As a peacemaker myself, I know that I am building on the work of earlier generations. Today, I think you’ll be inspired to learn about one of the true, early American
heavy lifters in this long movement of peacemakers. Freedoms we cherish, especially religious liberty and the Bill of Rights, are a legacy he helped to procure for us as the foundations for our nation were being laid. He did it by visionary appeal and by pragmatic hardball politics—a great combination!
Advocate for Religious Freedom in the U.S. Constitution
The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free.
A Baptist preacher who knew how to play political hardball ensured that freedom of religion was inscribed into the United States Constitution. The author of that founding document, who would later become President of the United States, is well known: James Madison. But the preacher who challenged Madison on religious liberty is an interfaith hero known only in a few circles today.
John Leland joined the Baptists as a young man, quickly became a preacher, and left his native Massachusetts for Virginia. The time was 1776, just as the American War of Independence was getting underway. After winning their revolution, the struggling colonies tried to organize together under the Articles of Confederation, but that document proved inadequate to hold them together effectively. A Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia to draft a new document, which was primarily penned by James Madison. The U.S. Constitution was completed on September 17, 1787, and sent to the individual former colonies for ratification.
Pushing for Religious Liberty
That is when John Leland stepped into the process. Besides engaging in his revivalist preaching, Leland spoke and wrote extensively on the topic of religious liberty. He wrote:
Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a preeminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.
James Madison Joins the Cause
All of the states except for Rhode Island and Pennsylvania had official state churches. Leland mobilized the Baptists in Virginia to push for religious liberty in Virginia. The Baptists were almost the only group to support Thomas Jefferson’s
Act for Establishing Religious Freedom as opposed to Patrick Henry’s bill to assess taxes to support
teachers of the Christian religion. James Madison joined the cause, and Madison’s version of the bill eventually passed in the Virginia General Assembly.
Leland urged Madison to press the issue further into the U.S. Constitution, perhaps adding on a
Bill of Rights as an amendment. Madison initially opposed the idea of an amendment. So Leland ran against Madison as a delegate to Virginia’s convention to ratify the constitution. With the support of Baptists throughout the state it became clear that Leland had more votes that Madison. Madison visited Leland’s farm and they thrashed out an agreement. Leland would withdraw from the race for the convention, and Madison would join Leland in calling for an amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty, free speech and a free press. On June 7, 1789, Madison submitted the first version what became the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights. Religious freedom was enshrined in U.S. law.
Subsequent Work Advocating Religious Liberty
Getting the concept of religious liberty in the Bill of Rights was just the first step. How would those legal words be interpreted? Leland continued speaking and writing on the topic. Using the pen name of Jack Nipps, he wrote articles in The Yankee Spy published in Boston, developing an extensive political philosophy on the relationship between religion and the state. He wrote that
it is not possible in the nature of things to establish religion by human laws without perverting the design of civil law and oppressing the people. Leland spoke in strong defense of those whose beliefs were different from his own:
Is it the duty of a deist to support that which he believes to be a cheat and imposition? Is it the duty of the Jew to support the religion of Jesus Christ, when he really believes that he was an imposter? Must the papist be forced to pay men for preaching down the supremacy of the pope, whom they are sure is the head of the church? Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has to do with the principles of mathematics.
Baptist concepts of religious liberty and freedom of conscience were forged from the persecutions they endured at the hands of the state churches and governments in England and Massachusetts. The early Baptists realized that for anyone to have their religious rights genuinely protected, all must be protected, including and especially religious minorities. So these interfaith heroes, led by Roger Williams and later John Leland, did the groundbreaking political work that pushed into the founding documents of the United States the religious freedom that protects everyone of every religion.