Sunday, October 9, 2016

An Appeal to Heaven – Baptist Isaac Backus' Struggle for Religious Liberty in the Revolutionary Era

Converting to Christianity in 1741 as an effect of the Great Awakening, Isaac Backus became a separatist Baptist Congregationalist and head of the Warren Association of Baptists who championed religious freedom in America. Through the work of his piestic writings and petitions to Congress and State legislatures, the Massachusetts Baptist pastor vied for the separation of church and state in order to ensure and protect individual liberty of consciousness.

An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty (1773) poses as one of Backus’ most renowned works that details legal, Biblical, and Enlightenment rationale to support his position which stresses the importance of true liberty, the role of the government, and the differences between civil and ecclesial structures. Backus clearly defines the distinction between each government type, stating that "all acts of executive power in the civil state, are to be performed in the name of the king or state they belong to; while all our religious acts are to be done in the name of the Lord Jesus." He goes onto say that due to the nature of civically elected systems, “putting any men into civil office is of men, of the people of the world; so officers have truly no more authority than the people give them."[1] Justification for the Patriots’ separation from the mother-country fell along these lines, with Colonies abject to Britain’s refusal to acknowledge their rights as Englishmen or fairly represent the interests and concerns of citizens.

Similarly, having endured decades of religious persecution due to the arrangement of state-sponsored churches, Backus and other religious dissenters saw hypocrisy in how Revolutionaries decried civil subjugation while spiritually subjugating their fellow compatriots who theologically differed from the traditional Congregational and Anglican Church structure which dominated Colonial religious life.

Backus’ Appeal to the Public illustrates that “while his thoughts were similar to John Locke, he maintained a distinctly pietistic interpretation of man's natural obedience to God. [The two ordained systems of government held] purposes and natures [which] were distinctly different and should never be linked together.”[2] He relied upon Biblical narratives and the sovereign examples of David and Solomon to reveal that God erected covenants with nations and that the creation of laws ensured the protection of liberty. However, Backus appealed to notions of God’s ordained order, the distinctive nature of man’s depravity, and how though the Revolutionary Era’s mindset adhered to the idea that civil liberty ought not to be denied, he proposed that religious liberty shared the same fundamental importance.

Patriotic cries against a neglectful sovereign were validated however, when the “same cry was raised by Backus and the Baptists in protest against religious taxes imposed by civil government, it was perceived as an unnecessarily divisive ploy by fanatical rabble-rousers.”[3] Due to their association with other groups desiring religious freedom, such as pacifistic Quakers, Baptists were viewed as non-patriotic and their petitions, letters, and public addressment of religious concerns were largely ignored. However, Backus managed to utilize the “rhetorical strategies of the more elite New England revolutionaries in support of the minority opinion that their right of conscience, like the patriots' rights with Great Britain, had been unjustly denied.”[4] Through the War for Independence, Backus preached to the Continental Army, met with Congressional members, and traveled about the colonies sermonizing the importance of religious autonomy. He consistently readdressed the Baptist “position in relation to the colonial bid for freedom emphasizing that religious taxation without representation was just as unjust as civil taxation without representation.”[5]

Historian Thomas Kidd eloquently specifies how the “evangelical tradition supplied spiritual propulsion to the Patriot cause that was unsurpassed by any other element of Patriot ideology"[6] Though differing doctrinally, these “individuals of such varied theological strands [agreed] that religion had political implications.Communal convictions and adherence to republicanism strengthened both the religious and irreligious alike as a core principle acknowledged was that the “disestablishment of state churches was the best means to promote religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. Following the war, evangelicals and rationalists often joined politically in agreement on the public role of religion and that the government had no business legislating religion.”[7] Dissenters amicably account that the “war in Virginia was not only a war against British rule but also a war against religious establishment. Religious liberty was not the result of republicanization, but republicanization was the result of the concerted efforts by dissenters to gain religious freedom from the establishment in exchange for mobilization against the British.[8] Furthermore, the advance of religious liberty in America is revealed to be “not inevitable, nor was it the natural outcome of the American victory in the Revolution. It had to be won, not from Britain per se, but from the established church which was at war with the British. Thus, religious liberty was won through petitions and negotiations more than on the battlefields of the Revolution.”[9] Despite theological disputes, Backus supported the Revolution, and by relying on Biblical and civil arguments vindicating the rights of man, he became known as the “most forceful and effective writer America produced on behalf of the pietistic or evangelical theory of separation of church and state."[10]

Ultimately, political change ushered in a reconfiguration of state and church structure in America. As new state constitutions were designed and adopted, a more inclusive awareness emerged towards dissenters as sects, such as the Baptists, were gradually accepted into the fold of mainstream Protestantism. The voluntary service of dissenters during the Revolution additionally aided their plight, as the conscientious objectors to imposed theocracy had proven themselves loyal to the new republic through blood and Christian fervor. The hold of Anglican and Congregational churches slowly began to weaken, yet it was not until the mid-19th century that the final ties between church and state were officially severed.[11]

[1] Isaac Backus, “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty,” 1973.
[2] Sewell Jr. and Edward H. “Isaac Backus’ Plea for Religious Freedom, 1770-1776.” Today's Speech 23, no. 2 (1975): 39-47.
[3] Ibid., 45-6.
[4] Ibid,.
[5] Sewell Jr. and Edward H. “Isaac Backus’ Plea for Religious Freedom,” 44.
[6] Thomas S. Kidd, God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (2010): 94.
[7] Matthew Hill, “God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution.” Fides Et Historia 43, no. 1 (2011): 93-4.
[8] John A. Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty, 2010.
[9] John D. Wilsey, “Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty.” Fides Et Historia 45, no. 1 (2013): 156-7.
[10] William G. McLoughlin, “Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism: Pamphlets, 1754-1789,” (1968): 1.
[11] Sewell Jr. and Edward H. “Isaac Backus’ Plea for Religious Freedom,” 45.

Image - Isaac Backus, Government and Liberty Described and Ecclesiastical Tyranny Exposed, 1788.

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