A Baptist’s Sufferings: Isaac Backus’ “Appeal to the Public”
Backus details the long history of Baptist sufferings in the American colonies, suggesting that only full disestablishment could protect minorities’ interests.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In the third of section of what became the most important sermon in his career, Isaac Backus endeavored to provide an account of Baptists’ sufferings under Anglican‐inspired corporatist government “and of their reasons for refusing any active compliance with it.” He begins by noting the relatively wide berth granted to American colonists to practice religion freely, yet he counters by inverting the assumption of a natural order in which the state allows subjects to practice what is in fact their sovereign right. Should those who currently exercise power be relegated to the minority position even in (substantially) libertarian America, they would “think it was high time to seek for more full liberty than we have hitherto enjoyed.”
As proof of his assertion, he relays a lengthy list of Baptists’ grievances against the “pedobaptist” Established (or Anglican) regime. The Anglican churches enjoyed legal support for their institutions, failed to protect minorities’ equal rights, taxed them against their will and contrary to law. Dissenters were harassed both legally and extra‐legally, and forced to disobey the demands of individual conscience. Far from a clique of Enlightenment‐era “mad men of Munster,” Backus and his fellow Patriot Baptists considered themselves the modern expositors of the first fundamental American principle: plain and simple religious liberty with no intermingling of civil and ecclesiastical authorities.
In 1773, when Backus delivered his sermon, such arguments served to undermine the monarch and Parliament’s legitimacy just as Anne Hutchinson’s antinomianism once threatened the Massachusetts Bay Divines’. Without direct support from British imperial institutions including the colonial charters, Anglican churches in the Americas might well board up and disappear from popular neglect. By the 1770s, most Americans either attended no church, only practiced Anglicanism officially, or joined Backus in one of the great many smaller denominations present in the colonies. It was the all‐time low point of American church attendance and perhaps the high point of rationalistic politics. As a result, an ever greater portion of the population hoped, with our author, to finally remove the artificial rights and privileges granted to the Anglican church. By removing the monopoly privileges that fused church and state, both institutions would be subject to true market tests in which each would succeed or fail according to how well they performed their respective, legitimate duties.
Isaac Backus. 1773.
An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppressions of the Present Day
A brief account of what the baptists have suffered under this constitution, and of their reasons for refusing any active compliance with it.
Many are ready to say, the baptists are exempted from ministerial taxes, therefore why do they complain? Answer, We would be far from forgetting or undervaluing of our privileges: but are willing thankfully to acknowledge, that our honored rulers do protect our societies, so as not to allow them to be interrupted in their worship; and as the taking cognizance of marriage belongs to them, we take it as a favour that they grant our ministers power to administer it, so that we may have marriage solemnized among ourselves. Many other liberties we also enjoy under the government that is set over us, for which we desire to be thankful, both to the author, and to the instruments of them. Yet if our opponents could once put themselves into our place, we doubt not but they would think it was high time, to seek for more full liberty than we have hitherto enjoyed, a short view of but a little part of what we have met with, may be sufficient to evince this.
Our charter, as before observed, gives us equal religious liberty with other christians: yet the pedobaptists being the greatest party, they soon made a perpetual law to support their own way, but did nothing of that nature to exempt our denomination from it, for 36 years; and since that time, what they have done in that respect has only been by temporary acts, which have been so often changed, that many times their own officers have hardly known what the law was, that was in force; and as an exact conformity to the letter of their laws is much insisted upon in their executive courts, while those acts have never been enforced with penalties upon their own people, they have often broken them, and we have had but little chance to get them punished for so doing. For in all their acts till the last, they have imposed a name upon us, that signifies re‐baptizers; which we cannot understandingly own. In many acts the words “belonging thereto” were inserted so ambiguously, as to leave it disputable, whether a being church members or only a belonging to the congregation or worshipping assembly were intended…All their latter acts have required a list or lists of our societies, to be given in annually, by a certain day, signed by three principal members, and the minister if there be any; and because one of our churches of above 50 members (and which is now a church in good credit) happened one year to have such a difficulty with their minister, as prevented the giving in of said list, they were taxed to pedobaptist ministers; and tho’ some of the society were advised to apply to their county court for relief, yet instead of obtaining any, the court took away 20 dollars more from them. Another church gave in their list by the direction of a noted lawyer, yet they were all taxed to the pedobaptist worship, and one of the principal members of the baptist church, which the law directed to sign the list, was strained upon; and both the inferior and superior court turned the case against him, because he was a party concerned.
Here note, the inhabitants of our mother‐country are not more of a party concerned, in imposing taxes upon us without our consent, than they have been in this land who have made and executed laws, to tax us to uphold their worship. This party influence has appeared in a much larger number of instances than we are willing to trouble the public with at this time…
Though we are often accused of complaining without reason, yet no longer ago than the 26th of last January, three men of good credit, belonging to a numerous and regular baptist society in Chelmsford, were seized for ministerial rates (notwithstanding they had given in a list according to law) and though one of them was above four score years old, another very infirm in body, while the third had no man at home, able to take care of the out‐door affairs of his numerous family, yet they, in that cold season, were all carried prisoners to Concord gaol.
…At the same time we are far from charging all the evils we complain of, upon the whole congregational denomination without distinction; for we believe there are many among them in various stations, who are sorely grieved at these oppressions. We are willing also to make all the allowance that is reasonable, for the influence of old customs, education and other prejudices, in those who have injured their neighbours in these affairs; but is it not high time now to awake, and seek for a more thorough reformation! We agree with the committee of our honored legislature in saying, there is an essential difference between persons being taxed where they are represented, and being taxed where they are not so; therefore the whole matter very much turns upon this point, viz. Whether our civil legislature are in truth our representatives in religious affairs, or not? As God has always claimed it as his prerogative, to appoint who shall be his ministers, and how they shall be supported, so under the gospel, the peoples communications to Christ’s ministers and members, are called sacrifices with which God is well‐pleased. Phil. 4. 18. Heb. 13, 16–18. And what government on earth ever had, or ever can have any power to make or execute any laws to appoint and enforce sacrifices to God!
In civil states the power of the whole collective body is vested in a few hands, that they may with better advantage defend themselves against injuries from abroad, and correct abuses at home, for which end a few have a right to judge for the whole society; but in religion each one has an equal right to judge for himself; for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done (not what any earthly representative hath done for him) 2 Cor. 5. 10. And we freely confess that we can find no more warrant from divine truth, for any people on earth to constitute any men their representatives, to make laws to impose religious taxes, than they have to appoint Peter or the Virgin Mary to represent them before the throne above. We are therefore brought to a stop about paying so much regard to such laws, as to give in annual certificates to the other denomination, as we have formerly done.
1. Because the very nature of such a practice implies an acknowledgment, that the civil power has a right to set one religious sect up above another, else why need we give certificates to them any more than they to us? It is a tacit allowance that they have a right to make laws about such things, which we believe in our consciences they have not. For,
2. By the foregoing address to our legislature, and their committees report thereon, it is evident, that they claim a right to tax us from civil obligation, as being the representatives of the people. But how came a civil community by any ecclesiastical power? how came the kingdoms of this world to have a right to govern in Christ’s kingdom which is not of this world!
3. That constitution not only emboldens people to judge the liberty of other mens consciences, and has carried them so far as to tell our general assembly, that they conceived it to be a duty they owed to God and their country, not to be dispensed with, to lay before them the springs of their neighbours actions; but it also requires something of the same nature from us. Their laws require us annually to certify to them, what our belief is concerning the conscience of every person that assembles with us, as the condition of their being exempted from taxes to other’s worship. And only because our brethren in Bellingham, left that clause about the conscience out of their certificates last year, a number of their society who live at Mendon were taxed, and lately suffered the spoiling of their goods to uphold pedobaptist worship.
4. The scheme we oppose evidently tends to destroy the purity and life of religion; for the inspired apostle assures us, that the church is espoused as a chaste virgin to Christ, and is obliged to be subject to him in every thing, as a true wife is to her husband. Now the most chaste domestic obedience, does not at all interfere with any lawful subjection to civil authority; but for a woman to admit the highest ruler in a nation into her husband’s place, would be adultery or whoredom; and how often are mens inventions about worship so called in the sacred oracles? And does it not greatly concern us all, earnestly to search out and put away such evils, as we would desire to escape the awful judgments that such wickedness has brought on other nations! Especially if we consider that not only the purity, but also the very life and being of religion among us is concerned therein; for ’tis evident that Christ has given as plain laws to determine what the duty of people is to his ministers, as he has the duty of ministers to his people; and most certainly he is as able to enforce the one as the other. The common plea of our opponents is, that people will not do their duty if rulers do not enforce it; but does not the whole book of God clearly shew, that ministers as often fail of doing their duty as the people do? And where is the care of rulers to punish ministers for their unfaithfulness? They often talk about equality in these affairs, but where does it appear! As Christ is the head of all principality and power; so the not holding the head, from which all the body by joints and hands having nourishment ministred, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God, but bringing in an earthly power between Christ and his people, has been the grand source of anti‐christian abominations, and of settling men down in a form of godliness, while they deny the power thereof Has not this earthly scheme prevailed so far in our land, as to cause many ministers, instead of taking heed to the ministry received from the Lord; and instead of watching for souls as those who must give an account, rather to act as if they were not accountable to any higher power, than that of the men who support them? and on the other hand, how do many people behave as if they were more afraid of the collector’s warrant, and of an earthly prison, than of Him who sends his ministers to preach his gospel, and says, He that receiveth whomsoever I send, receiveth me; but declares, That it shall he more tolerable in the day of judgment for Sodom, than for those who receive them not? Yea, as if they were more afraid of an earthly power than of our great King and Judge, who can this night require the soul of him that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God; and will sentence all either to heaven or hell, according as they have treated Him well or ill, in his ministers and members.
5. The custom which they want us to countenance, is very hurtful to civil society: for by the law of Christ every man, is not only allowed, but also required, to judge for himself, concerning the circumstantials as well as the essentials, of religion, and to act according to the full persuasion of his own mind; and he contracts guilt to his soul if he does the contrary. Rom. 14. 5, 23. What a temptation then does it lay for men to contract such guilt, when temporal advantages are annexed to one persuasion, and disadvantages laid upon another? i.e. in plain terms, how does it tend to hypocrisy and lying? than which, what can be worse to human society! Not only so, but coercive measures about religion also tend to provoke to emulation, wrath and contention, and who can describe all the mischiefs of this nature, that such measures have produced in our land! But where each person, and each society, are equally protected from being injured by others, all enjoying equal liberty, to attend and support the worship which they believe is right, having no more striving for mastery or superiority than little children (which we must all come to, or not enter into the kingdom of heaven) how happy are its effects in civil society? In the town of Boston they enjoy something of these blessings, and why may not the country have the same liberty? The ministers who have had the chief hand in stirring up rulers to treat us as they have done, yet have sometimes been forced to commend the liberty we plead for. When they wanted to get footing in the town of Providence, they wrote to governor Jencks and other rulers there, in the following words, viz.
How pleasing to almighty God and our glorious Redeemer, and how conducible to the public tranquility and safety, an hearty union and good affection of all pious protestants whatsoever particular denomination of account of some differences in opinion would be, by the divine blessing, yourselves as well as we, are not insensible: and with what peace and love societies of different modes of worship have generally entertained one another in your government, we cannot think of it without admiration: and we suppose under God, ’tis owing to the choice liberty granted to protestants of all perswasions in the royal charter graciously given you; and to the wise and prudent conduct of gentlemen that have been improved as governors & justices in your colony.
And after more of this nature, they close with saving.
We hope and pray, that ancient matters (that had acrimony unhappily in them) may be buried in oblivion; and that grace and peace and holiness and glory may dwell in every part of New‐England; and that the several provinces and colonies in it, may love one another with a pure heart fervently. We take leave to subscribe ourselves, your friends and servants,
Dated Oct. 27. 1721…
Committee of the Association.
The town of Providence wrote them an answer the next February, in which they say,
We take notice how you praise the love and peace that dissenters of all ranks entertain one another with in this government. We answer, this happiness principally consists in their not allowing societies any superiority one over another; but each society support their own ministry of their own free will, and not by constraint or force upon any man’s person or estate. But the contrary that takes any man’s estate by force to maintain their own or any other ministry, it serves for nothing but to provoke to wrath, envy and strife, and this wisdom cometh not from above, but is earthly, sensual and devilish. And since you wrote this letter, the constable of Attleborough has been taking away the estates of our dear friends, and pious dissenters to maintain their minister; the like hath been done in the town of Mendon. Is this the way of peace? Is this the fruit of your love? Why do you hug the iniquity of Eli’s sons, and walk in the steps of the false prophets, to bite with the teeth, and cry peace; but no longer than men put into your mouths than you prepare war against them. Since you admire our love and peace, we pray you to use the same methods, and write after our copy and for the future never let us hear of your pillaging conscientious dissenters to maintain your ministers. You desire that all former injury done by you to us may be buried in oblivion. We say, far be it from us to revenge ourselves; or to deal to you as you have dealt to us, but rather say, Father forgive them, they know not what they do. But if you mean that we should not speak of former actions, done hurtfully to any man’s person, we say, God never called for that, nor suffered it to be hid, as witness Cain, Joab and Judas, are kept on record to deter other men from doing the like.
Here the public may take notice, how desirous pedobaptists ministers are to have odious things on their side buried out of sight, but how contrary has their practice ever been toward us? Even to this day they can hardly preach a sermon, or write a pamphlet for infant‐baptism, without having something to say about the mad men of Munster, who they tell us rebelled against their civil rulers: Whereas in truth we never had the least concern with them, any more than our opponents have with the pope or Turk. Indeed they often assert, that those mad men were the first that ever renounced infant‐baptism; but there is proof enough from their own historians, that this story which they have so often told from their pulpits, is as absolute a falshood as ever was uttered by man. And though one learned and pious president of Cambridge college, was brought to embrace our sentiments, and to bear his testimony in the pulpit there, “against the administration of baptism to any infant whatsoever”; for which he suffered considerable abuse with much of a christian temper: While his successor, another “very learned and godly man” (who therefore must have been well acquainted with the original), held that “baptism ought only to be by dipping or plunging the whole body under water[“]: yet these and other honorable examples in our favor have been passed over, and every scandalous thing that could he pick’d up, has been spread, to prejudice people’s minds against our profession in general. And let it be remembred, that when pedobaptist ministers wanted to be favored in Providence, they declared, that they could not think of the peace and love which societies of different modes of worship have generally entertained one another with in that government without admiration; and they experienced so much of this from the baptists in Providence, that when some others made a difficulty about admitting Mr. Josiah Cotton (the first minister of the pedobaptists there) as an inhabitant in the town, Col. Nicholas Powers (a leading member of the baptist church) became his bondsman to the town: therefore we hope that our honorable rulers and others, will be cautious about giving credit to stories of a contrary nature, when they are told to procure or to justify the use of force in supporting ministers; especially since ministers refuse to share in the reproach of such proceedings. For a minister who has exerted himself very much of late, to support the cause of those called standing churches, yet says,
It is wholly out of rule, and quite injurious, to charge the churches or their ministers with sending men to gaol for rates, for these proceedings are evidently the acts of the civil state, done for it’s own utility. The doings of the civil authority, and of that alone.
Where are the rulers that will stand alone in that practice, without either ministers or truth to support them!