George Whitefield had just finished preaching in Norwich, Connecticut, when a young man stepped up to shake his hand. Isaac Backus, heir of a family fortune, had been deeply moved, and he soon gave his life to Christ, was baptized, and became a pastor, church planter, and Baptist evangelist. As a home missionary, Backus made over 900 trips in colonial America, covering over 68,000 miles on horseback.
He is best known, however, as a champion of religious liberty. From the beginning of his ministry, Backus fought doggedly for separation of church and state in the American colonies. When he entered his ministry, a tax in Massachusetts supported the “state church”—the Congregational Church in New England. Backus refused to pay it, was imprisoned, and when released, mounted a tireless campaign to abolish the state-supported church system.
In 1774, when the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Backus was there, lobbying the representatives. On October 14, 1774 he and his fellow ministers arranged a meeting with the Massachusetts representatives to the Congress and presented a petition requesting full religious liberty. The politicians were irritated. John Adams insisted that taxes collected to support the Congregational Church did not impinge on the freedom of other religious groups, and he ended the four-hour meeting saying, “Gentlemen, if you mean to try to effect a change in Massachusetts laws respecting religion, you may as well attempt to change the course of the sun in the heavens!”
Backus determined to take his petition to John Hancock, then before the entire Continental Congress, but John Adams was always working to frustrate his efforts. Yet his ideas took root, and 27 years after Backus’s death, the last state church in Massachusetts was finally disestablished. More than any other man, Isaac Backus is credited with formulating and publicizing the evangelical position of church and state that ultimately prevailed in America.
We don’t obey people. We obey God. You killed Jesus by nailing him to a cross. But the God our ancestors worshiped raised him to life and made him our Leader and Savior. (Acts 5:29b-31a)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Oct.14.