Monday, November 21, 2005

One Baptist I appreciate

Back in university I stumbled across an arcane collection of the works of John Leland. Leland was an interesting fellow who lived from 1754 to 1841. He was a Baptist minister and a staunch Jeffersonian. As a Jeffersonian liberal he opposed the theocrats of his day and demanded total separation of church and state. In 1801 the people of Cheshire, Massachusetts wanted to celebrate the election of Jefferson. To do so they produced a mammoth cheese which they wanted to bestow on the new President.

Leland, in spite of Jefferson’s opposition to the supernatural elements of the Christian religion, was happy to accompany the cheese on it’s journey and present it to the president himself. He referred to Jefferson as “my hero”. Leland knew that Jefferson was despised by the Religious Right of his day because he was not a Christian. He made jest of those who predicted disaster if Jefferson won the presidency. “When Mr. Jefferson was elected president, the pulpits rang with alarms, and the presses groaned with predictions, that the Bibles would all be burned; meeting-houses destroyed; the marriage bonds dissolved, and anarchy, infidelity and licentiousness would fill the land. These clerical warnings and editorial prophecies all failed. Instead thereof, during his administration, the national debt was reduced $40,000,000; the internal taxes taken off; the vast territory of the west was added to the United States, and every man sat quietly under his vine and fig tree, enjoying the freedom of his religion and the attachment of his wife and children.”

Since he is pretty unknown still I thought I’d share some of his words.

"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."

“Let it suffice on this head to say, 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.”

“ If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgement, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise let men be free.”

‘ 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 impostor? 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 with the principles of mathematics.”

“. Disdain mean suspicion, but cherish manly jealousy; be always jealous of your liberty, your rights. Nip the first bud of intrusion on your constitution. Be not devoted to men; let measures be your object, and estimate men according to the measures they pursue. Never promote men who seek after a state-established religion; it is spiritual tyranny--the worst of despotism. It is turnpiking the way to heaven by human law, in order to establish ministerial gates to collect toll. It converts religion into a principle of state policy, and the gospel into merchandise. Heaven forbids the bans of marriage between church and state; their embraces therefore, must be unlawful. Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion, in choosing representatives. It is electioneering. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes. If pure religion is the criterion to denominate candidates, those who make a noise about it must be rejected; for their wrangle about it, proves that they are void of it. Let honesty, talents and quick despatch, characterise the men of your choice. Such men will have a sympathy with their constituents, and will be willing to come to the light, that their deeds may be examined. . . .”

‘government is founded on compact. ... every law made by legislators, inconsistent with the compact, modernly called a constitution, is usurping in the legislators, and not binding on the people.”

“... Bible Christians, and Deists, have an equal plea against self-named Christians, who (because they are void of the spirit, and ignorant of the precepts of the gospel) tyranize over the consciences of others, under the specious garb of religion and good order.”

“It was left for the United States of North America, to give the example to the world; to draw the proper line between church and state, religion and politics. ... To say that the government of the United States is perfect, would be arrogant; but I have no hesitancy in saying, that the Constitution has left religion infallibly where it should be left in all government, viz: in the hands of its author, as a matter between God and individuals; leaving an open door for Pagans, Turks, Jews or Christians, to fill any office in the government, without any religious test, to make them hypocrites; securing to every man his right of argument and free debate: not considering religious opinions objects of civil government, or any ways under its control: duly appreciating that Christianity is not a scheme of coercion ...”

“The work of the legislature is to make laws for the security of life, liberty and property, and leave religion to the consciences of individuals .”

“How undeniable the fact, that civil government is not founded on Christianity.”

“Christianity... has suffered more injury by its pretended friends, who have undertaken to regulate it by law, than it has from all its enemies.”

“What leads legislators into this error, is confounding sins and crimes together -- making no difference between moral evil and state rebellion: not considering that a man may be infected with moral evil, and yet be guilty of no crime, punishable by law. If a man worships one God, three Gods, twenty Gods, or no God -- if he pays adoration one day in a week, seven days or no day -- wherein does he injure the life, liberty or property of another? Let any or all these actions be supposed to be religious evils of an enormous size, yet they are not crimes to be punished by laws of state, which extend no further, in justice, than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”

This quote is particularly interesting I think in that Leland anticipates an argument made later by the great deist libertarian Lysander Spooner in his essay “Vices are Not Crimes.”. Spooner was born in 1808 and also lived in Massachusetts and I’ve wondered if he was familiar with Leland. But Leland made this point in 1794 while Spooner’s famous essay was only penned in 1875.

Leland opposed any religious test for office holders saying such tests only “keep from office the best of men” since villains have no scruples and will happily pretend to be religious in order to gain power. Leland said that office holders needed to be good men and “let him worship one God, twenty Gods, or no God---be he Jew, Turk, Pagan or Infidel, he is eligible to any office in the State.”

Leland’s grave stone reads: “Here lies the body of John Leland, who labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men.”

I am in the middle of doing an essay on the ideas of Leland. He was religious but he was also a lover of liberty. Such love of liberty is rare among the “faithful” and when found it should be supported. Unfortunately Leland would today be shunned by the very faith he did so much to promote.


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