A voice from the past,
The attack which found the most general response among
the rural Baptist, and with which Backus himself thoroughly agreed,
was against the trend among the Baptist churches, led by Hezekiah
Smith of Haverhill, to seek legal incorporation from the legislature.
This problem plagued the Baptist continually after the Cutter
case in 1785, and it divided the denomination during Backus's
last years almost as badly as the boycott of certificates which
he had urged in 1773.
The obvious reason for incorporation was to comply with
the decision in the Cutter case, and thus be sure that religious
taxes paid by Baptists would be returned to their ministers by
parish or town treasures. For some Baptists, a more compelling
reason was to enable a congregation to make binding contracts
between its members and its pastor; thereby guaranteeing regular
payment of a decent salary. Backus had often criticized his brethren
for covetousness in failing to give adequate voluntary support
to their pastors, but he could never regard the relationship between
a pastor and his flock as a purely civil contract enforceable
by law. He viewed the relationship at all levels as purely spiritual.
To use the state to collect salaries was as wrong for the Baptists
as for the Congregationalists.
Backus also believed that incorporation acknowledged the
right of the state to decide which churches could and which could
not be chartered. In addition, incorporation gave all persons
in the congregation the right to vote on building or repairing
a meeting house as well as paying the minister's salary. The unconverted
members might then be able to outvote the converted, thereby allowing
the worldlings to lord it over the saints. Baptist societies,
acting like Congregational parishes, would face the same bitter
conflicts between church and congregation.
Some Baptists argued that incorporation was necessary to
hold property or endowment funds in the name of the church. But
Backus pointed out that the law gave the deacons, or any other
suitably appointed persons, power to "receive and hold estates
or donations which are given for religious purposes, and to manage
the same at the direction and for the good of the church or society."
This device was wholly sufficient to meed the needs of the Baptists
in this respect.
Backus was of course well aware that in some places the
refusal of a Baptist congregation to obtain incorporation meant
distraint and imprisonment for those who conscientiously refused
to pay religious taxes they might otherwise avoid. On January
20, 1790, three members of the Baptist church in New Gloucester
in the District of Maine (then part of Massachusetts) asked his
advice on precisely the issue. They had only a part time minister
and the town had decided that this did not qualify them for exemption.
It threatened "a Law Suit unless we will Petition the General
Court to be set off as a Society by our selves; this they are
in General Very willing for and as we now stand according to the
Constitution they must rate us Say they~ Now sir Would you Advise
us to Petition the General Court or Not?" Backus unquestionably
wished them not to seek incorporation and to suffer the consequences.
However, they did petition the legislature and secured incorporation.
The annual meeting of the Warren Association in September,
1791, learned that two Baptist societies had sought incorporation,
but that Samuel Stillman had persuaded them to withdraw their
petitions and seek advice from the Association. Backus spoke vigorously
for a resolution against incorporation, while Hezekiah Smith spoke
in favor of letting each church make its own decision on the matter.
Backus won the day and the association resolved "That it
be earnestly commended to the churches belonging to this association
by no means to apply to civil government for incorporation .;..
because we cannot consent to blend the kingdom of Christ with
the kingdoms of this world nor to support it by the power of the
But Hezekiah Smith's congregation refused to follow this
recommendation. In 1793 the Haverhill Baptists petitioned for
and secured incorporation. Backus angrily brought the matter before
the Association, which once again voted its disapproval. But resolutions
could not settle the problem. In 1798 the Baptist churches in
Harwich and Brookfield followed Haverhill's example, as did Ashfield
in 1800. Over the next decade a score of other Baptist churches
successfully sought the same privilege... [Isaac Backus and
the American Pietistic Tradition, Little, Brown & CQ, Boston,
Mass., 1967, pp 220, 221, 222.]
['The Biblical Examiner']