Isaac Backus (1724-1806), an American Baptist leader, was a major figure in New England church history and was instrumental in the eventual securing of the separation of church and state for the new United States.
Isaac Backus was born of Puritan parents on Jan. 9, 1724, and belonged to the first family to settle Norwich, Conn. His father died when Isaac was 16, leaving an estate which included an iron foundry that became, later, an indispensable source of munitions for the American Revolution. Backus grew up during the Great Awakening; his experience of the mystery of "rebirth" at the age of 17 induced him to leave Congregationalism for the New Light Separatists. In 1746 he preached his first sermon and acknowledged his special calling for the ministry. In early 1748 he became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Middleboro, Mass., a post he held until his death. His career revealed his shrewd organizational gifts and natural intelligence.
Backus's contributions to church history fall into three categories: his efforts for church growth, his theological undertakings, and his political action to separate church and state. In pursuit of the first, Backus traveled extensively on evangelistic missions throughout New England and even into the south. Moreover, he overcame initial misgivings about dangers to congregational autonomy and supported the Warren Association, a powerful vehicle of communication and counsel for New England's Baptist churches. He also served as a trustee of Rhode Island College (later Brown University) and helped soothe Baptist suspicions of higher learning. Backus's History of New England Baptists, in three volumes, chronicled the remarkable expansion of the Baptists.
Theologically Backus developed a modified Calvinism suited to the demands of the burgeoning, democratic society in which he lived. Though he was committed to the doctrine of human inability, his writings stressed a gospel of love, millennial hope, and evolving divine revelation through intuitional, not churchly, means. In 1756 he began to advocate adult immersion and closed communion to protect the faithful from the cold intellectualism of Congregationalist orthodoxy.
Finally, Backus labored tirelessly to free the Baptists from the encumbrances of state taxation for the Congregationalist establishment. Basing his arguments upon the Bible, John Locke, and Revolutionary experience, Backus formulated a clear justification for the separation of church and state. After 1769 he led the Grievance Committee of the Warren Association in handling Baptist tax delinquency suits and in petitioning the General Assembly, the British Crown, and, in 1774, the First Continental Congress for redress against civil coercion. Though a Revolutionary patriot, Backus vigorously but vainly protested the church establishment clauses of the Massachusetts constitutions of 1779 and 1780. He was also a delegate to the ratification convention in Boston, 1789, where he praised the national constitution for prohibiting a national church establishment.
Backus's most significant works on religious liberty were A Seasonable Plea for Liberty of Conscience (1770) and Appeal to the Public (1773). By the time of his death, on Nov. 20, 1806, he had provided his successors with the instruments needed to convince Americans that church voluntarism, not church establishment, conformed to divine wishes and American ideals of freedom.
For Backus's writings see William G. McLoughlin, ed., Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism: Pamphlets, 1754-1789 (1968), which includes a bibliography. Two studies of Backus are William G. McLoughlin, Isaac Backus and the American Pietistic Tradition (1967), and Alvah Hovey, A Memoir of the Life and Times of the Rev. Isaac Backus, A.M. (1858).
Grenz, Stanley, Isaac Backus—Puritan and Baptist: his place in history, his thought, and their implications for modern Baptist theology, Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1983. □
Backus, Isaac (1724-1806)
Isaac Backus (1724-1806)
Religious Freedom . Isaac Backus’s service as minister of the Baptist church in the small country town of Middleborough, Massachusetts, would not ordinarily ensure a place for him in the history books. Yet despite this modest position, Backus became one of the most widely known evangelical preachers in early America. He was also a key figure in the debate over the separation of church and state in the period after the American Revolution. Backus had a vision of religious freedom that complemented an intense piety, a view shared by many in these formative years of American society.
Awakening to Faith . Backus was born on a Connecticut farm on 9 January 1724. Like many other New Englanders, he experienced a dramatic conversion during the Great Awakening, a series of religious revivals that swept through American churches in the early 1740s. These revivals emphasized the importance of conversion, that is, of an intense awareness of God’s grace as the centerpiece of each person’s religious life. Backus held to this position for the rest of his long life despite the conflicts it created for him. The practical consequences of his religious beliefs led Backus to his ideas about religious freedom. The evangelical emphasis on conversion led some to conclude that the church should accept only those who had freely recognized this event. Backus left the Congregational Church because it refused to restrict admission in this way. He soon moved to an even more radical position and in 1756 formed a new congregation in Middleborough on Baptist principles. Baptists such as Backus abandoned the popular practice of baptizing children, arguing that it was impossible for a baby to experience conversion.
Separating Church and State . While Baptists were free to hold these beliefs, they were not free to abandon their old churches completely. The Congregational churches of Massachusetts were “established” churches, endorsed by the state government and supported with tax money. Backus became a leading spokesman for all those seeking relief from the obligation to pay taxes in support of ministers and churches they had rejected. In works such as An Appealto the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppression of the Present Day (1773) Backus argued forcefully that state support corrupted pure Christianity, and he urged the separation of church and state. The adoption of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791 accomplished Backus’s goal at the national level. But the states were not affected by this, and his struggle continued for the rest of his life. He continued to preach and write about this issue. Backus was not a true religious pluralist despite his views on the separation of church and state. He always believed that America should be a religious, and specifically a Baptist, nation. Religious freedom for Backus was not an abstract human right, but rather a goal to pursue in order to promote religion in a practical way. Backus died on 20 November 1806, twenty-seven years before the Congregational Church was finally disestablished in Massachusetts.
William G. McLoughlin, Isaac Backus and the American Pietistic Tradition (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967).