Church, Inc.

A voice from the past, Isaac Backus

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 civil magistrates."

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.]

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