Most Baptists — including Baptists of the Southern (or Great Commission kind) — have never heard of Elder John Leland. I first heard of John Leland when I had the privilege of serving on the Religious Liberty Committee for the Baptist General Association of Virginia during my tenure as Pastor of Grundy Baptist Church in Grundy, VA. Even though I was the “token” conservative on the Committee and did not always see eye-to-eye on religious liberty issues with some of the more moderate members of the Committee, I have continued to gain a better — and deeper — appreciation for not only my service on the BGAV’s Religious Liberty Committee, but also a deeper appreciation for Virginia Baptists’ historical defense of religious liberty.
All Baptists — not just Virginia Baptists — should have a deep appreciation for John Leland. A native of Massachusetts, Leland served Baptist congregations in his home state and most notably in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It would be during his time among the brethren of the Baptist General Association of Virginia that Leland would become known as a strong proponent of religious liberty for all people — not just Baptists:
“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … 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 pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” (John Leland, “A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia,” The Writings of the Later Elder John Leland, published in 1845.)
Baptists in Leland’s day well understood the significance of extending religious liberty to all people, including those who were not Christians. Baptists — who were often a persecuted minority at the time that the United States Constitution was ratified — knew that religious liberty was a right that must be secured if the Gospel was to flourish. Baptists like John Leland did not expect the government to grant any special privileges to the church. However, Leland and other Baptists of his day did expect the government to protect the right of all men — regardless of their beliefs — to be free to propagate those beliefs:
“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 the government protect him in so doing.”
Modern Southern Baptists have simply forgotten — if they were ever taught — the price that John Leland and others paid so long ago so that we might continue to enjoy our religious liberty today. Modern Southern Baptists have forgotten that our Baptist forefathers (in the days before there was an SBC) were oppressed for their beliefs and that the oppression they faced came primarily from the state. No wonder we have Baptist pastors participating in “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” I can almost understand how some non-Baptists could endorse political candidates from behind the pulpit. Baptists should know better!
I suppose that Southern Baptists — the largest Protestant “denomination” in the United States today — see themselves quite differently than their 17th & 18th century ancestors. After all, we have come to see ourselves as part of the establishment. We followed Jerry Falwell so deep into the “Moral Majority” and “Religious Right” that when Richard Land, soon-to-be-retiring President of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he wanted to see a marriage between the Religious Right and the Republican Party, we barely noticed:
“The go-along, get-along strategy is dead. No more engagement. We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of marriage.”
We have accepted the historical revisionism that David Barton
sells teaches to unsuspecting Christians as truth. We have increasingly relied upon the power of government, political parties, and politicians to bring much-needed spiritual revival to our land instead of relying upon the God-given power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to bring about true hope and change in the hearts and minds of those in spiritual darkness. We have prostituted our churches by allowing political candidates to campaign during the time set aside for worship of Almighty God. And, we have broken the law, not because we have been prevented from proclaiming the Gospel, but in order to endorse a candidate for highest office in the land, all the while knowing that said candidate is a member of a non-Christian cult.
In short, we have forgotten what it means to be Baptist Christians in a land that we are just passing through. In these days ahead, when so many within our Baptist congregations (and other Evangelical churches) are looking to politicians to fix what ails us, we would do well to remember the words of another early Baptist leader, Massachusetts Pastor Isaac Backus:
“It appears to us that the true difference and exact limits between ecclesiastical and civil government is this, That the church is armed with light and truth to pull down the strongholds of iniquity and to gain souls to Christ and into his Church to be governed by His rules therein, and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed, while the state is armed with the sword to guard the peace and civil rights of all persons and societies and to punish those who violate the same. And where these two kinds of government, and the weapons which belong to them are well distinguished and approved according to the nature and end of their institution, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other. But where they have been confounded together no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued.” (emphasis added)