Isaac Backus; Liberty and Justice for All

Isaac Backus; Liberty and Justice for All

Baptist ministers are generally not supposed to get themselves arrested, but on February 6, 1749, the constable arrived to arrest twenty-five year old Isaac Backus. His crime? Refusing to pay taxes to support a church that he did not attend. As Isaac wrote later that day, "This morning I was seized by the officer. And he threatened to carry me to prison...I told him that they were going on in an unscriptural way to support the Gospel...He told me that if I would not pay him, he would immediately carry me to jail." While Isaac was willing to go to jail to protest a law that offended his conscience, someone paid the tax for him and he was set free. For the rest of his life, however, he fought to abolish religious taxes and obtain freedom for all.

They Risked All for Freedom
More than a century before Isaac Backus began his fight against religious taxation, the Pilgrims and Puritans left England and came to America in search of religious liberty. Survival in the New World was a constant struggle, but these pioneers considered the hardships they had to endure worthwhile. Finally they had the freedom to worship God as they believed he should be worshipped.

It did not take long, however, for their beliefs to become institutionalized. By the time Isaac Backus was born in 1724, it was believed in his home state of Connecticut and in several others, that the peace and harmony of the colony could best be ensured by the enforcement of the Reformed (Calvinist) faith. Other denominations, including the Baptists, were not considered legitimate churches, ironically duplicating the state of affairs in England where both Baptists and Puritans, as well as many other groups, faced severe persecution because they disagreed with the Church of England. The Puritans found their religious freedom in America, but Baptists and other unrecognized denominations were still not free to worship according to their conscience.

"Enabled by Divine Light"
Isaac was born to Puritan parents who belonged to the established church, also called the Congregationalist church. When the Great Awakening began to spread across Connecticut, Isaac's mother opened her home for prayer and preaching. Through these home meetings, seventeen-year-old Isaac realized his need for a relationship with God. However, when he went to the local pastor for guidance, the man could not tell him how to escape the punishment he knew waited for unbelievers. Isaac knew he needed to take action, but he suffered greatly because he did not know what to do. For weeks he prayed desperately for God to show him how to be saved. Peace finally came to him one morning while he was mowing a field. "I was enabled by divine light to see the perfect righteousness of Christ and the freeness and riches of his grace." His questions regarding salvation were answered and Isaac was converted.

Pastor and Tax Protester
Isaac was determined that no one else should suffer the desperation he felt before his conversion. He studied his Bible diligently so he could explain God's word to others. He was nearing his mid-twenties when a small church in Middleborough, Massachusetts, asked him to serve as their pastor.

Isaac's new church called itself "Separate," a movement that was sweeping America in the years following the Great Awakening. Recent converts were understandably enthusiastic about their new-found faith. This enthusiasm, however, did not sit well with the ministers in the established church and caused chaos in some cases. Untrained men claimed that God had called them to preach, and some converts were disrupting services with their shouting and loud singing. In more extreme instances, converts claimed that they could never die, that they had reached perfection, or that they could unfailingly tell whether someone had experienced conversion.

Also, many new converts became convinced that while the ministers of the established church knew their theology, they really did not know Jesus Christ. These converts decided to start their own churches where they would have the freedom to worship with all the zeal and fervor they felt for their Savior. They called themselves "Separates," or Separatists, and were known for their lively worship services.

It was while he was pastoring in Middleborough that Isaac faced arrest for refusing to pay taxes. Even though the Separatists no longer attended the established church, they were still harassed to pay the church tax. Because of this, Isaac petitioned the state of Massachusetts to change the laws regarding the state-supported church, since he did not believe that the state had the right to regulate religious matters. In his own words, "In Christ's kingdom, each one has equal right to judge for himself." He recorded the stories of hundreds who had been jailed or lost their property because they had refused to finance a denomination of which they were not a part. The essence of the separation Isaac was seeking between church and state was that no particular denomination would enjoy state sponsorship to the detriment of other denominations. Everyone should have the freedom to follow their conscience and worship God in the manner they believed was right.

Taking the Fight to Congress
In 1774, Isaac took his cause to the First Continental Congress. He went as a lobbyist for the Baptist Warren Association, an organization that sought to remind the congressional delegates that many in the colonies did not have true religious freedom. He and a group of supporters met with the delegates for over five hours, but in the end, their mission was not a success.

When the "shot heard round the world" was fired at Lexington Green, Massachusetts, Isaac was in a quandary. He had been prepared to appeal to King George III for aid, but realized that if America were defeated, the Church of England would become more firmly entrenched in New England. Because of this, he supported the Revolutionary War, both personally and from the pulpit. He preached to the troops as well, encouraging them in their fight for freedom.

When the war was won, Isaac and the Baptists were sure that the unfair taxation would cease. Surely the country that had just won its independence would take a stand for freedom. However, Isaac was doomed to disappointment once more. Massachusetts did nothing to break the stranglehold the Congregational Church maintained over its state. Later, as a delegate to the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, Isaac felt that at least a partial victory had been achieved when the U. S. Constitution was ratified. Although some Baptists believed that the Constitution did not guarantee religious freedom, Isaac believed that it did indeed promote his cause and that New England would eventually see the separation of the state from its established church. Although this did not happen during his lifetime, 27 years after his death in 1806, the last state church in Massachusetts was disestablished.

"As I was mowing alone in the field, August 24th 1741, all my past life was opened plainly before me, and I saw clearly that it had been filled up with sin. I went and sat down in the shade of a tree, where my prayers and tears, my hearing of the Word of God and striving for a better heart, with all my other doings, were set before me in such a light that I perceived I would never make myself better, should I live ever so long.

Divine justice appeared clear in my condemnation, and I saw that God had a right to do with me as He would. My soul yielded all into His hands, fell at His feet, and was silent and calm before Him ...I was enabled by Divine light to see the perfect righteousness of Christ...The Word of God and the promises of His grace appeared firmer than a rock, and I was astonished at my previous unbelief. My heavy burden was gone, tormenting fears were fled, and my joy was unspeakable."

Samuel Stillman

Isaac Backus was not the only Baptist preacher of his day who pressed for civil rights. Another highly visible spokesman in the matter of church taxes was Samuel Stillman. Stirred by outrages against the Baptists of Ashfield, Massachusetts, he took a leading role in preparing a petition that demanded the repeal of the church laws, payment of damages to the Baptists, and their exemption from all state church levies.

Stillman was small of stature and weighed only 97 pounds. He was easy-going and neat as a pin. Almost a dandy in his concern for his appearance, he must have looked a bit comical in his large white wig. Nonetheless, he had great zeal and dedication.

Born in Philadelphia and raised in South Carolina, he entered the ministry as a pastor in the South, but was forced to move to a cooler climate because of lung disease. In time, he became pastor of First Baptist Church in Boston, where his preaching was so famous that even those who disagreed with his evangelical doctrines used to come just to hear him speak. One man wrote, "There was a fervor in his prayers that seldom failed to awaken the devotion of his hearers; for coming from the heart, it failed not to reach the hearts of others." Several revivals swept the church as a result of his ministry. When he took the pulpit at First Baptist in 1765, it was the smallest church in Boston; when he died 42 years later, it was one of the largest.

A decade before the United States adopted its constitution, Stillman called for one and said it should contain a bill of rights. He also wanted it to abolish slavery. His views were expressed in a sermon he preached before the Supreme Court of Massachusetts on May 29, 1779. In this speech (quoted below), Stillman declared that governments have no right to impose religious practices upon any person.

"Attempts [to force consciences] have been repeatedly made by an ambitious clergy, assisted by rulers of despotic principles; the consequence of which has been, that crowds of the best members of society have been reduced to this dreadful alternative, either to offend God, and violate the dictates of their own minds, or to die at a stake.

The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God."

Later, in 1788, Samuel's eloquence was credited with helping to persuade a Massachusetts convention to adopt the Constitution of the United States. He spoke so well on that occasion that he won over many delegates who were wavering about the document.

Stillman's many accomplishments included helping found Rhode Island College (Brown University) and the first Baptist Missionary Society in America. He was active in philanthropy in Boston as well. Samuel died in 1807, one day after suffering a stroke.

And Remember James Manning, Too

James Manning (1738 - 1791) was a Baptist clergyman and an active Federalist. He helped found the Baptist Warren Association and was the first president of Rhode Island College (above, now Brown University), where Isaac Backus was a trustee. The college was America's first Baptist school of higher learning.


Originally published June 11, 2010.