Book Review: John Leland: A Jeffersonian Baptist in Early America

Smith, Eric C. John Leland: A Jeffersonian Baptist in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. 268 pp. Hardcover. ISBN 9780197606674.

Eric Smith earned his PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He serves as the Senior Pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Savannah, TN and as an Associate Professor of Church History at Southern Seminary. Smith’s concentration is in early American Baptist history. He is the author of Order & Ardor: The Revival Spirituality of Oliver Hart and the Regular Baptists of Eighteenth-Century South Carolina (2018) and Oliver Hart and the Rise of Baptist America (2020). This biography of John Leland continues Smith’s focus on the development of Baptists in early America. This work on Leland is timely for Baptists and other Christians who continue to debate the role of the church and the state. The principles espoused by Leland and the lessons to be learned from him help contemporary Baptists navigate such rough terrain. This review seeks to provide a summary of Smith’s work on Leland as well as to engage the book showing the valuable insights to be drawn from such a pivotal figure in Baptist history.


The book contains an introduction followed by nine chapters. The introduction recounts the infamous “Mammoth Cheese” event in which John Leland’s congregation prepared a wheel of cheese that weighed 1,235 pounds to be delivered to President Thomas Jefferson. After presenting Jefferson with the gift, Leland was invited to preach before a joint session of Congress. A Congregationalist minister representing Massachusetts described Leland as “a poor ignorant, illiterate, clownish creature” and as the “cheesemonger” (2). By beginning with this anecdote, Smith shows how Leland’s affection for Jefferson, his embrace of Jeffersonian philosophy, and his engagement in politics shaped the trajectory of his life.

The book recounts Leland’s life mostly in chronological order, showing from an early age that Leland had an aversion to state-mandated religion. Smith shares the humorous story of a young John Leland running when it came his time to be sprinkled as a three-year-old (11). Leland’s family came from the establishment Congregationalist Church in Massachusetts with his father being a loyal member of the Standing Order. However, his mother came under the influence of the New Lights which were Congregationalists impacted by George Whitefield and the First Great Awakening (13). While Leland’s father continued to bring his children to the regular Sunday services of the Congregational Church, Leland’s mother’s New Light spirituality shaped and fashioned her young son (17). The influence of the New Lights not only drove Leland to experience the new birth in a powerful way but also to adopt Baptist principles. However, sensing an internal call to preach the gospel, Leland departed from the Baptist norms of traditional ordination. Leland saw no biblical warrant for such an act and began an itinerant ministry (31).

Leland took this ministry to Virginia in 1776 and married his wife, Sally, the same year (35). Leland spent 15 years ministering in Virginia where he grew in admiration as a people’s preacher as he blended Baptist principles with those of Jeffersonian individualism that appealed to frontier populism. Leland served at two churches and baptized over seven hundred people (81). He quickly became aware of the abuses of the established Anglican church. This would set the course for much of Leland’s ministry in his fight against the blending of church and state. In order to foster cooperation among other local Baptists in the pursuit of religious liberty, Leland consented to ordination. Leland’s influence in Virginia politics even grew to the point that James Madison himself sought out Leland to secure his and the Baptists’ support of the new U.S. Constitution (78).

In 1791, Leland moved to Connecticut before settling in Cheshire, MA. For the next fifty years, Leland spent his energy laboring in preaching, advocating for the disestablishment of the church in New England, and supporting the Democratic Party of Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson. In fact, Leland became one of the most vocal supporters of the Jeffersonian-Jackson Party to the point that some bemoaned the way that politics seemed to animate his ministry (157). His commitment to the one political party led him astray on the issue of slavery, and his commitment to Jeffersonian individualism also left him with a malnourished ecclesiology. For instance, during his time at Cheshire, he simply refused to administer the Lord’s Supper. Leland’s actions caused a church split, and his church withdrew from their local association due to the matter. Leland’s response to the association revealed how ingrained individualism in an unhealthy way had distorted his view of the church (115).

Towards the end of his life, Leland found himself outside—and even antagonistic—to the mainstream of Baptist life. He opposed the formation of Baptist societies for missions and any other type of denominational activities. Smith points out that by the 1820s, the Baptists in New England had become more “mainstream” and “middle-class” than the “radical, dissenting sect” that Leland joined in 1770 (225). Leland bemoaned how the Baptist ministerial class became more and more like the establishmentarian ministers they had decried in previous decades. On July 4, 1840, Leland commented that the world had changed so much in the past sixty-five years that he felt as if it was no longer the same world (243). Leland died a few months later marking the end of a remarkable, paradoxical, and influential ministry that shaped Baptists in America for generations to come.      


Eric Smith’s work on John Leland is not only well-researched but well-written. While this is an academically minded book, it is also an enjoyable read. Smith possesses a talent for writing church history in a way that keeps the reader’s attention and makes it a delight. For example, in commenting on Leland’s episode as a three-year-old who ran away from being sprinkled, Smith writes “Bloodied but unbowed, sprinkled yet unsubmissive, America’s John the Baptist was born” (12). Throughout the book, Smith takes quotes from Leland or about Leland and uses them to bring to life the story of a man who lived in a far different world than our own. An ordinary, rural Baptist pastor walking into the White House and delivering a gift to the President would not happen in our day. Leland preaching to a joint session of Congress at the invitation of Thomas Jefferson seems inconsistent with our modern interpretation of the separation of church and state. The country’s changes in the past 200 years have been quite extensive.  

However, this work on Leland shows why church history, specifically Baptist history, provides relevant instruction for us in our own moment. John Leland’s life was consumed with answering questions regarding Baptist political theology. Debates surrounding politics in Baptist life were heated in the 19th century just as much as they are in the 21st century. Strife existed between those who are of a more populist spirit and the group the populists label as “elites.” Leland prided himself as being a representative of the common man who held a disdain for the elites of his day—particularly in his disdain for establishmentarian Anglicans (in Virginia) and Congregationalists (in Massachusetts). This heart for the common man fueled his vision for full religious liberty in America. While there were times when Leland could be too sharp in his denunciation of those he deemed elites (like the Baptists who organized the Triennial Convention), Leland possessed a zeal determined to protect those who were not a part of the ruling class.

In chapter 3, Smith explores and demonstrates how Leland’s Baptists principles and Jeffersonian politics combined in his fight against the concept of a state church. Leland began always with Scripture and contended that paeodobaptists who defended a state church that pushed conformity to their denominational standard had no support from the Bible (55). In showing that Christianity does not expand by coercion, Leland wrote, “Mahomet called in the use of the sword, to convert people to his religion; but Jesus did not–does not ” (86). Leland argued not for bare toleration but full liberty. “The liberty I contend for, is more than toleration…The very idea of toleration, is despicable; it supposes that some should have a preeminence above the rest, to grant indulgence; whereas, all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians” (69). Leland’s support of full religious liberty shows that many Baptists were not fighting merely for their own religious freedom but for the freedom of all human beings. Leland’s efforts paid off for he would see in his lifetime both Connecticut and Massachusetts pass legislation that disestablished the state Congregationalist church.

One of the strengths of Smith’s book regarding Leland is the attempt to put Leland’s political theology in context. Smith notes that many historians assume that Leland and fellow Baptist Isaac Backus held to the same beliefs. While both men passionately argued for religious liberty and were in favor of disestablishment, their respective views contained nuanced differences. Backus did not object to laws mandating attendance to public worship and supported laws against profanity, blasphemy, and other vices (92-93). Backus also did not publicly espouse full freedom for non-Christian religions (93). Leland not only supported this freedom but opposed laws that mandated Sabbath attendance and supported the postal service delivering mail on Sundays (220). Smith highlights how Leland’s time in Virginia and being immersed in the philosophy of Jefferson and Madison contributed to Leland being more “radical” in his views than Backus. However, even Leland should not be painted as a strict separationist regarding church and state. Smith notes that this depiction is a misunderstanding. He writes, “After all, Leland preached the gospel on the floor of Congress, voiced biblical arguments as a Massachusetts state legislator, and never (that we know of) used the term ‘wall of separation,’ though the phrase was coined specifically for New England Baptists like him” (94). The examples of both Backus and Leland show that Baptists shared common viewpoints on political issues while having some nuanced differences.

Leland’s stance on religious liberty was one of consistent principles. Leland did not advocate for laws or policies that would ensure or create a Baptist establishment. One author notes that “Leland put his principles ahead of his personal interest” (85). Religious liberty and opposition to a state church were hallmarks of Leland’s tireless advocacy due to his Baptist conviction of a regenerate, pure church. Leland remarked that “state establishment of religion, like a bear, hugs the saints, but corrupts Christianity” (95). Leland’s stance placed him squarely “within Baptist and other evangelical dissenting traditions” (94). While Leland borrowed from Jefferson and Madison in application of his ideals, his overall philosophy stemmed from a Baptist commitment to a free church that would not have the civil magistrate in any way interfere with the worship and work of the church. Leland’s opposition to state-mandated days of fasting and thanksgiving highlights this. Leland remarked, “I am not an enemy to holy days but these times should be fixed by the usual agreement of religious societies, according to the word of God, and not by civil authority” (96). Our Baptist heritage does not mean that we remove ourselves from the public square; rather, it means that we do not confuse earthly societies with the church of Jesus Christ. Leland faithfully sought to distinguish the two. 

There are also weaknesses in the life of Leland that should be avoided. First, his emphasis on the individual’s conscience led him to eventually abstain from and abandon the administration of the Lord’s Supper. The controversy caused a split in the church at Cheshire and led to the church leaving the Shaftsbury Association. Smith provides the seven-point response that Leland provided the association, and the document shows just how far Leland’s individualism had carried him (115-16). While Leland rightly argued for religious freedom, he demonstrates an extreme that too often becomes the norm for many “professing” Christians. This form of individualism isolates a person into thinking they are the highest authority with their experience dictating what they believe and what they practice. For all of Leland’s eloquence regarding Baptists and religious liberty, his ecclesiology was woefully “un-Baptist.” Baptist polity never makes one individual the chief authority: it is the congregation.

The second major weakness I want to highlight in Leland’s life is how he wedded himself to the Jeffersonian-Jackson political movement. Smith shows this in chapters 6-7 by highlighting the shifts in Leland’s views on slavery. In the 1780s and early 1790s, Leland advocated for gradual emancipation and vehemently opposed slavery viewing it as inconsistent with republican values. However, as the decades passed, the view of the Democratic Party shifted from support for gradual emancipation to essentially kicking the can down the road. Although Leland would later support the idea of freed slaves being given their own territory (like Native Americans) and allowing them to govern themselves, his change on this issue mirrored the change in a political party. At times, it seems as if Leland’s Baptist principles only went so far as they were consistent with the ideals of Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson. On the issue of slavery, Leland’s life is a cautionary tale for what happens when one becomes so attached to a political figure or party. Leland’s independent streak disappeared, and a partisan streak defined him. All of us would be wise to keep ourselves from being too entangled with a political figure, party, or movement that would cause us to compromise biblical principles.

While this book is a great resource, there are a few minor critiques I would give. While Smith focuses mainly on the life and ministry of Leland, I think it would have been helpful to have had more information and insights into Leland as a father. While Smith discusses some of Leland’s marriage to Sally, the home life of Leland is not treated much. Since Leland had nine children, it would be interesting to know what reflections they had on their father and insightful to know if they were devoted Christians, faithful Baptists, or if they may have carried their father’s individualism in a spiritually unhealthy direction. As a subscriber to the 2LBCF, I would have liked Smith to qualify his usage of “biblicism” as a trait of Baptists (102), and I would disagree with his interpretation about the New Testament and the Sabbath (219). Finally, Smith points out the differences between Backus and Leland. It would really be helpful to know whether contemporary Baptists sided more with Backus’ vision or Leland’s vision or somewhere between the two men. Even though they had differences, Backus invited Leland to preach for him in 1800 (92). Baptists might do well to adopt a philosophy that incorporates Leland’s consistent principles on religious liberty with the more confessionally based ecclesiology of Backus.

Readers will benefit greatly from Eric Smith’s work on John Leland. Leland’s day is far different from our own in many respects. Yet, there is a sense in which we are still facing many of the same challenges. Baptists are in renewed discussions about the role of the church and the state. Although Leland was inconsistent and lacking in his Baptist ecclesiology at times, modern Baptists would do well to learn from his attempts to consistently apply religious liberty in a way that honored all men while still promoting Christian virtue in the public square. We would also do well to learn from Leland’s mistakes of downplaying biblical ecclesiology at the expense of political movements and parties. I am thankful for Eric Smith writing this book on Leland and giving modern Baptists a resource that will serve us well.


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