By Paul Dean
In 1739, Christian faith in colonial America was declining. Established Christian congregations in the North and South had a hard time holding on to their religious heritage. Anglican ministers in Virginia had a reputation of incompetence, and Puritan ministers were accused of not even being converted. The congregations were not much better. Their worship was insincere, and their commitment to evangelize the lost was almost nonexistent. However, not everyone was infected with the sickness of religious complacency. Some prayed day and night for revival, and men such as George Whitefield and Isaac Backus would be God’s answer to their prayers.
George Whitefield had spent years in prayer and the study of God’s Word in England to prepare himself for the ministry. By age 24 his dramatic preaching had attracted throngs in London, but he was not content to stay at home. Although he was in love with a young woman in London, he sacrificed his relationship with her and followed God’s calling to colonial America. Whitefield set off to America on a ship full of ignorant and coarse sailors. They mocked the young man for his prayers and his daily devotions held above deck. At least for a little while. Whitefield’s commitment to speak only of Christ began to slowly win some over. Soon, with permission of the captain, he began to lead a Bible study on deck for those who wanted to learn. He next organized a choir among the men who could sing, and the Bible studies turned into sermons. Before the journey was over, not only did everyone on Whitefield’s ship strain to hear him speak, but the two boats that traveled with Whitefield’s would draw as close as they could when he preached, not wanting to be left out. Whitefield’s message was simple: All men have sinned and are condemned; man’s only hope is Christ; one achieves peace with God by a personal relationship with Christ. This ancient message, presented with a flair that was distinctively Whitefield’s, transformed the new world.
Although scattered revivals had begun before Whitefield, they united after his landing. Preachers, swept away by Whitefield’s style, conviction, and results, began to echo his message. Pastors invited these revival preachers to speak to their congregations. Along the Atlantic coast Whitefield attracted huge crowds who wanted to hear him speak. Benjamin Franklin estimated that 20,000 people attended one of Whitefield’s sermons in Philadelphia. While he was counting the crowd, Franklin, a noted skeptic in matters of religion, was so moved by the message that he gave all his pocket money to support the orphanages Whitefield had started. A friend of Franklin’s resolved not to take money with him when he went to hear Whitefield. It was no use though; halfway through the message, he started asking friends if he could borrow a coin or two to donate to the orphanages.
One woman who found herself indelibly changed by Whitefield’s far-reaching influence was Elizabeth Backus. This woman of wealth and importance was also consumed with an unshakable sadness. She and her husband had joined a congregational church, although her husband had not made a profession of faith. Despite her husband’s lack of serious interest in spiritual matters, she had raised her children with constant admonition to follow God’s ways. But an unexpected crisis had changed the tranquil and secure Backus household. Elizabeth’s husband died from the measles in 1740, leaving her financially secure but in sole care of 11 children, including one only six weeks old. She spent her days constantly asking God why He had stricken her with more than she could bear. Providentially, the stirring of the Great Awakening restored her hope. Revivalist James Davenport went to her church and preached on the subject of salvation and new life in Christ. Elizabeth responded to the message and renewed her religious faith. After that occasion, she became one of the most fervent of the revival enthusiasts, and her home became a center for prayer meetings and religious exhorting. Due partially to his mother’s faith, Isaac Backus also gave his life to Christ, finding new hope and leaving his empty way of life behind. It would not be long before Isaac Backus would become the leading spokesman for the fastest growing religious group in 18th century America.1
Like scores of new converts during the Great Awakening, Backus found many of the established church practices to be un-Biblical. Not desiring to leave his home or church as other dissidents had done before, Backus worked to reform the church from within. Sadly, Backus concluded that the church was not willing to be reformed and found little choice but to separate. Backus soon found that God had given him the ability to preach, and, with the acceptance of his congregation, he left with several other evangelists to preach around New England. In 1748, Backus settled in Middleboro, Massachusetts, where he served as pastor. Like hundreds of other congregations during the Great Awakening, this congregation found the Baptist model scripturally sound and joined the revitalized Baptist movement.
The church that Backus pastored was much like other Baptist churches of the 18th century. Most were small one-room structures that normally met once a week during winter and twice during summer. There were no Sunday Schools, and the churches had no musical instruments. Singing in the worship services was growing in favor but still was rare. Baptism and the Lord’s supper were the most important events on the calendar.
Baptists did not observe Easter and Christmas, because they thought the practice “worldly and Popish.” Children were educated through the pastor’s sermons; although by the end of the century, churches began to use catechisms to teach the youth in matters of basic doctrine.2
With the increase of Baptist membership in New England came new conflict with the established Puritan churches. The Puritan ministers were supported by public taxation. These mandatory taxes were not determined by one’s attendance of or membership in the church. Exceptions existed but had to be granted by local officials and were difficult to obtain. The Puritans despised those who had exemptions, because the tax burden was greater for them if many people in town did not support the minister. Many Baptists refused to pay the tax, not wanting to support a ministry with which they disagreed. Many of these Baptists, including Elizabeth Backus, spent time in jail for refusing to pay the tax, or they had their property confiscated and sold to pay it. Isaac Backus served on a grievance committee that defended Baptists who suffered under this policy.
Common interests and needs in education, evangelism, and missions by Baptist congregations led them to a desire to form some sort of association. Together with help from the 60-year-old Philadelphia Baptist Association, the Massachusetts Baptists formed the Warren Association. It enabled the Baptists to effectively fight for religious freedom and to unify the doctrinal position of the member churches. Many were understandably suspicious of a powerful hierarchy, but the skeptics soon realized that the power still remained in the individual churches and that they were able to achieve more together than on their own.
The decades of the 1760s and 1770s were tempestuous times for the colonies. The colonists became convinced that Britain considered them less than equals, and in many circumstances they believed that Britain had violated their natural God-given rights. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Backus told his congregation that obedience to bad rulers is unnecessary. He further pointed out that “it was a foundation point in the constitution of the English government that the people’s property shall not be taken from them without their consent.”3
Although several of Backus’s parishioners faced prison for refusing to pay the religious tax in Massachusetts, he and other Baptist leaders supported the American Revolution, believing that they would have greater freedom of conscience under a new system of government. Through petition and personal visits to the Continental Congress, Backus fought for religious liberty throughout the Revolutionary War.
According to the theories that Backus developed during this period, the civil authority had no right to pass judgment in matters of religion. He also believed that churches should be supported only by private voluntary gifts and that the official church of New England should be disestablished so that true religion could flourish. His strong voice and popular pamphlets echoed the cries for religious liberty proclaimed by Roger Williams more than one hundred years before. Backus’s theories, based in small part on Williams’ writings, would eventually triumph in America, paving the way for constitutional amendments that would guarantee religious freedom.
The doctrinal debates that raged during that time were more important to Backus than the political and military battles that dominated the Revolutionary period. The same enlightenment movement that gave America the Declaration of Independence persuaded liberal theologians to give up traditional faith in miracles and the Word of God. Influential deists scoffed at the Bible, and the persuasive Unitarians denied fundamentals, such as the deity of Christ.
Backus answered the skeptics with his unswerving dependence on God. The Unitarians’ worldly logic was answered with a Scriptural passage, a firm, “Thus saith the Lord,” and a pronouncement of impending judgment. While deists such as Thomas Jefferson cut out all the “supernatural” passages from his Bible, in Virginia the Baptists made their faith evident by willingly being whipped, imprisoned, and mocked for following it. Throughout the doctrinal controversies, the Baptists held the line and emerged stronger for it. Before the Great Awakening came to America, fewer than 70 churches considered themselves Baptist. By 1790 there were, by some accounts, 900 Baptist churches.4
Backus was elected to his only political office after the war. The citizens of Middleboro, Massachusetts, chose him to represent them at the constitutional convention in Boston. There Backus spoke in favor of ratifying the Constitution, noting that it was comforting that the Constitution outlawed religious tests for government positions and prohibited establishment of a national religion. Additionally, he vainly hoped the Constitution would outlaw slavery.
Backus also supported the First Amendment as proposed by James Madison. Backus saw the First Amendment as an extremely positive step for America, believing that it would ensure a freedom for true religion. Backus joined political forces with the enlightened scholars in this successful fight, although they had differing goals. The “enlightened” scholars clamored for freedom so that their philosophy could flourish, but Backus demanded freedom of speech and religion so that the Baptists might preach the gospel to the lost. The First Amendment, overwhelmingly supported by the Baptists, prevented a national church from being formed but left the individual states alone to decide for themselves.
Until his death in 1806, Backus battled the Puritan religious establishment of Massachusetts, worked to evangelize the lost, and tried to strengthen his beloved Baptist denomination. His legacy is secure as one who refused to compromise on core Baptist doctrines and remained steadfast in his commitment to religious liberty.
The 19th century would see the rise of vigorous mission work, social causes, and a separation of Baptists along regional lines, but that is another chapter in Baptist history.
- McLoughlin, William G., ed. Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism: Pamphlets 1754–1789 (Cambridge: Bellnap, 1968), 4.
- McBeth, H. Leon, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman, 1987), 251.
- McLoughlin, 13.
- McBeth, 206.