Jefferson Was a Hero to Evangelicals of His Day—Especially Baptists

As we document in our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, Thomas Jefferson had many friends that were clergymen. He was a hero to evangelicals of his day, particularly, the Baptists.

Two men representing Cheshire, Massachusetts, Rev. John Leland and Rev. Darius Brown, met with Jefferson in person on January 1, 1802, at the President’s House. Rev. Leland had likely met Jefferson previously in the 1770s and 1780s at which time Leland lived in adjacent Louisa, Virginia. He then moved back to his home state of Massachusetts in 1790 and worked for the Jeffersonian Republicans there. In 1811, Leland was elected to a seat in the Massachusetts Legislature and served two terms, and while doing this he defended what he called “the proper line between church and state, religion and politics.” Now on January 1, 1802, Reverends Leland and Brown presented Jefferson with a 1,235 pound block of cheese transported all the way from Massachusetts as a gift from Baptists in Cheshire. There was an exchange of addresses by Leland and Jefferson. The “Mammoth Cheese,” as it was called by the press, occupied the East Room of the President’s House for at least two years. The cheese bore Jefferson’s favorite motto: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Leland spoke in the East Room of the White House these words: “We believe the Supreme Ruler of the universe, who raised up men to achieve great events, has raised up a JEFFERSON at this critical day to defend republicanism.”

Jefferson also had Leland preach in the church service in the Capitol. A political opponent in Congress who also was a Congregational minister, Rev. Manasseh Cutler, noted in a January 4 letter to a friend: “Last Sunday, Leland, the cheesemonger, a poor, ignorant, illiterate, clownish preacher was introduced as the preacher to both Houses of Congress, and a great number of gentlemen and ladies from I know not where. The President, contrary to all former practice, made one of the audience.” Cutler’s confirmation that Jefferson attended is accompanied with a claim that it was his first time, but Cutler had just recently joined Congress so was not present during the previous session when others testified of Jefferson’s frequent attendance.

In Jefferson’s account book for January 4, 1802, it says: “Gave Revd. Mr. Leland bearer of the cheese of 1235 lb weight 200 Dollars.” Some suggest this was payment for the cheese, but there is no evidence to assume that. There is no reasonable basis to think the word “gave” used here by Jefferson is any different

from the 50 or so other such times that Jefferson wrote he “gave” to other clergy he listed in his account book. It was a donation like all the others. The mention of Leland as the “bearer of the cheese” is only an identifier, like when he says “foreign ecclesiastics” or “mendicant friars” in previous donation notes. The money was not for the cheese, but for the bearer of it. Apparently Jefferson also had received some of Leland’s writings and was reading them, for a couple weeks later he comments to a friend that Leland “…has written lately a pamphlet on our public affairs. His testimony of the sense of the country is the best which can be produced…”

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