The New England Puritan Isaac Backus was born in 1724 and died 208 years ago today, on November 20, 1806. As an outstanding advocate of religious freedom and the separation of church and state, he is well worth remembering, and honoring, on this anniversary of his death.
Backus was the most influential Baptist in British North America after Roger Williams (1603-83), founder of the first Baptist church in the “new world” in 1638.
He became a Christian as a teenager in 1741. Five years later he became a preacher and at the age of 24 was ordained as a Congregationalist minister. In 1748, however, he was baptized by immersion and became a Baptist.
In 1756, Backus started a Baptist church in Middleborough, Mass., where he served as pastor until his death fifty years later.
Backus joined with others in 1764 to found the first Baptist institution of higher learning in the Colonies, the school now known as Brown University. It was the third college in New England and the first Ivy League school to accept students from all religious affiliations.
As a Baptist pastor, Backus became involved in the lengthy battle for separation of church and state in Massachusetts, opposing the “ecclesiastical tax” that had been imposed upon all citizens of that state to support the Congregational churches.
Even those who opposed the beliefs of those churches were required to pay the tax, and those who refused to do so had their personal property seized. Many people were even imprisoned because of failure to pay the tax, including several members of Backus’s own family.
Backus’s strong advocacy for the freedom of religion is best articulated in his published sermon of 1773, “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, Against the Oppressions of the Present Day.”
Religious liberty is always a problem for minority groups—such as the Baptists in New England during Backus’s lifetime and religious groups in the U.S. now, such as American Muslims.
Thus, being an advocate of religious liberty today means supporting the freedom of Muslims and all other minority groups. That liberty includes freedom from the heavy-handedness of the religious majority.
Those in the majority usually don’t easily give up their position of privilege. Massachusetts didn’t amend the state constitution to give religious freedom to all people until 1833, some 27 years after Backus’s death.
At present, some religious conservatives, or traditionalists like those in 18th century Massachusetts, generally don’t like social change when that means giving up their privileged position. Thus, we hear clamor for upholding the religious convictions of the nation’s founders.
Without question, the Massachusetts Bay Colony formed in 1630 was based on Puritan religious convictions. In a sermon even before landing, John Winthrop, the colonists’ spiritual leader, proclaimed a vision of a Christian society that was to be an exceptional “city on the hill.”
Such a society, however, could not tolerate even the dissident Puritan minister Roger Williams, who was banished in 1636. Nor could it tolerate the outstanding, but unusual, Puritan religious leader Anne Hutchinson, who was banished from Boston in 1638.
But it was the freedom of religion and separation of church and state established in Rhode Island by Williams and then bravely backed by Backus over 135 years later that became a part of the U.S. Bill of Rights ratified in 1791.
I am grateful for Baptists like Backus and their emphasis on religious liberty for all.
Let freedom ring for all religious groups in the U.S. today!
Some of the material in the above article is similar to that found on pp. 167-8 of my book “Fed Up with Fundamentalism” (2007).
Remembering Stanley Grenz
In doing research for the above article I used Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz’s “Isaac Backus—Puritan and Baptist: His Place in History, His Thought, and Their Implications for Modern Baptist Theology” (1983). This work was originally Grenz’s doctoral dissertation that was written under the supervision of Wolfhart Pannenberg and submitted in 1978 to the University of Munich.
So this article was also written in memory of Grenz (b. 1950) as well as Backus.
In April 2004, mostly through my efforts, the Department of Theology of Seinan Gakuin University hosted Dr. Grenz for special lectures. I found him to be “a prince of a fellow,” and I told him that in a year or two I would like to visit him in Vancouver, Canada, where he lived and taught at Regent College.
It was a shock and a great grief when I learned that Grenz had suddenly passed away in March 2005. He was a fine man and a good scholar; his passing was a great loss to Baptists and the theological world.