Early Baptist leader Reverend John Leland (1754-1841) was a key figure in laying the foundation of the four distinctively Baptist freedoms which Veronica recounted in the February 27 blog post. In many of Leland’s writings, especially his 1791 work, The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, he labored to establish specifically the 3rd and 4th freedoms listed: Church Freedom (freedom of local churches to govern themselves) and Religious Freedom (belief in the separation of church and state).
Leland and other Baptist ministers of this time worked tirelessly with founding fathers such as James Madison to ensure the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution and were not satisfied with weak provisions early its construction for the separation of church and state because they feared, justifiably, that government would eventually enact laws in preference to a certain faith, regardless of whether or not that faith was Baptist. Leland was not content unless it was guaranteed that, as Leland stated, “Pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian” would be eligible for any office or government position. (The Rights of Conscience Inalienable)
Rev. Leland is a valuable figure for all of us to remember. His attitude toward the rights of individual conscience was nothing short of magnanimous. He was the sort of man who courageously wrote: “So when one creed or church prevails over another, being armed with (a coat of mail) law and sword, truth gets no honor by the victory. Whereas if all stand upon one footing, being equally protected by law as citizens (not as saints) and one prevails over another by cool investigation and fair argument, then truth gains honor, and men more firmly believe it than if it was made an essential article of salvation by law.” (Rights)
He embodied such a spirit and principle of freedom throughout his life, extending this attitude to religious freedoms as well as civic freedoms. The principles Rev. Leland held are based in confidence that truth will win out – therefore in the early Baptist’s convictions, there is no room for fear of intellectual freedom and no room for the exercise of authoritarianism to affect ideological or theological homogeneity. This principle of trust in freedom defines the ideal for a Christian academic institution such as OBU. John Leland was a minister who was confident in the truth of the gospel, as much as he was confident that this gospel required of civil and religious institutions not merely the respect of individual conscience, but the seamless protection thereof.
Leland writes in The Rights of Conscience Inalienable: “It would be sinful for a man to surrender that to man which is to be kept sacred for God. A man’s mind should be always open to conviction, and an honest man will receive that doctrine which appears the best demonstrated.”
Such principles have been forgotten by powerbrokers who are now manhandling OBU and who have affected the fundamentalist takeover of many an academic and religious institution. This forgotten spirit of freedom honors and protects the rights of individual conscience – a beautiful principle by which to construct and operate any Christian university.
During the years of my life and studies at OBU since the arrival of President Whitlock, the phrase “unashamedly Baptist” was used frequently by himself and Provost Norman when addressing the student body and during various occasions of import. No phrase struck me as more ironically used than at this particular time for OBU. These past three years in particular for my alma mater have been devastating. OBU has lost more than two outstanding, passionate, caring professors due to the ideological culling this administration has executed. The shame that comes from these decisions – along with others which Save OBU has begun to recount – burns deeply in my heart and in the hearts of many in the OBU community.
Just like the forgetful servant of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, many fundamentalist power-holders forgot the grace shown Baptist tradition when founders such as Leland took a stand for individual liberty. Instead of honoring freedom of conscience, they have taken their liberties and, finding power, have turned around and denied those very freedoms to other Baptists, extending this denial now to the faculty and institution of OBU. The allure of power for some elites has co-opted the very core of the Baptist distinctive of freedom of conscience.
Each era presents its unique temptations and difficulties. We can look back to Leland for an example of principled devotion to individual freedom because of the gospel. It is this principle which we must remember today and apply in our struggle to preserve the honest, conscientious pursuit of truth through educational excellence at OBU.
Honest pursuit of knowledge, especially at a distinctively Christian university, comes from the right to pursue a free conscience. Without this right, genuine and healthy Integration of Faith and Learning cannot occur.
We can look backward to remember figures such as John Leland as both inspiration and validation for our cause to save OBU. And when we do, Lord willing, save OBU, one more step will be taken to preserve Baptist life from authoritarianism that fears freedom and denies the rights of individual conscience – an attitude debilitating not only for OBU, but for the cause of the Kingdom of God in today’s world. May OBU continue to yield educated individuals who remember the rights of individual conscience and who are critically engaged and relevant members of their faith, civic, and academic communities.
Leland’s Self-Written Epitaph:
“Here lies the body of John Leland, who labored 67 years to promote piety and vindicate the civil and religious rights of all men.” (Scarberry 733)
“Baptist Patriots.” http://www.mainstreambaptists.org/mbn/Patriots.htm
Leland, John. “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable.” 1791. http://classicliberal.tripod.com/misc/conscience.html
Scarberry, Mark S. (April 2009). "John Leland and James Madison: Religious Influence on the Ratification of the Constitution and on the Proposal of the Bill of Rights." Penn State Law Review 113 (3): 733-800
“The Writings of John Leland,” ed. L.F. Greene. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
About Caitlin: I graduated from OBU in May, 2011. I lived on campus all four years and loved my time OBU. I remember Bison Hill affectionately, though still with a taste of bitterness left by the destructive decisions made in my years there. Anthropology was my major and my minor was in religion.