Freedom of religion seems like it has always been foundational to America. As Brandon O’Brien tells in Demanding Liberty, however, this was long in doubt and has regularly needed defense even since it was enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
decades before and after the revolution, opinions ranged from those favoring a state-sponsored church to some like Jefferson who thought the government should not even give tax relief to any church. Yet during this period a little-known, uneducated Baptist pastor, Isaac Backus, articulated “the principles of separation of Church and State which were to predominate in American life until very recently” (p. 4).
As a young man, Backus took to heart the faith preached in the revivals of Whitefield. One unintended result was to be marginalized, as Baptists and Quakers typically were by the Congregationalists who controlled religious life in New England. Members of these “irregular churches” could be required to pay taxes to fund Congregationalist churches. Many unlicensed preachers of the day were also fined and imprisoned.
For half a century Backus’s efforts on behalf of freedom slowly became more intense and wide ranging. He was a founding board member of what became Brown University whose purpose was to educate and credential Baptist pastors. He meticulously gathered testimony and evidence regarding religious dissenters in New England who were oppressed by local government officials. He wrote tracts and pamphlets as well as a multivolume history of Baptists in America detailing their experiences.
As a result of his leadership, he was selected by the Baptists to present their case to the first Continental Congress. Backus made an innovative argument to Samuel Adams, John Adams, and others that the roles of civil and ecclesiastical government should be separated. The problem was that Backus was so used to contending with churchmen that his theological arguments to these lawyers and politicians made little headway.
O’Brien provides a book which reads like any fine narrative history, he also interjects interesting connections with present-day America. How did Backus’s options differ from today when he decided to leave his church? In an age of extreme polarization, does our view of religious liberty encompass those we disagree with? When public appeals to religious ideas have little influence, how can we present our concerns in ways that make sense to a secular audience?
O’Brien also notes the ongoing legacy of early American evangelical faith. Not only has the notion of being born again retained currency, but so has “a sense of embattlement in the American Christian psyche.” And he wonders if “what some evangelicals interpret as discrimination, or even persecution, is actually loss of influence” (pp. 53, 90).
Ultimately, the author is right in his basic contention. Backus’s life can correct our views of America and the ongoing challenges to worship as we choose.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.