John Leland is not often mentioned in the histories of the United States, yet he played an important role in giving this country religious freedom. Much of Leland's sixty-seven-year career as a Baptist preacher was spent in fighting to remove 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.
In 1790 Elder Leland wrote: "No national church can in its organization, be the Gospel Church. A National church takes in the whole Nation, and no more; whereas the Gospel Church, takes in no Nation, but those who fear God, and work righteousness in every Nation. The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…. If all the souls in a government were saints of God, should they be formed into a society by law, that society could not be a Gospel Church, but a creature of state."
One historian points out the fact, that the Baptists in Virginia took an important part in securing the adoption of the Federal Constitution by their own state. "They have the honor through their influence, more than any others, of having saved it to the state and country at large. Through the exertion and self-sacrifice of all a Baptist, John Leland, Virginia was led in her Convention to ratify the Federal Constitution."
Today in Leland-Madison park near Orange, Virginia stand two monuments. The earlier one, which bears an excellent profile of Leland, was erected to the memory of the Baptist preacher by a citizen of Massachusetts who is not a Baptist. On it is this inscription: "Courageous leader of the Baptist doctrine, ardent advocate of the principles of democracy, vindicator of separation of church and state. Near this spot in 1788, Elder John Leland and James Madison, the Father of the American Constitution, held a significant interview which resulted in the adoption of the Constitution by Virginia. Then Madison, a member of Congress from Orange, presented the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty, free speech and free press. This satisfied Leland and his Baptist followers."
If the researchers of the world were to be asked who was most responsible for the American guaranty for religious liberty, their prompt reply would be "James Madison"; but if James Madison might answer, he would no doubt reply, "John Leland and the Baptists."
A fact, amply verified but often unrecognized, is that Madison received his chief inspiration and major support from the Baptists, without whom in all probability the United States could never have adopted a positive guarantee of separation of church and state with full religious liberty for all.
We believe it to be most appropriate for us all to recall the courageous battle which was fought for religious liberty. This liberty is an outstanding blessing which all too often is taken for granted. Much sacrifice was required on the part of God-fearing men to bring it to this land and it is only through proper diligence and prayer that it can be maintained. We as Baptists are proud of our heritage. We are thankful that when our forefathers fought for religious liberty they wanted it not only for themselves but for all others as well, We continue to take a firm stand for the separation of church and state and pray that the sovereign God of heaven will continue to bless this Nation to enjoy that sacred freedom.
© Baptist Bible Hour
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