Leland and Isaac Backus,” Baptist History and Heritage, Winter, 1998, 14.
5 Lewis Peyton Little, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia (Lynchburg: J.P. Bell, 1938), 117.
6 H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 267.
7 Little 117.
8 Leland 239
26 Joseph L. Conn, “Legacy of Liberty,” Church and State, October, 2004, 14.
27 Armstrong, O.K. and Marjorie, Baptists Who Shaped a Nation (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1975), 11.
28 McBeth 281
29 William Cathcart, Baptist Patriots and the American Revolution (Grand Rapids: Guardian Press, 1976), 95.
30 Pamela R. Durso and Keith E. Durso, The Story of Baptists in The United States (Brentwood: Baptist History and Heritage Society, 2006), 67.
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