Church and State, Blended: Isaac Backus’ “Appeal to the Public”
Backus details the ways in which early modern British statecraft merged church and state into the same invasive impediment to true salvation and happiness.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
For our second selection from the revolutionary Reverend Isaac Backus, our author turns from delineating between the proper sphere of government and the proper sphere of ecclesiastical activities to expose how the two have blended together in modern life. Over the two and a half centuries between the Reformation and the American Revolution, Backus and his learned compatriots observed, the British King and Parliament had steadily accumulated more and more raw wealth and power into the edifice of state. Few aspects of life escaped the absolutist monarch’s gaze, and recent English history demonstrated that wealthy parliamentarians were petty absolutists themselves. Truly liberty‐loving people could expect but little respect from the state, and because the state dominated the Anglican church from its inception, government rejoined much of the feudal power monopoly originally disrupted by the Reformation. When monarchs and aristocratic power brokers usurped ecclesiastical authority, they deprived “many of God’s people of that liberty of conscience which he has given them.”
In Backus’ context, the English government compelled colonists to fund the Anglican church and, by extension, practices many colonists found repugnant. Notably, Backus condemns compulsory support for “pedobaptist worship…although it is well known, that infant baptism is never express’d in the Bible, only is upheld by men’s reasonings.” Compulsory religious practices or the denial of equal rights on religious grounds distorted individual behavior and corrupted public morals. In colonies requiring test oaths of one kind or another, citizens lied in profession of their faith, they cheated their taxes, they became self‐aware scofflaws, and it encourages the majority to become the tyrannical arbiters of orthodoxy. The power‐seekers who would usurp ecclesiastical authority in the end create the very social evil of which they initially complained–“How far is this from leading a peaceable life, either of godliness or honesty!”
By Isaac Backus. 1773.
An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppressions of the Present Day
A brief view of how civil and ecclesiastical affairs are blended together among us, to the depriving of many of God’s people of that liberty of conscience which he has given them.
We are not insensible than an open‐appearance against any part of the conduct of men in power, is commonly attended with difficulty and danger; and could we have found any way wherein with clearness we could have avoided the present attempt, we would gladly have taken it. But our blessed Lord & only Redeemer, has commanded us, to stand fast in the liberty wherewith he has made us free; and things appear so to us at present that we cannot see how we can fully obey this command, without refusing any active compliance with some laws about religious affairs that are laid upon us. And as those who are interested against us, often accuse us of complaining unreasonably, we are brought under a necessity of laying open particular facts which otherwise we would gladly have concealed: and all must be sensible that there is a vast difference between exposing the faults, either of individuals or communities, when the cause of truth and equity would suffer without it, and the doing of it without any such occasion. We view it to be our incumbent duty, to render unto Caesar the things that are his, but that it is of as much importance not to render unto him any thing that belongs only to God, who is to be obeyed rather than man. And as it is evident to us, that God always claimed it as his sole prerogative to determine by his own laws, what his worship shall be, who shall minister in it, and how they shall be supported; so it is evident that this prerogative has been, and still is, encroached upon in our land. For,
1. Our legislature claim a power to compel every town and parish within their jurisdiction, to set up and maintain a pedobaptist worship among them; although it is well known, that infant baptism is never express’d in the Bible, only is upheld by men’s reasonings, that are chiefly drawn from Abraham’s covenant which the Holy Ghost calls, the covenant of circumcision, Acts 7. 8. And as circumcision was one of the hand‐writing of ordinances which Christ has blotted out, where did any state ever get any right to compel their subjects to set up a worship upon that covenant?
2. Our ascended Lord gives gifts unto men in a sovereign way as seems good unto him, and he requires every man, as he has received the gift, even so to minister the same; and he reproved his apostles when they forbid one who was improving his gift, because he followed not them. 1 Pet. 4. 10, 11. Luk. 9. 49. But the Massachusetts legislature, while they claim a power to compel each parish to settle a minister, have also determined that he must be one, who has either an accademical degree, or a testimonial in his favour from a majority of the ministers in the county where the parish lies. So that let Christ give a man ever so great gifts, yet hereby these ministers derive a noble power from the state, to forbid the improvement of the same, if he follows not their schemes. And if the apostles assumed too much in this respect to themselves, even when their Lord was with them, can it be any breach of charity to conclude that ministers are not out of danger of doing the like now? especially if we consider how interest operates in the affair. For,
3. Though the Lord hath ordained that they which preach the gospel shall live of the gospel; or by the free communications to them, which his gospel will produce. 1 Cor 9. 13, 14. Gal. 6. 6, 7. Yet the ministers of our land have chosen to live by the law; and as a reason therefor, one of their most noted writers, instead of producing any truth of God, recites the tradition of a man, who said, “Ministers of the gospel would have a poor time of it, if they must rely on a free contribution of the people for their maintenance.” And he says, “The laws of the province having had the royal approbation to ratify them, they are the king’s laws. By these laws it is enacted, that there shall be a public worship of God in every plantation; that the person elected by the majority of the inhabitants to be so, shall be looked upon as the minister of the place; that the salary for him, which they shall agree upon, shall be levied by a rate upon all the inhabitants. In consequence of this, the minister thus chosen by the people, is (not only Christ’s, but also) in reality, the king’s minister; and the salary raised for him, is raised in the king’s name, and is the king’s allowance unto him.”
Now who can hear Christ declare, that his kingdom is, not of this world, and yet believe that this blending of church and state together can be pleasing to him? For though their laws call them “orthodox ministers,” yet the grand test of their orthodoxy, is the major vote of the people, be they saints or sinners, believers or unbelievers. This appears plain in the foregoing quotation; and another of their learned writers lately says, “It is the congregation in it’s parocal congregational capacity that the law considers; and this as such does not enough partake of an ecclesiastical nature to be subject to ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Hence their ministers and churches must become subject to the court, and to the majority of the parish in order to have their salary raised in the king’s name: But how are either of them in the mean time subject to the authority of Christ in his church? How can any man reconcile such proceedings to the following commands of our Master which is in heaven? Mat. 23. 9, 10…
It is true [a] learned author…says, “If the most of the inhabitants in a plantation are episcopalians, they will have a minister of their own persuasion; and the dissenters, in the place, if there be any, must pay their proportion of the tax for the support of this legal minister.” But then his next words shew that they did not intend ever to have such a case here; for he says,
In a few of the towns, a few of the people, in hope of being released from the tax for the legal minister, sometimes profess themselves episcopalians. But when they plead this for their exemption, their neighbours tell them, They know in their conscience they do riot as they would be done unto. And if a governor go by his arbitrary power, to supersede the execution of the law, and require the justices and constables to leave the episcopalians out of the tax, they wonder he is not aware, that he is all this while, forbidding that the king should have his dues paid unto him; and forbidding the king’s ministers to receive what the king has given him.
How essentially and how greatly does this constitution differ from the institutions established in God’s word, both in their nature and effects?
1. In their nature. Here you find that every religious minister in that constitution, is called the king’s minister, because he is settled by direction of the king’s laws, and the tax for such a minister’s support is raised in the king’s name, and is called the king’s dues: whereas no man in the Jewish church might approach to minister at the holy altar, but such as were called of God, as was Aaron: and the means of their support, were such things as God required his people to offer and consecrate to Him; and when they withheld the same, he says, ye have robbed me, even this whole nation; and it is represented as his peculiar work to reward obedience, and to punish disobedience in such affairs. It is evident from sacred record that good men in every station, used their influence by word and example to stir up their fellow servants to do their duty toward God in these respects; and good rulers, in conjunction with church officers, took care to have what was offered to him secured and distributed according to God’s commandments. But what is there in all this that can give the least countenance to the late method, of mens making laws to determine who shall be Christ’s ministers, and to raise money for them in their own name!…
Even a heathen monarch, when he was moved to make a decree in favour of God’s minister’s and worship at Jerusalem, it was to restrain their enemies from injuring or interrupting of them, and to order that a portion of the king’s goods should be given unto the elders of the Jews for the building of the house of God, and for the burnt offerings of the God of heaven. Ezra 6. 6–9. Nothing appears of his levying any new tax for worship, only that he gave the articles there specified out of his own goods; yet some professed christians have imposed new taxes upon people on purpose to compel them to support their way of worship, and have blended in with other rates, and then called it all a civil tax. But as the act itself is deceitful so ’tis likely’ that the worship supported by such means is hypocrisy. For,
2. The effects of the constitution of our country are such, that as it makes the majority of the people the test of orthodoxy, so it emboldens them to usurp God’s judgment seat, and (according to Dr. Mather’s own account, which we have often seen verified) they daringly give out their sentence, that for a few to profess a persuasion different from the majority, it must be from bad motives; and that, they know in their conscience that they do not act by the universal law of equity, if they plead to be exempted from paying the money which the majority demand of them! And though in our charter the king grants to all protestants equal liberty of conscience: yet for above thirty years after it was received, the congregationalists made no laws to favour the consciences of any men, in this affair of taxes, but their own sect; and it is here called arbitrary power, and even a forbidding that the king should have his dues, if a governor shewed so much regard to the charter, as to oppose their extorting money from people of the king’s denomination, for their congregational ministers. And perhaps the learned author now referred to, never delivered a plainer truth, than when he said, “The reforming churches flying from Rome, carried some of them more, some of them less, all of them something of Rome with them, especially in that spirit of imposition and persecution which too much cleaved to them.”
These evils cleaved so close to the first fathers of the Massachusetts, as to move them to imprison, whip and banish men, only for denying infant baptism, and refusing to join in worship that was supported by violent methods: yet they were so much blinded as to declare, That there was this vast difference between these proceedings and the coercive measures which were taken against themselves in England, viz. We compel men to “God’s institutions”; they in England compelled to “mens inventions.” And they asserted that the baptists were guilty of “manifest contestations against the order and government of our churches, established (we know) by God’s law.” Though they professed at the same time that,
It is not lawful to censure any, no not for error in fundemental points of doctrine or worship, till the conscience of the offender, be first convinced (out of the word of God) of the dangerous error of his way, and then if he still persist, it is not out of conscience, but against his conscience (as the apostle saith, Tit. 3. 11.) and so he is not persecuted for cause of conscience, but punished for sinning against his conscience.
In reply to which Mr. Williams says,
The truth is, the carnal sword is commonly the judge of the conviction or obstinacy of all supposed hereticks…Every lawful magistrate, whether succeeding or elected, is not only the minister of God, but the minister or servant of the people also (what people or nation soever they be all the world over) and that minister or magistrate goes beyond his commission, who intermeddles with that which cannot be given him in commission from the people. If the civil magistrate must keep the church pure, then all the people of the cities, nations and kingdoms of the world must do the same much more, for primarily and fundementally they are the civil magistrate. Now the world saith John lieth in wickedness, and consequently according to it’s disposition endures not the light of Christ, nor his golden candlestick the true church, nor easily chooseth a true christian to be her officer or magistrate. The practising civil force upon the consciences of men, is so far from preserving religion pure, it is a mighty bulwark or barricado, to keep out all true religion, yea and all godly magistrates for ever coming into the world.
How weighty are these arguments against confounding church and state together? yet this author’s appearing against such confusion, was the chief cause for which he was banished out of the Massachusetts colony. And though few if any will now venture openly to justify those proceedings, and many will exclaim against them at a high rate; yet a fair examination may plainly shew, that those fathers had more appearance of a warrant for doing as they did, than their children now have, for the actings which we complain of. For those fathers were persuaded, that the judicial laws of Moses which required Israel to punish blasphemers, and apostates to idolatry with death, were of moral force, and binding upon all princes and states; especially on such as these plantations were…For the Jews also were required to pull down houses, and to have persons away out of their camps or cities, if the priests pronounced them unclean; and they were not permitted to set up any king over them who was not a brother in their church. Did not these things afford arguments much more plausible, for their attempt to compel the world to submit to the church, than any can have for the modern way, of trying to subject the church in her religious affairs to rulers, and the major vote of inhabitants, a great part of whom are not brethren in any church at all! Though the state of Israel was obliged thus to inflict death or banishment upon non‐conformers to their worship, yet we have not been able to find, that they were ever allowed to use any force to collect the priests or prophets maintenance. So far from it, that those who made any such attempts were sons of Beliel, and persons that abhorred judgment, and perverted all equity. Sam. 2. 12–16. Mic. 3. 5, 9.
Many try to vindicate their way by that promise, that kings shall become nursing fathers, and queens nursing mothers to God’s people. But as the character carries in it’s very nature, an impartial care and tenderness for all their children; we appeal to every conscience, whether it does not condemn the way of setting up one party to the injury of another. Our Lord tells us plainly, that few find the narrow way, while many go in the broad way; yet the scheme we complain of, has given the many such power over the few, that if the few are fully convinced that the teacher set up by the many, is one that causeth people to err, and is so far from bringing the pure gospel doctrine, that they should break the divine command, and become partakers of his evil deeds; if they did not cease to hear him, or to receive him into their houses as a gospel minister; yet only for refusing to put into such a minister’s mouth, the many are prepared with such instruments of war against them, as to seize their goods, or cast their bodies into prison, where they may starve and die, for all what that constitution has provided for them. In cases of common debts the law has provided several ways of relief, as it has not in the case before us; for here the assessors plead, that they are obliged to tax all according to law, and the collector has the same plea for gathering of it, and the minister says, I agreed with the society for such a sum, and it is not my business to release any. So that we have had instances of serious christians, who must have died in prison for ministers rates, if christianity and humanity had not moved people to provide them that relief, which neither those ministers nor the law that upholds them have done.
Another argument which these ministers often mention, is the apostolic direction to us, to pray for all that are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. But do they pray and act according to that direction? One while they cry up the great advantages of having religion established by law; and some have caused near as loud a clamour about it as the craftsmen did at Ephesus; but when it comes to be calmly represented, that, religion is a voluntary obedience unto God, which therefore force cannot promote; how soon do they shift the scene, and tell us, that religious liberty is fully allowed to us, only the state have in their wisdom thought fit to tax all the inhabitants, to support an order of men for the good of civil society. A little while ago it was for religion, and many have declared, that without it we should soon have no religion left among us: but now tis to maintain civility. Though by the way it is well known, that no men in the land, have done more to promote uncivil treatment of dissenters from themselves, than some of these pretended ministers of civility have done. In 1644 the court at Boston passed an act to punish men with banishment, if they opposed infant baptism; or departed from any of their congregations when it was going to be administered. And after they had acted upon this law, one of their chief magistrates observed, that such methods tended to make hypocrites. To which a noted minister replied, that if it did so, yet such were better than profane persons, because said he, “Hypocrites give God part of his due, the outward man, but the profane person giveth God neither outward nor inward man.” By which it seems that in that day, they were zealous to have the outward man if no more given to God; but now that conduct is condemned as persecution, by their children, who profess to allow us full liberty of conscience, because they do not hinder our giving our inward man to God, only claim a power to seize our outward man to get money for themselves. And though many of us have expended ten or twenty times as much, in setting up and supporting that worship which we believe to be right, as it would have cost us to have continued in the fashionable way, yet we are often accused of being coveteous, for dissenting from that way, and refusing to pay more money out of our little incomes, to uphold men from whom we receive no benefit, but rather abuse. How far is this from leading a peaceable life, either of godliness or honesty!