Government is Not Sovereign Over the Soul: Isaac Backus’ “Appeal to the Public”
Backus begins the most famous sermon of his life with the argument that no government may justifiably intervene in ecclesiastical life.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Isaac Backus first became a preacher in 1746. Born in Yantic, Connecticut twenty‐two years earlier, Backus came of age during the most turbulent years of colonial America’s “Great Awakening.” As a young man, Backus studied Johnathan Edwards’ and George Whitefields’ itinerant preaching and the attendant great revivals. Originally a Congregationalist in the Puritanical Separatists’ tradition, Backus joined the Baptists in 1751 and oversaw his own congregation in Massachusetts for several decades. From his relatively privileged and comfortable position in colonial life, Backus contributed to American civil and political society alike. He was one of the founders of what became Brown University and he remained one of the most important Patriot preachers in the country from the early 1770s to his 1788 vote to ratify the United States Constitution.
In 1773, Backus published his most important sermon, “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppressions of the Present Day,” which we will present in four parts. Backus’ speech comments on a rather neglected set of colonial disputes with their metropolitan overlords across the ocean. He begins by asserting that it is indeed necessary that British Americans remind themselves of the connections between true religion and libertarian governance. Individuals could only attain a true, pure, and honest relationship with God if they remained uncorrupted by the pursuit of worldly power. Because government is the ultimate concentration of physical or worldly power, the state was especially prone to corruption. The state’s poisonous moral influence defiled those either involved in its administration or stuck under its massive thumb. Like Satan tempting Eve, the state provoked people to separate themselves from a more godly way of life–to embrace greed, mastery, pride, and ostentation. Yet, Backus maintains that governance among men is necessary. To show how we may govern ourselves without falling prey to the state’s corrupting influence, Backus distinguishes between civil and ecclesiastical government.
Ecclesiastical government is based on the revealed word of God, and not some earthly hierarchy of powerful, wealthy, mighty individuals. Earthly governments derived their authority from the scriptural command that we form and obey civil governments. These institutions, though, established and operated by fallible humans, could not properly intrude on the realm of ecclesiastical authority. For Backus, the ecclesiastical authority “is armed with light and truth, to pull down the strong holds of iniquity, and to gain souls to Christ, and into his church, to be governed by his rules therein; and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed.” The missionary should fight evil with revealed truth, peace, and good will. The state, however, “is armed with the sword to guard the peace, and the civil rights of all persons and societies, and to punish those who violate the same.” Backus argued that these two powers must remain entirely distinct for human beings to maintain both peaceful and productive societies and individual relationships with God. Any blending of the two governmental systems, and the corrupt but powerful state would surely crush the Church’s meek autonomy. Just as Satan promised Eve great utilitarian rewards for breaking God’s rules, the State offered Christians an appealing way to sculpt their ideal society without having to do the serious missionary work. The compromise, as it happens, appealed very much to the haughty Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, who prided themselves on being the New Israelites taming a New Canaan. As our current selection concludes, “they strove very hard to have the church govern the world, till they lost their charter; since which, they have yielded to have the world govern the church.” The loss was significant, and Backus’ generation of Awakened Americans were determined to correct past mistakes.
By Isaac Backus. 1773.
An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppressions of the Present Day
Brethren, ye have been called Unto Liberty; only use not Liberty for an occasion to the Flesh, but by love serve one another.
–GAL. V. 13.
Inasmuch as there appears to us a real need of such an appeal, we would previously offer a few thoughts concerning the general nature of liberty and government, and then shew wherein it appears to us, that our religious rights are encroached upon in this land.
It is supposed by multitudes, that in submitting to government we give up some part of our liberty, because they imagine that there is something in their nature incompatible with each other. But the word of truth plainly shews, that man first lost his freedom by breaking over the rules of government; and that those who now speak great swelling words about liberty, while they despise government, are themselves servants of corruption. What a dangerous error, yea, what a root of all evil then must it be, for men to imagine that there is any thing in the nature of true government that interferes with true and full liberty! A grand cause of this evil is, ignorance of what we are, and where we are; for did we view things in their true light, it would appear to be as absurd and dangerous, for us to aspire after any thing beyond our capacity, or out of the rule of our duty, as it would for the frog to swell till he bursts himself in trying to get as big as the ox, or for a beast or fowl to dive into the fishes element till they drown themselves. Godliness with contentment is great gain: But they that will take a contrary course fall into temptation, and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. 1 Tim. 6. 6, 9.
The true liberty of man is, to know, obey and enjoy his Creator, and to do all the good unto, and enjoy all the happiness with and in his fellow‐creatures that he is capable of; in order to which the law of love was written in his heart, which carries in it’s nature union and benevolence to being in general, and to each being in particular, according to it’s nature and excellency, and to it’s relation and connexion to and with the supreme Being, and ourselves. Each rational soul, as he is a part of the whole system of rational beings, so it was and is, both his duty and his liberty to regard the good of the whole in all his actions. To love ourselves, and truly to seek our own welfare, is both our liberty and our indispensible duty; but the conceit that man could advance either his honor or happiness, by disobedience instead of obedience, was first injected by the father of lies, and all such conceits ever since are as false as he is.
Before man imagined that submission to government, and acting strictly by rule was confinement, and that breaking over those bounds would enlarge his knowledge and happiness, how clear were his ideas! (even so as to give proper names to every creature) and how great was his honor and pleasure! But no sooner did he transgress, than instead of enjoying the boldness of innocency, and the liberties of paradise, he sneaks away to hide himself; and instead of clear and just ideas, he adopted that master of all absurdities (which his children follow to this day) of thinking to hide from omniciency, and of trying to deceive him who knows every thing! Instead of good and happiness, he felt evil, guilt and misery; and in the room of concord was wrangling, both against his Creator and his fellow‐creature, even so that she who was before loved as his own flesh, he now accuses to the great Judge. By which it appears, that the notion of man’s gaining any dignity or liberty by refusing an intire submission to government, was so delusive, that instead of it’s advancing him to be as gods, it sunk him down into a way of acting like the beasts and like the devil! the beasts are actuated by their senses and inclinations, and the devil pursues his designs by deceit and violence. With malicious reflections upon God, and flattering pretences to man, he drew him down to gratify his eyes and his taste with forbidden fruit: and he had no sooner revolted from the authority of heaven, than the beauty and order of his family was broken; he turns accuser against the wife of his bosom, his first son murders the next, and then lies to his Maker to conceal it; and that lying murderer’s posterity were the first who broke over the order of marriage which God had instituted; and things proceeded from bad to worse, till all flesh had corrupted his way, and the earth was filled with violence, so that they could no longer be borne with, but by a just vengeance were all swept away, only one family.
Yet all this did not remove the dreadful distemper from man’s nature, for the great Ruler of the universe directly after the flood, gave this as one reason why he would not bring such another while the earth remains, namely, For the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, so that if he was to drown them as often as they deserved it, one deluge must follow another continually. Observe well where the distemper lies; evil imaginations have usurped the place of reason and a well informed judgment, and hold them in such bondage, that instead of being governed by those noble faculties, they are put to the horrid drugery of seeking out inventions, for the gratification of fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; and to guard against having these worst of all enemies detected and subdued; enemies which are so far from being God’s creatures, that strictly speaking, they have no being at all in themselves, only are the privation of his creatures well‐being; therefore sin, with it’s offspring death, will, as to those who are saved, be swallowed up in victory. Sin is an enemy both to God and man, which was begotten by satan, and was conceived and brought forth by man; for lust when it is conceived bringeth forth sin, and sin when it is finished bringeth forth death.
Now how often have we been told, that he is not a freeman but a slave, whose person and goods are not at his own but anothers disposal? And to have foreigners come and riot at our expence and in the fruit of our labours, has often been represented to be worse than death. And should the higher powers appear to deal with temporal oppressors according to their deserts, it would seem strange indeed, if those who have suffered intolerably by them, should employ all their art and power to conceal them, and so to prevent their being brought to justice! But how is our world filled with such madness concerning spiritual tyrants! How far have pride and infidelity, covetousness and luxury, yea deceit and cruelty, those foreigners which came from hell, carried their influence, and spread their baneful mischiefs in our world! Yet who is willing to own that he has been deceived and enslaved by them? Who is willing honestly to bring them forth to justice! All acknowledge that these enemies are among us, and many complain aloud of the mischiefs that they do; yet even those who lift their heads so high as to laugh at the atonement of Jesus, and the powerful influences of the Spirit, and slight public & private devotion, are at the same time very unwilling to own that they harbour pride, infidelity, or any other of those dreadful tyrants. And nothing but the divine law refered to above, brought home with convincing light and power, can make them truly sensible of the soul‐slavery that they are in: and ’tis only the power of the gospel that can set them free from sin, so as to become the servants of righteousness: can deliver them from these enemies, so as to serve God in holiness all their days. And those who do not thus know the truth, and have not been made free thereby, yet have never been able in any country to subsist long without some sort of government; neither could any of them ever make out to establish any proper government without calling in the help of the Deity. However absurd their notions have been, yet they have found human sight and power to be so short and weak, and able to do so little toward watching over the conduct, and guarding the rights of individuals, that they have been forced to appeal to heaven by oaths, and to invoke assistance from thence to avenge the cause of the injured upon the guilty. Hence it is so far from being necessary for any man to give up any part of his real liberty in order to submit to government, that all nations have found it necessary to submit to some government in order to enjoy any liberty and security at all.
We are not insensible that the general notion of liberty, is for each one to act or conduct as he pleases; but that government obliges us to act toward others by law and rule, which in the imagination of many, interferes with such liberty; though when we come to the light of truth, what can possibly prevent it’s being the highest pleasure, for every rational person, to love God with all his heart, and his neighbour as himself, but corruption and delusion? which, as was before noted, are foreigners and not originally belonging to man. Therefore the divine argument to prove, that those who promise liberty while they despise government are servants of corruption is this; For of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage. 2 Pet. 2. 18, 19. He is so far from being free to act the man, that he is a bond slave to the worst of tyrants. And not a little of this tyranny is carried on by such an abuse of language, as to call it liberty, for men to yield themselves up, to be so foolish, disobedient and deceived, as to serve divers lusts and pleasures. Tit. 3. 3.
Having offered these few thoughts upon the general nature of government and liberty, it is needful to observe, that God has appointed two kinds of government in the world, which are distinct in their nature, and ought never to be confounded together; one of which is called civil, the other ecclesiastical government. And tho’ we shall not attempt a full explanation of them, yet some essential points of difference between them are necessary to be mentioned, in order truly to open our grievances.
Some essential points of difference between civil and ecclesiastical government.
1. The forming of the constitution, and appointment of the particular orders and offices of civil government is left to human discretion, and our submission thereto is required under the name of their being, the ordinances of men for the Lord’s sake. 1 Pet. 2. 13, 14. Whereas in ecclesiastical affairs we are most solemnly’ warned not to be subject to ordinances, after the doctrines and commandments of men. Col. 2. 20, 22. And it is evident that he who is the only worthy object of worship, has always claimed it as his sole prerogative, to determine by express laws, what his worship shall be, who shall minister in it, and how they shall be supported. How express were his appointments concerning these things by Moses? And so wise and good a ruler as Solomon, was not intrusted with any legislative power upon either of these articles, but had the exact dimensions of the temple, the pattern and weight of every vessel, with the treasuries of the dedicate things, and the courses of the priests and Levites, all given to him in writing by the Spirit, through the hand of his father David…And when the Son of God, who is the great Law‐giver and King of his church, came and blotted out the handwriting of the typical ordinances, and established a better covenant, or constitution of his church, upon better promises. we are assured that he was faithful in all his house, and counted worthy of more glory than Moses. What vacancy has he then left for fallible men to supply, by making new laws to regulate and support his worship? especially if we consider,
2. That as the 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: And how came the people of the world by any ecclesiastical power? They arm the magistrate with the sword, that he may be a minister of God to them for good, and might execute wrath upon evil doers; and for this cause they pay them tribute: upon which the apostle proceeds to name those divine commandments which are comprehended in love to our neighbour, and which work no ill to him. Surely the inspired writer had not forgotten the first and great command of love to God; but as this chapter treats the most fully of the nature and end of civil government of any one in the new‐testament, does it not clearly shew that the crimes which fall within the magistrates jurisdiction to punish, are only such as work ill to our neighbour? Rom. 13. 1–10. While church government respects our behaviour toward God as well as man.
3. 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; and so are to be performed heartily as to the Lord, and not unto men. And it is but lip service, and vain worship, if our fear toward him is taught by the precepts of men. Col. 3. 17, 23. Isa. 29. 13. Mat. 15. 9. It is often pleaded, that magistrates ought to do their duty in religious as well as civil affairs. That is readily granted; but what is their duty therein? Surely it is to bow to the name of Jesus, and to serve him with holy reverence; and if they do the contrary they may expect to perish from the way. Phil. 2. 10. Psa. 2. 10–12. But where is the officer that will dare to come in the name of the Lord to demand, and forcibly to take, a tax which was imposed by the civil state! And can any man in the light of truth, maintain his character as a minister of Christ, if he is not contented with all that Christ’s name and influence will procure for him, but will have recourse to the kings of the earth, to force money from the people to support him under the name of an embassador of the God of heaven! Does not such conduct look more like the way of those who made merchandize of slaves and souls of men, than it does like the servants who were content to be as their master, who said, He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me? Rev. 18. 9, 13. Luke to. 3–16.
4. In all civil governments some are appointed to judge for others, and have power to compel others to submit to their judgment: but our Lord has most plainly forbidden us, either to assume or submit to any such thing in religion. Mat. 23. 1–9. Luke 22. 25–27. He declares, that the cause of his coming into the world, was to bear witness unto the truth; and says he, Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. This is the nature of his kingdom, which he says, is not of this world: and gives that as the reason why his servants should not fight or defend him with the sword. John. 18. 36. 37. And it appears to us that the true difference and exact limits between ecclesiastical and civil government is this, That the church is armed with light and truth, to pull down the strong holds of iniquity, and to gain souls to Christ, and into his church, to be governed by his rules therein; and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed; while the state is armed with the sword to guard the peace, and the civil rights of all persons and societies, and to punish those who violate the same. And where these two kinds of government, and the weapons which belong to them, are well distinguished. and improved according to the true nature and end of their institution. The effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued; of which the Holy Ghost gave early and plain warnings. He gave notice to the church, that the main of those antichristian confusions and abominations, would be drawn by philosophy and deceit, from the hand‐writing of ordinances that Christ has blotted out. And to avoid the same, directs the saints to walk in Christ Jesus as they received him, rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith as they have been taught; viewing that they are complete in him, which is the head over all principality and power. Therefore he charges them not to be beguiled into a voluntary humility, by such fleshly minds as do not hold this head, but would subject them to ordinances after the doctrines and commandments of men. Col. 2.
Now ’tis well known that this glorious head made no use of secular force in the first sitting up of the gospel church, when it might seem to be pecularly needful if ever; and it is also very evident, that ever since men came into the way of using force in such affairs, their main arguments to support it have been drawn from the old Jewish constitution and ordinances. And what work has it made about the head as well as members of the church?
First they moved Constantine, a secular prince, to draw his sword against heretics; but as all earthly states are changeable, the same sword that Constantine drew against heretics, Julian turned against the orthodox. However, as the high priest’s sentence in the Jewish state, decided matters both for prince and people, the same deceitful pilosophy that had gone so far, never left plotting till they had set up an ecclesiastical head over kingdoms as well as churches, who with Peter’s keys was to open and shut, bind and loose, both in spiritual and temporal affairs. But after many generations had groaned under this hellish tyranny, a time came when England renounced that head, and set up the king as their head in ecclesiastical as well as civil concernments; and though the free use of the scriptures which was then introduced, by a divine blessing, produced a great reformation, yet still the high places were not taken away, & the lord bishops made such work in them, as drove our fathers from thence into America. The first colony that came to this part of it carried the reformation so far, as not to make use of the civil force to save the people to support religious ministers (for which they have had many a lash from the tongues & pens of those who were fond of that way) but the second colony, who had not taken up the cross so as to separate from the national church before they came away, now determined to pick out all that they thought was of universal and moral equity in Moses’s laws, and so to frame a christian common‐wealth here. And as the Jews were ordered not to set up any rulers over them who were not their brethren; so this colony resolved to have no rulers nor voters for rulers, but brethren in their churches. And as the Jews were required to inflict corporal punishments, even unto death, upon non‐conformers to their worship, this common‐wealth did the like to such as refused to conform to their way; and they strove very hard to have the church govern the world, till they lost their charter; since which, they have yielded to have the world govern the church, as we shall proceed to shew.