Baptists, Cheshire Cheese, and Religious Liberty—WHAT!

On January 1, 1802, newly elected President Thomas Jefferson received an unusual gift of mammoth proportions.[1] It was delivered to him by John Leland (1754-1841), a Baptist preacher. The piece of cheese was more than four feet in diameter, thirteen feet in circumference, and seventeen inches in height. Once cured, it weighed in at 1,235 pounds. Jefferson’s favorite motto was emblazoned in red on the side, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

The cheese was made predominately by the Republicans and Baptists of Cheshire, Massachusetts. The idea for this was announced from the pulpit by Pastor John Leland and endorsed by an enthusiastic congregation. On July 20, 1801 the devout Baptist families of Cheshire, dressed in their finest Sunday go to meeting clothes, turned out with pails and tubs of curds for a day of thanksgiving, hymn singing, and of course cheese pressing, at the centrally located farm of Elisha Brown Jr. The cheese was distilled from a single day’s milk from more than nine-hundred “Republican” cows. Of course, milk from a Federalist cow was considered unthinkable.

“The Cheshire folk then assured the president, somewhat ironically given that the president was a slaveholder, that the cheese ‘was produced by the personal labor of Freedom Farmers, with the voluntary and cheerful aid of their wives and daughters, without the assistance of a single slave.”[2]

Then there was a month long procession to take the cheese to Washington, by ship and then in a wagon drawn by 6 horses. Enormous crowds turned out to witness this event, and it also received full newspaper coverage. Leland took every opportunity along the way to stop and preach. On January 1, 1802 President Jefferson personally received the cheese at the nation’s capital. The Washington press corps reported the event.

This address accompanied the cheese, “[W]e console ourselves, that the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, who raises up men to achieve great events, has raised up a Jefferson for this critical day, to defend Republicanism, and to baffle all the arts of Aristocracy. Sir, we have attempted to prove our love to our President, not in words alone, but in deeds and in truth. With this address, we send you a CHEESE…as a pepper-corn of the esteem which we bear to our Chief Magistrate, and as a sacrifice to Republicanism. It is not the last stone in the Bastille [sic], nor is it of any great consequence as an article of worth, but, as a free-will offering, we hope it will be favorably received.”>[3]

A peppercorn is a token or something that is small or insignificant and often offered in return for a favor. “The colossal cheese symbolized political support among New England’s religious dissenters for Jeffersonian Republicanism…and the president’s celebrated defense of religious liberty.”[4] Also, it is important to note that “Supreme Judge of the World” is used in the Declaration of Independence and “Great Governor of the World” in the Articles of Confederation.

The cheese received extensive news coverage in the popular press from the summer of 1801 to the spring of 1802. “By late January 1802, copies of the Danbury address and Jefferson’s response were appearing in the New England Republican journals….Newspapers reported on the mammoth cheese and the ‘wall of separation’ in the same column.”[5]

There are different accounts of what happened to the Cheshire cheese. It seems that some of the cheese remained in the executive mansion for 2 or 3 years, and it was prominently displayed at Republican functions. Finally, after it was no longer usable, it is said that it was thrown into the Potomac.

Although it has faded from our memories, it was a powerful symbol of the desire of the religious dissenters–Baptists, etc.–or liberty of conscience. To Jefferson and the religious dissenters in New England, the wall and the cheese both symbolized religious liberty; although the wall was not used by New England Baptists, and Jefferson used it only in his response letter to the Danbury Baptists.[6]

At this time, the Congregationalist church was the legally established church in Massachusetts,[7] and the Anglican church in Virginia,[8] and Baptists were persecuted in both places. The Congregationalists and Federalists were so closely connected it was known as the standing order.

Now the day that Jefferson received this token of gratitude from the Cheshire Baptists and John Leland, he penned his well thought out missive to the Danbury Baptist Association in which he used the now famous phrase, “wall of separation.” Furthermore, just two days later on January 3, 1802, Leland accepted an invitation to preach in the Hall of the House of Representatives. In attendance at that church service, with a Baptist in the pulpit, in the House of Representatives, was President Jefferson, just two days after recommending to the Danbury Baptists ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’

Daniel Dreisbach says in his book, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State, “in the remaining years of his presidency, Jefferson frequently attended similar religious services.”[9] “Before January 1802, in both the Federal City and the Old dominion, Jefferson had attended worship services on government property.”[10] James Hutson, remarking on Jefferson’s consistency on this matter said, “That he supported throughout his life the principle of government hospitality to religious activity (provided always that it be voluntary and offered on an equal-opportunity basis) indicates that he used the wall of separation metaphor in a restrictive sense.”[11] Meaning that he personally encouraged it and supported it but the government could not coerce it.

Referencing Barry Shain, Dreisbach says, “Jefferson thus opposed a federal religious establishment, but, as the nation’s head of state, he personally encouraged and symbolically supported religion by attending public church services in the Capitol.”[12]

The Cheshire cheese, both in the heart of those who prepared and sent it as well as the president who personally received it, was symbolic of what is embodied in the First Amendment. Baptists must continue the fight for the full restoration of religious liberty, lest the First Amendment be remembered no more than the Cheshire cheese and Baptists, as well as Christians in general, once again, suffer the persecution of our Baptist ancestors.

The details of this story come from Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State, (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 9-24 and Richard Land, The Divided States of America, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2007), 119-122.
[2] Land, The Divided States, 120.
[3] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 12-13.
[4] Ibid., 13.
[5] Ibid., 24.
[6] In addition, “so far as the extant evidence indicates, he never again used the ‘wall’ metaphor,”Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 54. (Nor did Baptists, nor should they now.) New England Baptists did not support Jefferson’s use of ‘wall of separation’or his deism. No New England Baptists ever used the phrase. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 51-53.
[7] Ibid., 12.
[8] Ibid., 13.
[9] Ibid., 22.
[10] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 22-23, quoting from several sources.
[11] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 23, quoting Hutson.
[12] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 23, quoting Shain’s paper, “A Nation with the soul of a Church.”

Ronnie W. Rogers