Thursday, November 20, 2014

Remembering Isaac Backus

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.


  1. Here is an email response from a local Thinking Friend:

    "I say let freedom ring for ALL people. Not just the religious, but also the nonreligious and everything in between. I think, too often, religion focuses on itself and forgets the rest of the world. Can I get an amen?"

    1. Thanks, Cole, for your comments. I agree with you completely. Religious freedom must include freedom from religion.

      In January I will be giving a talk at "Provocateurs and Peacemakers" on "Freedom of Religion and Freedom from Religion."

  2. I find this so very interesting, given the irony of socio-religious change in our history. Whereas, in the period you discuss, the Baptists were the minority fighting for separation of church and state, and the Congregationalists were establishmentarians, today it is reversed, with the UCC and UU (formerly Congregationalists) and now minorities fighting the now majority evangelicals, many, if not most, of whom are Baptists for separation of church and state.

    1. Yes, this is why I wrote about Backus in "Fed Up with Fundamentalism."

      In the last 35 years many Baptist fundamentalists have largely rejected the principles of religious liberty and the separation of church and state that meant so much to, and was emphasized so much by, the early Baptists in this country.

  3. Religion is always a difficult subject. Just like politics. If I remember correctly, the original states could determine their own religion, but there could be no national religion. Hence we ended up with Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Congregational, Quaker (and later Mormon) states - some of which allowed for freedom of religion. But a national religion was never permitted. In fact, by the constitution, the national government was to stay completely out of religion/ church. Where I grew up, anti-government religions were not permitted within the state. Just a year ago a department of defense memo listed Catholics and evangelicals terrorists, based on declaration by the SPLC. (It was retracted, but the original instigating piece was not.)

    So what do we do with religions of "hate"? They are across the board, damning those who do not believe like them, with some adherents on those beliefs. I have been around them a few times, and did feel a bit worried.

    By the way, I like the concept of freedom of religion. I have Evangelical, Anabaptist, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox (amazing how the Christians have split), Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, Sunni, Sufi, Baha'i, Buddhist, as well as Reformed, Conservative, Neo-Orthodox, and Hasidic (amazing how the Jews have split) friends and acquaintances. In my book they are friends, and most have welcomed me into their religious settings. I much prefer friendships over religious nastiness.

  4. Religion is so hard to sort out and accept.

    But I appreciate the foundations laid out by Jesus Christ - Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. Love one another (a new commandment).

    Each of those seems to cause trouble with someone. And pointing fingers is a favorite sport in religion.

    This evening my wife and I are meeting with an agnostic lady who would like to become a Christian, but is especially concerned about the animus she sees in Christians toward "neighbor" and "one-another" across the board.

  5. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson shares these comments:

    "Thanks for highlighting Isaac Backus, Leroy. Baptists, especially Baptists in the South where they have become the religious majority, need to reflect seriously on his message today. I notice that the Mississippi legislature is considering a bill to declare Christianity the state religion. Baptists are by far the largest Christian group in Mississippi."

    1. Yes, I have been long distressed at how so many Baptists, especialy in the South where they are now the majority religion, have departed from the principle of the separation of church and state. That is part of the reason I wrote about Roger Williams and Isaac Backus in "Fed Up with Fundamentalism."

  6. I appreciated hearing from a Thinking Friend in Georgia, who has not commented often. She wrote,

    "Enjoyed reading and pondering Backus.

    "Indeed we stand on the shoulders of many saints who have walked before us!"

  7. A local thinking Friend writes,

    "Thank you, Leroy, for these tributes to two men of conviction that perceived the relationship between religion and state.

    "Their cause is universal, so it takes eternal vigilence to respond to any contemporary threats to the relationship."