The Death of Rev. Isaac Backus, 1806

2017-11-17T18:04:15+00:00 November 20, 2017|HH 2017|

The Death of Rev. Isaac Backus, November 21, 1806

It has become fashionable among historians, including some Christian ones, to denigrate the “Great Awakening” as evidence of a mere psychological phenomenon in American history, associated with certain preachers of a new and hysterical evangelicalism in the mid-18th century. One book views George Whitefield as a master of religious marketing, and the responses to his preaching emotion-driven aberrations from orthodox preaching and historic Protestant pulpit ministry. If that was all that such spiritual awakenings consisted of, changed lives would likely be short-term and the Church itself relatively unaffected over the long-term. Controversial in the era in which it occurred, the Great Awakening (not called that till a book of that title was published in the 1840s) did result in real lifelong and life-changing conversions which profoundly affected individuals and churches. One of the most prominent was Isaac Backus, who died on this day in 1806.


A scene from the First Great Awakening — George Whitfield preaches to a crowd near Bolton, England

Backus was born into a typical Norwich, Connecticut Congregationalist farm family in 1724. The larger Backus family of grandparents, father, uncles, and cousins provided the region with a sawmill, gristmill, general store, ironworks, and blacksmith shops as well as sheep herds, orchards and produce. The Backuses served in local government, the colonial legislature, and militias. One became a minister and married Jonathan Edwards’s sister, another married a Revolutionary War general. Isaac was the fourth of eleven children. Life on the farm made him strong and healthy, church attendance and catechizing made him knowledgeable but unconverted till his seventeenth year.


Isaac Backus (1724-1806)

The preaching of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards and other “revivalist” preachers found open pulpits and eager parishioners all across the Connecticut Valley, including the Congregationalist church in Norwich. Isaac later said that “his soul was drawn to Christ and his righteousness and . . . my burden of sin was gone,” a testimony made by multiple thousands of Americans in all thirteen colonies over several years of powerful Gospel preaching. Young Isaac Backus soon joined a Separate congregation and pursued a call to be a preacher himself. Later joining the Baptists, the former farm-boy became one of the most powerful preachers during the days of American independence and beyond. He was to preach for more than sixty years and travel more than 70,000 miles! Backus served as a trustee for what became Brown University in Rhode Island, a Baptist stronghold.


George Whitefield (1714-1770)


Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

From 1769 Isaac Backus played a key intellectual and practical role toward securing independence from England and religious liberty for Christians who dissented from the established churches. He wrote tracts, petitions and letters. He fought for the disestablishment of the Congregationalist Church, a fight he would not live to see consummated twenty years after his death. The most important of the thirty-seven tracts he published was An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppression of the Present Day (1773). His fight on that front is often likened to the efforts of George Mason and Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, but from a perspective that sought a thoroughly Christian civil government.


Main Street Norwich, Connecticut in 1916

Backus was fifty-one when the Revolutionary War began. He led the New England Baptists as Patriots in support of independence, but always with the hope for religious liberty to go along with the political. During and especially after the war, Backus defended a strict Calvinist theology against the deism and Arminianism that had made inroads among Baptists in the new nation. His apologetical sermons and tracts focused on what he considered the largest threats of the Reformed Baptists: Shakers, Universalists, Methodism, and Free-Will Baptists. As a delegate to the Ratification of the Constitution Convention in Massachusetts, Backus reluctantly supported ratification with the promise of amendments guaranteeing religious freedom and other important rights.
Isaac Backus supported the Jeffersonian Republicans in the midst of a solidly Federalist New England. He defied John Adams and the others regarding the continued establishment of the Congregationalist Church and he strongly supported, along with “Trinitarian Congregationalists” the application of biblical law regarding the Sabbath, and laws against profanity, gambling, and drunkenness. Isaac died at eighty-two, known by all who knew him, as “Father.” One of his biographers concludes the summary of the life of Isaac Backus:

“[His] importance lies beyond his relationship to his denomination or to the movement to separate Church and State. It lies in his almost perfect embodiment of the evangelical spirit of his times. . . Few men expressed so well in thought and action that vigorous, fervent, conscientious, experimental pietism which constituted the fundamental spirit of the new nation and which made its experiment in freedom unique.” (Isaac Backus, by Williams G. McLoughlin)

The Birth of Richard Baxter, 1615

2017-11-10T00:46:25+00:00 November 13, 2017|HH 2017|

“I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will be converted to you.” —Psalm 51:13

The Birth of Richard Baxter, November 14, 1615

In God’s good providence, the seventeenth century produced many great preachers of the Gospel, especially in England and Scotland. They were born in times of persecution and trouble, to be sure, but as the conveyors of the Reformation faith of the previous century, those men left behind books, sermons, pamphlets, and speeches — not to mention examples of courage and sacrifice — that have inspired the Church for centuries. Unlike his contemporaries, Richard Baxter did not attend Oxford; he attached himself to a country chaplain at Ludlow near his birthplace in Shropshire, and learned primarily as an autodidact, just studying the Scriptures on his own and reading books in the considerable library of the Castle, on a promontory overlooking River Teme. In time he would become the most powerful and most prolific of all the English Puritans.


Richard Baxter (1615-1691)
17th-century English Puritan, theologian and church leader


John Owen (1616-1683)
At the advice of Owen, schoolmaster at Wroxeter, Baxter opted not to attend Oxford

Baxter received tutoring from different local clergy and was eventually ordained by the Bishop of Worcester. In conversations with several dissenting minister in the 1630s, Richard Baxter began to move away from some of the superstitions and appurtenances of established Anglicanism. Baxter developed a preaching style that was at once fervent and evangelistic, distinguishing him from the typical Anglican rector. As assistant pastor, he was excused from duties he considered unlawful. In 1641 Baxter was invited to become lecturer at St. Mary’s in Kidderminster, with a congregation of three thousand; so powerful did Baxter’s ministry there become that one observer commented that “among the moral (much less the godly) were to be counted on ten fingers, ere very long a passing traveler along the streets at a given hour heard the sounds of praise and praise in every household.”


Ludlow Castle

When the English Civil Wars began, Baxter sided with Parliament in a largely loyalist county, so he moved near a garrison of Parliamentary troops and preached to them every Sunday, and to the townsmen later the same day. Oliver Cromwell’s Cavalry officers asked the Kidderminster pastor to become the pastor of their troop, as if a church, an offer Baxter rejected as unbiblical. He continued serving as army chaplain on campaign and eventually developed a severe illness, he thought would likely prove fatal. Baxter retired from the service to seek recovery. In that time he wrote the first of his 168 books, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, which proved to be a Christian classic, still in print. Richard survived his illness and served his Kidderminster Church with untiring zeal from 1647-1660, catechizing, with an assistant, eight hundred families every year, beside all his preaching duties and writing.


St. Mary’s Church in Kidderminster

At the urging of Archbishop James Ussher, he “produced a directory for afflicted consciences, appealing to the unconverted and to all ranks of professing Christians,” which became a popular work known As A Christian Directory. He remained a critic of Cromwell and other Independents, especially the radicals that had come out of the war. He preached before the Lord Protector but their relationship remained cool. As a moderate, Baxter was among the preachers called by Parliament to welcome the return of Charles II to the throne; he became one of only four men who preached before the King. Baxter rejected a bishopric and was expelled from his pulpit in the 1662 Act of Conformity imposed on all the Puritan preachers.


James Ussher (1581-1656)
Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland


Baxter’s seminal work, A Christian Directory, Or Body of Practical Divinity

Richard Baxter was jailed a number of times for preaching in violation of the sanctions against him. He continued to write, even in prison. Hauled before the notorious Judge “Bloody” Jeffries as a Non-conformist rebel preacher, the judge said, “Richard, I see the rogue in your face.” Baxter shot back, “I did not know my face was such a true mirror.” After the Glorious Revolution and the accession of William and Mary to the throne, Baxter continued preaching till he died. Baxter’s outspokenness and attempts to steer middle courses in politics and theology got him into constant trouble in his own day and among Reformed scholars to the present. He wrote toward the end of his life that “the Gospel dieth not when I die; the church dieth not; the World dieth not; . . . and it may be that some of the seed that I have sown shall spring up to some benefit of the dark unpeaceable world when I am dead.” It has.

John Hanson Elected President, 1781

2017-11-04T19:59:28+00:00 November 6, 2017|HH 2017|

“He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in much…” —Luke 16:10

John Hanson Elected President, November 5, 1781

Three different floors in the United States Capitol display significant and representative statues of great historical characters, two from each state. Many of them are well known, like George Washington and Robert E. Lee of Virginia, or John Winthrop and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts. Others are more obscure figures in American history but their state deems them representative of their homeland. John Hanson of Maryland is more typical of the latter type. But just because he lacks recognition from the general run of Americans who visit Congress, does not mean Hanson lacks significance, especially in his own era. In some ways, John Hanson was the quintessential American who inherited a special legacy and left one behind for others to follow.


John Hanson (1721-1783)


National Statuary Hall

John Hanson’s great-grandfather died fighting behind King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden at the Battle of Lutzen. Adolphus was one of the greatest generals of history and led the Protestants of Europe in the Thirty Years War, upon which the continued existence of Protestant nations depended. Hanson’s immigrant grandfather came to America as an indentured servant in 1661. He worked off his indenture, married, and set an example of a hard-working father for his children to follow. John Hanson’s father left him a thousand-acre plantation and an example of public service in the legislature. At twenty-five Hanson married sixteen-year-old Jane Contee, who gave birth to nine children, four of whom died in childhood.


John Hanson portrait c. late 1760s


Etching based on painting from c. 1781

Hanson’s political career began with his election to the Maryland Colonial Assembly in 1757, in which he served for many years. He was sent by the Charles County voters to the revolutionary Convention in Annapolis in 1774, which in 1776 called itself the Assembly of Freemen. He was sent as a delegate to Congress in 1779 and when America’s first Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, took effect, he became the first President of the Confederation who served out a full term. The Maryland patriot was at the center of a family who spared no arrows in the conflict with England and the aftermath of the Republic. His son Peter was killed in action at Fort Washington in 1776. Among his nephews, one was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, another a signer of the Constitution, one served as George Washington’s military secretary during the war, and another became Governor of Maryland.

John Hanson did not live long enough to see the writing and ratification of the Constitution of the United State, dying in 1783. In his short term in office as President, he oversaw the exit of British troops from the country. He also set the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day. While not a signer of the principle documents, Hanson played a key role in the establishment of Maryland’s independence and the formation of the Republic. There is a strong movement underway in Maryland to replace his statue in Congress with Harriet Tubman, a former slave who was involved in the “underground railroad” prior to the Civil War.


Frederick, Maryland Courthouse Memorial Statue of John Hanson

The Birth of Samuel Davies, 1723

2017-11-04T20:00:04+00:00 October 30, 2017|HH 2017|

“How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News of Good Things?’” —Romans 10: 15-16

The Birth of Samuel Davies, 1723

His godly parents, Welsh immigrants to Colonial Delaware, named him after the prophet Samuel and dedicated him to the service of God. His mother homeschooled him to the age of ten, and by fifteen Samuel was determined to pursue Gospel ministry. He entered formal theological training under the Rev. Samuel Blair and was ordained to preach by the Newcastle Presbytery. Always a sickly youth, his intense studies damaged his health further to the extent that he thought he would not live much longer. He later told his congregation that we “all live on the edge of eternity.” While Samuel Davies attended to his studies and struggled with his health, the “Great Awakening,” a widespread spiritual revival and expansion of the Church in America, swept the colonies. Providence ordained that young Samuel Davies would become God’s instrument for the conversion of many souls and the expansion of His kingdom in Virginia.


Samuel Davies (1723-1761)

The Anglican Church had long remained the established church of Virginia. Non-church members could not serve in civil government or as an officer in the military forces. Dissenters were rudely treated, fined, and ostracized if they failed to attend the local parish church. But many of those parish churches lacked spiritual life, and men hungered for “heart religion” and expositional preaching though they barely knew what that might be. In Hanover County, several families had gotten hold of some of Martin Luther’s writings and printed sermons of George Whitefield. They would gather to read those evangelical works and would attend the preaching services of itinerant ministers who travelled through frontier areas preaching the Gospel.


A scene from the First Great Awakening —
George Whitfield preaches to a crowd near Bolton, England

After inquiring for a full-time preacher to minister to their spiritual needs, the presbytery of New Castle sent Samuel Davies to Hanover as an evangelist. Davies travelled to the Capitol in Williamsburg to petition the General Court of the Colony to issue him a license to preach, so his parishioners would not be fined or jailed for attending dissenting congregations. His powerful message stunned the Burgesses into realizing he was not a fly-by-night heretical threat to the true Christian message — he, in fact, embodied it. The Royal governor favored his application. Over the opposition of established ministers and their political representatives, Davies was given leave to travel and preach.


The Old Capitol Building in Williamsburg, Virginia

His sermons electrified the hearers, many professed Christ and small gatherings of believers were established in their faith. The gathered saints, one hundred fifty heads of households, in Hanover called him to full-time pastoral ministry. His health broken by the death of his wife, and uncertainty about his own survival were overcome by the urgency and unction to preach. For the next six years he travelled hundreds of miles and preached in six counties surrounding Hanover. Presbyterian Churches were established almost everywhere he went as hundreds of people came to Christ, including the slaves, for whom he had a special burden. The mother of Patrick Henry was converted and became a member of his church and young Patrick sat at Davies feet for several years, hearing the powerful oratory of one of the most powerful preachers in American history. He put his learning to good use.


1903 photo of Nassau Hall, constructed in 1756, the oldest building in what later became Princeton University, and the building for which Davies helped raise funds

In the course of his life he also travelled to England and Scotland to help raise funds for the Presbyterian College of New Jersey, later called Princeton and preached to great effect in both places. Davies also became President of Princeton, dying in office in about two years, at the age of thirty-seven. He published a book of poetry, some of which are sung in hymnals today and his four volumes of sermons have been a blessing to thousands. He raised troops to defend the colony from the French and received the accolades of the Royal Governor. For a life lived on the edge of eternity, Samuel Davies was used of God to expand his kingdom and plant churches whose spiritual descendants continue the faithful preaching of the Sovereignty of God and the Gospel of Grace to this day.

The Battle of Agincourt, 1415

2017-10-20T21:23:23+00:00 October 23, 2017|HH 2017|

“They were equipped with bows, using both the right and the left to sling stones and to shoot arrows from the bow.” —I Chronicles 12:2

The Battle of Agincourt, October 25, 1415

Had William Shakespeare not written Henry V (1599), the Battle of Agincourt (1415) may have remained but an obscure medieval battle between the seemingly interminable enemies, Britain and France. The engagement has taken its place among the great battles of European history due especially to the effect of the English longbow on massed French troops and the unequal losses of the combatants. Military historian John Keegan in his ground-breaking study of the anatomy of combat in The Face of Battle (1976), re-ignited interest in Agincourt. The battle rarely makes the list in books like 50 Battles That Changed the World (William Weir, 2004) or the classic The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World (Sir Edward Creasy, 1851), but as recently as 2008 Bernard Cornwell, the best story-teller among historical novelists who write on the intimate details and foibles of battle, made the New York Times best-seller list with Azincourt, the battle re-told with accuracy and panache, but far too graphic for most of our readers. Agincourt made it to the big screen twice, the most recent being Henry V, directed by Kenneth Branagh (1989).


King Henry (1386-1422) was king of England from 1413 until his death in 1422 at the age of 36


With his play Henry V, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) immortalized what may have otherwise remained an obscure battle

The setting for the battle was the Hundred Years’ War, which was an on-again off-again, dynastic struggle for the crown of France between the Valois Kings of France and the Plantagenet Kings of England for five generations, often engulfing many other kingdoms of Europe during the times of chivalry and medieval civilization. Henry, not the most charming or appealing of English kings, demanded several provinces of France as his due from both genealogical claim and Salic law. He included in the bargain the physically weak and addled French King’s young daughter, Catherine, for marriage. The counter-offer, though generous, was rejected by Henry as far too little and, perhaps, mocking. His council of nobles agreed to invade France, led by the young king himself.


This 1884 painting by Sir John Gilbert depicts the morning of the Battle of Agincourt — October 25, 1415

The campaign consisted of a too-long siege of the city of Harfleur, a long, wet, starving, sickly march to Calais, suddenly blocked by a huge French army led by the Dauphin, son of the King. If ever the odds were stacked against a worn-out, bedraggled army, suffering from dysentery and eager to embark for home, this was it. Henry, however, determined to fight it out and leave the consequences to God.


John I, Duke of Alençon fights against King Henry V and Edward of York at the Battle of Agincourt

The key to victory in most medieval battles was the armor-clad knights and noblemen, normally mounted, and the men-at-arms prepared to fight on the ground with sword and lance. Best estimates number Henry’s men-at-arms at 1,500 with 5,000 archers. The English archers had trained from their youth in the skills of the longbow, made from ash, and equipped with dozens of deadly arrows. The archers wore no armor but carried self-defense weapons like axes, knives, and mauls.


King Henry V rides past the cavalry at the Battle of Agincourt


French and English archers face off in this 15th-century painting of the battle

Henry positioned his army between two forests with wet plowed ground in front. He delivered a speech to his assembled knights that, in the pen of Shakespeare, has become a by-word for courage, resolve, and military brotherhood. Some believe the French forces totaled about 50,000 men, with more racing to join them. The mounted knights arrayed themselves in front of the men-at-arms and other infantry, hoping to mow down the English knights in quick succession. Seizing a rich enemy as prisoner could bring ransoms that far exceeded their own wealth and set them up economically for life. Impatient for the arrival of reinforcements, enticed by the rich prizes arrayed before them — including the King of England — and insulted by the impudence of their foe, the French cavalry charged. The sharpened stakes of the archers forced the French cavalry into a narrow, sticky killing ground. The clouds of longbow arrows brought down many horses, which clogged the escape route and impeded the infantry attack. The French men-at-arms fell in the mud and were suffocated and trampled while the rear soldiers pushed to get within sword range.


Numerous folk songs were written soon after the English victory, the most popular of which was the “Agincourt Carol” produced in the first half of the 15th century

The slaughter was fearsome. The French may have lost up to 10,000 men, at least six times the loss of the English, and many of them the flower of the nobility of France. Henry got some of what he desired, including Catherine, but his death a few years later put an end to English pretentions, and later generations would fight to regain lost land and glory.

Watch Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of Henry V’s pre-battle speech to his troops. You can also read Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech in its entirety