Since this is July 5, most of the Fourth of July celebration is over for another year. But consider now an exemplary Independence Day oration given 210 years ago today. It is a speech that has considerable relevance to us in this election year of 2012.
That oration given on July 5, 1802, was by John Leland, who was born in Massachusetts and died there in 1841 at the age of 86. As a young man in 1775, Leland became a Baptist. Two years later he moved to Virginia and served for fourteen years as a minister in that state where Baptists were a minority group.
Some Baptist ministers in Virginia were even imprisoned because of their unwillingness to abide by the religious beliefs and practices of the majority. Partly for that reason, Leland put pressure on James Madison to amend the Constitution with a bill of rights, including an amendment guaranteeing religious freedom for all.
Madison, who had been one of the leading members of the Constitutional Convention and later became known as “the father of the American Constitution,” was working hard at that time trying to get the U.S. Constitution ratified by the state of Virginia.
Five miles east of Orange, Virginia, there is a marker beside “Constitution Highway” commemorating the spot where Leland and Madison held a significant discussion in 1788. (A picture of that marker is at this link.) Partly because of that meeting, Leland mustered Baptist support and Virginia did ratify the Constitution. Then, keeping his part of the bargain, Madison was instrumental in getting the Bill of Rights passed in 1791. (I also wrote about that here.)
In “The Virginia Chronicle,” published in 1790, Leland wrote about his idea of religious freedom: “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever,” he declares. Then later in the same document he proclaims, “Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [Muslims], Pagans and Christians” (The Writings of John Leland, 1845, pp. 107, 118).
In 1792, Leland moved back to Massachusetts and ten years later, on July 5, 1802, he delivered the speech that is known and quoted to this day. (It can be found in an Internet collection of famous Independence Day orations.)
In that speech Leland said, “Heaven forbids the . . . marriage between church and state; their embraces therefore, must be unlawful. Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion, in choosing representatives. It is electioneering. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes. If pure religion is the criterion to denominate candidates, those who make a noise about it must be rejected; for their wrangle about it, proves that they are void of it” (The Writings, p. 267).
In the next four months, we will be engulfed by vigorous and contentious political campaigning. Some candidates, and their avid supporters, will use, or misuse, religious arguments in seeking their election or the defeat of their opponents.
For the sake of the American people, especially for those citizens who belong to minority ethnic or religious groups, as well as for the sake of the “pure religion” that Rev. Leland referred to, let’s consider well his momentous words spoken 210 years ago today in commemoration of Independence Day.