Current Events Monday: Baptist Roots in Civil Rights

James Hassell   -  

A prominent, evangelical Bible scholar named Scot McKnight perhaps gave us one of the most understandable definitions of biblical justice. McKnight simply states, “Justice is doing the right thing.” In other words, loving our neighbors as ourselves is one of the most basic duties for the believer. So, if we choose to walk as Jesus walked, then taking some responsibility for the rights and needs of other persons is non-negotiable for us. Justice is an essential way of life in the Kingdom of God.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a national holiday in which we remember Dr. King’s clarion call to do the right thing, especially when it comes to our relationships with people of different races than ours. It is also a day that we can pause and remember the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) that preceded Dr. King. He certainly stood on the broad shoulders of Christians who devoted their lives both to the cause of civil rights and to the clear injunction in Scripture to set aside racialized behaviors in view of the cross of Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22). One of these vastly important characters in Baptist history who stood up for justice was Isaac Backus.

Backus’s life was formed in the crucible of America’s first Great Awakening. Born in Connecticut in 1724, Backus made a profession of faith in a revival meeting in May 1741 and soon found himself embroiled in tensions about doing the right thing. Within three years of his conversion, Backus and his family led a group of “Separatists” from their home church. Many Separatists were also known as “New Lights,” or those who were more favorable to the evangelical nature of the Great Awakening. The New Lights were opposed to the “Old Lights,” who generally preferred the status quo and attempted to put a lid on missions. By the late 1740s, Backus was called to pastor his first Congregational church. Yet, his refusal to pay church taxes and his bristling under the thumb of a committee that wanted to control him led to his being fired within six months of his start date. He was even briefly sent to debtor’s prison. Backus decided after this debacle to leave Congregationalism and become a Baptist.

By the time of the Revolutionary War, Backus became an outspoken proponent of religious freedom in the new United States. His theology regarding civil rights became clear, as well. Since God’s law, fulfilled in Christ, is that of total liberty, then people ought to be given freedom from coercion by the state (2 Corinthians 3:17). Backus also preached that love is to be the chief motivation behind all the Christian says and does. In fact, by 1774, Backus openly argued that full rights and freedoms should be given to African people in the colonies–even freedom of property. He also referred to slavery as “an abhorrent practice.” Keep in mind that Backus was saying these things in the late 1700s! One could even argue that Backus’s practices in civil disobedience laid the groundwork for fledgling Baptists to unify in the new United States and provide foundational principles for people like Dr. King to utilize in furthering the cause of freedom for all.

As you consider even the ongoing struggles that we continue to have with racism in the United States, perhaps it would do us well to remember that there are some courageous faith heroes who have gone before us. They have shown us a path for doing the right thing, regardless of the cost.