Backus, Isaac (1724–1806)

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BACKUS, ISAAC (1724–1806)

A Baptist minister in Massachusetts from 1756, Isaac Backus gained increasing recognition as an agent, chief spokesman, and campaigner for religious liberty for his New England co-religionists, who were harassed by hostile local officials' narrow interpretation and restrictive implementation of laws exempting Baptists from contributing to the support of Congregational churches. In pamphlets and newspapers, in an appearance before the Massachusetts delegation to the First Continental Congress, and in promoting civil disobedience by encouraging Baptists not to comply with statutes dealing with support of churches, he struggled unsuccessfully to abolish public tax support for religion.

More pietist than civil libertarian, Backus sought religious freedom primarily to prevent state interference with the church. He supported his arguments by citing the Massachusetts Charter's grant of religious liberty to all Protestants and by pointing up the contrast between local oppression of Baptists and New Englanders' charges of English tyranny. By 1780, however, he had come to affirm religious liberty as a natural right.

As a delegate to the Massachusetts ratifying convention, Backus supported the federal Constitution, convinced that its prohibition against tests precluded any establishment of religion. He showed little or no interest in the passage of the first amendment. Backus equated religious liberty almost entirely with voluntary choice of churches and voluntary support of ministers. He perceived America as a Christian country, did not object to Sabbath laws or to public days of prayer, and approved a Massachusetts law requiring legislators to profess Christianity. Such views typified contemporary evangelical opinion.

Thomas Curry


Mc Laughlin, William G. 1967 Isaac Backus and the American Pietistic Tradition. Boston: Little, Brown.

——, ed. 1968 Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism: Pamphlets, 1754–1789. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.