John Leland’s belated visit to Williamsburg
WIILIAMSBURG, Va. — Religious diversity and freedom were not practiced or celebrated — and only to a limited degree tolerated — in Colonial America. In Williamsburg, as in other places, one might find a Baptist minister or other dissenter in jail or receiving another form of punishment for not following the state-imposed religious rules that favored the Anglican tradition.
The Church of England was well established by the ruling powers and supported through mandatory tax dollars — a familiar approach brought over from the motherland.
Following this tradition, participation in a state-supported Anglican church was required for white citizens by colonial Virginia law. The colony’s religious and civil authorities were in many ways indistinguishable.
Resentment of such coercion regarding religious expression would fuel the struggle for religious freedom that gained strength in the mid-18th century — and led to the adoption of a secular constitution affirming religious liberty when America set its course of independence.
Those with different-than-official religious convictions found ways to live out their faith despite resistance. For example, Baptist women would meet in the old powder magazine — a site known to Revolutionary War buffs for an incident involving Patrick Henry’s militia.
These gatherings of Baptist women in a place of danger led to the formation of Williamsburg Baptist Church.
For religious dissenters, the goal was never mere toleration. Full religious freedom, they believed and argued passionately, was God-given — and true faith can never be enforced by government might.
Despite punishments that included jail time and spilled blood, dissent they did — leading eventually to a new, independent nation with a constitutional guarantee of liberty and justice for all, including full religious freedom.
Yet the enshrining of religious liberty remains a promise that a diverse nation still struggles to fulfill — but one far advanced from church-state coziness in its early settlements.
A visit to Colonial Williamsburg is a reminder of the birth pangs of this nation. Conflict, hope, defeat, victory, compromise, suffering, sin and grace entered the mix of personalities, loyalties and ideas on which the nation came into existence.
The American experience was not brought to life by actors following a well-crafted script or by tedious builders with a detailed blueprint. It was and continues to be shaped by humanity prone to evil and gifted for good.
From the old Capitol Building on one end of DoG Street (Duke of Gloucester) to the still-active Bruton Parish Episcopal Church on the other, there are lessons to learn about life, struggle and resulting freedom.
The Wren Building on the campus of the College of William and Mary, across the street from Colonial Williamsburg, rings with history. It is the oldest college building in the U.S., dating back to the late 17th century when Jamestown was still the capital of the colony of Virginia.
Despite three fires, careful restoration efforts have enabled the historic structure’s survival. Part of the larger building, Wren Chapel is a favorite wedding venue where spoken words, hymns and the booming pipe organ beautifully resound.
John Leland (1754-1841) was a minister in Virginia and Massachusetts — and a horseback-riding, itinerate preacher. Being a Baptist, he would have never been invited to preach in the Anglican chapel at the college in Williamsburg in real time.
He has, however, had such an opportunity thanks to his “traveling companion” Fred Anderson, who has portrayed Leland on 64 occasions. Anderson, executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, brought Leland to life in Wren Chapel as part of the Nurturing Faith Experience last year.
He commended Baptists for their good singing but noted how his denominational kin were “plain people” who “believed the gospel was plain.” However, he confessed: “I like a little more colorful cloth myself.”
His fashion tastes and peculiar humor, he said, had gotten him in trouble with some deacons at his church in Culpeper, Va. But there was a bright side to the story.
“The deacons at Culpeper did me a big favor,” he said. “Being in the next county made me a neighbor of James Madison … and a near-neighbor of Thomas Jefferson.”
Leland is best known for influencing these men in their commitments to full religious liberty through the separation of church and state — a time-honored, Baptist-influenced contribution to the American experiment.
He recalled taking a giant wheel of cheese — inscribed with “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” — from Cheshire, Mass., where he was a minister at the time, to President Jefferson in Washington upon his inauguration. Leland, when delivering the “mammoth cheese” to the new president, was invited to give his message on religious liberty to Congress and elsewhere.
Leland, an abolitionist, presented the gift to the slave-owning president as only a prophetic pastor would. “I looked Mr. Jefferson straight in the eyes and said: ‘cheese made without the aid of a single slave.’”
With equal straightforwardness, Leland noted that many slave-owners became Baptists during revivals and “came up with their own defenses” for human bondage.
Also, he lamented the punishment and imprisonment of more than 40 Baptist ministers in Virginia for simply preaching the gospel in violation of colonial law. Only marriages conducted by Anglican priests were considered valid in the colony, he added, calling such actions “unholy matrimony.”
He noted the three-fold contributions of Baptists to the cause of religious freedom: enduring persecution, circulating petitions and influencing the founding fathers.
Standing boldly in the Wren Chapel pulpit, this incarnation of Leland continued his centuries-old call to religious freedom. He acknowledged that the battle for religious liberty is never over.
“I looked to [Madison] to become that friend of religious liberty should it ever be under threat,” he said.
But Leland concluded with a strong word for his contemporary audience: “Now it’s your hour to defend what was purchased at a great price.” NFJ