Southern Baptist Religion in American Colonies

Isaac Backus Role in Shaping of the Southern Baptist Religion in the Early American Colonies

Only a few Baptists were present in colonial America but their number was highest in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island because of the freedoms in those places. Baptists were greatly despised in nearly all regions but mainly in New England. Luckily for the Baptists present in America, they actually gained more from the Great Awakening compared to other denominations. Isaac Backus[footnoteRef:1], a young New Light Congregationalist minister, was among their very first converts from New England Congregationalism back in 1751. Over the eighteenth century, Baptists started to grow and thrive among the rich religious maltreatment and harassment which was still evident in the majority of the colonies- particularly Massachusetts. Through speeches, tracts, petitions, and protests, Isaac Backus (1724-1806) headed the quest of religious freedom during the chaotic era of the American Revolution.[footnoteRef:2] [1: Michael Williams. “Brief Basics for Texas Baptists.” (2003. Accessed October 4, 2016),3] [2: Derek Davis “Baptists and the American Tradition of Religious liberty.” PERSPECTIVES IN RELIGIOUS STUDIES 33, no. 1 (2006): 5]

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Backus succeeded in the facilitation of the use of a particular organization for the provision of a cooperative approach in the struggle for religious freedom. A Massachusetts Baptist advocacy group, the Warren Association, called Backus in 1772 to be the head of its grievance committee in order to readdress injustices committed against Baptists present in New England. This committee’s task was to collect and present well-proven cases of religious maltreatment to legislators and courts in an attempt to seek assistance. Additionally, Backus acted as their spokesperson before the Continental Congress that took place in Philadelphia in 1774.[footnoteRef:3] [3: Derek Davis, Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 125-28.]

Provoked by the constant persecution of Baptists situated in New England, Isaac Backus was right at the forefront of the movement to found the Warren Association in New England to assist the local Baptist churches. He later led in the creation of a Grievance Committee which was accountable for promoting religious liberty and separation of state and church, at the start in New England and consequently all through the other colonies. By simply building upon the increasing sentiments that favored independence and freedom from Britain, Backus claimed that the principles which guided the American Revolution actually encouraged the need for religious freedom.[footnoteRef:4] [4: Michael Williams. ]

The Great Awakening in New England produced a New Light Calvinist movement; a response against the supposed Luke warmness and corruption of the founded Old Light churches. Approximately half of the resultant separate churches would within some years implement the baptism of believers through immersion, and by the 1760s a rejuvenated Baptist movement, recommitted to Calvinism, was strongly founded in the Puritan colonies. Separatists were not acknowledged as a new denomination by magistrates who still continued to levy taxes on them. As a result, during this consequent phase of the Baptists’ fight, a fresh breed of leaders particularly Isaac Backus surfaced to fight for the exemption of taxes and also to start an institution building program. Despite that, the authorities still continued to impose taxes on Separate Baptists, disrespect their property, and even jail them.[footnoteRef:5] [5: Richard Carwardine. “Baptists and the Shaping of America.” (Accessed October 4, 2016. 160-161]

Backus resorted to turn to great civil disobedience back in 1773 as a scheme, aiming to fill the prisons with Baptists who would appeal to a superior law in their denial to comply with the tax laws. In reality, that campaign was surpassed by the greater fight for American political independence. The Revolution assumed a millennial significance for the Baptists: Natural rights, property protection provided the setting for the reception, social contract, distribution, and the expansion of the Grace of God.[footnoteRef:6] [6: Richard, 161]

Backus’ struggle for religious freedom was mainly conducted with his pen. He is known by a lot as the historian of the early New England Baptists. Backus was convinced that the production of a written history would actually be useful to his main purpose in life; advocating for freedom of conscience for the Baptists. Via careful and thorough research in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, Backus was capable of writing a history of the New England Baptists which was broadly recognized in his time and has also been recognized as standard since that period.[footnoteRef:7] [7: Derek Davis “Baptists and the American Tradition of Religious Liberty.” 5]

Backus claimed that religion enforcement resulted to a lot of suffering and bloodshed. He speculated that the church needed to desist from interference in the affairs of the government. He often believed that the church is something completely different and separate from the commonwealth. Those boundaries fixed on both sides are immovable and fixed. These societies are in everything infinitely different and perfectly distinct from one another.[footnoteRef:8] [8: Derek Davis “Baptists and the American Tradition of Religious Liberty.” 6]

Backus was an important Baptist leader in the American republic that worked to have religious freedom established in the Bill of Rights. However, different from his English Baptist ancestors, Backus never based his calls for religious freedom in a concern for the sovereignty of God. He was instead swayed by Locke’s political theory when he based religious freedom on an emphasis on human rights which should be guaranteed by the civil state. Backus’ opinion of the Church betrays a similar contemporary influence when he pictures it as a voluntary organization of people, not the disciplining society imagined by the earlier English Baptists. With him, a clear trajectory is established amidst American Baptists towards an internalized faith which recognizes liberty as personal choice unhampered by the claims of all external authorities.[footnoteRef:9] [9: Jason Whitt. “The Baptist Contribution to Liberty.” 2011. Accessed October 4, 2016.]

Isaac Backus often quoted from Locke in his articles written in the course of the pre-Revolutionary era. He discovered in Locke some ideas to assist in substantiating and advocating his own Baptist beliefs regarding freedom of conscience and the separation of state and church. Backus claimed that the church is without a doubt an important part of civil life. In his letter to George Washington, he stated that no men are useful and more needed in the human society than faithful religious ministers or teachers.[footnoteRef:10] [10: Derek Davis “Baptists and the American Tradition of Religious Liberty.” 6]

Backus hated how Massachusetts used its power to support one specific church. It was a breach of religious freedom for Massachusetts to order either the renunciation of an individual’s faith or the payment of taxes which supported one church. He considered it a sacrilege for any man to come up with laws that bind others in religious issues, or to lose any from Christ’s laws in his church’s government.[footnoteRef:11] [11: Derek Davis “Baptists and the American Tradition of Religious Liberty.” 6-7]

The dedication of the Separate Baptist to Reformed theology is quite clear in the expressed beliefs of Backus. In 1797, Backus wrote that hostility, which man has now realized against God’s Grace, as depicted in the Holy Scriptures, has extended to a point where all art is used to place other senses on revelation-words that God actually intended therein. Backus claims that through this doctrine God shaped all the reformation which has been in America.[footnoteRef:12] [12: Thomas Ascol “From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist Convention: What Hath Geneva to Do with Nashville?” (Founders Press, 2013), 15]

Whereas Backus was not alive to experience the complete separation of the state and church in New England, the seeds planted by him consequently bore fruit in the United States Constitution and in the 1st amendment. Backus was also a key historian of Baptists living in colonial American and also as a pastor-theologian. He exerted significant pressure in establishing an evangelical Calvinism which balanced a few of the more intense forms of Separate Baptist living in colonial America. Isaac Backus’ greatest achievement might have been how he brought Baptists to the mainstream of the religious life in America. Therefore, it is actually arguable that for the Baptist history, Backus’ most important contribution falls in his capability of transforming an outcast sectarian group on the edge into a respected and accepted member of the American religious community.[footnoteRef:13] [13: Michael Williams. ]


Ascol, Thomas K. From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist Convention: What Hath Geneva to Do with Nashville? Founders Press, 2013.

Carwardine, Richard. “Baptists and the Shaping of America.” Accessed October 4, 2016.

Davis, Derek H. “Baptists and the American Tradition of Religious Liberty. “PERSPECTIVES IN RELIGIOUS STUDIES 33, no. 1 (2006): 5-7

Derek H. Davis, Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 125-28.

Whitt, Jason. “The Baptist Contribution to Liberty.” 2011. Accessed October 4, 2016.

Williams, Michael. “Brief Basics for Texas Baptists.” 2003. Accessed October 4, 2016.

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