Colonial Baptists on Rulers by Contract and Religious Taxation as Theft

James Renihan posted a short quote today at the Institute for Reformed Baptist Studies blog from a resolution written by Massachusetts Baptists to the Massachusetts General Assembly (Congress). The quote and historical account provided by Isaac Backus are very helpful in demonstrating some important points about reformed political philosophy.

As I have shown in previous posts (see here and here), reformed political philosophy/theology held that the office of civil magistrate was ordained by God, but the only way any particular individual came to hold that office was by the consent of the people. And the way that consent was given was in the form of a conditional compact, or agreement that limited the individual’s authority to particular duties. If a ruler attempted to wield the sword in any matter beyond what was specified in the compact, he was acting as a private individual, not as a magistrate, and could therefore be resisted. Furthermore, it was held that the people were not able to give the ruler a blank check to be a tyrant. They “cannot resign to others that which they have not in themselves” (Rutherford). Beza said “if any people has consciously and of its free will granted assent to an undertaking which is as such evidently sinful and opposed to the law of nature, such obligation is null and void.”

With that in mind, let’s look at the Massachusetts Baptist resolution.

Our real grievances are, that we, as well as our fathers, have, from time to time, been taxed on religious accounts where we were not represented; and when we have sued for our rights, our causes have been tried by interested judges. That the Representatives in former Assemblies, as well as the present, were elected by virtue only of civil and worldly qualifications, is a truth so evident, that we presume it need not be proved to this Assembly; and for a civil Legislature to impose religious taxes, is, we conceive, a power which their constituents never had to give; and is therefore going entirely out of their jurisdiction… Under the legal dispensation, where God himself prescribed the exact proportion of what the people were to give, yet none but persons of the worst characters ever attempted to take it by force. 1 Sam. 2:12, 16; Mich. 3:5-9. How daring then, must it be for any to do it for Christ’s ministers, who says, My kingdom is not of this world!… We beseech this honorable Assembly to take these matters into their wise and serious consideration, before him who has said, With what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again. Is not all America now appealing to heaven against the injustice of being taxed where we are not represented, and against being judged by men who are interested in getting away our money? And will heaven approve of your doing the same thing to your fellow servants? No, surely… We have no desire of representing this government as the worst of any who have imposed religious taxes; we fully believe the contrary. Yet, as we are persuaded that an entire freedom from being taxed by civil rulers to religious worship, is not a mere favor, from any man or men in the world, but a right and property granted us by God, who commands us to stand fast in it, we have not only the same reason to refuse an acknowledgement of such a taxing power here, as America has the above-said power, but also, according to our present light, we should wrong our consciences in allowing that power to men, which we believe belongs only to God.

(take from Isaac Backus’ History of New England Baptists, Vol. 2, p. 203-204)

Massachusetts required all citizens to pay a tax to support their parish minister. Baptists refused to. From the above, we can see that they argued Massachusetts had no jurisdiction to use force to take money from them to pay a minister they did not support because that was “a power which their constituents never had to give” to the rulers. The people did not have the authority to require anyone to financially support a minister they did not voluntarily support, therefore they could not give that authority to the civil magistrate in the compact. Therefore they did not have that authority and were out of their jurisdiction to require it, and therefore the Baptists could ignore them.

Backus explained the principle.

The first Baptist minister in America publicly held forth, that all righteous government is founded in compact, expressed or implied; so that every officer, whether succeeding or elected, who intermeddles in any matter not fairly derived from thence, goes beyond his commission. (Vol II, 198)

He was referring to Roger Williams. In Volume 1, Backus provides a summary of Williams’ lengthy debate with John Cotton on religious liberty. He provides this quote from Williams.

Every lawful magistrate, whether succeeding or elected, is not only the minister of God, but the minister or servant of the people also (what people or nation soever they be, all the world over) and that minister or magistrate goes beyond his commission, who intermeddles with that which cannot be given him in commission from the people, unless Master Cotton can prove that all the people and inhabitants of all the nations in the world have spiritual power, Christ’s power, naturally, fundamentally, and originally residing in them, to rule Christ’s spouse, the church, and to give spiritual power to their officers to exercise their spiritual laws and commands; otherwise it is but profaning the holy name of the Most High. It is but flattering of magistrates, it is but the accursed trusting to an arm of flesh, to persuade rulers of the earth that they are kings of the Israel or church of God, who were in their institutions and government immediately from God, the rulers of his holy church and people. W., p. 96. (quoted in Backus, Vol. I, 142)

Williams’ point, with which the Baptists agreed and argued from, was that “the people” do not possess any authority to use force to govern the affairs of the church, therefore they cannot give that authority to a ruler, therefore no ruler has that authority.

The Baptists went on to say “as we are persuaded that an entire freedom from being taxed by civil rulers to religious worship, is not a mere favor, from any man or men in the world.” They are referring to the fact that Massachusetts had allowed certain approved non-established churches to make a list of the people who regularly attended their church and then send that list to the state to obtain a certificate that would exempt them from the established church tax. Backus notes “no tongue nor pen can fully describe all the evils that were practiced under it.” In representing the Baptists amongst Delegates to Congress, Backus said “it is absolutely a point of conscience with me; for I cannot give in the certificates they require without implicitly acknowledging that power in man which I believe belongs only to God.” (202 fn 2)

From these points, the Baptists concluded “an entire freedom from being taxed by civil rulers to religious worship, is not a mere favor, from any man or men in the world, but a right and property granted us by God.” That is, religious taxation was theft.

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