The Antinomian Origins of the American Tax Rebellion: Backus’ “Appeal to the Public”
In his conclusion, Backus links his own generation’s “new light” theological revival of antinomianism with the struggle against “taxation without representation.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In his concluding remarks, Isaac Backus asks his audience to reconsider a time‐honored Biblical (and American) principle that “those that fear the Deity most, are least afraid of man.” Though his conclusion is a concise denunciation of taxation without representation, he emphasizes those duties which required colonists to violate their consciences. In a brief allusion to the colonies’ founding legends, Backus recalls the Baptist Church’s history, including over a century of battles against both an arbitrary British Parliament and its arbitrary, chartered creatures in the New World. As the British state claimed more power over colonial religious life, the proper boundaries between the kingdoms of men and the Kingdom of God blurred. The connection marred subjects’ abilities to maintain genuine, individual spiritual relationships with God. Just as Anne Hutchinson’s antinomians charged Massachusetts Bay Puritans with enforcing a (Catholic) Covenant of Works while they supposedly preached a (Calvinist) Covenant of Grace, Backus urged his audience to ignore or resist the principle of taxation without representation or moral consent. Backus’s religiously inspired ideas about political liberty had the potential for every bit of radicalism in Hutchinson’s antinomianism, but the historical contexts of 1773 and 1637 were very different. Hutchinson’s message that we may ignore any and all man‐made laws or moral rules survived on the fringes of life in the Atlantic world from the 1630s to the early 18th century, but in New England Puritanism ruled and elsewhere established Anglican churches predominated.
During the First Great Awakening, a generation of “new lights” revived both the antinomian tradition and the Puritan’s millennial vision in which New England played the role of New Israel. During the 1740s and 1750s, wave after wave of immigrants from minority denominations and a slew of different countries diluted colonists’ attachments to established churches of all kinds. Conflicts with the British government provided leadership opportunities for aging original “new lights” like Backus. By the 1770s, those literally raised on popular religion demanded at least a more popular government. As the anti‐tax movement transformed into a war for national independence, Anglican clergymen fled the colonies and Patriots destroyed or seized church property. Anglicanism virtually disappeared very early in the war, quickly replaced by a further proliferation of minority denominations. As the ex‐colonies established new constitutions of government, the vast majority of them adopted religious liberty and severed any links between church and state. By the ratification debates over the Constitution, elderly “new lights” like Backus considered themselves highly successful, having finally and completely institutionalized Roger Williams’ principles of religious toleration and liberty. What Backus and his Federalist contemporaries failed to realize, however, was Hutchinson’s insight that all man‐made laws violate the Covenant of Grace and no improvements in the operations of government make it any less a fallen, corrupt, worldly, and fundamentally loathsome institution. In the centuries since ratification, the Constitution has become our great Religious Text, the Founders our great Prophets, and temples to Statism litter the landscape. Backus’s generation ultimately failed to recover the anti‐institutionalism inherent in antinomianism, and we have been both spiritually and materially poorer for it ever since.
By Isaac Backus. 1773.
An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppressions of the Present Day
And now our dear countrymen, we beseech you seriously to consider of these things. The great importance of a general union through this country, in order to the preservation of our liberties, has often been pleaded for with propriety; but how can such a union be expected so long as that dearest of all rights, equal liberty of conscience is not allowed? Yea, how can any reasonably expect that he who has the hearts of kings in his hand, will turn the heart of our earthly sovereign to hear the pleas for liberty, of those who will not hear the cries of their fellow‐subjects, under their oppressions? Has it not been plainly proved, that so far as any man gratifies his own inclinations, without regard to the universal law of equity, so far he is in bondage? so that it is impossible for any one to tyranize over others, without thereby becoming a miserable slave himself: a slave to raging lusts, and a slave to guilty fears of what will be the consequence. We are told that the father of Cyrus, tho’ a heathen,
Had often taught him to consider, that the prudence of men is very short, and their views very limited; that they cannot penetrate into futurity; and that many times what they think must needs turn to their advantage proves their ruin; whereas the gods being eternal, know all things, future as well as past, and inspire those that love them to undertake what is most expedient for them; which is a favor and protection they owe to no man, and grant only to those that invoke and consult them.
And we are told by the same author, of another wise heathen, who said, “ ‘Tis observable, that those that fear the Deity most, are least afraid of man.” And shall not christians awake to a most hearty reverence of him who has said (and will ever make good his word), With what measure ye meet, it shall be measured to you again.
Suffer us a little to expostulate with our fathers and brethren, who inhabit the land to which our ancestors fled for religious liberty. You have lately been accused with being disorderly and rebellious, by men in power, who profess a great regard for order and the public good; and why don’t you believe them, and rest easy under their administrations? You tell us you cannot, because you are taxed where you are not represented; and is it not really so with us? You do not deny the right of the British parliament to impose taxes within her own realm; only complain that she extends her taxing power beyond her proper limits; and have we not as good right to say you do the same thing? and so that wherein you judge others you condemn your selves? Can three thousand miles possibly fix such limits to taxing power, as the difference between civil and sacred matters has already done? One is only a distance of space, the other is so great a difference in the nature of things, as there is between sacrifices to God, and the ordinances of men. This we trust has been fully proved.
If we ask why have you not been easy and thankful since the parliament has taken off so many of the taxes that they had laid upon us? you answer that they still claim a power to tax us, when, and as much as they please; and is not that the very difficulty before us? In the year 1747, our legislature passed an act to free the baptists in general from ministerial taxes for ten years: yet because they increased considerably, when that time was about half expired, they broke in upon the liberty they had granted, and made a new act, wherein no baptist church nor minister was allowed to have any such exemption, till they had first obtained certificates from three other churches. By which the late Mr. John Procter observed (in a remonstrance that he drew, and which was presented to our court) that they had as far as in them lay,
disfranchised, unchurched and usurped an illegal power over all the religious societies of the people in said act called anabaptists throughout this province:–For where is it possible for the poor anabaptists to find the first three authenticated ministers and churches to authenticate the first three!
So we have now related a case, in which a number of our brethren were put to new cost for copies to notify others, with hope of relief to themselves, and yet in the same session of court, they had a worse burden laid upon them than before; and their repeated cries, and then the petition of our united churches, were all rejected.
A very great grievance which our country has justly complained of is, that by some late proceedings a man’s house or locks cannot secure either his person or his property, from oppressive officers. Pray then consider what our brethren have suffered at Ashfleld.
Many think it hard to be frowned upon only for pleading for their rights, and laying open particular acts of encroachment thereon; but what frowns have we met with for no other crime? and as the present contest between Great‐Britain and America, is not so much about the greatness of the taxes already laid, as about a submission to their taxing power; so (though what we have already suffered is far from being a trifle, yet) our greatest difficulty at present concerns the submitting to a taxing power in ecclesiastical affairs. It is supposed by many that we are exempted from such taxes, but they are greatly mistaken, for all know that paper is a money article; and writing upon it is labour, and this tax we must pay every year, as a token of submission to their power, or else they will lay a heavier tax upon us. And we have one difficulty in submitting to this power, which our countrymen have not in the other case: that is, our case affects the conscience, as their’s does not: and equal liberty of conscience is one essential article in our charter, which constitutes this government, and describes the extent of our rulers authority, and what are the rights and liberties of the people. And in the confession of faith which our rulers and their ministers have published to the world, they say,
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing contrary to his word; or not contained in it; so that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also.
And a most famous historian of their’s, after mentioning some former violations of that liberty, says,
The great noise that hath been made in the world about the persecution made in New‐England, I will now stop with only transcribing the words uttered in the sermon to the first great and general assembly of the Massachusetts‐Bay, after the two colonies of Massachusetts and Plymouth were by royal charter united. (from 2 Chron. 12. 12.)
Things will go well, when magistrates are great promoters of the thing that good is, and what the Lord requireth of them. I do not mean that it would be well for the civil magistrate, with civil penalty to compel men to this or that way of worship, which they are conscientiously indisposed unto. He is most properly the officer of human society, and a christian by non‐conformity to this or that imposed way of worship, does not break the terms on which he is to enjoy the benefits of human society. A man has a right unto his life, his estate, his liberty, and his family, although he should not come up unto these and those blessed institutions of our Lord. Violences may bring the erroneous to be hypocrites, but they will never bring them to be believers; no, they naturally prejudice men’s minds against the cause, which is therein pretended for, as being a weak, a wrong, an evil cause.
These things were then delivered and were received with the thanks of the house of representatives, and ten years after were spread by the historian thro’ the nation, with the express design of stoping any further complaints about New-England’s persecutions. But if the constitution of this government, gives the magistrate no other authority than what belongs to civil society, we desire to know how he ever came to impose any particular way of worship, upon any town or precinct whatsoever? And if a man has a right to his estate, his liberty and his family, notwithstanding his non‐conformity to the magistrates way of worship, by what authority has any man had his goods spoiled, his land sold, or his person imprisoned, and thereby deprived of the enjoyment both of his liberty and his family, for no crime at all against the peace or welfare of the state, but only because he refused to conform to, or to support an imposed way of worship, or an imposed minister.
In a celebrated oration for liberty, published last spring in Boston, a maxim was recited which carries it’s own evidence with it, which is this, no man can give that which is another’s. Yet have not our legislature from time to time, made acts to empower the major part of the inhabitants in towns and precincts, to give away their neighbours estates to what ministers they please! And can we submit to such doctrines and commandments of men, and not betray true liberty of conscience! Every person is or ought to be, benefited by civil government, and therefore they owe rulers honor and a tribute on that account; but the like cannot be truly said of an imposed minister; for as the gospel ministry is an ordinance of God and not of man, so the obligation that any person or people are under to obey and support any man as a minister of Christ, arises from the consideration of his appearing to them to resemble his Master in doctrine and conversation, and from the benefit which people receive under their ministrations. From whence the law of equity makes the free communications of our carnal things to Christ’s ministers, to be a matter that as really concerns the exercise of a good conscience toward God, as prayer and praise do; for they are both called sacrifices to him in the same chapter. Heb. 13. 15, 16.
Thus we have laid before the public a brief view of our sentiments concerning liberty of conscience, and a little sketch of our sufferings on that account. If any can show us that we have made any mistakes, either about principles or facts, we would lie open to conviction: But we hope none will violate the forecited article of faith so much, as to require us to yield a blind obedience to them, or to expect that spoiling of goods or imprisonment can move us to betray the cause of true liberty.
A late writer in the Boston papers, has taken much pains to prove, that some other colonies have imposed upon people in such affairs worse than New‐England has; and to prove it he informs us, that an act for ministers maintenance, was passed in New‐York near eighty years ago, which succeeding rulers have turned to support a denomination that had very few representatives in court when the act was made, while the denomination who made it, have been denied any benefit from it. If so, how loud is the call to every man that is a friend to liberty, and who regards the, good of posterity, to rise and exert all his influence, to demolish the engine which has done so much mischief in all ages! We are far from trying to represent the fathers of New‐England as the worst of the colonists; We believe the contrary. But our veneration for their memory, is so far from reconciling us to, that it fills us with greater detestation of, that mystery of iniquity, which carried them into such acts or imposition and persecution as have left a great blemish upon their character. And since these are tedious things to dwell upon, we shall close with this remark.
The Massachusetts ministers, in their letter to governor Jencks and other baptists in Providence, said, We hope and pray that ancient matters that had acrimony unhappily in them may be buried in oblivion. Now we are told that acrimony signifies that quality in one body whereby it corrodes, eats up or destroys another, This eating destroying quality is truly unhappy: but how can it be buried before it is dead? The worst of criminals are to be executed before they are buried. Therefore let this cruel man‐eater be fairly executed, and we are ready to join heart and hand to bury him, and not to have a bone of him left for contention in all the land. If it be so hard to our opponents to hear of these matters, what has it been to those who have felt their eating and destroying influence for these hundred and forty years? And how can any person lift up his head before God or man, and say he hopes to have these things buried, if he at the same time holds fast, and tries hard to keep alive the procuring cause of them!
The foregoing appeal, having been examined and approved by many of his brethren, is presented to the public, by their humble servant,
This essay is available in Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730–1805, Volume I, Ellis Sandoz (ed.), Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991 and can be found here.