Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Baptist leader said it too

In the presidential election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson's political enemies labelled him an infidel largely over this line penned in 1782: "[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." One newspaper declared the choice between John Adams and Jefferson to be a choice between "allegiance to GOD--AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for JEFFERSON AND NO GOD!!!"

You might think that Baptists were on the front lines opposing Jefferson who was branded a heretic by many, but such was not the case. Indeed, prominent Baptist minister and leader John Leland borrowed the "twenty gods or no God" phrase from Jefferson on at least two occasions. Commenting on the notion of religious tests for public office, Leland wrote in 1790, "If a man merits the confidence of his neighbors ... let him worship one God, twenty Gods or no God -- be Jew, Turk, Pagan, or infidel, he is eligible to any office ..." In 1791 this Baptist leader wrote, “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 government protect him in so doing …”

These words were not written by guy who did not believe in evangelism. Leland preached nearly 8,000 sermons and baptized over 1,500 converts. He was passionate about the gospel and because he was passionate about the gospel he and his fellow Baptists were also advocates of religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state. It was his zeal for religious freedom that led Leland to write his own version of the "twenty gods or no god" line.

It was dedication to liberty of conscience that also led Baptists to actively campaign for Jefferson in the 1800 election even though he was widely maligned as "an enemy to pure morals and religion" as one newspaper proclaimed. When Jefferson won the election, Leland celebrated saying that his "hero" was victorious. He was glad that Jefferson, "the defender of the rights of man and the rights of conscience", was in the White House.

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