Baptist History Spotlight: Isaac Backus

January 13, 2015

Dr. Dan Nelson | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA

Isaac Backus was one of the early voices for Religious Liberty for Baptists in America. Although Baptists were given the most open colony for religious liberty in Rhode Island, religious liberty was still a struggle. The provincial nature of each colony in favoring one denomination was the issue. Backus spoke out against was the force-able taxation of Baptists to support Congregational Ministers salary and lodging in Massachusetts. Backus shared how it was unjust to ask a member of one religious body to support another through government coercion. So the struggle continued through all of Backus’ life and ministry. This would be the ultimate work of his life: Religious liberty for Baptist churches.

Backus was a gospel preacher being influenced by George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. Backus was born in what is the present day town of Norwich, Connecticut. He was a member of a Separatist/Congregational church for five years after his conversion. He became a preacher in this congregation in 1746 and was ordained in 1748. In 1751 Backus became Baptist experiencing some of the prejudice against Baptists first-hand. While pastor of the Middleborough Baptist Church in Middleborough, Massachusetts he began his ministry as a Baptist primarily because of their views on religious liberty.

For the next few decades leading into the American Revolution Backus became a leading voice for Baptists in America. He was one of the original trustees of the Baptist College in Rhode Island which later became Brown University. This was the first Baptist school of higher learning and truly was a milestone in the Baptist movement in America.

Backus became a leading orator in the American Revolution. He saw America’s fight for independence not just for freedom from an oppressive government; he saw it also as a chance to move forward with religious liberty. He published a sermon highlighting this great desire and cause in 1773 just before the revolution entitled: “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppressions of the Present Day.” He stated in that sermon, “Now who can hear Christ declare, that His kingdom is not of this world and yet believe that this blending of church and state together can be pleasing to him?”

In the middle of the war Backus authored a work that continued this theme entitled: Government and Liberty Described and Ecclesiastical Tyranny Exposed. Backus postulated that a religious tyranny of others, like Baptists, had existed provincially in the colonies since their inception. Baptists had borne the brunt of this restriction of religious liberty to practice their faith. The tyranny, as he referred to, must be replaced by states and a government guaranteeing freedom of religion for all.

As Backus continued his quest of religious liberty he was elected as a delegate to the constitutional convention for the Massachusetts ratification of the new U.S. Constitution. He knew this freedom must be codified in the constitution. He knew how Baptists had been persecuted, taxed to support the state church, and forced to pay with the penalty of those refusing to pay having houses and possessions confiscated. Several were jailed for refusing to pay this tax.

Despite asking for consideration of the First Continental Congress his pleas were misrepresented.  He was accused of presenting false charges of oppression. They asked for more clarification on this issue. The matter was dismissed in favor of the freedom of the colonies against the British government.

A new Constitution was adopted in Massachusetts which allowed Baptists to sue those who the tax money had gone to support. They were given certificates to do so. Backus believed this process was too complicated. The measure was viewed as a compromise but Backus continued to press for complete separation from the support of a state church. He expressed a grievance to a congressional committee but the committee would not listen to his objections.

Backus actually died before seeing his vision for complete religious freedom to come true. There was some liberty granted but he did not live to see the fruit of his labor. In 1833 complete religious liberty was granted to Baptists and other groups in Massachusetts almost three decades after his death. Backus’ tireless efforts had much to do with this accomplishment. He did not give up and passed on a legacy to those who later so nobly advanced his cause.

The pendulum has swung the other way today with a secular government mandating support of abortion and other practices in health care and society contrary to scripture. Churches and Christians ought to be free to oppose violations of religious liberty. To this end Backus was a great leader in the early days of this country’s history.

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Dan Nelson

As a follow-up to my article: Backus was at the forefront of where religious provincialism had been its worst with the colony of Mass. Williams was driven out there, Holmes was lashed there for preaching the gospel on the streets as a Baptist and Gould was imprisoned there. The Puritans (who were avowed Calvinist) would not allow religious expression from any other groups and retained infant sprinkling. At Backus time the situation had not changed much just slightly. Baptist were tolerated but still discriminated against as the article attest to. What is interesting is the further South Baptist went as in the case of Shubal Sterns in North Carolina and Daniel Marshall in GA the freedom of the environment to preach the gospel and grow churches was assured especially since these were pioneer areas. I know we have suffered decline in the last decade in some of our numbers but when we compare the areas today there is no comparison much when it comes to Christian influence, morality and churches. New England and particularly Mass. is one of the most liberal states in the nation and the churches have severely declined and are dying while in the South the Baptist influence has thrived. Could it have anything to do with our stand for religious liberty and openness to take the gospel anywhere to everyone. Certainly it does a thousand fold. May we learn from history and not ignore it.

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