A Response to Dr. Richard Land’s Presentation on Unconditional Election, Addendum to the Historical Question

In my previous post responding to Dr. Land’s use of history at the John 3:16 Conference, I conceded that, based upon the quotes cited by Dr. Land, it appears that John Leland, an influential Baptist minister in Massachusetts and Virginia in the late 18th and early 19th century, did seem to advocate some form of hybrid system of Calvinism and Arminianism. I made this concession especially in light of a statement from Leland presented by Dr. Land, which said, “the preaching that has been most blessed of God, and profitable to men, is the doctrine of  sovereign in the salvation of souls, mixed with a little of what is called Arminianism.” A commenter on that previous post, Brent Hobbs (who, I believe, is a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), questioned the concession I had made and (in effect) challenged me to examine primary sources of John Leland. I have subsequently been searching through The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland (available on Google Books HERE), and have been surprised at the vigor with which Leland defends certain doctrines that most people would certainly describe as “Calvinistic.”

I would like to focus readers’ attention on two works from Leland in particular: The “Appendix” to The First Rise of Sin and a section of his letter to the Elder James Whitsitt.

In The First Rise of Sin, one goal of Leland was to oppose the “New Divinity” system of theology, which sought to modify or deny many tenets of historic Calvinist beliefs. In opposing this new system, Leland defended many “Calvinistic” doctrines.

Leland rejected the idea that salvation is in any way dependent upon the ‘free-will’ of Man, writing:

The reception of divine grace, or the new-birth, is not according to the will of man: it is not of him that willeth but of God… That men are moral agents since the fall is evident; otherwise they could not sin at all; but let those, who believe that salvation turns upon man’s acceptance, remember that the tree of life in the garden, was not to be eaten of at the will of man after the fall:

Leland argued for Limited atonement, presenting a rhetorical dialogue to make his point (the statements of the imaginary interlocutor are given in quotation marks):

If Christ had died for all, and there is a fulness of grace for all; how comes it to pass that some are saved and not all? “because some will not come.”

Are there not many who had this will not for a number of years, and afterwards repented and went? “beyond all doubt.”

Was not their obstinacy of will atoned for as well as the rest of their sins? “To be sure.”

Are the sins of obstinacy in other sinners atoned for or not? If they are, how can they be damned for sins already atoned for, upon the scale of justice? If they are not atoned for, how can such find pardon?

Leland also asserted the doctrine of Irresistible grace, writing, “The truth is, that in the simple work of regeneration, men neither assist nor resist.”

In his letter to the Elder James Whitsitt, John Leland listed eight articles of doctrine which had framed his own ministry:

  1. That all men were guilty sinners, and that God would be just and clear, if he damned them all.
  2. That Christ did before the foundation of the world, predestinate a certain number of the human family for his bride, to bring to grace and glory.
  3. That Jesus died for sinners, and for his elect sheep only.
  4. That those for whom he did not die, had no cause to complain, as the law under which they were placed was altogether reasonable.
  5. That Christ would always call his elect to him while on earth, before they died.
  6. That those whom he predestinated, redeemed and called, he would keep by his power, and bring them safe to glory.
  7. That there would be a general resurrection, both of the just and the unjust.
  8. That, following the resurrection, judgment would commence, when the righteous sheep would be placed on the right hand of Christ, and admitted into life eternal; and the wicked on the left hand doomed to everlasting fire.

The reader will notice several “Calvinistic” features of the above statements, not the least of which is Leland’s clear affirmation of Limited atonement, a doctrine that Dr. Land (and other speakers at the John 3:16 Conference) finds particularly objectionable.

Perhaps the reader may wonder if the above articles of doctrine were a product of John Leland’s earlier or later thought. That is, ‘Is there a possibility that Leland either repudiated these doctrines after he had written these articles or that he had held different beliefs earlier in his ministry, so that Dr. Land may be correct in his argument that Leland sought a hybrid form of Calvinism and Arminianism?’

The idea that Leland repudiated these articles later in life seems unlikely. The letter in which these articles appear was published in 1832, less than nine years before his death. In this letter, Leland writes, “But, now, after an experiment of fifty-seven years, and after going over the ground thousands of times, with all the research and candor in my power, I dare not pull up stakes and make a new start.”

Furthermore, it is absolutley impossible that Leland held different beliefs as a Christian before holding to these doctrines, unless Leland is considered to be a liar. For in the paragraph prefacing these articles of doctrine, Leland writes:

In the years 1772-73, etc., when my mind was so solemnly impressed with eternal realities, as to turn me from the power of Satan, unto the living God; whether from the Bible I read, the preaching I heard, the teachings of the Holy Spirit, or some other cause, I did as firmly believe the following articles, as I believed that Jesus Christ was the Saviour of sinners.

What, then, are we to make of the statement of Leland quoted by Dr. Land, a statement written by Leland soon after The First Rise of Sin, a statement in which Leland directly approves of an admixture of the doctrine of Calvinism with Arminianism? First, we must again note that the doctrines articulated by Leland are only consistent with the Calvinist position (if any young Baptist minister asserted, “Jesus died for sinners, and for his elect sheep only” and wrote of “those for whom he did not die,” I have no doubt that the speakers at the John 3:16 Conference would be quick to identify him as a Calvinist); second, unless I have overlooked it, Leland never refers to himself as a Calvinist, and in his writings he is suspicious of theological systems (this may be seen in his “Thoughts on Systems” at the end of The Virginia Chronicle, published in 1790); third, Baptist historian Dr. Greg Wills notes, “Leland often talked of Calvinism in terms of what God does in salvation (elects, calls, and regenerates), and talked of Arminianism in terms of what humans do (repent, believe, and pray). And so he used both terms rather one-sidedly.

In conclusion, we see that although John Leland did not refer to himself as a Calvinist, and although he used theological terms such as “Calvinism” and “Arminianism” in non-technical ways, he nevertheless held to doctrines that can only be thought of as “Calvinistic.” From the perspective of the speakers at the John 3:16 Conference, Leland’s insistence that salvation is in no way dependent upon ‘free-will,’ his arguments in favor of Limited atonement, and his assertion of Irresistible grace (to give only three examples) would seem to make Leland an unsuitable model for a pastor who sought to modify or deny Calvinist soteriology.

Explore posts in the same categories: Andrew, John 3:16 Conference

4 Comments on “A Response to Dr. Richard Land’s Presentation on Unconditional Election, Addendum to the Historical Question”

  1. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    Nice work Andrew.

  2. […] Strange BaptistFire A Closer Look at the Doctrines of Grace in the SBC « A Response to Dr. Richard Land’s Presentation on Unconditional Election, Addendum to the Histo… […]

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