The Life of John Leland, America’s First Great Pastor!


A Paper Submitted to Dr. Russell Woodbridge

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for

CHHI 694

Liberty Theological Seminary


Rick Mangrum

Lynchburg, Virginia

Sunday, October 16, 2011





EARLY YEARS——————————————————————————————–3

MINISTRY IN VIRGINIA——————————————————————————–4

MINISTRY IN MASSACHUSETTS——————————————————————–8


INFLUENCE ON JAMES MADISON—————————————————————–14





            This paper will examine the life of John Leland, a Baptist Minister who lived in America from the mid 1700’s to the mid 1800’s.  This paper will discuss the details of Leland’s life and its impact on early America.  The details of his life will show his deep and undeniable impact on the development of religious liberty in both the culture and the earliest governing documents of the United States.  These same details will also show that Leland went beyond what would have been normal or every day for a minister working to spread the gospel as well to influence others. This was an important time in the initial development of our country.  His lifetime spanned a period from America’s existence as a British colony to the election of its ninth President.  The impact of his life on our country shows both the potential of an individual as well as the development of religious liberty that we enjoy today.


First the historical perspective of Leland’s life will be discussed.  The key events of American history that occurred during his life time will be examined.  How the key events in Leland’s own life intertwined with the American history of that day helps set the stage for his influence of key Americans and the events of his day.   Leland’s ministry as a pastor and preacher will be examined.  The impact of Leland’s life on some of those key Americans and key topics will be discussed, starting with his impact on Virginia politics and the Virginia Constitution.  His impact on the life of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison will be discussed.  The overall influence of this man on the American history of his day was “crucial.”[1] A deeper



understanding of Leland will give the reader a better perspective on American history at this key time in the country’s development as well as an understanding of how the religious liberty we all enjoy in the United States came to be.


A good first step to understanding the life of Leland is to examine the key dates and events in his life and how they occurred in the context of American history.  Here is a summary of key American history events[2] and the corresponding event in the life of John Leland.

American History Event                                             John Leland Key Event

1754   French and Indian War begins                         1754   Born in Grafton, MA

1772   Surrendered to Ministry

1773   Boston Tea Party

1774   First Continental Congress                              1774   Baptism and beginning of

Public Ministry

1775 American Revolution begins

1776   Declaration of Independence                          1776   Married at age 22

1777   Began Virginia Ministry

1788   Madison agreement on

Religious Liberty

1789   George Washington elected

U.S. Constitution effective

1791   Bill of Rights ratified                                       1792    Moves to Massachusetts

1802    Jefferson Cheese incident

1811    Elected to MA Congress


American History Event                                             John Leland Key Event

1812   War of 1812 begins

1837 Van Buren elected eighth President                  1837   Wife dies

1841   Harrison elected ninth President                      1841   Dies of pneumonia


Leland’s life spanned some of the important and formative years of American history.  He began his life under the rule of King George III and died in the same year as the election of the ninth American President.  In his lifetime, America went from the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  He witnessed firsthand many of the most important events in our nation’s history, influencing many of them.

His life also spanned dramatic growth in Baptist’s membership in America.  The number of Baptist “multiplied tenfold” in his lifetime and the number of Baptist churches grew from five hundred to over twenty five hundred.[3]This was a dramatic period for America and for Baptists.

            EARLY YEARS

            Leland’s life can be divided into three portions, his early years, ministry in Virginia and ministry in Massachusetts.  He was born forty miles from Boston, in Grafton, Massachusetts on May 14, 1754, into a working family.[4]  His father’s profession is not recorded other than that he was a man of “humble position.”[5]  Grafton was a rural area and he spent his youth



playing in the forests and streams.  He was “not handsome” but very good in school.[6]He was known as a happy child, rather carefree.  As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming a lawyer.  He was known for his love of talking.  It would all change one day in a field close to his home at age 18.

He said he heard an audible voice from above that day saying “you are not about the work which you have got to do.”[7]  He began to examine his life and to regularly attend any and all available church services or religious meetings.  He became a student of history and an avid reader.  He started to speak at some of the meetings he attended, eventually starting to preach in small churches in surrounding towns.  He would preach from church to church supporting himself with odd jobs as a laborer.  He had never obtained any training in a vocation or job up to that point.  Preaching became his sole focus.

Soon it was obvious to all around him that he had a “God-given power” to communicate and persuade others to follow God as he had chosen to do.[8] He began to preach to anyone who would listen, a small group or a large congregation.


By the fall of 1775 he had preached his way down the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Virginia where he found church audiences who were very responsive to his



“vigorous,anecdotal and eccentric” preaching style.[9]  His reputation as an interesting and effective speaker began to spread throughout the state.

Leland never made any serious attempt to educate himself theologically in a formal way as a preacher.  His style was simple and focused on basic biblical principles such as the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments.  As was to be a pattern throughout his life, he strongly

believed in being independent from any outside influences whether they are theological or political.  He wanted no support from anyone or any organization, church or government.  In fact he zealously opposed all forms of religious institutions, including Sunday School.[10]  He preached against salaried ministers although he personally knew more than 1000 Baptist pastors.  He was a strong proponent of complete personal independence from the very beginning of his ministry to the very end.

After a short time back in Massachusetts to marry his childhood sweetheart in 1776 at age 22, he and his new bride travelled back to Virginia and settled in Mount Poney in Culpeper in August of 1777 where he was ordained by the local Baptist church. As he was raised as a child, Leland would always prefer a rural lifestyle.  He was in high demand as a speaker and preached from a different church almost every week, again working whatever odd job he could find during the week to support himself and his wife.

Leland’s early ministry in Virginia coincided with the early political life of Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson began his political career as a legislator in Virginia in 1776.  Jefferson quickly became known for his belief in the complete independence of the church from the


government.  Jefferson believed that there should be no support of any kind for any church from government.  That strongly appealed to Leland’s sense of independence and Leland soon became a supporter of Jefferson from the pulpit, helping build a grass roots base of support for the Virginia legislator that would last for Jefferson’s lifetime.

Leland moved to Orange County, Virginia in 1778, just a few miles from Jefferson’s home at Monticello.  It was then the two began to become friends, building a strong, lifelong friendship based on their common beliefs around the church and its relationship to the state.

Leland continued to support Jefferson and his stand on the “complete separation of church and state” from the pulpit and is credited with helping Jefferson build influence and support in Virginia that would ultimately lead to influence on the soon to be written United States Constitution.[11]

Leland’s lifestyle was one of a dedicated preacher and servant of God.  He rode from town to town on horseback.  It is believed he rode more than 1000 miles during his Virginia ministry.[12]  He is said to have stopped and preached at a different town every ten miles.  Later in life, reflecting on his days in Virginia that built the foundation for his ministry he claimed to have preached 8,000 sermons in 463 different locations to audiences ranging from 5 to 10,000.[13]  He is believed to have baptized over 1500 new believers.

Leland’s appeal to listeners became his avoidance of topics common to most preachers of his day.  He never spoke of theology or doctrine.  He focused on everyday practical matters such


as the treatment of your neighbor, living daily to mirror the life of Christ.  He stressed the importance of avoiding outside influences just as Jesus did in his earthly ministry.  Travelling from town to town must have seemed to Leland similar to the life of Christ, walking from town to town in biblical days.  Leland also focused on the rights of the people in this new country and encouraged listeners to guard carefully against the control or oppression of local, state or central governments.  In this way he was completely aligned with his friend Jefferson.

Baptists in Virginia at that time were very receptive to Leland’s message of church independence and religious liberty.  They remembered the strong hand of the Church of England on their parents and families in previous generations and believed this was one of the core, foundational issues for this new country.  Leland addressed the issue of a government supported

national church directly by saying that “no national church can in its organization, be the Gospel Church.”[14]  And if the church is not focused on the gospel, to Leland it was of no use.  His stance against any government tie or support to the church found a willing audience in Virginia Baptists.  This was completely consistent with the past behavior of Virginia Baptists who had “swelled the ranks” of the revolutionary army as the Continental Congress declared independence.[15]

Virginia Baptists were also willing to worship with anyone following the gospel message, regardless of their color.  While many of the states were beginning to struggle with race and slavery issues, in many rural Virginia communities black and white worshiped together.[16] Leland


was as willing to listen to pastors of a different race as he was willing to preach to their congregations.  His focus was on spreading the gospel to any audience.  In Virginia, Leland’s ministry also began to mix with politics on his most passonate political issue.

As Virginia began its Constitutional Convention in 1776, Jefferson stepped out in opposition to any tax dollars going to support any religious institutions.  Many traditional legislators opposed his view and blocked Jefferson.  Leland stepped in, organizing a meeting of Virginia Baptists on Christmas Day of 1776, writing a paper of support for Jefferson that was distributed to all Virginia delegates to the Constitutional Convention.  Jefferson’s view was adopted in the first Virginia Constitution.   It became the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.[17]   Many of that day would now proclaim Leland as the “leader who really overthrew” the idea of a government supported and endorsed church.[18]This was an accomplishment that the humble Leland would deny in later years.

These events in Virginia also included James Madison who was aligned with Jefferson and Leland on this issue. These three began to form the foundation for things to come in the United States Constitution in later years.  These events would repeat themselves and the support of Leland  would again be required to influence this issue on a national level, as will be detailed in a section later in this paper.






            Despite his great success as a speaker and preacher in Virginia, influencing thousands for Christ and even impacting the writing of the state’s constitution, Leland was a wandering soul in his heart.  After 14 years in Virginia he moved his family to Massachusetts in 1792.  Settling in Cheshire, he found a community made up almost completely of Baptists.[19] Most residents of Leland’s new town had come there from Rhode Island and settled in what was previously uninhabited, unsettled land at the foot of Mount Greylock, Massachusetts’s highest peak.  Many of his new neighbors had moved to this area when there was nothing there but trees and fields and built this community. He would live there for the rest of his life.

Leland’s methods would not change in the coming years.  He would still ride his horse from town to town, preaching wherever he could find an audience.  His Virginia years had molded his approach as a preacher and created his strong reputation as a representative of God’s word.  Cheshire would be the center of his activities but he would not be limited to just one community or area in his work.

After moving to Massachusetts Leland began to focus more of his time and attention to politics, while not neglecting his preaching duties.  Perhaps he had seen the impact of his work in Virginia in protecting religious freedom and wished to expand that influence.  He began to preach more on the need for complete separation of church and government.  From his new



home in the heart of New England, he “denounced most vigorously” the normal process in New England of electing a local minister by majority vote of the town then imposing a tax on all

residents to pay for the church’s activities.[20]More and more he used Jefferson as the example to follow, a strong political leader who stood firm in his position on the separation of church and state.  Leland clearly saw this issue as an open gateway or as a locked gate to the spreading of the gospel.  If the government had a say in the affairs of the church at some point it would begin to dictate the content of the Sunday sermons.  Leland was convinced that the sole purpose

of the church was to spread the gospel and any government involvement would interfere with that purpose.

Leland truly loved the community of Cheshire.  He would one day speak to President Thomas Jefferson about the loyalty of this community and about “every patriotic family and cow” and their support and belief in the new American leader and the government he was working to build.[21]Leland’s love for this people became joined with his passion for religious liberty from government interference in 1811.  He ran and was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives where this issue was his primary focus.  For this dedicated, horse-riding preacher of the gospel to take the time for this new responsibility speaks to his passion for the issue.

In the Massachusetts House, Leland took a position that to many may have seemed contrary to his role as a preacher and religious leader.  He vigorously opposed legislation that proposed to stop mail delivery on Sunday, in honor of the Sabbath.  He saw that recognition of


religion by government as a small step toward government involvement in the church.  He was pure and focused on this issue.  There should be no government involvement in church affairs,

positive or negative.  Even a law that sought to respect the church seemed to be interference in Leland’s mind.

Leland’s years in Massachusetts were a time of gradual evolution from passionate circuit preacher to religious leader and statesman.  His influence and reputation became nearly

nationwide, certainly all up and down the east coast of the new country.  “His name was a household word in nearly every home.”[22]

He would preach his last sermon at a religious meeting on Friday, January 8th, 1841 in Cheshire.  Witnesses called his last sermon “sound and spiritual” even at age 87.[23]He took to his bed that night and died six days later of pneumonia.  He spoke of Heaven in the hours before he died and looking forward to seeing his wife who had dies four years earlier.  He told a young preacher at his bedside “bury me in a humble manner” and died peacefully.[24]

He was buried in the Cheshire cemetery.  The grave is marked by a small blue marble stone.  The inscription says “Here lies the body of the Rev. John Leland of Cheshire, who labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men.”[25]





            In a previous section the relationship of Leland and Thomas Jefferson was briefly discussed which began to develop during Lelend’s days in Virginia.  This relationship was both personal and professional, based on a common belief in the complete and total separation of churches and government.  It would impact both of their lives in many ways over many years.  Jefferson would describe Leland as his “friend and ally” many times.[26]Their strong friendship began during the political struggle and victory over religious liberty in Virginia and would continue as Jefferson moved to the White House.

In 1802 when Jefferson wrote a well know letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut describing his belief in “building a wall of separation between church and state.”[27] This letter was widely circulated among Baptists and coined the famous phrase.  This was following the close and bitter presidential election of 1800 in which the Electoral College was tied and Jefferson’s election was decided in the House of Representatives.  Leland’s years of supporting Jefferson from the pulpit and his strong support of complete religious liberty up and down the coastal northeast, from Massachusetts to Virginia and back again was seen by Jefferson as a key component of his victory in becoming President.  He had written the letter after taking office, to Baptists in Connecticut to firmly state his views on the subject.  In addition to the Danbury Letter Jefferson then invited the country’s second most recognized proponent of religious liberty after himself, John Leland to the White House.  What a grand day that must have been for John Leland.  From travelling preacher on horseback to the White House, all due


to his enduring belief in the rights of all people to worship how they deem appropriate with no interference from any governing institution. And now he was publicly recognized by the President of the United States who also shared his point of view.

But Leland was a preacher at heart not a politician.  He used the occasion of his visit to the White House to draw attention to his message.  Cheshire, where he currently lived was a city known for its dairy products and cheese especially.  Most people in the town were engaged in the production of milk or cheese in one way or another.  Jefferson invited Leland formally to the White House for January 1, 1802 in June of the previous year.[28]  Leland

developed a plan to bring great attention to his home town and preach the gospel in every town between Cheshire and Washington in the months leading up the following January.  This became known as the Mammoth Cheshire Cheese incident.[29]

The entire city of Cheshire was part of the plan.  The best cows were selected from every farm.  The best milk was acquired.  On July 20, 1801 it was all brought together in one location and a giant, round cheese was produced.[30]  Leland would transport it to Washington, stopping along the way at every church that would have him, preaching the gospel.  Thousands would turn out to see the presidential cheese and hear the gospel as a result of their curiosity. In the end, upon his arrival in Washington, Leland presented the mammoth cheese to the President declaring




that the 1235 pound cheese, believed to be a world record, had come from the “good Republican cows” of Cheshire in Jefferson’s honor.[31]  The event was publicized all over the country and

served to also publicize the stand of Jefferson on religious liberty.   Being seen with Leland in such a public way could only be interpreted as a statement for religious liberty by observing citizens given Leland’s complete and public support of that position.

A second great public event would then occur.  Since early 1800 after Jefferson had become President, Sunday worship services were held every week in the House of Representatives.  They were not largely attended.  That week, Jefferson invited Leland to be the speaker.  For the first time ever, Jefferson attended.  Every member of the House of Representatives was there in the President’s honor.  Jefferson’s attendance at the service led by one of the nation’s best known evangelists and proponents of religious liberty sent a loud and

clear message to all of the country that Jefferson supported both the Christian and the political stances of John Leland.  It was seen by many as a pivotal moment in the country’s move toward

both positions.[32]Leland’s friendship and influence with Jefferson had helped to show the new President firmly as a firm supporter of religious liberty.


            Leland also influenced the life of James Madison significantly.  This was completely consistent with his life as a minister and similar to his influence on Jefferson.  It was another



example of how Leland used his work “as a popular Baptist minister to advance his party’s cause with no objection from Jefferson or Madison until his death in 1841.”[33]

His impact on Madison was more direct than his influence on Jefferson.  Leland played a

key role in helping establishing Madison as an American leader, first in Virginia then nationally.  He strongly and successfully supported Madison politically to be elected to two key positions that would enable Madison to helped mold history in the area of religious liberty.  First he “played a substantial role” in the election of Madison to the Virginia convention to ratify the Virginia constitution in 1788 and then to be elected to the first Congress of the United States in 1789.[34]  Leland’s effective support from the pulpit along with his aggressive travel schedule spread a positive word about Madison throughout Virginia in the key beginning of Madison’s political career.  Madison’s political career growth coincided almost exactly with the Virginia ministry of Leland.

At one point Madison sought out Leland for his support.  After successfully leading the work in Virginia to guarantee religious liberty through the Virginia Constitution, Madison sought to secure the same religious liberty in the United States Constitution, being written in 1789.  Leland was unsure if the language from the Virginia constitution, being put forth by Madison for

the national version was strong enough to permanently secure religious liberty.  He made it known that the language needed to be firm and direct.  Without direct language on this issue it is possible that Leland and Baptists in general, would oppose final approval of the constitution.


Leland wanted to language to be very clear or he would begin to rally support opposing the document.[35]

Madison sought out Leland and asked for his support.  “Under an oak tree on Leland’s farm” the two reached compromise on the language and Leland promised Madison his public support.[36] Madison promised Leland there would be specific amendments on key issues such as religious liberty not clearly addressed in the constitution itself.  This was the beginning of Madison’s support for what would become the Bill of Rights, starting with the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty.  This also helped align Madison with Patrick Henry, a fellow Virginian, who also opposed the new constitution without more specific language on this and other issues.  Madison and Henry had long been political foes.  Leland’s agreement with Madison may have opened the way for much more than just religious liberty in the constitution.  It may have helped solved political stalemate between Madison and Henry that could have stopped the approval of the new constitution.  It was clear to all at the time that the

approval of Leland was “particularly weighty” to the approval of the first constitution and the Bill of Rights under Madison’s leadership.[37]

Leland’s life clearly and directly impacted the lives and political success of two of our nation’s early leaders, Jefferson and Madison.  Not only did this self-educated, self-supporting Baptist minister change the lives of thousands with this telling of the gospel, he helped form the religious freedoms we all today enjoy.  The impact of this one man is truly something to be studied and admired.



John Leland started life from humble beginnings in rural Massachusetts.  During his years America would move from a group of colonies ruled by an English king to an independent nation.  He spent those historical years focused on his call from God, heard from the sky one day in a field at age eighteen.

Most of his life he spent either on horseback travelling from town to town or behind a pulpit or on a stage preaching the gospel to thousands.  He helped many find Christ.  Through it all he became known as a crusader for the gospel and a strong supporter of religious liberty.  His words as a preacher helped influence many leaders of this new nation.  Among them are Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  Both gave Leland credit for his part in their success as American leaders and in helping guarantee religious liberty through the Constitution of the United States. Without his strong influence in its early formation it is likely that religious liberty in America would not be as clear and as strong as it came to be.

After many years of hard but successful ministry, Leland died in the home he loved, peacefully in his sleep after a short illness.  He asked to be buried nearby in a simple grave.  Leland’s life is a part of American history that enriches all who understand it.  His life is one to be admired.  Leland was not limited by his humble beginnings or lack of education.  He was not intimidated by those who did not know or opposed him.  He was not overwhelmed by political leaders or the power of their offices.

Leland’s fierce personal independence is also a strong example for us all.  He wished no support or special treatment from government of any kind.  No doubt he would be


disappointed by the tax-free status churches today enjoy.[38]  He would see that as a threat to religious liberty.

Leland simply followed the call of God, made the best of what he had, worked as hard as he could and did the best he knew how to do.  His life reminds this writer of the life and words of Paul.  In 2 Timothy 4:7 Paul wrote “I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the course.  I have kept the faith.”  Those are words that well describe the life of John Leland.














American History Timeline Website,

Browne, C.A., “Elder John Leland and the Mammoth Cheshire Cheese”, Bureau of Agriculture                and Industial Chemistry, October 1944.

Freedom Forum Website,

Gourley, Bruce T., “Maybe It’s Time to Dust Off John Leland”, Baptist History and Heritage,                                              June 2008.

Hatch, Nathan O., The Democratization of American Christianity, New Haven, CT:  Yale             University Press, 1989.

March to Zion Website,

Penn State Law Review Website,

Pinson, William M., Baptists and Religious Liberty, Dallas, TX:  Baptistway Press, 2007.

Ragosta, John A., Wellspring of Liberty, New York, NY:  Oxford University Press, 2010.

Waldman, Steven, Founding Faith, New York, NY:  Random House Publishing, 2008.






[1] March to Zion Website,, (accessed 10/1/2011).

[2] American History Timeline Website,, (accessed 9/30/2011).

[3] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1989), p3.

[4] Ellen M. Raynor, History of the Town of Cheshire, (Holyoke, MA:  C.W. Bryon and Co, 1885), p183.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] C.A. Browne, “Elder John Leland and the Mammoth Cheshire Cheese”, Bureau of Agriculture and Industrial Chemistry, (October 1944), p145.

[8] Ibid.


[9] Ibid.

[10] March to Zion Website (accessed 10/2/2011).

[11] Browne, p145.

[12] March to Zion Website.

[13] Browne, p152.

[14] March to Zion Website.

[15] Browne, p146.

[16] Hatch, p106.

[17] March to Zion Website.

[18] Browne, p145.

[19] Browne, p146.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Browne, p150.

[22] Browne, p152.

[23] March to Zion Website.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Browne, p153.

[26] Penn State Law Review Website,, (accessed 10/5/2011).

[27] Ibid.

[28] Browne, p147.

[29] Browne, p145.

[30] Browne, p147.

[31] Penn State Website.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Steven Waldman, Founding Faith, (New York, NY:  Random House Publishing, 2008), p136.

[36] Ibid, p137.

[37] John A. Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty, (New York, NY:  Oxford University Press, 2010), p168.

[38] Bruce Gourley, “Maybe It’s Time to Dust Off John Leland”, Baptiist History and Heritage, (June 2008), p62.

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