Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Two unsung American heroes

Pictured above: James Madison (1751-1836) on the left and John Leland (1754-1842) on the right.

My guess is that 90+ percent of those who regularly attend evangelical churches in general and Baptist churches in particular have heard of the old movie entitled “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart. Most can probably relay the basic storyline and many can probably recite numerous lines after watching the film over and over annually for years.

That’s all fine. What bothers me is that there is a true story about one of the most important events in the history of this country that involves evangelicals, Baptists in particular, that most evangelicals, including most Baptists, don’t know. It is the story of the difficult birth of the most prized and most basic freedoms that we enjoy as citizens of the United States of America. Baptists played a pivotal role in the birth of our foundational freedoms but sadly most Americans and, even worse, most Baptists don’t even know the story.

Evangelicals, Baptists in particular, should know this story backwards and forward. If it takes hearing it every year around the Fourth of July like many revisit the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Christmas time every year so be it. Let us begin right here and now in Independence Day season 2008.

This is the story of two unsung American heroes who I hope you will help me to make famous and give them the credit they are due. The first of these heroes is one that you may be surprised to hear me label as “unsung” and that is James Madison. Besides being the fourth president of the United States he is known as the “Father of the Constitution.”

As the “Father of the Constitution” Madison was the main proponent of the Bill of Rights which should make him a huge American hero. The freedoms that more than anything else define this nation as a free country are fixed in our Constitution because of the efforts of James Madison. That fact alone should earn him a monument in Washington as big as Thomas Jefferson’s and Abraham Lincoln’s, but there is more to the story that I did not know until recently.

We almost did not get the Bill of Rights.

In the last few months I read two books that have given me a new respect for James Madison. One of those books is James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights by Richard Labunski. I had no idea before reading this book how very difficult Madison’s work was in this regard. At nearly every turn the whole effort came close to unraveling. Seriously, the whole thing hung by a frayed thread so many times. Madison’s crusade to pass the Bill of Rights was somewhere between masterful and miraculous.

Ironically, as important as he is to our nation’s heritage, Madison would never be elected to federal office today. He was a small man, physically at five feet, six inches tall. Some of his friends said that he was never bigger than half a bar of soap. He was sickly, constantly struggling with various health issues. He was very soft-spoken. His fellow lawmakers often complained that they could not hear him when he made his speeches. We just do not normally elect puny, sickly, soft-spoken, nerdy type men to congress or to the presidency anymore. But, were it not for Madison’s amazing work on the Bill of Rights in the early days of this country, one wonders where we would be.

Labunski wrote of James Madison, “It is fair to say that no other person in this nation’s history did so much for which he is appreciated so little.” Specifically in the area of religious freedom, Steven Waldman points out in his fine new book entitled Founding Faith that the founders of this nation “tried a radical new approach—and it worked.” While Waldman acknowledges that many played a role in that process “it is James Madison who deserves the greatest thanks.”

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to a puny, sickly, nerdy man named James Madison for the nation defining freedoms that he labored hard and with tremendous sacrifice to secure, but I and many others do not think he gets the credit that he deserves. For our purposes now I am going to focus on one crucial influence on Madison that is connected to the spiritual ancestors of many Baptists in this nation.

About 17 years before Madison introduced the Bill of Rights in Congress, he returned home to Orange County, Virginia from college to witness something that appalled him. The horror of what Madison saw would, in the words of Steven Waldman, “shape the course of the struggle for religious freedom.” Madison, in a letter to a friend written in early 1774 called what he witnessed “diabolical” and “hell conceived.” What Madison saw that so moved him was Baptists in Virginia being fiercely persecuted by the government sponsored church in Virginia at that time which was the Anglican Church.

I am reading right now a book by Keith Durso entitled No Armor for the Back, Baptist Prison Writings, 1600’s-1700’s. It is a great book. I’ll tell you just one story that Durso relays that may give you a flavor of the period that impacted Madison. In 1769, a Baptist preacher in Virginia named James Ireland was slated to preach in a church in Culpeper County, Virginia which was only about 20 miles from Madison’s home. On the day before the engagement Ireland received word that, if he preached, the authorities would throw him in jail. He preached anyway and he was thrown in jail.

The jailor, who also owned a tavern, told those arrested for drunkenness that they could stay in jail for free if they promised to beat up Ireland while there, to which the prisoners readily agreed. Ireland preached through the bars in his cell window to multi-racial crowds outside. But persecutors would ride their horses through the crowd, trampling members of the congregation. They would threaten them or actually hit them with clubs. On at least one occasion someone set up some sort of stand and got high enough to urinate in Ireland’s face while he preached through the jail window.

That was in this land. We commonly fail to acknowledge that, for about 150 years on the soil that would become the United States, in many cases, those who left England to escape religious persecution became persecutors themselves.

That story about James Ireland is just one story of many of the persecution of Baptists in Virginia in the 1700’s. According to Waldman, in the period between 1760 to 1778, there were at least 153 serious instances of persecution involving 78 Baptists, including 56 jailings of 45 different Baptist preachers. At least 14 instances occurred in Orange County where Madison lived, another 25 in Culpeper County about 20 miles away and seven in Spotsylvania County about 30 miles away. Most of the worst persecution of Baptists was clustered near Madison’s home place. Madison was not a Baptist, but the way Baptists were treated had a profound effect on him.

Waldman reports that there is some evidence that, as a young man, Madison represented Baptists in court. Ending their ill-treatment at the hands of the Anglican aristocracy was a long-term passion of his. He wrote in that 1774 letter, “I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed so long about [Baptist persecution], to so little purpose.” When he began his career as a Virginia legislator one of the first issues that he focused on was religious liberty. Also in that letter of 1774 Madison wrote, “I must beg you to pity me, and pray for liberty of conscience to all.”

Waldman says that while much has been written about what enlightenment philosophers influenced Madison, his dedication to religious liberty was most likely influenced the most by the persecution of Baptists in Virginia. This leads us to the other unsung American hero: John Leland.

In a spot pretty much in the middle of nowhere in Orange County, Virginia, between Nasons and Grassland on State Route 20 there is a seldom visited historical marker. It marks the spot and
tells the story of an important conversation in the history of this country—a conversation between two unsung heroes, one a Baptist minister and the other a politician. One was named John Leland and the other James Madison. But we will come back to that conversation.

According to H. Leon McBeth in his outstanding Baptist history text, during his 15 years in Virginia, John Leland preached 3,009 sermons and he baptized 1,278 converts. He had no formal education but he possessed a very keen mind. As you can imagine, with all the persecution they suffered at the hands of government established religion, Baptists in Virginia were aggressive proponents of religious liberty and the strict separation of church and state. Leland became the leader of that movement among Baptists in Virginia.

When the federal Constitution first appeared in 1787, prior to the state-by-state adoption process, Baptists in Virginia came out very quickly against it because it contained no guarante
e of religious liberty. So strong was Virginia Baptist opposition to the Constitution as originally proposed, that they decided to mount an organized campaign against its ratification in Virginia.

John Leland had written a list of ten objections to the Constitution all centering on the absence of a bill of rights and specifically the absence of a guarantee of religious liberty. According to some accounts there was even talk of running John Leland as a candidate for the Virginia Ratification Convention from the area that included Orange County. Well, guess who the other candidate for the Ratification Convention representing Orange County was? James Madison.

Madison heard that his old allies, the Baptists, opposed the proposed Constitution and they were planning to oppose him as a candidate to the ratification convention. So he requested a copy of Leland’s objections to the Constitution and soon requested a meeting with John Leland.

In March of 1788, the Baptist minister and the politician met under an oak tree on Leland’s farm near that marker that I mentioned earlier. They talked for several hours. Leland must have been persuasive with Madison. You see, Madison was originally against a bill of rights. That might surprise you. One of the reasons, not the only one, but one of the reasons he did not support a bill of rights was that he was afraid of what they would get when it came to religious liberty.

Waldman reports that, in correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, Madison expressed the concern that, if he tried to work for a bill of rights, including complete liberty of conscience, the country might easily end up with just the opposite. He pointed out that some in New England were opposing the Constitution because it did not require religious tests before Jews, Muslims and atheists could participate in government. Madison thought they were better off not saying anything about religion in the Constitution than to end up with religious restrictions instead of religious freedom. This was one of the reasons that he was reluctant to at first to propose a bill of rights including a guarantee of religious liberty.

John Leland must have been persuasive in that long meeting with Madison, because he walked away with a deal that represented a stark change in position for Madison. Besides Madison could probably not have won the election without Baptist support anyway. So Madison promised that, if Leland would withdraw his objections to the Constitution and throw his support to him, Madison would introduce amendments guaranteeing religious liberty after the ratification of the Constitution. Leland agreed to the deal.

Only four days after the inauguration of President George Washington in 1789, Madison who was then a member of the House of Representatives announced his intent to introduce amendments citing “constituents who are dissatisfied with [the Constitution].” Historians generally agree that Baptists were among those constituents of whom Madison spoke. He did that year propose the Bill of Rights which, in its final form, included these words in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

McBeth points out that Joseph Dawson, while outlining the emergence of religious freedom in this nation, wrote, “If the researchers of the world were to be asked who was most responsible for the American guarantee for religious liberty, their prompt reply would be ‘James Madison.’” But Dawson went on to say, “If James Madison might answer, he would as quickly reply, ‘John Leland and the Baptists.’”

Frankly I think that statement goes a bit overboard. After reading the details of all Madison did to get the Bill of Rights passed with its guarantee of religious liberty, he deserves the lion’s share of the credit. But John Leland and a group of Baptists played a huge role in that process that is commonly ignored. The persecution of Baptists in Virginia more than any other single factor convinced Madison to advocate “liberty of conscience to all.” John Leland had a lot to do with Madison changing his mind on the need for a bill of rights. Madison probably would not have been elected first to the Ratification Convention in Virginia and then to congress without the support of Baptists. And when Madison attempted the daunting task of getting the Bill of Rights passed, my guess is that he had a bunch of Baptists back in Virginia actively praying for him.

I would not go so far as to say that Baptists were most responsible for the Bill of Rights with its guarantee of religious liberty, but I would go so far as to say that it is highly doubtful that we would have had our current Bill of Rights were it not for John Leland and his fellow Baptists in Virginia.

Baptists at least should know this story of these unsung American heroes backwards and forward. It is not only part of the American story, it is part of the story of our spiritual ancestry. Our Baptist forebears in this country fought and suffered for religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state because they considered it a biblical, God-given right. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul wrote in Gal. 5:1. They got involved in their society to defend and spread a biblical notion of freedom. We must treasure this story and follow that example of involvement. Furthermore we do well to specifically honor their legacy of defending religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state.

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