ISAAC BACKUS, a son of Samuel and Elizabeth (Tracy) Backus, was born at Norwich, Conn., January 9, 1724. His parents were respectable members of the Congregational Church. His father was a descendant from one of the earliest and most respectable settlers of Norwich, and his mother was of the Winslow family, that came to Plymouth in 1620. Some of his relatives belonged to the denomination called Separates; and his mother, when a widow, with some other of his family connections, was actually imprisoned for holding and promulgating offensive doctrines. It was in the midst of the great excitement that prevailed in connection with the labours of Whitefield, in 1741, that he received his first permanent religious impressions. He united with the Congregational Church in his native town, though not without many misgivings, on account of what he deemed their unreasonable laxity, especially in regard to the admission of members. In the beginning of 1745, he, with a number of others, withdrew from the church, and set up a meeting of their own on the Sabbath, which of course drew upon them the displeasure of the church, aud ultimately led to their being suspended from the Communion. The separation proved a permanent one, and Mr. Backus and his associates became identified with the great religious movement of the time, which led to the formation of a large number of Separate or New Light churches.
Soon after a Separate church was formed in Norwich, Mr. Backus was led to devote himself to the preaching of the Gospel. His first sermon was preached to the church of which he was a member, on the 28th of September, 1746, and was received with great favour. For fourteen months following, he was engaged in preaching in various towns in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. In December, 1747, he commenced his labours in Middleborough, (Tilicut Precinct,) and on the 13th of April,
* David Benedict's History of Baptists, II. - Prof. Alvah Hovey's Memoirs of the Life and Times of the Rev. Isaac Backus - MS. from Zechariah Eddy, Esq.
1748, was ordained as Pastor of the church in that place. This church had its origin in a disagreement in respect to the settlement of a minister. The Society was formed in February, 1743, being composed of persons who wished for a clergyman of different religious views from the one who had actually been settled over the parish to which they belonged; and, as they could not obtain a dismission from the church by an ecclesiastical council, after waiting five years, they withdrew, without this sanction, and, in February, 1748, formed a church by themselves. This, however, was not the end of their troubles; for they were still taxed for the support of public worship, or for the building of a new meeting house, in the old parish. Mr. Backus himself was not only taxed, but seized and imprisoned, though he was soon released, without either paying the tax, or coming to any compromise.
In 1749, the subject of Baptism was agitated in the church of which Mr. Backus was Pastor; and several of its members became Baptists, and thus obtained an exemption from the Congregational tax. In August, 1751, Mr. Backus himself was baptized by immersion, by Elder Pierce of Warwick, R. I. For some time afterwards, he held communion with those who had not been thus baptized, but he adopted the principle of Strict Communion after a few years. On the 10th of January, 1756, the members of his church who had become Baptists, formed themselves into a distinct church, and he was installed its Pastor on the 23d of June following, by ministers from Boston and llehoboth. In this relation he continued till the close of life.
In the year 1772, Mr. Backus was chosen Agent for the Baptist Churches in Massachusetts, in place of Mr. Davis, who had been Pastor of the Second Church in Boston, but had left his charge on account of ill health. This agency, which was designed for the promotion of religious liberty, and especially to secure to the Baptists an exemption from the burdens imposed upon them by law, he executed with great ability, and not altogether without success.
When the Continental Congress met at Philadelphia in 1774, Mr. Backus was sent as an Agent from the Baptist Churches of the Warren Association, to endeavour to enlist some influence in their favour. On his return, he found that a report had preceded him that he had been attempting to break up the union of the Colonies; whereupon, he addressed himself to the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, on the 9th of December following, and was met in a manner that relieved him from all suspicion. When the Convention, in 1779, took into consideration the Constitution of the State, the subject of the extent of the civil power in connection with religion naturally came up, and, in the course of the discussion, some severe reflections were cast upon the Baptist memorial presented at Philadelphia. Mr. Backus immediately appeared in the columns of the Chronicle, in his own defence, giving a full account of his proceedings as Baptist Agent, and urging reasons for opposing an article in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of Massachusetts. He strongly repudiated the idea that the civil authority had a right to interfere in matters purely religious; and maintained vigorously and earnestly that all connection between Church and State should be dissolved.
In 1789, Mr. Backus took a journey into Virginia, and North Carolina, which kept him from his people about six months. During this time he preached an hundred and twenty-six sermons, and travelled by land and water more than three thousand miles. This journey was undertaken in consequence of a request from some of the Southern brethren, that they might have, temporarily, the aid of some one of the ministers of the Warren Association, in the wide field of labour which then opened before them.
He was honoured with the Degree of Master of Arts from Brown University in 1797.
For a few mouths previous to his death, Mr. Backus was laid by from his public labours, in consequence of a paralytic stroke, which deprived him of his speech and the use of his limbs. His reason, however, continued till the last; and, in his expiring moments, he exhibited the triumph of Christian faith. He died on the 20th of November, 1806, in the eighty-third year of his age, and the sixtieth of his ministry.
On the 29th of November, 1749, he was married to Susannah Mason, of Rehoboth, with whom he lived about fifty-one years. His own testimony was, that "she was the greatest earthly blessing which God ever gave him." They had nine children, all of whom became respectable members of society.
The following is a list of Mr. Backus' publications: -
A Discourse on the Internal Call to preach the Gospel, 1754.
A Sermon on Galatians, iv., 31, 1756.
A Sermon on Acts, xiii. 27, 1763.
A Letter to Mr. Lord, 1764.
A Sermon on Prayer, 1766.
A Discourse on Faith, 1767.
An Answer to Mr. Fish, 1768.
A Sermon on his Mother's Death, 1769.
A Second Edition of his Sermon on Galatians iv. 31, with an Answer to Mr. Frothingham, 1770.
A Plea for Liberty of Conscience, 1770. Sovereign Grace Vindicated, 1771.
A Letter concerning Taxes to support Religious Worship, 1771.
A Sermon at the Ordination of Mr. Hunt, 1772.
A Reply to Mr. Holly, 1772.
A Reply to Mr. Fish, 1773.
An Appeal to the Public, in Defence of Religious Liberty, 1773.
A Letter on the Decrees, 1773.
A History of the Baptists, Vol. I., 1777.
Government and Liberty described, 1778.
A Discourse on Baptism, 1779.
True Policy requires Equal Religious Liberty, 1779.
An Appeal to the People of Massachusetts against Arbitrary Power, 1780.
Truth is great and will prevail, 1781.
The Doctrine of Universal Salvation examined and refuted, 1782.
A Door opened for Christian Liberty, 1783.
A History of the Baptists, Vol. II., 1784.
Godliness excludes Slavery, in Answer to John Nleaveland, 1785.
The Testimony of the two Witnesses, 1786.
An Address to New England, 1787.
An Answer to Remmele on the Atonement, 1787.
An Essay on Discipline, 1787.
An Answer to Wesley on Election and Perseverance, 1789.
On the Support of Gospel Ministers, 1790.
An Essay on the Kingdom of God, 1792.
A History of the Baptists, Vol. III., 1796.
A Second Edition of his Sermon on the Death of his Mother; to which was added a short account of his Wife, who died in 1800. Published in 1803.
From the Hon. Zechariah Eddy Middleborough, Mass., May 16, 1852.
Dear Sir: I was well acquainted with the Rev. Isaac Backus, and was contemporary with him twenty-six years. Though we belonged to different denominations, being myself a Congregationalist, I had a high esteem for his character, and consider it a privilege to do any thing I can to perpetuate his memory.
All New England is indebted to Mr. Backus more, I think, than to any other man, for his researches in relation to our early ecclesiastical history. Mr. Bancroft bears the most honourable testimony to his fidelity, and considers his History, as to its facts, more to be depended on than any other of the early Histories of New England. And there is good reason why it should be so; for he sought the truth, like the old philosophers, who said "it was in a well, and long and persevering labour only could bring it up." He went to the fountain head. All our early Records at Plymouth, Taunton, Boston, Essex, Providence, Newport, Hartford, New Haven, - the Records of Courts, Towns, Churches, Ecclesiastical Councils, were thoroughly searched, and he has fully and accurately presented the results of these researches, and brought to light and remembrance many important facts and events, which, probably, would never have gone into our history but for him. His diligence, patience, and perseverance, in this department of labour, are above all praise.
And what renders this the more remarkable is that it was done in the midst of domestic cares, pastoral duties, and, I might almost say, "the care of all the churches." He was often called upon to preach at ordinations, and on other special occasions, and he wrote numerous tracts on the Order of the Churches, and in defence of True Liberty of Conscience. He was also an efficient representative of those who were seeking to enjoy this liberty, before Legislative Bodies and Civil Tribunals, Councils, and Associations. Let any man open his History, and observe the numerous extracts from documents contained in the depositories of towns and churches, in public offices, and printed books of authority, and bear in mind the extent and variety of his other engagements, and he will not doubt that he was one of the most industrious and useful men of his time. In his own day, his labours were certainly appreciated. It is truly wonderful that, amidst the poverty and privations incident to the War of the Revolution, there could have been awakened interest enough to defray the expense of publishing large volumes of History, at the high price which was then demanded for such works. The effect was a rapid increase of light and knowledge, and a rapid increase of churches and communicants.
Mr. Backus was called "Father," not only by his own people, who might well thus honour him, but by almost the entire community; and a Patriarch he was, not only by ecclesiastical powers, but as a Pastor and Divine, and in moral power and weight of well-earned and well-established character.
In regard to ornament of style, and even the arrangement of his materials, it must be acknowledged that he was deficient; but this was well compensated by the authenticity of his facts, the accuracy of his statements, and his just, philosophical and forcible reasonings. His aim evidently was, not so much to produce a classical history, as to establish facts, and make proper deductions from them, which might furnish the future historian of our country with the means of forming a right estimate of the trials to which his brethren were subjected, as well as the views and conduct in which those trials originated. He is a true Congregationalist in doctrine and discipline, except in respect to Baptism and Communion; renders a cordial testimony in
favour of John Robinson; and vindicates the Plymouth Colony from all blame in the persecutions experienced by his denomination. He preserves his temper and candour, and vindicates the rights of conscience with great skill and power. He gives several instances of veto power claimed by their Pastors, in which such claims were promptly met and put down by the Churches and Courts of law.
Mr. Backus was of a large, robust and muscular frame, made firm, probably, by his early agricultural labours, and by his travels on horseback, the greater part of his life. His large face and head appeared more venerable by reason of his very large wig, an adornment of ministers in the times in which he lived.
I have known him as a Preacher of the Gospel. His sermons were marked by strong good sense, and often striking thought, and were generally of a highly biblical character. Few men make so strong an impression upon their audience by personal appearance as he did. His venerable countenance, his large features, his imposing wig, in which he always appeared in the pulpit, his impressive gravity and deep toned voice, added to the weight of his sentiments, gave him great power over an audience.
It need not be disguised that Mr. Backus partook of the spirit of the Mathers and others, in taking a peculiar interest in what were called "Wonder-working Providences," and in admiration of striking coincidences and extraordinary appearances, bordering hard on the miraculous. Indeed, he himself related an assault of the adversary, in his experience, strongly resembling that which Luther relates as made upon himself, which he returned with his inkstand and all its contents. He was exhorting to constancy in prayer, and regular seasons of private devotion, notwithstanding all the wiles and opposition of Satan, and in that connection related the following case of his own experience: - He retired to his closet at the usual season, and, as he made the attempt to pray, Satan presented himself in bodily form, and frowned upon him in grim opposition. He turned to another side of his closet, and the same forbidding form still frowned upon him. He turned to the third, and then to the fourth, side, and still he had to encounter the same horrible appearance; "and then," he added, "I said to myself, I will pray, if I have to pray through you; and I did pray through the devil."
I attended a Baptist ordination when I was young, and, during the delivery of the sermon, he sat in the pnlpit, - an object not merely of awe, but I may say of absolute terror. In the midst of the service, he groaned in such fearful tones as started me from my seat; and this groan, which was heard distinctly through every part of the house, was repeated three times in the course of the sermon. This, however, was more than sixty years ago, when such things were regarded in a very different light from what they would be now.
Mr. Backus was full of "good works and alms deeds which he did," and "his works do follow" him. I know not that any of the churches which he founded have become extinct. Certainly his own still lives. Notwithstanding his very stinted income, that prudence, industry, and economy, by which he was so much distinguished, and that have since characterized his children and grandchildren, enabled him to leave the family estate unincumbered.
With great respect,
[From William B. Sprague, D.D., editor, Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit, Volume VI, 1860, pp. 54-58. Document from Google Books Online. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More on Isaac Backus
Baptist History Homepage