A Memoir of the Life and Times of Isaac Backus

Isaac Backus
January 1, 1858
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Isaac Backus was one of the most important Baptist leaders of the revolutionary era. He argued fervently against persecution of Baptists and in favor of separation of chuch and state. Here he describes how he was dispatched to visit the members of the Continental Congress to plead against the religious establishment in Massachusetts. Adams resisted his pleas.
Oct. 14th. In the evening there met at Carpenters' Hall, Thomas Gushing, Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Robert Treat Paine, Esqrs., delegates from Massachusetts; and there were also present James Kinzie of New Jersey, Stephen Hopkins and Samuel Ward of Rhode Island, Joseph Galloway and Thomas Miflin, Esqrs., of Pennsylvania, and other members of Congress. Mr. Rhodes, Mayor of the city of Philadelphia, Israel and James Pemberton, and Joseph Fox, Esqrs., of the Quakers and other gentlemen, also elders Manning, Gano, Jones, Rogers, Edwards, etc., were present. The conference was opened by Mr. Manning, who made a short speech, and then read the memorial which we had drawn up."

John Adams at one time said, we might as well expect a change in the solar system, as to expect they would give up their establishment
The memorial here referred to was as follows:

"It has been said by a celebrated writer in politics, that but two things were worth contending for, - Religion and Liberty. For the latter we are at present nobly exerting ourselves through all this extensive continent; and surely no one whose bosom feels the patriot glow in behalf of civil liberty, can remain torpid to the more ennobling flame of RELIGIOUS FREEDOM. "

The free exercise of private judgment, and the unalien- able rights of conscience, are of too high a rank and dignity to be subjected to the decrees of councils, or the iin- perfect laws of fallible legislators. The merciful Father of mankind is the alone Lord of conscience. Establishments may be enabled to confer worldly distinctions and secular importance. They may make hypocrites, but cannot create Christians. They have been reared by craft or power, but liberty never flourished perfectly under their control. That liberty, virtue, and public happiness can be supported without them, this flourishing province1 is a glorious testimony; and a view of it would be sufficient to invalidate all the most elaborate arguments ever adduced in support of them. Happy in the enjoyment of these undoubted rights, and conscious of their high import, every lover of mankind must be desirous, as far as opportunity offers, of extending and securing the enjoyment of these inestimable blessings. "

These reflections have arisen from considering the unhappy situation of our brethren, the Baptists, in the province of Massachusetts Bay, for whom we now appear as advocates; and from the important light in which liberty in general is now beheld, we trust our representation will be effectual. The province of the Massachusetts Bay, being settled by persons who fled from civil and religious oppression, it would be natural to imagine them deeply impressed with the value of liberty, and nobly scorning a domination over conscience. But such was the complexion of the times, they fell from the unhappy state of being oppressed, to the more deplorable and ignoble one of becoming oppressors.

"But these things being passed over, we intend to begin with the charter obtained at the happy restoration. This charter grants, 'that there shall be liberty of conscience allowed in the worship of God, to all Christians except Papists, inhabiting or which shall inhabit or be resident within this province or territory;' or in the words of the late Governor Hutchinson, 'We find nothing in the new charter, of an ecclesiastical constitution. Liberty of conscience is granted to all except Papists.' The first General Court that met under this charter, returned their thanks for the following sentiments delivered before them: -' That the magistrate is most properly the officer of human society; that a Christian by non-conformity to this or that imposed way of worship, does not break the terms upon which he is to enjoy the benefits of human society; and that a man has a right to his estate, his liberty, and his family, notwithstanding his non-conformity.' And on this declaration the historian who mentions it, plumes himself, as if the whole future system of an impartial administration was to begin. By laws made during the first charter, such persons only were entitled to vote for civil rulers as were church-members. This might be thought by some to give a shadow of ecclesiastical power; but by the present [charter] ' Every freeholder of thirty pounds sterling per annum, and every other inhabitant who has forty pounds personal estate, are voters for representatives. So that here seems an evident foundation to presume they are only elected for the preservation of civil rights, and the management of temporal concernments. Nevertheless they soon began to assume the power of establishing Congregational worship, and taxed all the inhabitants towards its support; and no Act was passed to exempt other denominations from the year 1692 to 1727, when the Episcopalians were permitted to enjoy their rights. "

The first Act for the relief of the Baptists was in 1728, when their polls only were exempted from taxation, and not their estates; and then only of such as lived within five miles of a Baptist Meeting-house. The next year, 1729, thirty persons were apprehended and confined in Bristol jail; some churchmen, some friends, but most of the Baptist denomination. Roused by these oppressions, the Baptists and Quakers petitioned the General Court; being determined if they could not obtain redress, to apply to his Majesty in council. Wherefore the same year, a law was passed exempting their estates and polls; but clogged however with a limitation, for less than five yeirs. At the expiration of this Act, in 1733, our brethren were obliged again to apply to the General Assembly; upon which a third Act was passed, 1734, exempting Baptists from paying ministerial taxes. This third Act was more clear, accurate and better drawn than any of the former; but for want of a penalty on the returning officer, badly executed, subjecting our brethren to many hardships and oppressions. This Act expired in 1740, and another was made for seven years; but still liable to the same defects. In 1747, the Baptists and friends, wearied with fruitless applications to the assemblies, once more proposed applying at home for relief, when the laws exempting them were reenacted for ten years, the longest space ever granted. "

To show what the liberty was that these unhappy people enjoyed, it will be necessary, though we aim as much as possible at brevity, just to mention that if at any time a Baptist sued a collector for the breach of these laws, any damages he recovered were laid on the town, and the Baptists residing therein were thereby obliged to pay their proportionable part towards his indemnification. At this time such an instance occurred in the case of Sturbridge, when Jonathan Perry sued the collector, Jonathan Mason, and the damages were sustained by the town, though the Baptists in town meeting dissented. And here it may not be improper to observe, that tbe judges and jury are under the strongest bias to determine for the defendants. In the beginning of the year 1753, an act was passed, breaking in upon the time limited, enacting that "no minister or member of an Anabaptist church shall be esteemed qualified to give certificates, other than such as shall have obtained, from three other churches commonly called Anabaptist, in this or the neighboring Provinces, a certificate from each respectively, that they esteem such church of their denomination, and that they conscientiously believe them to be Anabaptists.'

"But not to take too much of your time, we would here just observe that all the laws have been made temporary, and without any penalty on the collector or assessors for the breach of the law, and come more particularly to speak of the law passed at the last June session; as it has been generally understood to be so framed as to take away complaint and establish a general liberty of conscience. This act is like'all the others, temporary, and indeed limited to a shorter duration than most of them, being only for three years. It is without any penalty on the breach of it, and an additional trouble and expense is enjoined by recording the certificates every year, (though in some others obtaining one certificate during the existence of the law was sufficient,) and concludes thus: ' That nothing in this act shall be construed to exempt any proprietor of any new township from paying his part and portion with the major part of the other proprietors of such new township, in settling a minister and building a meeting-house, which hath been or shall be required as a condition of their grant.'

"And here we would just add a few words relative to the affairs of Ashfield. On the 26th day of December next, three lots of land belonging to people of our denomination, will be exposed for sale; one of them for' the payment of so small a sum as ten shillings eleven pence. Although we have given but two instances of oppression under the above laws, yet a great number can be produced, well attested, when called for.

"Upon this short statement of facts we would observe, that the charter must be looked upon by every impartial eye to be infringed, so soon as any law was passed for the establishment of any particular mode of worship. All Protestants are placed upon the same footing ; and no law whatever could disannul so essential a part of a charter intended to communicate the blessings of a free government to his Majesty's subjects. Under the first charter, as was hinted, church-membership conferred the rights of a freeman; but by the second, the possession of property was the foundation. Therefore, how could it be supposed that the collective body of the people intended to confer any other power upon their representatives than that of making laws relative to property and the concerns of this life?

"Men unite in society, according to the great Mr. Locke, ' with an intention' in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property. The power of the society, or Legislature constituted by them, can never be supposed to extend any further than the common good, but is obliged to secure every one's property.' To give laws, to receive obedience, to compel with the sword, belong to none but the civil magistrate ; and on this ground we affirm that the magistrate's power extends not to the establishing any articles of faith or forms of worship, by force of laws; for laws are of no force with- out penalties. The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but pure and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.

"It is a just position, and cannot be too firmly established, that we can have no property in that which another may take, when he pleases, to himself; neither can we have the proper enjoyment of our religious liberties, (which must be acknowledged to be of greater value,) if held by the same unjust and capricious tenure; and this must appear to be the case when temporary laws pretend to grant relief so very inadequate.

" It may now be asked — What is the liberty desired ? The answer is; as the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, and religion is a concern between God and the soul with which no human authority can intermeddle; consistently with the principles of Christianity, and according to the dictates of Protestantism, we claim and expect the liberty of worshipping God according to our consciences, not being obliged to support a ministry we cannot attend, whilst we demean ourselves as faithful subjects. These we have an undoubted right to, as men, as Christians, and by charter as inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay."

After Dr. Manning had taken his seat, Mr. Backus says: " The delegates from Massachusetts used all their arts to represent that we complained without reason. John Adams made a long speech, and Samuel Adams another; both of whom said, ' There is, indeed, an ecclesiastical establishment in our province ; but a very slender one, hardly to be called an establishment.' When they would permit, we brought up facts, which they tiled to explain away, but could not. Then they shifted their plea, and asserted that our General Court was clear of blame, and had always been ready to hear our complaints, and to grant all reasonable help, whatever might have been done by executive officers; and S. Adams and R. T. Paine spent near an hour more on this plea. "When they stopped, I told them I was very sorry to have any accusations to bring against the government which I belonged to, and which I would gladly serve to the utmost of my power; but I must say that facts proved the contrary to their plea ; and gave a short acccount of our Legislature's treatment of Ashfield, which was very puzzling to them. In their pleas, S. Adams tried to represent that regular Baptists were quite *easy among us; and more than once insinuated that these complaints came from enthusiasts who made it a merit to suffer persecution ; and also, that enemies to the Colonies had a hand therein. Paine said, ' There was nothing of conscience in the matter; it was only a contending about paying a little money ; and also that we would not be neighborly, and let them know who we were, which was all they wanted, and they would readily exempt us ?'

"In answer, I told them they might call it enthusiasm or what they pleased; but I freely own, before all these gentlemen, that it is absolutely a point of conscience with me; for I cannot give in the certificates they require, without implicitly acknowledging that power in man which I believe belongs only to God. This shocked them; and Gushing said: 'It quite altered the case; for if it were a point of conscience, he had nothing to say to that.' And the conference, of about four hours' continuance, closed with their promising to do what they could for our relief; though, to deter us from thinking of their coming upon equal footing with us, as to religion, John Adams, at one time, said we might as well expect a change in the solar system, as to expect they would give up their establishment;1 and, at another time, he said we might as soon expect they would submit to the Port Bill, the Regulating Bill, and the Murder Bill, as to give up that establishment, which he and his friend, in the beginning of their plea, called a very slender thing. Such absurdities does religious tyranny produce in great men."

The language and bearing of the delegates from Massachusetts, in this conference, were such as to diminish greatly the value of their closing promise. The committee appointed by the Philadelphia Association held a meeting the next evening, and in their records say, "we think it did appear that the delegates from Boston were determined to support the claim the Legislature make to a right to make penal laws in matters of religion." It was also resolved, "That the Committee, not being satisfied with the declaration made last evening by the delegates from Massachusetts Bay, are determined to pursue every prudent measure, to obtain a full and complete redress of all grievances, for our brethren in New England." Gentlemen were appointed to deliver to each of the delegates a copy of the memorial read by Dr. Manning, a copy of this resolve, and a copy of Mr. Backus' " Appeal to the Public."

According to the records of the Committee, the gentlemen to whom this service was assigned made report Oct. 22,1774, that "they delivered to the delegates from Massachusetts Bay copies of the foregoing resolve," etc., " who said they would endeavor all in their power to obtain a redress of grievances, and as the situation of the Baptists in Boston was satisfactory, they would endeavor to diffuse the same spirit to the remotest parts of the colony." It may be remarked that Mr. Backus had declared in the conference, that he would be satisfied if the Baptists in the country might have the same liberty which their brethren had in Boston.


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