John Leland (1754-1841) was a busy Baptist preacher who mainly labored in Massachusetts and Virginia, preaching more than eight thousand times and baptizing 1,524 people over a span of sixty years. A humble man, often full of a sense of his own unworthiness and unprofitability for the Lord, he was dedicated to the Gospel ministry during a time when the original thirteen American colonies were transformed into the first states of a new confederation. Leland (pictured below) saw the early expansion of America, too, as new states were added over his lifetime (i.e., Vermont, Ohio, Louisiana, Maine, Indiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan)—in significant measure populated by Baptists.
Leland held to an activist theology—what I have called the liberty of conscience view in my books Christian Theology of Public Policy: Highlighting the American Experience (2006) and Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian Perspective (2003)—participating in the political process up to the point of strongly considering a congressional run himself—an idea which he was persuaded by James Madison to abandon. He advocated for religious liberty and a desire to see a Bill of Rights appended to the U.S. Constitution. He mainly pushed for ratification of the First Amendment, but none of his actions indicate that he was in any way against the other nine amendments. He was friends with famous Founders George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (pictured below), whom he persuaded to adopt the first ten Amendments to the Constitution.
Baptists had been the objects of persecution for centuries, not only by Roman Catholics in Europe, but also by Protestants in England, the American English colonies, and other parts of Europe. By refusing to baptize infants, they raised the ire of states that used that institution or sacrament to garner new citizens into their feudal realms. Independent-minded—and even anti-state—Baptists were the opprobrium of generations of state-church Christians.
Baptists fled from England to Holland, then to America, for instance, only to be hunted down, whipped and imprisoned by intolerant American colonial Protestants. The brutal lashing of Obadiah Holmes in 1651 (pictured below) for conducting a Baptist service in a Massachusetts home is perhaps the most famous case. Baptists were, simply, hated for their faith. Some were eventually exiled to Rhode Island, where they were permitted to live in peace.
July 19, 1651. John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes and John Crandall arrived in Lynn, MA, and began preaching illegally. Baptists were considered heretics and were banned from Massachusetts. [They] spent time in the Boston jail after preaching in Lynn. Clarke eventually helped found Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Holmes was severely whipped for his heretical views. A year later he was named pastor of the Newport, RI, Baptist church where he stayed for 30 years. Crandall was imprisoned and whipped, and eventually help[ed] found the Baptist church at Westerly, Rl.
Although for most of Leland's life a variety of religious groups could be found in each state, most American colonies/states had a state religion assigned to them that continued through the early part of American history. "By the year 1702 all 13 American colonies had some form of state-supported religion. This support varied from tax benefits to religious requirements for voting or serving in the legislature."
The existence and proliferation of state-church alliance was absolutely repugnant to the libertarian-minded Baptists. Why should Baptists be prohibited from preaching or have to ask the state for a license to preach? Why should Baptists be forced to pay taxes to build or maintain Anglican or Congregational churches? Why should Baptists be regulated by the doctrines of other churches?
For instance, Virginia's official religion was Anglican or Church of England (1606-1830). Penalties for noncompliance were severe: "Every Person should go to church, Sundays and Holidays, or lye Neck and Heels that Night, and be a Slave to the Colony the following Week; for the second Offence, he should be a Slave for a Month; and for the third, a Year and a Day.".
Other states did, too: New York (Anglican, 1614-1846), "The Dutch Colony of the seventeenth century was officially intolerantly Protestant but was, as has been noted, in practice tolerant and fair to people of other faiths who dwelt within New Netherland...When the English took the province from the Dutch in 1664, they granted full religious toleration to the other forms of Protestantism, and preserved the property rights of the Dutch Reformed Church, while recognizing its discipline."
Massachusetts (Congregational, 1629-1933); Maryland (Anglican, 1632-1867); Delaware (none but a general belief in God, 1637-1792); Connecticut (Congregational, 1639-1818); New Hampshire (Congregational, 1639-1877); Rhode Island (none 1643-1842); Georgia ("protestant religion," 1732-1798); North Carolina (Anglican, 1663-1875); like most other states, its Constitution stated that "Article XIX. That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences."
South Carolina (Anglican, 1663-1868); "Article XXXVIII. That all persons and religious societies who acknowledge that there is one God, and a future state of rewards and punishments, and that God is publicly to be worshipped, shall be freely tolerated. The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this State."
The middle states had laxer rules. Pennsylvania (none, 1681-1790), with a constitutional provision holding through 1874 said, "Section. 2. That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their Own consciences and understanding." New Jersey (none, 1702-1844); "XVIII. That no person shall ever, within this Colony, be deprived of the inestimable privilege of worshipping Almighty God in a manner agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; nor, under any pretense whatever, be compelled to attend any place of worship, contrary to his own faith and judgment; nor shall any person, within this Colony, ever be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or any other rates, for the purpose of building or repairing any other church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right, or has deliberately or voluntarily engaged himself to perform."
Even outliers such as Jews and Roman Catholics could find refuge in those states. "The first Jews arrived in the city then called New Amsterdam [New York] in 1654. Though the colony’s governor, Pieter Stuyvesant, hoped they would not remain, the backers of the Dutch West India Company pressured him to let them stay.". Jews were mainly found in New York City, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. So were Lutherans, Quakers and Roman Catholics (who were also dominant in "Mary"-land).
Nevertheless, non-conformists and dissenters (like Baptists) continued to proliferate. "The South was traditionally Anglican but had a growing Methodist and Baptist population. New England was traditionally Congregationalist, but evangelicals moved there nonetheless. The middle colonies mixed Lutherans, Catholics (in Maryland), Presbyterians and Quakers. A small number of Jews lived in early America, as well."
Baptists, Protestants and, to a lesser extent, Roman Catholics were distributed throughout the colonies, especially as more religious tolerance was granted over time. This is especially true of Baptists and Methodists, groups which tended to spread like wildfire. Baptists were mostly spread around the agrarian South, from Maryland and Virginia, through the Carolinas and Georgia, as well as in Rhode Island. And they eventually pushed westward into territories that would emerge as new states. As Matthew Cook (2009:89) rightly commented:
...Baptist life in the South continued to grow at a very rapid pace for most of this period. The epicenter of this rapid growth was in Virginia but southern Baptists increased in numbers in every colony/state at a rate that outpaced population growth, sometimes exceedingly so.
Methodists (following their preaching "circuits") were largely in the same areas of southern and then-western America and, along with the Baptists, pushed westward continually. It is hardly surprising that they became America's two largest denominations. Presbyterians were less prolific, but still were found in considerable concentrations in the Middle States and the South, and had always had a significant presence throughout New England, too. The Reformed church was even less widespread, mainly concentrated around New (Amsterdam) York City.
For centuries, in both Europe and America, Baptists were whipped, beaten, imprisoned, burned at the stake and drowned by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans and Reformed and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Presbyterians. Like the Apostle Paul (Acts 24:5), Baptists have been generally regarded as a pestilence.
Perhaps now it is clear why Baptists have a natural affinity with libertarianism. It should also be clear why Baptists were willing to take up arms against the oppressive British Crown—or any oppressive state aligned with a dogmatic church—and why they insisted on having the Bill of Rights. They could hardly trust the historically-malicious, theonomic Protestants or Roman Catholics living among them in the newly-founded United States.
Leland was one of those prominent, activist Baptists that distilled and deployed Christian activism in early America. He followed the lead of another famous Baptist Pastor from Connecticut, Isaac Backus—a patriot from the previous generation who called for religious freedom. Consider some notable comments found in Leland's diary or selections from his annotated timeline, that may grant a glimpse into his holistic Christian Worldview—showing him to be both a serious Christian and seriously involved with both his culture and the politics of his day:
January 28, 1835—“I have been preaching 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. How much error there has been in the doctrine and measures that I have advocated, I cannot say; no doubt some, for I claim not infallible inspiration. But I have not yet been convinced of any mistake so radical as to justify a renunciation of what I have believed, and adopt the new measures. I am waiting to see what the event will be; praying for light; open to conviction; willing to retract, and ready to confess when convicted.”
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 to 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.”
January 14, 1841—Elder John Leland goes home to be with the Lord. The following is written by Miss L. F. Greene in her book, The Writings of the late Elder John Leland. “Thus died John Leland—a man eminent above many for piety and usefulness, whose name is connected with all that is pure in patriotism, lovely in the social and domestic virtues, philanthropic in feeling and action, arduous, disinterested, and self-denying in the labors of the ministerial calling; one whose place in society, in the church, and in the ranks in the hearts of those who knew him—[will] never [be forgotten]. He died, as he had lived, a witness for the truth, testifying, with his last breath, the value of that religion, and that only, which has its seat in the heart. His life had been unostentatious; his aspirations after worldly honors, ever low and feeble; his humility and sense of dependence on God, deep-felt and abiding—and thus he died. “Being with him in his last illness,” (Mr. Alden remarks in his funeral sermon),” more or less every day, I think I may say, I never saw a Christian feel more deeply his own unworthiness. ‘Bury me,’ said he, ‘in an humble manner.’ I want no encomiums; I deserve none. I feel myself a poor, miserable sinner, and Christ is my only hope.’ Being asked, very near his end, what were his views of the future, he exclaimed, with both hands extended upward, and a smile I can never forget, ‘My prospects of heaven are clear.’ He seemed already to feel the everlasting rest laying its sweet influences over his soul, and bearing it up, taking away the sting of death.”
According to Leland, it was neither bad or contradictory to mix a simple Christian (Baptist) faith with political activism—or to promote an armed citizenry for that matter. Many Baptists today in North America and Chile are shocked to find out that such particular (Calvinistic) Baptist leaders took part in the "rebellion" against King George III. (Note that in 1800, 97% of American Baptist churches held to the 1689 Confession or Philadelphia Confession and were, thus, Calvinistic; see, e.g., Matthew Cook (2009:91-93,108,118-121).) They are even more surprised to know that Leland and the overwhelming number of Baptists of his day spearheaded the movement to adopt the Bill of Rights—including the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
They were men of peace that, like all consistent Christians, loathed war (Romans 12:18). But they saw self-defense and even the overthrow of tyrants (i.e., statist enslavers) to be perfectly consistent with their faith and the Bible in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 and Luke 22:36-38, among other passages supporting self-defense and the use of arms to attain liberty.
1 Corinthians 7:20-26 (New King James Version):
"20 Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. 21 Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. 22 For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brethren, let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called."
Luke 22:36-38 (New King James Version):
"36 Then He [Jesus Christ] said to them, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one. 37 For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ For the things concerning Me have an end. 38 So they said, 'Lord, look, here are two swords.' And He said to them, 'It is enough.'”
The use of force and violence against criminals and oppressors is sanctioned in the Bible by both Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul, building on righteous actions by Moses (Exodus 2:11-14; Acts 7:24), Ehud (Judges 3:16-21), Elijah (1 Kings 18:40; 2 Kings 1:10-12), and the sword-bearing men (a) under Nehemiah (Nehemiah 4:13,18) and (b) Peter (John 18:10). (Note: The early American Baptists even threw in Galatians 5:1 for good measure, although I have never quite understood why.)
For activist Baptists, Jesus's command to "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:39; Luke 6:29; ref. Isaiah 50:6; Job 16:10; Lamentations 3:30) was not a pacifist doctrine that contradicted other passages of Scripture, but yet another example of Christ destroying the false doctrines of the Pharisees who taught that personal vengeance could be meted out without proper collective judgment based on testimonies. After all, Jesus Himself was smitten on the cheek while being accused before Pilate and did not literally offer His other one (John 18:21-23; 19:3; Luke 22:64), and neither did the Apostle Paul do so when being accused before the Jewish high priest (Acts 23:2).
Surely, the early American Baptists like pastors Leland and Backus would not have been opposed to carrying concealed weapons, much to the chagrin of some of their modern progeny in Europe, North America and South American countries like Chile. Were the historical Baptists right regarding taking up arms in self-defense? How different would modern countries in North America, Europe and South America be if Baptists would only adhere to the doctrine of Christ and corresponding Worldview championed by their activist Baptist predecessors?
While the ends do not justify the means, it is quite clear that Baptist prosperity since 1790, including Bible-based seminaries and the enormous missionary surge over the last two centuries—along with similar blessings that spilled over to many other groups—was built on the defensive actions of activist Baptists. The courageous American Baptists of the late 1700s may have originally aligned themselves with Presbyterians (mainly) and others like the "black robe regiment" Lutherans during the battle for freedom in Colonial America, but they later stood alone when insisting on protecting the rights of men generally via the Bill of Rights. Accordingly, libertarians in North America, Chile, Europe and elsewhere around the world owe a debt of gratitude to Baptists, the most libertarian and neoliberal of all the branches of Christianity.
For further reading on Leland and Backus:
- William M. Pinson, Jr. (2007), Baptists and Religious Liberty: The Freedom Road, Dallas: BAPTISTWAY PRESS.
- Albert W. Wardin, Jr. (1998), “Contrasting Views for Church and State: A Study of John Leland and Isaac Backus,” Baptist History and Heritage, 33, no. 1 (Winter): 12–20.
- Isaac Backus (1871), History of New England with Particular Reference to the
Denomination of Christians Called Baptists, Newton, Mass: The Backus Historical Society.
- Garnett Ryland (1955), The Baptists of Virginia 1699–1926, Richmond: The Virginia Baptist Board of Missions and Education.
- L.F. Greene, ed. (1970), The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, New York: G.W. Wood (reprinted by New York: Arno Press).
John Cobin, Ph.D.
Escape America Now