Most people today do not know who John Leland is, so before I discuss what he has meant to me, a little bit of an introduction is necessary. John Leland (1754-1841) was born in Grafton, Massachusetts. He was saved and baptized by the time he was about 20 years old, and he became a Baptist minister. Though he did pastor churches, he was primarily an itinerant evangelist. He was also a staunch advocate of religious liberty for all people and worked to establish it in Massachusetts, Virginia (where he lived from 1776 to 1791), and on a federal level.1
He was personal friends with Thomas Jefferson and especially James Madison. He is perhaps best known for leading the small town of Cheshire, Massachusetts, which consisted mostly of Baptist dairy farmers, to create a huge 1,235-pound wheel of cheese that he and a town representative delivered to Thomas Jefferson personally at the Presidential Mansion in Washington D.C. on January 1, 1802. The gift honored Jefferson for becoming the third president of the United States and for his support of religious liberty.2
John Leland’s Personal Impact
As a Baptist and a lover of history, I have always been fascinated with Baptist history, particularly the vivid stories of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Baptists being persecuted as a dissenting sect in England and America. In 2014, I became interested in Leland specifically when doing a term paper on Baptists and religious liberty in early America for a graduate-level American history course while I was a doctoral student at Florida State University. He was a brave defender of religious liberty and had a quirky personality. I eventually wrote my dissertation on him, and he plays a big role in my book about New England Baptists that will come out next year.
Lessons of Impact From Leland’s Life and Ministry
God Calls People from All Walks of Life.
While studying Leland over the last nine years, I have learned several valuable lessons that have made a huge impact on my life, which I think will be useful for other believers as well. First, Leland’s life and ministry are a reminder that God calls people from all walks of life to accomplish the purposes of the kingdom. There’s some evidence that his grandparents were wealthy. They sat in the front pew in the Congregationalist church in Grafton, and seating arrangements in meetinghouses in colonial New England were made based on a family’s wealth and status in the parish. However, Leland’s parents, James and Lucy, were poor, as evidenced by only owning a few books in their house.1
Though Leland was very bright, he probably would not have been able to go to Harvard and prepare for a learned pastoral ministry or another career like law which well-to-do children could. His socioeconomic status did not matter to God though. God called him into ministry, and he obeyed.
Whether someone is rich or poor or something in between, he can use us. I have found this to be true in my own life. I come from a poor family living in Tampa, Florida with only one family member ever attending college. God called me into the ministry when I was about 13 years old, and he encouraged me to go to college and seminary. I did not know how that was going to happen, but God made a way through paperwork assistance from my youth pastor and his wife, earning scholarships, and receiving grants. God made it possible for me to be trained for the ministry and as an historian of American Christianity. Leland’s story encourages me about my own story.
Ministry Is Hard Work
Another important lesson that I learned from Leland is that ministry is hard work. We have all heard the joke that ministers only work one day a week, and that is Sunday. Unfortunately, with some ministers, that it is not far from the truth. Leland would have none of that. He preached several times a week for nearly 60 years, and he traveled so much as an itinerant evangelist that he calculated he had traveled the equivalent of four times around the globe — that’s about 32,000 miles!3
On just one day in Virginia when his horse was injured, he walked 20 miles to preach at a funeral service because he promised that he would be there. After the service, he walked all the way back home.3 He also experienced heckling from crowds and the despair one feels when one preaches for months without someone coming to the Lord.
He even had a young man lunge at him with a sword while he preached. Before he got to Leland, Leland’s wife Sally jumped out of the audience, tackled the assailant in mid-flight, and subdued him until he was taken away.1 (Side lesson: If God is calling you to go into ministry as a married person, marry the right spouse.) Leland’s life has taught me that there are no shortcuts to living out the calling that God has given us. If you want an easy life, then pastoral ministry is not for you.
I learned that our understanding and practicing of a sound ecclesiology are critical. Ecclesiology is the doctrine of the Church: its purposes, structure, officers and ministries. In this instance, Leland is an example of what not to believe and to do. In his church in Cheshire, Massachusetts, he stopped administering the Lord’s supper and did not serve it for years because he never saw anyone saved from practicing it.2 This was in clear disobedience to Jesus’ and Paul’s commands for churches to observe the Lord’s Supper (Lk. 22:14-20; 1 Cor. 11:17-34.) A few concerned members of his church and even sister churches in his association tried to convince him to submit to scripture and the common practice of all Baptist churches, but he would not budge. His association even kicked him and his church out of it.
Leland could be a cowboy sometimes when he felt like something rubbed his conscience the wrong way. God does not leave it to us to be spiritual cowboys and cowgirls. We are to submit to the authority of scripture and our churches. Like all of us in some areas of our lives, Leland’s ecclesiology fell woefully short, but praise the Lord, God used Leland despite his ecclesiological views, and he can use us for his glory as well.
1 Leland, J. (2010). The Writings of John Leland. Edited by L.F. Greene. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
2 Smith, E. C. (2022). John Leland: A Jeffersonian Baptist in Early America. New York: Oxford
3 Breyman, N. (2014). The Life of John Leland: Preacher Evangelist. Retrieved August 3, 2023.
Approved with by faculty for the College of Theology on Aug. 10, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.