Church History: Baptists and Religious Freedom

The Baptists were accused of presenting false charges of oppression in order to prevent the colonies from uniting in defense of their liberties. (p. 53)

Baptists in America in and around 1774 were trouble.  Not only had they taken the stand that believer’s baptism by immersion was the only way to build the true Church, but they had also become vocal regarding religious liberty.  This was, they felt, a God-given right for man.  It would allow them to practice their faith openly and freely without the fear of penalty from those within and without the state-sponsored Congregational Church.

Enter Isaac Backus.  In the 1881 Baptist Encyclopaedia (ed. by William Cathcart), Backus is credited with furthering Baptists beliefs, both believer’s baptism and freedom to worship.  Born in 1724, in Norwich, Connecticut, Backus was raised by a mother who leaned toward Separate Baptist beliefs.  Early in life, when Backus became a believer during the Great Awakening, he reluctantly joined the Congregationalist Church in  Norwich, citing its “lack of discipline and its low state of religious feeling.”

Soon after, Backus and others separated from the church in Norwich and began meeting on their own.  These attenders, who were labeled “New Lights” because of the enthusiasm they felt for their faith and worship, began to meet in 1748 with Baptists who were also affected by the revivals of the Great Awakening.  Their belief in believer’s baptism and the paedobaptist belief of Backus’ Congregationalist members soon became a topic of “agitation.”  Backus, at first hesitantly accepted believer’s baptism, but soon after “was enabled to put aside all doubts and perplexities on the subject and come out unreservedly for baptism through a profession of faith.”

in 1756, Backus became pastor of the Baptist church in Middleborough.  “At the time, Baptists were subject to much oppression and persecution by the civil powers of Massachusetts,” and Backus took on the banner of religious freedom for Baptists in New England.  He was chosen as a delegate, along with other Baptist pastors, to convene in Philadelphia to address the Continental Congress regarding religious liberty.  It states that Backus…

…read a memorial setting forth the grievances and oppressions under which the Baptists labored, and praying for relief therefrom. The result of this effort on the part of the New England Baptists to obtain religious freedom was hurtful rather than advantageous.

After Congress adjourned, the rumors flew.  Reports regarding the statements made by Backus and others were slanderous and untruthful.  They were, essentially, accused manipulating Congress to prevent colonial unity.

Backus continued to pursue religious liberty for years, meeting with Founding Fathers and others, and laid the ground work for religious liberty in our Bill of Rights and national life.  Baptists owe him much.

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