IV. Backus Becomes a Baptist Leader; His Differences with the Established Church; Taxes Supporting the Established Church


A Publication of Separation of Church and State Law Ministry.



Jerald Finney
Copyright © February 28, 2018


From the point of his conversion, Isaac Backus gradually became a leader of the Baptist movement. He was asked to preach to a church at Titicut in 1748, a revival resulted, people were saved, and a Separate church was formed in February, 1748, in defiance of the authorities. Mr. Backus and sixteen men signed the church covenant which provided for election and dismissal of the ministers, deacons, and elders by a majority vote, repudiated the claim that the minister was superior in authority to the brethren, stated that the minister was to be supported by free contribution of the members, and asserted the priesthood of all believers and the right and duty of all members to exercise any ability they had to preach or pray in public.[1]

Mr. Backus was opposed by scurrilous opposition. As he said, “I had many things thrown upon me to represent my Carecter odious and hinder me in this glorious Work.” Lies were told about him, such as that he had a wife and children in the country, that he had “bastards in this place or that, that there was a girl or two with his child.”[2]

Isaac Backus

The members of the church were taxed to support the established church. The church protested the tax, but parish committee refused to exempt Mr. Backus and his followers from religious taxes. Their rationale was basically that the golden rule required them to do so, and that the committee would want their neighbors to force them to pay such a tax if they were in error. “[N]either doth God himself countenance or give Liberty to any men to follow the ‘Dictates of a misguided Eronius Conscience.’”[3] The reply gave an argument over the separation of church and state with which Backus had to wrestle the rest of his life.

  • “Oppression ‘can’t mean and intend that Tis unwarrantable or sinfull for men to urge and press others to a compliance with their Duty as it is pointed out by the Laws of God or the good and wholesome Laws of the Land and in case men through obstinacy and willfulness [refuse] and so will not make good either Lawfull Contracts [&] Covenants the original good and Design of their being incorporated into Distinct [religious] societies [or parishes] and so Tis no oppression….’ Under the Golden Rule the committee said it would want their neighbors to force them to do their duty if they were in error. ‘Liberty of Conscience according to the word of god is not for men to Live as they list or Do as they please while they maintain Erors in Judgment, Disown the truth of god, Exclaim against a faithful ministry, make Light of that good order and government which Jesus Christ has set up in his church; neither does God himself countenance or give Liberty to any men to follow the Dictates of a misguided Eronius Conscience….’ ‘Let it be observed that there is a great difference between persecution and prosecution.’”[4]

In February 1749, Backus was arrested for not paying a ministerial tax, but someone paid it for him, and he was released. Other members of the church were imprisoned or had their property confiscated for failing to pay the tax.

“Three-quarters of a century were to pass and Backus was to be in his grave before the people of Massachusetts yielded to the radical New Light view that the state should allow individuals to ‘act and Conduct as they pleas’ in matters of religion even if it meant imperiling their souls, the destruction of the parish system, the end of compulsory religious taxation, and the abandonment of the Puritan ideal of a corporate Christian commonwealth.”[5]


Endnotes

[1] William G. McLoughlin, Isaac Backus and the American Piestic Tradition (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967), p. 42-43.

[2] Ibid., p. 46.

[3] Ibid., p. 52.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., pp. 52-53.

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