A Baptist congregation sent President Thomas Jefferson a cheese wheel to congratulate him on his election. More interesting is the fact that it was delivered by John Leland (1754-1841) on New Year’s Day 1802.
Leland was a prominent Baptist minister and a leading advocate for religious freedom who, in 1790, asserted, “The legitimate powers of government, extend only to punish men for working ill to their neighbours, and no ways effect the rights of conscience.”
He continued, “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.”
Leland had written previously to James Madison objecting to the proposed U.S. Constitution because he feared that it failed to address “What is dearest of all – Religious Liberty.” He was one of several influences that led to the Bill of Rights.
Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone described the cheese as “more than four feet in diameter, fifteen inches thick, and [weighing] 1,235 pounds.”
It became a publicity tour, according to Malone. “At the various stopping places [the cheese] was viewed by big crowds; and Elder John Leland … preached to large and curious congregations both going and coming.”
Coincidentally, a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut inquiring about Jefferson’s views about religious liberty had arrived two days prior to the Baptist cheese.
“Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty – That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals – That no man aught to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions – That the legetimate Power of civil Goverment extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour,” the letter stated.
It expressed concern that the Connecticut constitution was too vague on this matter, lamenting, “What religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.” The association then asked Jefferson to clarify his position.
Jefferson was already known to be a proponent of religious liberty, so the letter was written in hope that a president’s influence would lead states like Connecticut to protect religious freedom in their state constitutions.
In his inaugural address a few months prior, Jefferson set forth freedom of religion as one of the “essential principles of our government, and consequently those which ought to shape its administration.”
He had drafted the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786, which stated, “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.”
Jefferson’s response to the Danbury Baptists was finalized on Jan. 1, 1802, the same day Leland arrived with the cheese wheel.
Most notable in his reply was the phrase “a wall of separation between church and State” – Jefferson’s way of explaining the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses.
These stories recall the deeply embedded Baptist belief in the necessity of church-state separation to preserve and protect religious liberty. This reminder of our Baptist heritage is as needed today as ever.
The negative results of the religious and political right’s alignment in the U.S. have been well documented. Too often ignored are similar alliances on the left.
Fundamentalism and religious-political alliances can form on both sides of the aisle, manifesting in rhetoric that presents a party’s or politician’s views or policies as the gospel embodied, or, in extreme cases, “what Jesus would do.”
The best of the Baptist tradition has continuously emphasized the need to keep church and state separate.
Essential to this is avoiding the conflation of Christian faith with a political party or politician. Christian witness suffers and freedom of religion is diminished otherwise.
Leland, in 1790, stated, “No national church, can, in its organization be the gospel church.” We would do well to remember that no political party or leader can be the gospel party or leader.
Religion can and should play a role in shaping society, but it should do so by offering a moral compass through public witness that retains a distinction and distance from politicians and parties.
Hopefully the story about a 1,235-pound Baptist cheese wheel will provide a memorable way of recalling Baptists who have defended faithfully religious freedom by means of “a wall of separation” between church and state and will lead us to follow their example.