Isaac Backus
The Man Who Changed the Movement of the Sun

In the early 1600s the Puritans, seeking freedom from civil and religious persecution, braved a perilous ocean voyage and the hardship of the wilderness to establish a place where they could freely worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience. They established the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Congregational Church as their established church. In one of the paradoxes of history, the Puritans who fled to America to obtain religious freedom became persecutors of those who dissented from their religious beliefs. As a result of their intolerance they banished, imprisoned, publicly whipped, taxed and seized the goods of those who refused to support a church they did not attend and pastors whose doctrines they rejected. The Baptists and Quakers were the primary recipients of this Puritan intolerance. In 1741 Isaac Backus was converted during the Great Awakening. Fifteen years later in 1756, after years of struggling with the issue of infant baptism, Backus and six of his Separate Congregation were immersed and organized the Baptist church in Middleborough, Massachusetts. Backus and his family had personally suffered the indignities of religious intolerance. This suffering had made him a determined and active opponent of religious intolerance and a staunch defender of religious liberty. In 1774 the thirteen colonies had voted to meet in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the British violations of their civil liberties. The Warren Baptist Association, believing this would be an ideal time to present their grievances, chose Isaac Backus to represent them before the Massachusetts Delegation. Backus and his fellow Baptists were seeking liberty of conscience for all dissenters and an end to the using of public funds for the support of any church or religious group. The meeting took place October 14, 1774 in Carpenter’s Hall. Dr. James Manning, the President of Rhode Island College and pastor of First Baptist Church of Providence read the petition from the Baptists and Isaac Backus explained it. John Adams, the leader of the Massachusetts Delegation, was visibly agitated. He and Samuel Adams gave lengthy speeches and asserted that the Baptist claims of persecution and intolerance were exaggerated. Finally after four hours of discussion, John Adams said, “Gentlemen if you mean to try to effect a change in Massachusetts laws respecting religion, you may as well attempt to change the course of the sun in the heavens.” The Baptist delegation failed to obtain their objective but Backus, believing that religious liberty was a God-given right, continued to speak publicly, write pamphlets, and petition the legislature denouncing civil and religious intolerance. Unfortunately, Backus did not live to see the sun change its course for he died November 20, 1806, but his successors continued the battle until the Massachusetts Legislature finally passed a Bill of Rights in 1833 officially separating Church and State. This legislation was enacted forty-two years after the U.S. Congress passed the Bill of Rights guaranteeing Religious Freedom. John Adams was wrong the course of the sun could be changed. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Isaac Backus and our Baptist forefathers for the sacrifice they made to obtain our religious liberty.