A native of Massachusetts and a Baptist minister, John Leland preached in Virginia from 1776 to 1791, becoming a leader in the Baptists' struggle against the Anglican church establishment there and helping to bring about its dismantlement. At first he opposed the federal Constitution on the grounds that it lacked a BILL OF RIGHTS and safeguards against taxsupported clergy; but he later switched his stand?possibly converted by JAMES MADISON personally?and swung Virginia's Baptists behind ratification.
Leland held that state attempts to foster religion only corrupted religion. A defender of both civil and RELIGIOUS LIBERTY, he supported religious rights for all, repudiating the notion of a Christian commonwealth. He opposed attempts to halt Sunday mail delivery, and by denying that government had power to pass sabbath laws, proclaim public days of prayer, or pay chaplains, he assumed a more radical stance on church and state than did most contemporary evangelicals.