In the year 1891, much of what we would now recognize as Washington, DC, was just beginning to take shape. The District of Columbia’s transportation hub, Union Station, would not officially open for another seventeen years. Ground-breaking for the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials was still decades away. The cornerstone of the US Supreme Court would not be laid for forty-one years.
As the nation’s capital continued to develop, construction began on a group of rowhouses on Capitol Hill, along the east side of Second Street NE.
Almost 125 years and more than twenty US presidential administrations later, many of these rowhouses still stand, weathered by age and repurposed in function. Notable among them is a two-story with basement at postal address 505.
Today, that grey brick building is home to the Washington, DC, office of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the Southern Baptist Convention entity charged to speak to the growing number of social, moral, and religious liberty issues of the twenty-first century. At one time a family residence, the building in the heart of the Capitol Hill Historic District now functions as a beacon of biblical truth in the nation’s capital.
The ERLC, then known as the Christian Life Commission, purchased the property in 1994. After some renovations—reconfiguring the floor plan to accommodate office space, restoring the original oak hardwood floors, and adding ornamental Doric-style columns and vaulted ceilings in the entryway and conference rooms—the century-old building was ready for use.
The ERLC’s task of defending religious liberty continues the work that began early in America’s history, in the eighteenth century, when Baptists suffered widespread religious persecution. It was this period of religious dissent that informed the selection of the building’s name: Leland House.
That signature designation, etched in a brass sign on the house’s brick façade, pays homage to John Leland, famed and fiery itinerant Baptist evangelist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With a ministry spanning six decades, Leland distinguished himself as one part evangelist and Gospel preacher and another part defender of religious liberty.
It is Leland, champion of the right of conscience for every person, who is largely credited with helping to secure America’s religious liberty protections in the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791—exactly one hundred years before construction of what would eventually become Leland House.
Now, 260 years after his birth, the Gospel cries of John Leland echo from the building named in his honor. Leland House serves as both an extension of and complement to the ministry of the ERLC’s Nashville office. It is a workspace from which ERLC President Russell D. Moore, who regularly travels to Washington, and DC-based staff sound an amplified voice on issues of Southern Baptist concern to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.
It is a place, moreover, to connect with public policy leaders on key cultural concerns. Within walking distance of the corridors of Congress, Leland House’s strategic location enables ERLC staff to convene meetings with like-minded governmental and religious leaders—advocates for marriage and family, the unborn and the orphaned, the persecuted and the trafficked, and other Gospel issues that Southern Baptists, informed by Scripture, must not ignore.
To be sure, the building at 505 Second Street NE is only an aid to the eternal work that happens within. Leland House stands to help advance a Kingdom that neither a law from Congress nor a ruling from the Supreme Court can thwart. Indeed, not even the gates of hell can prevail against the Gospel hope for which it stands and advocates. Convention messengers are encouraged to stop by while in the area.
Doug Carlson is office manager at Leland House, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and a member of First Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.