John Leland: Evolving Views of Slavery, 1789-1839: In 1789, the General Committee of Virginia Baptists Turned to Massachusetts Native John Leland to Craft a Statement concerning Slavery

Article excerpt

An articulate spokesperson for religious liberty among Virginia Baptists, Leland produced a stirring statement against slavery. (1) "Slavery is the violent deprivation of the rights of nature, and inconsistent with republican government," Leland declared, as he called for "the use of every legal measure to extirpate this horrible evil from the land." (2)

Fifty years later, in 1839, Leland, then living in his home state of Massachusetts, called the institution of slavery "humane, just and benevolent," and argued for the rights of slave owners rather than the liberty of slaves. In addition, Leland declared that slavery was "not an article to be settled by legislation.... It belongs to the moral and religious department, and not to the legislative." (3)

Historiography of Leland's Views on Slavery

Held up as a foremost advocate of religious liberty among post-Revolutionary-era Baptists, Leland's writings on the subject of slavery have long claimed much less attention among scholars. When referenced, historians have tended to point only to Leland's early views on slavery.

Leland lived against the backdrop of changing evangelical views concerning slavery. In recent decades, historians have sought to interpret the evangelical transition from antislavery sentiment to proslavery views following the Revolutionary era. In In His Image, But ...: Racism in Southern Religion, 1780-1910, H. Shelton Smith argued that late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century evangelical views of slavery were ultimately framed in light of underlying white supremacist views. (4) James D. Essig, in The Bonds of Wickedness: American Evangelicals Against Slavery, 1770-1808, concluded that marginalized, ascetic, Revolutionary-era evangelicals opposed slavery on grounds that it inhibited righteousness, whereas worldly success, the 1808 prohibition of slave trade, and the Second Great Awakening blunted opposition to slavery. (5) In Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, Christine Heyrman argued that Baptists and Methodists embraced southern proslavery views as a means of establishing a viable presence in the South. (6) John R Daly, in When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War, concluded that both proslavery and antislavery evangelical views stemmed from biblical morality informed by individualism and the free market economy. (7)

Despite widespread acknowledgement of changing Baptist views on slavery, John Leland's evolving position on slavery has gone virtually unnoticed. Bill J. Leonard's recently published denominational history, Baptist Ways: A History, followed this pattern, briefly noting Leland's opposition to slavery as stated in his early years. (8) Likewise, Robert G. Torbet's A History of the Baptists referred only to Leland's early views on slavery. (9) Leon McBeth's The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness made no mention of Leland's slavery sentiments. (10) The 1958 Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists noted that Leland was concerned about the "humanitarian aspects of slavery and manumission," (11) while Leonard's 1994 Dictionary of Baptists in America was silent on the subject. (12) Essig argued that the early Leland was a leading antislavery Baptist. (13) Smith briefly mentioned the early Leland's antislavery views. (14) Heyrman made note of Leland's suspicion of the ecstatic nature of the African-American religious experience, (15) while Daly failed to mention Leland altogether. Mechal Sobel, in his seminal Trabelin' On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith, referred to Leland's early antislavery influence as "extensive," yet failed to explore Leland's later views on slavery. (16)

In the end, one must turn to Brad Creed's dissertation, John Leland: American Prophet of Religious Individualism, in order to engage Leland's larger views on slavery. Creed concluded that individualism, a product of the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment, was the defining, overarching framework in which Leland's religious and political beliefs must be understood. …