Thomas Jefferson, The Baptists, and A Giant Block of Cheese

by Thomas Kidd July 4, 2024

Despite having a widespread reputation for irreligious beliefs, President Thomas Jefferson was a hero to many Baptists in America because he was arguably the nation’s greatest champion of religious liberty. Baptists wanted to convey how delighted they were with his election as president in 1800. A big block of cheese played a major role in the effort. The cheese was four feet wide and 1,200 pounds, made by the Baptist “Ladies” of Cheshire, Massachusetts. They made it, a Republican newspaper noted, “as a mark of the exalted esteem they had of [Jefferson] as a man of virtue, benevolence, and a real sincere friend to all Christian denominations.” Written on the rind was the Jeffersonian motto, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”[1]

The cheese’s escort from Cheshire to Washington was the Baptist preacher John Leland, one of the era’s most influential evangelical leaders and a Jeffersonian zealot. Leland was eleven years younger than Jefferson and a native of Massachusetts. He had experienced conversion and became a Baptist in the early 1770s. Thereafter he began preaching and relocated to Virginia, where he served Baptist churches and the cause of religious liberty. In Virginia he became an ally of James Madison and Jefferson. Madison and Leland reportedly met in 1788, with Leland urging Madison to support a religious liberty amendment to the Constitution. (The original Constitution in 1787 did not include a Bill of Rights.) Leland agreed to back ratification of the Constitution if Madison would promote the amendment in the First Congress. When Leland returned to New England in 1791, he directed his political energies against the established, tax-supported Congregationalist churches of Connecticut and Massachusetts while pastoring in Cheshire.

Critics lambasted the “MAMMOTH CHEESE,” while newspapers punned incessantly about all things mammoth and cheese. This moniker was an allusion to Jefferson’s fascination with mastodon bones recently discovered in New York and his assumption that wooly mammoths still lived in the American interior. One Federalist watched as Jefferson’s supporters paraded with the cheese in a “ludicrous procession, in honor of a cheesen God.” The cheese moved down the Hudson River to New York, then by sea to Baltimore, and finally to Washington, where it arrived at the end of 1801. Jefferson himself had adopted the “mammoth cheese” label when he noted its arrival, saying it was “an ebullition of the passion of republicanism in a state where it has been under heavy persecution.”

We would know less about that religious liberty weekend in Washington were it not for a letter by a hostile Federalist representative, Manasseh Cutler, who disliked both Jefferson and Leland. The congressman reported that Leland delivered a sermon before Jefferson and members of Congress on January 3, 1802. Cutler had reluctantly visited the President’s House on New Year’s Day, where the staff treated members of Congress with “cake and wine” and allowed them to view the mammoth cheese. The Yale-educated Cutler, who was also a Congregationalist minister, thought that the “cheesemonger” Leland’s sermon two days later was a travesty. Leland, a “poor, ignorant, illiterate, clownish preacher,” spoke on Matthew 12:42: “behold, a greater [one] than Solomon is here.” To Cutler, the oration was a “farrago, bawled with stunning voice, horrid tone, frightful grimaces, and extravagant gestures.” No “decent auditory” had ever heard anything like it, Cutler scoffed.

Until the cheese became too maggot-ridden to keep, Jefferson made a viewing of it a standard experience for visitors to his home. He even had a special frame built to hold the cheese together as it aged. But the memory of it reminds us how important religious liberty was to the often-persecuted Baptists of the American founding era.

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[1] This essay is adapted from Thomas S. Kidd, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh (Yale University Press, 2022).

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