Voices

Freedom's champion

Isaac Backus knew where state-supported churches led

Issue: "Home again," July 12, 2008

In 1739 Chileab Smith, having been converted in the Great Awakening, moved to Ashfield, Conn. There being no church in the new town, he decided to exercise his spiritual gifts and start one. Eventually he and other Baptists set out to build a meetinghouse, with his son Ebenezer as pastor.

The nonresidential proprietors of the bulk of the property in Ashfield were alarmed. Good Congregational folk considered the Baptists low-life-and the more numerous the dunkers got, the higher the taxes would be for the rest of the townspeople. (There goes the land speculation!) This is because the state supported the Standing [Congregationalist] Church of New England and its ministers through taxation, and that tax base tended to shrink uncomfortably when Baptist, Quaker, or Anglican "dissenters" availed themselves of their 1728 right to file official exemptions.

The courts denied Ebenezer's claim for civil tax exemption-his wasn't a real church since he lacked a college degree. Meanwhile, the landowners scared up a Yale grad as pastor and packed the town with Congregationalists. Now they could lay town-wide taxes for the support of their own church, which Smith and his brethren, having no official congregation of their own, were forced to pay. Saddled with this onerous levy, the Baptists lacked the cash to erect their own meetinghouse.

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Things would get worse. In 1753, a cynical law designed to exclude Great Awakening-Baptist types from tax exemption insisted they acquire "certificates" from Old Baptists, which the latter were not inclined to give them.

This kind of thing drove Isaac Backus to distraction-distracted enough to pen 37 lengthy tracts and 9,828 sermons, and to log 918 journeys on horseback, totaling 67,600 miles, from 1747 to 1806. Born in 1724 into the established church, he hadn't minded intolerance of non-Congregationalists until, converted in the Awakening himself, he parted with his own dead congregation and suddenly found himself looking at life from the outside in.

The story of Isaac Backus, which gallops along parallel to-but ever in the shadows of-that of Jefferson and Adams, is a different kind of freedom fight. Nobody in New England at the time except Backus and a few other non-conformist "New Light" Baptists thought that the free exercise of religion necessitated the unblending of civil and ecclesiastical affairs. Backus' Jan. 10, 1774, letter to Samuel Adams pleading the logical connection between the struggle against Parliament over "taxation without representation" and that of persecuted American religious minorities produced no sympathy for church-state separation from the religiously conservative political activist.

Here's a radical question that probably didn't come up on our recent Fourth of July picnics: What is the big story of 18th-century America? (Which is to say, what was God up to?) Is it the birthing of a political entity through what we customarily call the American Revolution-or may it be a movement eclipsed in our history books by that star-spangled fanfare?

Thomas Jefferson merely wanted civil freedom. Backus wanted freedom for something-the advance of the kingdom of God. Jefferson's passion was to protect man's rights; Backus', to protect Christians' rights. He desired a land where the individual congregation-not the state- decided who was qualified to be a pastor, and then got to pick him and pay him.

The irony is exquisite: Backus (not Jefferson) is the man who loves the Lord and wants a Christian nation. But Backus (not Jefferson) is also the one who wants civil government out of the business of enforcing Christianity; he has seen where that Puritan road leads. Jefferson fears the priests; Backus fears the state. It would be decades before our patriotic heroes stopped assuming that a state-supported parish system was necessary for preserving social stability.

What fools men be to think the Church of God was created to carry water for their utopias. The spectacle reminds me of the scene where Joshua, decked out in revolutionary fervor, encounters a mysterious figure and demands, "Are you for us, or for our adversaries?" The angel, with drawn sword, puts him in his place: "No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord" (Joshua 5:13-14). It isn't about man advancing his kingdom. It's about the Lord of Hosts advancing His Kingdom-and using men's dreams of republic to do it.

If you have a question or comment for Andrée Seu, send it to aseu@worldmag.com.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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