Black-eyed peas, greens, cornbread, pork, pomegranates, noodles, cakes are considered some of the lucky foods to eat for New Years. Mmmm Good!
The Wrights are adding a big block of cheese to our menu today…
It’s not just because I’m a cheesehead -not the NFL Packers kind – just a lover of cheese (goat cheese), but because of an event that happened on New Year’s Day 1802.
January 1, 1802, Baptists of Cheshire, Massachusetts, sent a giant block of cheese to President Thomas Jefferson. The big cheese (a 1,200 pound cheese wheel) was delivered by the Baptist pastor, John Leland to the President as an expression of “thanks” for his stand on religious liberty for all – even for the irreligious and non-religious.
“Religious Liberty” meant something different to them then than it does to many in the U.S. now. It seems to me that some today define religious liberty as “freedom to impose my religion on everybody.” It seems that some religions are “more equal” than others.
Baptists in the days of Jefferson and Leland would not recognize many Baptists and other evangelicals today in regard to their views on religious liberty.
In the days of Jefferson and Leland, Baptists were among the discriminated class. In many communities, being Baptist or anything other than the state-approved religion, was grounds for persecution and imprisonment. Yes, the Puritans had sailed to these shores seeking freedom of religion, but freedom of their religion only.
Do we have some Puritans hanging around today?
Are Evangelicals today, the discriminating class?
As Francis L. Hawks wrote in Ecclesiastical History, 1836: “No dissenters in Virginia experienced for a time harsher treatment than Baptists. They were beaten and imprisoned, and cruelty taxed ingenuity to devise new modes of punishment and annoyance.”
Baptist John Leland, who pastored in both Massachusetts and Virginia demanded not just toleration, but equality.
Are we demanding equality for all religions? Shouldn’t we be?
Back to the cheese:
*Pastor Leland enlisted the ladies of his Baptist congregation to concoct the giant cheese.
*Leland, a passionate abolitionist, also carefully made sure no slaves were used to make the cheese.
*Jefferson’s policy to refuse gifts while in office led him on January 4, 1802, to pay Leland $200 for the cheese. (about $5000.00 in today’s dollars! Wow. That’s a lot of cheese and money!)
One other thing from that New Year’s Day, January 1, 1802.
Jefferson wrote a letter that day. From that letter we get the phrase, “wall of separation between church and state.” The letter was addressed to a different group of New England Baptists. Baptists from Danbury, Connecticut were concerned that their religious liberty was at risk because of a government that sanctioned one religion over another. Their religion was not the sanctioned religion. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
Baptists were the minority, the outcasts, the heretics.
So it was party time for the Baptists when Jefferson, an outspoken proponent of absolute religious liberty for all, was elected President. Danbury Baptists wrote a letter to the President expressing their delight in his election and hope for his assistance in disestablishing Connecticut’s official religion.
Jefferson composed his reply to their letter on the day he received the cheese from Baptist pastor John Leland. I wonder it the “religious freedom cheese” reminded him, “Oh, I forgot to respond to the Danbury Baptists!”
Anyway, in this letter, Jefferson stated:
“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State (emphasis mine).”
I love that wall.
I appreciate that wall.
Without that wall it could be my religious views that are considered heretical and illegal.
Think about this history when you see government sponsored religious displays – whether it is a cross in a public park, or religious slogans on government property.
Ask ourselves the questions:
Have the persecuted become the persecuting?
Why have I turned God into the God of my tribe?
On this New Year’s Day, I will enjoy a chunk of cheese with my black-eyed peas and contemplate these words from Catholic Mystic, Nicolas of Cusa, “God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
I worship a God who is inclusive enough for all and appreciate a country established on the principle of liberty for all.