Isaac Backus may be the most interesting and influential American you’ve never heard of.
At the peak of his career, Backus (1724–1806) rode thousands of miles per year to preach to and encourage Baptist congregations throughout New England. In one five-month span, he rode 1,251 miles and preached 117 sermons. He operated outside Baptist circles, too. He debated some of the founding fathers of the United States and was part of the Massachusetts convention that ratified the Constitution. He wrote a three-volume history of New England and sent it to President George Washington as a “private token of love.” Backus is the only person I know of who was both groom and minister in his own wedding.
Backus was also profoundly influential, though he has never shared the renown of his more notable contemporaries. All the traveling and preaching he did in the decades before and after the American Revolution helped organize a Christian fringe group—the Baptists—into a unified movement. A century or so after his death, Baptists became America’s largest and most influential Protestant denomination. Furthermore, Backus drafted a bill of rights for America’s proposed constitution that bore a striking resemblance to the one that was eventually adopted, especially in its protection of religious liberty. He turned Jonathan Edwards’s heady theology of original sin into a practical and political theology of religious toleration. The historian William McLoughlin has claimed that the system of church-state relations that governed America until the last generation or so was precisely what Backus envisioned and worked his entire life to establish.
I like to think of Isaac Backus, the unschooled pastor from Connecticut, as the Forrest Gump of American religious history. The comparison breaks down, but just as Forrest Gump gave moviegoers a peek into the defining moments of a generation—from Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips to ping-pong diplomacy—so Backus interacted in remarkable ways with some of the most important figures and events of his generation.
All this is reason enough for us to know Backus better. But he is more than a figure to admire from a safe chronological distance. He is also someone whose example we can, and should, emulate today. Most of Backus’s opinions were unpopular in his generation. He spent his lifetime swimming upstream and fighting for liberties he was never able to enjoy. In light of the challenges Christianity faces in the first quarter of the 21st century, Backus is a useful figure who can help us look forward by first looking backward.
A Strong Counterpoint
We live at a time when the label evangelical is losing favor, and a growing number of people don’t want to wear it anymore. For many, the term connotes a range of unappealing social and political commitments.
Modern evangelicalism is charged with two crimes, essentially: racism and political compromise. For many people of color in America, the term evangelical is interwoven with the concept of whiteness created to subjugate ethnic minorities, especially black Americans. More broadly, evangelicalism stands accused of promoting an unholy collusion between church and state, especially during the Trump era. Historians like Bruce Hindmarsh and church leaders like Timothy Keller have defended the value of the term evangelical by appealing to its historical theological commitments. But these efforts run into problems. Heroes like Jonathan Edwards, who for some represent the movement in its best form, owned slaves. An African American pastor told me recently, “Every time I hear my white brothers quote Jonathan Edwards without qualification, it feels like a knife in my side.”
Isaac Backus represents a strong counterexample. A product of the Great Awakening, he was converted when he visited a small group meeting where someone read aloud a George Whitefield sermon. Backus entered the meeting unsure if he was a Christian. While he was there, “the Lord was pleased to give me some sweet sealing of the Holy Spirit of promise.” After his conversion, Backus was formed theologically by reading Jonathan Edwards’s treatises. He was a textbook 18th-century evangelical.
But unlike many in his generation, including the venerable Edwards, Backus denounced chattel slavery. In a public address to his fellow Baptists during a discussion about ratifying the proposed constitution, Backus said of slavery, “No man abhors that wicked practice more than I do and would gladly make use of all lawful means toward the abolishing of slavery in all parts of the land.” Among the many reasons he was excited about America’s new independence was that he believed “a door is now open” to “hinder the importation of slaves into any of these states.” The proposed constitution, he argued, could make good on the Revolution’s principle—“that all men are born with an equal right to liberty and property.” At the very least, Backus proves that it was possible for an American evangelical to recognize at least some of the implications of the gospel for civil rights.
He certainly recognized the implications of the gospel for religious liberty. Unlike other religious leaders in his own day (and many in our own), Backus refused to leverage political power to privilege a particular form of religion in America. He fought his entire adult life to secure religious liberty for all Americans.
In the process, Backus navigated national politics (when they were only just beginning) without selling his soul. Now this gets tricky, because while he argued that “no man or men can impose any religious test [for political office] without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he also argued that the government could legislate biblical morality even where consciences differed. He seems to have supported—or at least not opposed—laws against gambling and profanity, and even religious infractions like blasphemy and desecration of the Sabbath. Had same-sex marriage been a controversy during his era, he would have considered it the government’s job to maintain a traditional view of marriage. But he was sensitive about the relationship of faith institutions to seats of power. The institutions he fought against used their authority to outlaw everyone else. He rejected the practice of making “majority the test of orthodoxy.”
When the opportunity presented itself to leverage the system for his own gain, Backus refused. He was offered the established (tax-supported) pastorate of a village but had to be approved by a committee of established ministers. Backus turned down the job: “I shouldn’t leave it to a man [to decide] whether I should preach the gospel or no.” He opted instead for a lifetime of ministry on the margins.
Faithful from the Margins
Far from operating from the center of power, Backus lived his adult life and ministry as part of a marginalized religious group in his native New England. Backus and his friends and relatives, including his elderly mother, were jailed (some of them many times) for refusing to pay taxes to support state-approved churches. Backus’s concern wasn’t the amount of the tax, but the state’s authority to collect it. “It’s not the pence but the power that alarms us,” he wrote.
The liberty Backus fought to secure wasn’t abstract—he labored to end taxation for religion because he understood that the right to tax implied or presupposed the government’s authority to favor one religious group over the others. He wrote pamphlets and papers to make his case to fellow clergy, the public, and the budding nation’s policymakers. He appeared before the Continental Congress to make his appeal for religious liberty. To address what he perceived as the founders’ blindness on the issue, Backus collected stories of persecution for a notice he had published in regional newspapers:
Your purses have felt the burden of ministerial rates; and when these would not satisfy your enemies, your property has been taken from you and sold for less than half its value. These things you cannot forget. You will therefore readily hear and attend when you are desired to collect your cases of suffering and have them well attested.
Backus created, in other words, a New-World, Baptist version of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
In addition to advancing his opinions, Backus committed himself to civil disobedience, refusing to pay the taxes he opposed and accepting the legal penalty of his actions. In those days, the penalties could be steep. Imprisonment was a common consequence of failure to pay religious taxes. Baptists in Ashfield, Massachusetts, had property seized and orchards destroyed when they refused to pay the taxes they owed.
Paying the taxes, Backus believed, amounted to admitting that the state had a right to collect the taxes. So he fought for legislation to protect the conscience of Baptists. But he concluded that a free conscience demanded civil disobedience, and he proposed a nationwide display of it. Backus organized fellow Baptists to raise funds for posting bail, paying legal fees, recovering seized property, and compensating for lost wages.
Recent legislative moves in Europe suggest that Western culture, broadly speaking, is increasingly intolerant of all religious conviction—not just evangelical attitudes. Denmark’s minister for food and agriculture defended the nation’s decision to ban halal and kosher meat production by saying that “animal rights come before religion.” Germany briefly banned circumcision in 2012. American evangelicals would do well to start imagining a not-too-distant future in which some of our expected accommodations, such as tax-exempt status for religious organizations, are limited. Backus offers a constructive example of how evangelicals might prepare to be faithful from the margins.
Liberty for All
For most of my life, secular liberalism has been the specter that threatened to end religious liberty in America. The examples from Denmark and Germany above reinforce this fear. But Backus’s story is an important reminder that secular liberalism isn’t the only enemy of religious liberty. Religion itself can be just as insidious a foe.
For the half-century Backus fought for religious liberty, he never battled against a secular liberal government. It was fellow Christians of another, dominant denomination who supported policies that marginalized Backus and his fellow Baptists. The Congregationalists who opposed Backus did so for different reasons. Some of them sincerely feared the Baptists were dangerous threats to the social order and the integrity of traditional Christian faith. They felt it their sincere Christian duty to limit the activity of dissenting movements.
But Backus, along with other Baptists, advanced the view of Roger Williams, who insisted that all citizens, including “Jews, Turks, Papists, and infidels,” should have a right to worship according to their conscience. If liberty wasn’t extended to everyone, it could not be preserved for anyone. In Backus’s career, the hardest people to convince of this truth were fellow Christians.
I can’t read and reflect on Backus’s story without recognizing a parallel between our nation’s track record on religious liberty and our track record on other essential liberties, such as civil rights. America, at its best, is always striving to bring political realities into closer alignment with its core ideals. For most of the time Backus lobbied state governments to be freed from religious taxes, there were already laws on the books exempting Baptists from religious taxes. The problem was tax collectors ignored them.
This is a helpful reminder that having laws on the books is not enough to protect our marginalized and most vulnerable citizens. What’s required are sensitive and mobilized citizens who demand to see just laws enforced and unjust laws revised. We need Christians willing to risk their own wealth, power, and freedom to protect the consciences and freedoms of their neighbors—even those with whom they vehemently disagree. Backus organized just such a movement. Call it Baptist, call it Pietist, call it whatever you will. In a 1771 ordination sermon, Backus had his own word. He described it as a biblical teaching that carefully avoided the extremes of legalism, injustice, and licentiousness. He called it evangelical.
Brandon J. O’Brien is director of content and distribution for Redeemer City to City in Manhattan. He is the author of Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom (InterVarsity Press).
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