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)