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John Leland had an idea: freedom of religion



This monument to Elder John Leland, who insisted that the Constitution contain a provision guaranteeing religious liberty, is in Orange County, Virginia. (photo courtesy Gordon Cotton)

It is doubtful that many people have ever heard of John Leland, but Americans owe him a heartfelt thanks.

Leland deserves more than a footnote in history. Part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, No. 1 in our Bill of Rights, was his idea and his perseverance made it a reality.

I had heard the story of John Leland, but was it true?

I was at the Orange County Courthouse in Virginia, working on family history. I knew that Leland lived in Orange, so I asked folks in the local historical society if the story was true.

A few miles drive down a state highway, and I found the monument to him. It is an impressive marker with a relief portrait of Leland and a brief account of his accomplishments:

Elder John Leland, courageous leader of the Baptist Doctrine, ardent advocate of the principles of democracy, vindicator of separation of church and state.

Near this spot in 1788, Elder John Leland and James Madison, the father of the American Constitution, held a significant interview which resulted in the adoption of the Constitution by Virginia. Then Madison, a member of Congress from Orange, presented the First Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing religious liberty, free speech and a free press. This satisfied Leland and his Baptist followers.

Leland’s role in suggesting the First Amendment, the one that guarantees our freedom of religion, came about because it appeared that Virginians would not ratify the Constitution in 1788.

Many patriots opposed it, including Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and George Mason.

Leland was Patrick Henry’s friend, and he was also a neighbor of James Madison, who wrote the Constitution. Leland, a Baptist minister, had a tremendous amount of influence. If he backed the adoption of the Constitution, it might be just enough to secure its passage.

One afternoon Madison called on Leland hoping to secure his endorsement. The two men talked late into the night, so long that Madison missed another meeting. Leland was well aware of persecution suffered by the dissenters, which, at the time, included anyone who was not a member of the state-supported church. As a Baptist in Virginia, Leland was a dissenter because he was not a member of the Anglican church.

Leland believed that government had no right or responsibility in dabbling in religion, and he wanted a written assurance of that in the nation’s laws. When Madison bid Leland good night, he assured the minister of the adoption of an amendment securing religious liberty.

Leland was not a Virginian. He was born in Massachusetts in 1854 and began preaching when he was 20, the next year moving to Orange, Virginia. He protested the state’s paying the salaries of Anglican ministers from the tax monies collected from dissenters and from money made from glebes, land set aside for support of the church. By some accounts, Leland hired Patrick Henry as his lawyer to sue over the state’s support, and the case went to court. Technically Henry lost the case, for the court upheld the law but also set the salaries at a penny a year.

Leland’s fame spread. He was known from New York to Virginia as an outstanding orator and theologian. It was during this time that he delivered one of the most memorable sermons in his long career. It was not unusual for worship services to be held in private homes — in fact, the practice became very fashionable in some areas. Such was the case when he was invited to preach in a fine Virginia mansion.

Elder John Leland (image source:

His portrait shows him as not a very impressive looking man, and most knew him by reputation, not by sight. He preached without salary and walked almost everywhere. On the afternoon before his appointment the next morning, he arrived at the mansion tired, dusty and thirsty but was greeted with “What do you want, old man?”

When he asked for some water and a place to rest, he was curtly told to go down to the slave quarters. There he met an elderly black couple who happily shared their cabin with him.

During that evening, he and the slaves discussed the Bible, sang some hymns, and he prayed before retiring.

The next morning there was a flurry of activity as the hostess and her staff prepared for the religious service. Soon finely dressed visitors began arriving in handsome carriages, but at 10 o’clock, the hour of the service, Mr. Leland had not arrived. An hour passed, and still no minister. The guests were becoming restless. The old slave woman suggested that her mistress ask the old man to pray. She had heard him the night before, of course, and urged the lady of the house to ask him.

From the shade of a tree on the lawn, Leland watched as the hostess and some others conferred. Then they came and asked him if he would pray.

Leland walked to the steps on the front gallery. He sang a short hymn from memory and then began to pray. By the time he said “Amen,” all eyes were fixed on him, for never had the crowd heard such earnest eloquence. Noting that they had expected a sermon, he said he was going to take the liberty to say a few words. Carefully he chose his text, turning to Hebrews 13:2 – “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”

Legend says that the lives of those in attendance were greatly changed that day, especially that of the hostess.

In the 1790s, Leland returned to Massachusetts, but he continued his travels and preaching, baptizing untold numbers of converts. He also wrote hymns (some of which are still sung in the Primitive Baptist churches). He visited his friend Thomas Jefferson after Jefferson became president, and in 1832, he attended a meeting of Baptist leaders at Black Rock, Maryland, where denominational beliefs and traditions were heatedly debated, resulting in a division. Those who kept to the old ways were sometimes called Old Regular Baptists, Old School Baptists, or in later years simply Old Baptists and more commonly, Primitive Baptists.

Leland chose to remain with the original group, continuing to use the title “Elder” rather than “Reverend.” He died in 1841 and is buried at Hopewell Old School Baptist Church in Hopewell, New Jersey.

Elder John Leland’s name certainly isn’t a household word, but it should be. We owe him a lot.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.


Former Rosa A. Temple coach McClelland is the last coach with an undefeated basketball season in Vicksburg



Lavern McClelland (photo courtesy Alonzo Stevens)

Former Rosa A. Temple High School basketball coach Levern McClelland remains one of the best high school basketball coaches to ever come through the City of Vicksburg.

Born on March 21, 1932, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, McClelland attended Hopewell Vocational High School and graduated from Alcorn A&M after being drafted in the military.

McClelland came to Vicksburg in 1964 where he became the head coach of the all Black, segregated Rosa A. Temple High School.

By 1967, McClelland had established a great team with the Buccaneers, and he was coaching some standout players such as Carl Jackson and Marshall Sanders.

”We started as an undeveloped team, and then coach installed integrity in us, and he knew exactly how to motivate us,” Jackson said.

The Buccaneers went 36-6 in the 1967 season and won the Big 8 championship that year among Black schools.

Teams all around Mississippi knew about the Buccaneers basketball program and knew the team was only getting better with McClelland’s leadership.

“He was definitely a smart man and way ahead of his time,” Sanders said. “He knew basketball, and he prepared us with tough conditioning so that he was able to teach us the game without us getting tired.”

Because Temple was an all Black school in the Jim Crow era, the Buccaneers never received the exposure many other programs did, but McClelland never let that stop him from coaching his team to win.

Just one year after winning the 1967 championship, McClelland and the Buccaneers went 29-0 in 1968 and won their second consecutive championship.

Student worker Walter Wright was in charge of keeping up with statistics and reporting them to newspapers all around Mississippi and even to Dallas, Texas. He had the chance to witness McClelland’s leadership first hand and how he inspired success in his team.

“Everything he touched, he won,” Wright said. “He is definitely one of the best coaches of all time, and I put him on a higher level than John Wooden.”

McClelland kept Wright busy and made sure he kept a job writing and reporting on athletics which helped teach Wright about organization.

He was able to do something most coaches only dream of when it comes to basketball — having an undefeated season.

Jackson went on to play for St. Bonaventure and was inducted in the school’s hall of fame in 2001, while Sanders went on to become the captain of the Harvard University basketball team.

Although Temple was known for its great athletic program, McClelland always encouraged his players to graduate and go on to college.

“He taught PE, and he always told us to get our education because that was the type of guy he was,” Wright said. “I wouldn’t be Dr. Wright today if it wasn’t for him.”

In the early 1970s, Temple High School finally integrated and McClelland became the head coach of South Vicksburg High where he continued his successful coaching career. He eventually won three Coach of the Year Awards as the Buccaneers head coach.

Although McClelland is credited for much of his team’s success, he also had a great assistant coach by the name of a Belton Dent who put in as much time as McClelland did to make their team successful.

McClelland passed away in 2013 just one day before his 81st birthday but his legacy lives on through the many lives he touched as a coach. He remains the last boys basketball coach in Vicksburg to have a undefeated season on the varsity level.

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Gen. Grant’s ‘Truce’ of Vicksburg



The statue of Gen. Grant in the Vicksburg National Military Park. (photo by Calstanhope - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

There’s a small white stone in the Dockery family graveyard at Lamartine in Columbia County, Arkansas, with the simple inscription “Truce” on it, and therein lies a story.

Thomas Pleasant Dockery was a Confederate general in the Siege of Vicksburg, commanding the second brigade under Gen. John S. Bowen.

Dockery was born in North Carolina but grew up near Magnolia, Arkansas, on the Louisiana-Arkansas border, not far from Shreveport. He entered the Confederate States Army as a colonel.

During the siege, Mrs. Dockery, like many officers’ wives, tried to stay close to the army to be near her husband. She found lodging at a home in the county outside Federal lines. She could hear the roar of the cannons, and she spent many anxious moments concerned about her husband’s safety. Like many others, she prayed that relief might come for the entrapped Confederates, but it never came.

After the surrender on July 4, 1863, Mrs. Dockery persuaded her host to take her to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters so that she might learn something about her husband. The planter found a rickety old buggy, one in such poor con­dition the Yankees wouldn’t want it. He caught an old mule so frail he had also been spared, tied some leather and rope into a harness, hitched the mule to the buggy and he and Mrs. Dockery started for Vicksburg.

It was hot and dusty but eventually they made it to the vicinity of Grant’s headquarters. A guard refused to allow them to pass. That, however, was before Mrs. Dockery burst into tears — and he couldn’t bear to see a lady cry. She begged the guard to go to Grant and tell him that a lady in great distress needed to see him. The soldier soon returned with an invitation for Mrs. Dockery and her friend to come to headquarters right away.

Terrible stories had been circulated about Grant, but he received Mrs. Dockery courteously, gave her cool water and seated her in a comfortable chair. She told him of her concern about her husband, asking for permission to visit him. Grant couldn’t give her a pass without breaking his own rules; however, he would get news of Gen. Dockery by sending an orderly to find out about him.

Grant insisted that his guests join him for dinner, and when the meal was finished, the soldier returned with a message that Gen. Dockery was in good health and would visit his wife as soon as he was permitted.

Grant wrote a pass on a scrap of paper for the Confederate officer and his wife to return to their home in Arkansas upon their honor and pending further orders. The Northern commander slipped it into her hand as they parted.

It was several days before arrangements could be made for the Dockerys to leave, and the story was told that on the day of the departure of the Confederate soldiers, followed by their officers and wives, Grant was watching. At his feet was a white Spitz dog that had attached itself to headquarters. He had become a favorite of the men and of Gen. Grant.

As the Dockery’s carriage drew near, Grant picked up the little white dog and handed it to Mrs. Dockery, saying, “Let this be a flag of truce between us, madam, and may my men possess the courage you have shown during the siege.”

The dog was from then on called Truce and became as greatly loved by the men in gray as it had been by those who wore blue.

Eventually Gen. Dockery was exchanged and returned to his duties in Confederate service, taking Truce with him. One story of the dog’s service was that one night after a long march, with the men stretched out on the ground asleep, one soldier was aroused by Truce tugging at his sleeve. Annoyed, he tried to make the whining dog leave him alone. Undaunted, Truce went to wake the next soldier.

Just then, a bullet grazed where the soldier’s head had been resting. By then, everyone was awake, ready for a fight. Truce’s keen perception of danger had saved their lives.

Truce survived the war in which the dog had become a mascot for the Confederate soldiers. It is said that at the dog’s death he was buried in a small satin-lined casket, and some Confederate veterans conducted the burial.

Only the name Truce is on the gravestone, but there is quite a story that goes with it.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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In defense of a bedbug



The portrait of Seargent Smith Prentiss, who died in 1850, was painted posthumously by an unknown artist and has been hanging in the courtroom of the Old Court House Museum since 1860. (Image courtesy Gordon Cotton)

Verse by great poets has been written in honor of a louse — and possibly other critters — but it was a Vicksburg attorney who delivered perhaps the most eloquent speech of his illustrious career when he spoke in defense of a bedbug.

The attorney was Seargent Smith Prentiss, considered one of the greatest orators in U.S. history. Speeches and pleas by the attorney and congressman captivated audiences and brought lavish praise from such men as Daniel Webster.

Prentiss came to Mississippi from Maine at the age of 19 in 1827. For a while he lived in Natchez and taught school for the Shields family at the Maryland Settlement in Jefferson County. He was admitted to the bar and soon moved to Vicksburg where he was active in Whig politics and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The small-in-stature Prentiss was 5-feet 6-inches tall and walked with the aid of a cane because of a badly crippled foot. His forehead, like Webster’s, was high and broad, and his eyes were as penetrating as his voice was commanding. No other attorney wanted to face him in court for Prentiss seldom lost a case.

Two things Prentiss enjoyed were liquor and practical jokes.

When inspired with enough spirits, Prentiss was a master at entertaining. He was in just such a condition in the mid-1830s when he made his famous bedbug speech.

One evening Prentiss and fellow attorney Sam Gholson were traveling and stopped at a hotel in Raymond, Mississippi. After several hours at the bar the two secured a room for the night. For an hour or more, they slept soundly in the double bed, but Prentiss awakened suddenly to discovered that they had many small “bedmates.” He shook Gholson until he was awake as well, and they then debated whether to leave the hotel or meet the enemy head on.

Intoxicated to the point of being ridiculous, Prentiss and Gholson decided to attack. So, arising in their night shirts, they lit the lamp, drew their pistols and preceded to exterminate the tiny enemies. As a bedbug came forth, they would smite it with a bullet.

An interpretation of the massacre of the bedbugs at a Raymond, Mississippi, hotel was done in pen and ink by David Kleinman, an artist who grew up in Vicksburg but now lives in Ocean Springs. (Image courtesy Gordon Cotton)

It didn’t take long before the owner of the hotel came running. Prentiss told him they were simply exercising the right of self-defense, “granted by law of man and God.” Amid the frantic pleas of the landlord, the shooting continued until mattress and bed were demolished in the smoke-filled room.

And then a tiny, last culprit appeared and Prentiss caught the critter. Gholson immediately urged execution of the sole survivor of the massacre, but Prentiss pled for mercy. Both decided the bug deserved a trial by his fellow countrymen. Quickly, they got another attorney who was staying at the hotel to act as judge, and the landlord’s sons and others were brought in to serve as the jury.

For two hours Gholson, speaking for the state, prosecuted the case against the bedbug. Then the eloquent Prentiss spoke in the insignificant creature’s defense.

Prentiss talked for more than three hours, until dawn arrived, and the guests at the hotel who crowded the room to hear the great orator termed it the best address of his career. Unfortunately, no court stenographer was present, so Prentiss’ words were not recorded for posterity.

The fate of the bedbug? He was acquitted. He deserved it after over five hours of speechmaking past the midnight hour. He had enjoyed the services of Seargent Smith Prentiss, something many humans couldn’t financially afford.

The bedbug? He was set free to probably bite again.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

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