A "THEORETICAL” LETTER FROM THE 18TH CENTURY BAPTIST PATRIOT JOHN LELAND
Actual author Dr. Roger L. Salomon
Most people believe that in 1620 the Pilgrims came to these shores seeking religious liberty and that all Americans since then have enjoyed this freedom. This is not the way it was. The Puritans arrived after the Pilgrims and immediately began persecuting those who had other God-given convictions. In 1636, only 16 years after the Pilgrims arrived, Roger Williams had to flee Salem, Massachusetts, being threatened with death. By 1659, the Puritans were hanging Quakers in Massachusetts, only 39 years after the coming of the Pilgrims, By the time I was born in Grafton, Massachusetts, in 1754, the New England colonies, except Rhode Island, had state established churches and religious persecution.
At the age of 20, I was converted, and two years later my wife Sarah Devine and I moved to Virginia where I was pastor of the Mt. Poney Baptist Church in Culpepper County.
God led me into the midst of religious persecution in Virginia. This great persecution of mostly Baptists led to greater numbers of baptisms and church growth. In 1760 there were only 10 Baptist churches in Virginia, but by 1770 there were 90 Baptist churches. During the years before the Revolution, there were 42 Baptist preachers who were jailed for preaching without a license and others were whipped, dunked, dragged away from preaching and beaten. I was once threatened with a gun for baptizing a man's wife. But God allowed me to become one of Virginia's "three mighty men" in this struggle for religious liberty. With the assistance of the Baptists, Thomas Jefferson was able to have approved The Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty which abolished the state church status of the Anglican Church in Virginia; and James Madison was able to amend the U.S. Constitution with a religious liberty amendment--the First Amendment in our Bill of Rights.
In 1791, after the Bill of Rights was ratified, I moved back to Massachusetts to work against the established Congregational Church. The First Amendment didn't abolish any of the existing state churches it just said that the new federal government wouldn't interfere with the free exercise of religion. Forty-two years later, in 1833, with the help of Baptist pastor Isaac Backus, the state church status of the Congregational Church was removed. Finally, after a two hundred year struggle, we then had religious liberty throughout America. The Baptist led in this effort.
What has taken place during the 181 years since 1833? Is this generation proud of their Baptist forefathers? Do they still believe the doctrine and Baptist distinctive of the past generation? Do you support with your tithes Baptist churches? Do you support mission boards, colleges, Christian schools, and other religious organizations which are baptistic in doctrine?
I have heard that many churches, colleges, and other organizations that were once fundamental and Baptist are dropping the name Baptist. Other Baptist churches must be ashamed of the Bible that I used to bring thousands to Christ and convince hundreds of politicians that "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." Still other Baptist churches and Christian schools are in fellowship in organizations with those who practice infant baptism or believe that Christ died for only a select group of mankind.
Recently an old oak tree fell in Orange County, Virginia, in the Leland-Madison Memorial Park. Under this tree a history altering meeting took place between James Madison and me. We were opposing each other in the election to choose a delegate from Orange County to attend the Virginia convention to ratify the new Constitution. I opposed the Constitution, and Madison favored it.
It was under this oak that I convinced James Madison that there needed to be a religious liberty amendment to the federal Constitution before I and the Baptist would support ratification. I withdrew from the race; Madison won and went on to sponsor a religious liberty amendment which was approved by Congress and the states in 1791.
The historic oak has fallen. I trust that your Baptist convictions in the 21st century have not fallen also.
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