Brandon J. O’Brien on Isaac Backus: An 18th-Century Evangelical With 21st-Century Wisdom On Race, Religious Liberty, and Political Power

Isaac Backus may be the most interesting and influential American you’ve never heard of.

At the peak of his career, Backus (1724–1806) rode thousands of miles per year to preach to and encourage Baptist congregations throughout New England. In one five-month span, he rode 1,251 miles and preached 117 sermons. He operated outside Baptist circles, too. He debated some of the founding fathers of the United States and was part of the Massachusetts convention that ratified the Constitution. He wrote a three-volume history of New England and sent it to President George Washington as a “private token of love.” Backus is the only person I know of who was both groom and minister in his own wedding.

Backus was also profoundly influential, though he has never shared the renown of his more notable contemporaries. All the traveling and preaching he did in the decades before and after the American Revolution helped organize a Christian fringe group—the Baptists—into a unified movement. A century or so after his death, Baptists became America’s largest and most influential Protestant denomination. Furthermore, Backus drafted a bill of rights for America’s proposed constitution that bore a striking resemblance to the one that was eventually adopted, especially in its protection of religious liberty. He turned Jonathan Edwards’s heady theology of original sin into a practical and political theology of religious toleration. The historian William McLoughlin has claimed that the system of church-state relations that governed America until the last generation or so was precisely what Backus envisioned and worked his entire life to establish.

I like to think of Isaac Backus, the unschooled pastor from Connecticut, as the Forrest Gump of American religious history. The comparison breaks down, but just as Forrest Gump gave moviegoers a peek into the defining moments of a generation—from Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips to ping-pong diplomacy—so Backus interacted in remarkable ways with some of the most important figures and events of his generation.

All this is reason enough for us to know Backus better. But he is more than a figure to admire from a safe chronological distance. He is also someone whose example we can, and should, emulate today. Most of Backus’s opinions were unpopular in his generation. He spent his lifetime swimming upstream and fighting for liberties he was never able to enjoy. In light of the challenges Christianity faces in the first quarter of the 21st century, Backus is a useful figure who can help us look forward by first looking backward.

A Strong Counterpoint

We live at a time when the label evangelical is losing favor, and a growing number of people don’t want to wear it anymore. For many, the term connotes a range of unappealing social and political commitments.

Modern evangelicalism is charged with two crimes, essentially: racism and political compromise. For many people of color in America, the term evangelical is interwoven with the concept of whiteness created to subjugate ethnic minorities, especially black Americans. More broadly, evangelicalism stands accused of promoting an unholy collusion between church and state, especially during the Trump era. Historians like Bruce Hindmarsh and church leaders like Timothy Keller have defended the value of the term evangelical by appealing to its historical theological commitments. But these efforts run into problems. Heroes like Jonathan Edwards, who for some represent the movement in its best form, owned slaves. An African American pastor told me recently, “Every time I hear my white brothers quote Jonathan Edwards without qualification, it feels like a knife in my side.”

Isaac Backus represents a strong counterexample. A product of the Great Awakening, he was converted when he visited a small group meeting where someone read aloud a George Whitefield sermon. Backus entered the meeting unsure if he was a Christian. While he was there, “the Lord was pleased to give me some sweet sealing of the Holy Spirit of promise.” After his conversion, Backus was formed theologically by reading Jonathan Edwards’s treatises. He was a textbook 18th-century evangelical.

But unlike many in his generation, including the venerable Edwards, Backus denounced chattel slavery. In a public address to his fellow Baptists during a discussion about ratifying the proposed constitution, Backus said of slavery, “No man abhors that wicked practice more than I do and would gladly make use of all lawful means toward the abolishing of slavery in all parts of the land.” Among the many reasons he was excited about America’s new independence was that he believed “a door is now open” to “hinder the importation of slaves into any of these states.” The proposed constitution, he argued, could make good on the Revolution’s principle—“that all men are born with an equal right to liberty and property.” At the very least, Backus proves that it was possible for an American evangelical to recognize at least some of the implications of the gospel for civil rights.

He certainly recognized the implications of the gospel for religious liberty. Unlike other religious leaders in his own day (and many in our own), Backus refused to leverage political power to privilege a particular form of religion in America. He fought his entire adult life to secure religious liberty for all Americans.

In the process, Backus navigated national politics (when they were only just beginning) without selling his soul. Now this gets tricky, because while he argued that “no man or men can impose any religious test [for political office] without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he also argued that the government could legislate biblical morality even where consciences differed. He seems to have supported—or at least not opposed—laws against gambling and profanity, and even religious infractions like blasphemy and desecration of the Sabbath. Had same-sex marriage been a controversy during his era, he would have considered it the government’s job to maintain a traditional view of marriage. But he was sensitive about the relationship of faith institutions to seats of power. The institutions he fought against used their authority to outlaw everyone else. He rejected the practice of making “majority the test of orthodoxy.”

When the opportunity presented itself to leverage the system for his own gain, Backus refused. He was offered the established (tax-supported) pastorate of a village but had to be approved by a committee of established ministers. Backus turned down the job: “I shouldn’t leave it to a man [to decide] whether I should preach the gospel or no.” He opted instead for a lifetime of ministry on the margins.

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Source: Christianity Today