The Untold Story of The Establishment Clause of The U.S. Constitution

How a group of Virginia Baptists fought for religious liberty for people of all faiths or no faith.

The Formative Years

John Leland was born in Grafton, Massachusetts, on May 14, 1754. 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:

John Leland — Credit

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 been established by the government as the official church of the state. 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. Among these dissenters were Leland’s Baptists.

“Every man must give 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.” — The Rights of Conscience Inalienable.

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 and thrive. Leland recognized the importance of the document, but he was not completely satisfied with it. 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. 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.

“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 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”

“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”

“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”

“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”

The bottom line is that historically, it has been religious minorities who fought the hardest for religious freedom for all. For whatever reason, some of this has been lost today. Some denominations and religious leaders have decided to make their beds with politicians and political parties and the result has been a church in America that has lost its unique voice in an ill fated and illusory effort to hold power. American Christians would do well to recover the spirit of the 18th century champions of religious liberty who used their minority position to advocate not just for their own rights but for the rights of conscience of all Americans no matter their religious preference or lack of religious preference. For religious Americans, insuring the rights of others to practice their faith according to their conscience also insures their own freedom of religion. A threat to religious liberty for one is a threat to religious liberty for all and if the dominant religious group does not recognize this, they will pay for it when the balance of power shifts away from them as it has been doing for a couple decades now.

References

Books
Armstrong, O.K. and Marjorie. Baptists Who Shaped a Nation. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1975.

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