Isaac Backus was one of the leading orators of the “pulpit of the American Revolution.” Often ranked with Roger Williams, John Leland, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, Isaac Backus is one of the “preeminent figures in the establishing of freedom of conscience in America.” His commitment to liberty and freedom of conscience is best articulated in his published sermon of 1773, “An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, Against the Oppressions of the Present Day.”
Born in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1724, Backus was converted to Christianity in 1741. He attended a Separatist Congregationalist church for five years, and, in 1746, decided to become a preacher in the tradition of George Whitefield. Ordained in 1748, he became a Baptist in 1751 when he assumed the pastorate of the Middleborough Baptist Church in Middleborough, Massachusetts.
Backus soon realized that the measure of control that the official state church had over the civil government of the state abridged the freedoms of non-official religious groups. The legislature compelled every town to set up and maintain a state church and to hire and provide for a minister holding an academic degree, all funded by the taxes of citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Those who refused to pay the tax were subject to punishment by the state through its agent, the local state congregation, including the seizure of personal property and imprisonment.
Backus believed this blending of church and state denied each person the right to worship God in the way he or she saw fit, and equated the support of a state church with the British actions that the Massachusetts legislature condemned. He maintained that the freedom of conscience, including the freedom of religion, was a central theme not only in the Scriptures but also in the liberal tradition. In 1774 Backus instructed the delegates to the First Congress on the importance of religious freedom and also served as a delegate from Middleborough to the Massachusetts convention that ratified the Constitution in 1788.
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