Isaac Backus (1724‑1806)

Isaac Backus, Baptist minister in Middleborough, Massachusetts, waged a long fight for the rights of dissenting religion in New England. He attacked the established status of the Congregational Church which ‑even in the days of Revolution ‑continued to tax and fine and jail those who declined to support the state church. When all America was alarmed about a tax on tea, Backus wrote, should not a tax on liberty of conscience be even more an occasion of revulsion and revolt? Should we win independence from England only to surrender it to a privileged and persecuting elite at home? To escape the religious tax imposed upon all, one must apply to the state for a special exemption, for a "certificate." But to do even that implied that politicians have an authority "which we believe in our consciences belongs only to God." Backus made the following plea before the Massachusetts legislature on December 2, 1774.

Honored Gentlemen: At a time when all America are alarmed at the open and violent attempts that have been made against their liberties, it affords great cause of joy and thankfulness, to see the colonies so happily united to defend their rights; and particularly that their late Continental Congress have been directed into measures so wise and salutary for obtaining relief and securing our future liberties; and who have wisely extended their regards to the rights and freedom of the poor Africans. Since then the law of equity has prevailed so far, we hope that it will move this honorable assembly to pay a just regard to their English neighbors and brethren at home.

It seems that the two main rights which all America are contending for at this day, are‑Not to be taxed where they are not represented, and‑1b have their causes tried by unbiased judges. And the Baptist churches in this province as heartily unite with their countrymen in this cause, as any denomination in the land; and are as ready to exert all their abilities to defend it. Yet only because they have thought it to be their duty to claim an equal title to these rights with their neighbors, they have repeatedly been accused of evil attempts against the general welfare of the colony; therefore, we have thought it expedient to lay a brief statement of the case before this assembly . . . .

[Massachusetts legislators] never were empowered to lay any taxes but what were of a civil and worldly nature; and to impose religious taxes is as much out of their jurisdiction, as it can be for Britain to tax America; yet how much of this has been done in this province. Indeed, many try to elude the force of this reasoning by saying that the taxes which our rulers impose for the support of ministers, are of a civil nature. But it is certain that they call themselves ministers of Christ; and the taxes now referred to are to support them under that name; and they either are such, or else they deceive the people. If they are Christ's ministers, he has made laws enough to support them; if they are not, where are the rulers who will dare to compel people to maintain men who call themselves Christ's ministers when they are not, Those who ministered about holy things and at God's altar in the Jewish church, partook of and lived upon the things which were freely offered there; Even so hath the Lord ordained that they who preach the Gospel, should live of the Gospel. And such communications are called sacrifices to God more than once in the New Testament. And why may not civil rulers appoint and enforce with the sword, any other sacrifice as well as this. . .

Must we be blamed for not lying still, and thus let our countrymen trample upon our rights, and deny us that very liberty that they are ready to take up arms to defend for themselves, You profess to exempt us from taxes to your worship, and yet tax us every year. Great complaints have been made about a tax which the British Parliament laid upon paper; but you require a paper tax of us annually.

That which has made the greatest noise, is a tax of three pence a pound upon tea; but your law of last June laid a tax of the same sum every year upon the Baptists in each parish, as they would expect to defend themselves against a greater one. And only because the Baptists in Middleboro' have refused to pay that little tax, we hear that the first parish in said town have this fall voted to lay a greater tax upon us. All America are alarmed at the tea tax; though, if they please, they can avoid it by not buying the tea; but we have no such liberty. We must either pay the little tax, or else your people appear even in this time of extremity, determined to lay the great one upon us. But these lines are to let you know, that we are determined not to pay either of them; not only upon your principle of not being taxed where we are not represented, but also because we dare not render that homage to any earthly power, which I and many of my brethren are fully convinced belongs only to God. We cannot give in the certificates you require, without implicitly allowing to men that authority which we believe in our consciences belongs only to God. Here, therefore, we claim charter rights, liberty of conscience. And if any still deny it to us, they must answer it to Him who has said, `With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.'

If any ask what we would have, we answer: Only allow us freely to enjoy the religious liberty, that they do in Boston, and we ask no more.

We remain hearty friends to our country, and ready to do all in our power for its general welfare.

ISAAC BACKUS, Agent for the Baptist Churches in this Province.
By advice of their Committee.
Boston, Dec. 2, 1774.