Isaac Backus’ Comments on the Non-Establishment Clause

“That colony was first planted in 1607, the first of all our colonies, and the church of England had all the government there until 1775, when Britain commenced a war against us* in which dissenters from them prevailed, and took away the support of those ministers by law. And though they tried hard to regain their power afterwards, yet in the beginning of 1786, a law was made, which said,

…” Be it therefore enailed by the General Assembly, ,That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or bur- thened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or be lief ; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in mat ters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities…

And Christianity has never appeared in the world, in its primitive purity and glory, since infant baptism was brought in, and after it the sword of the magistrate to support religious teachers. Yea, the foregoing declaration of Dr. Chauncy plainly says as much ; and the inconsistencies and contradictions, that he and others have been guilty of, serve to confirm the above observations. The credit of the paper money, which supported our war for several years, gradually declined, until it entirely failed in 1781 ; so that if a kind Providence had not opened other ways for us, the independence of America could not have been establish ed. And when that was granted, private and pub lic debts, and the fierce methods that were taken to recover them, brought on an insurrection in the Massachusetts, where the war began.

It was then found to be necessary for a new plan to be formed for the government of all these states ; and this was done in 1787. A large convention met at Boston, in January, 1788, to consider of this new constitution, where men discovered what was in their hearts in various ways. I before observed that a constitution for the Massachusetts was formed in 1778, which was not accepted. But I would observe now, that when it was in suspence, a noted minister said to our rulers, ” Let the restraints of religion once be broken down, as they infallibly would be by leaving the subject of public worship to the humours of the multitude, and we might well defy all human wisdom and power to support and preserve order and government in the state.”*

Yet this same man was in the Convention of 1788, wherein much was said against adopting a constitution of government, which had no religious tests in it ; and he was then in favour of the constitution, and to promote the adoption of it, he said, ” The great object of religion being God supreme, and the seat of religion in man being the heart or conscience, that is, the reason God has given us, employed on our moral actions, in their most important consequences, as related to the tribunal of” God, hence I infer, that God alone is the God of the conscience, and consequently, attempts to erect human tribunals for the consciences of , men, are impious encroachments upon the prerogatives of God.”*

Can these two paragraphs, from one man, possibly be reconciled together? Yea, or can any men support ministers by the sword of the magistrate, without acting contrary to a good conscience? The support of the ministers of Christ is as plainly a matter of conscience towards God, as any ordinance of his worship is. This I shall more clearly prove hereafter. In the mean time, the sentiments and example of the greatest men in America, deserve our serious notice.

After General Washington was established as President of these United States, a general committee of the Baptist churches in Virginia presented an address to him, in August, 1789, wherein they expressed an high regard for him ; but a fear that our religious rights were not well secured in our new constitution of government. In answer to which, he assured them of his readiness to use his influence to make them more secure, and then said, ” While I recollect with satisfaction, that the religious society of which you are members, have been throughout America, uniformly and almost unanimously the firm friends of civil liberty, and the persevering promoters of our glorious revolution, I cannot hesitate to believe, that they will be the faithful supporters of a free, yet efficient general government,”*

And an amendment to the constitution was made the next month, which says, ” Congress shall make no law, establishing articles of faith, or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition to the government for a redress of grievances.” This was dated September 23, 1789 ; and it has been adopted by so many of the States, that it is part of the constitution of our general government, and yet the Massachusetts and Connecticut act contrary to it to this day.

And so all the evils that worldly establishments have ever produced, ought to be considered as a warning to them ; for our Lord assured the Jews, that all the blood which had been shed by former persecutors^ whom they imitated, should be required of them. Mat. xxiii. 29—35. And the blood that was shed at Boston, an hundred and forty years ago, brought the greatest reproach upon New-England, of any thing that was ever done in it.

A mistaken idea of good, in maintaining the government of the church over the world, was the cause of that evil ; but the worst of men in our land have equal votes with the best, in our present government. A view of this caused many fathers in Boston to procure an act to abolish the use of force there for the support of religious ministers ; and all that is done of that nature in the country, is contrary to that example, as well as to our national government. A work of the Spirit of God at this time discovered the glory of a free gospel ; for many new plantations on our eastern coasts had scarce any ministers at all to preach to them, as a view to worldly gain could not draw them there ;