LIFE AND TIMES OF ISAAC BACKUS. CHAPTER I. MOULDING INFLUENCES.
Silence of Christians as to Their Life Before Conversion.- No Account of the Early Life of Mr. Backus.- Best Substitute for Such an Account. - Congregationalism of the Planters of Connecticut.- Cambridge Platform.- Connection of Church and State.- Tendency to Presbyterianism. Saybrook Platform. General Adoption of It.-- Rejection of it in Norwich.- Character of Mr. Backus's Grandfather.- Of His Grandmother.- Of His Father.- Of His Mother.- Extracts from Her Letters.- His Literary Education in Youth.
Many of the early Christians looked upon their existence prior to conversion as unworthy of being called life, and spoke of the time which brought them into fellowship with Christ by His Spirit as the day of their birth. When therefore for any reason they gave a biographical account of themselves or of others, very little attention was paid to that which preceded their reception of Christ. "Whence shall I begin," inquires Pontius, in his life of Cyprian, "but from the dawn of his faith and from his celestial life?" The Confessions of Augustine are an important exception to our statement; and the flood of light which they pour upon his own character and upon the age in which he lived awakens deep regret at the mistake of others in consigning their early history to oblivion.
But this mistake was not confined to the primitive Christians. Not a few servants of Jesus since that period have pursued the same course. They have been led by a sense of the sovereign mercy of God to leave behind them some memorial of His grace to their souls, but they have forborne, for wise reasons it may be, to magnify the riches of that grace, as did Bunyan, by recounting the sins of their youth. An illustration is before us. John Leland begins a sketch of his own life in the following words: "Volumes might be written upon the wanderings, darkness and errors of my life, which would afford no pleasure to others in hearing thereof, and to relate which would be of no advantage to me; therefore, I shall pass them by, and attend only to a few of God's gracious and notable dealings with me, a great sinner, in my ministerial labors."
Unfortunately for the interest of our present work, Isaac Backus treated his early life with almost equal neglect. It will therefore be impossible for us to give any particular account of his childhood and youth. But in place of this, and as the best substitute for it, we shall endeavor to describe the community and family in which this formative period of his life was passed. It will be evident, we think, from this description, that the influences of friends and home in the morning of life were so ordered by the God of providence as to aid in preparing him for the work of later years. The social and domestic atmosphere which surrounded him in youth, conspired, with the natural gifts which he possessed, and with the renewing grace of God, to qualify him for the arduous and peculiar labors which he rendered to the cause of truth.
The churches of Connecticut were originally congregational in their polity. "They maintained that the right of choosing and settling their ministers, of exercising discipline and performing all judicial acts, was in the church, when properly organized; and they denied all external or foreign power of presbyteries, synods, general councils or assemblies.''1 Ordination was regarded "as no more than putting the pastor elect into office, or a solemn recommending of him and his labors to the blessing of God. * * * It was the general opinion, that elders ought to lay on hands in ordination, if there were a presbytery in the church, but if there were not, the church might appoint some other elders or a number of the brethren to that service?2 Moreover the earliest ministers of Connecticut "at first maintained, that all the pastor's office-power was confined to his own church and congregation, and that the administering of baptism and the Lord's Supper in other churches was irregular."3 So careful were they at first to guard against the introduction of presbyterianism or prelacy, against any proper dependence of one church upon another!
Accordingly, when Mr. James Fitch was ordained at Saybrook in 1646, "although Mr. Hooker was present, hands were imposed by two or three of the principal brethren, whom the church had appointed to that service.''4 This account is given by Trumbull as "the tradition." It is however confirmed by the recorded action of the church when his successor was ordained. "A council of ministers and churches assisted at his ordination, but the imposition of hands was performed by the brethren, as it had been before in the ordination of Mr. Fitch. The council considered it an irregular proceeding, but the brethren were so tenacious of what they esteemed their right, that it could not be prevented without much inconvenience."5 This occurred in 1660, when Mr. Fitch, with a majority of his church and congregation, removed from Saybrook and planted the town of Norwich. "Three or four planters joined them from New London, and two or three from the towns of Plymouth and Mansfield in Massachusetts."
The first settlers of Norwich were, therefore, beyond a doubt, zealous advocates of the Cambridge Platform and of the congregational polity. They believed every true church to be of right an independent body; and during the ministry of Mr. Fitch their convictions on this point were undisturbed.
But even in the Cambridge Platform principles were laid down inconsistent with the independence of the churches. For this document affirms, that "the end of the magistrate's office is not only the quiet and peaceable life of the subject in matters of righteousness and honesty, but also in matters of godliness, yea, of all godliness;" and again, "neither is their power to be exercised in commanding such acts of the outward man, and punishing the neglect thereof, as are but mere inventions and devices of men; but such acts as are commanded and forbidden in the Word; yea, such as the Word doth clearly determine, though not always clearly to the judgment of the magistrate or others, yet clearly in itself. In these he of right ought to put forth his authority, though ofttimes actually he doth it not." Idolatry, blasphemy, heresy, and the like, are then specified as things to be restrained and punished by civil authority, and it is said: "If any church, one or more, shall grow schismatical, rending itself from the communion of other churches, or shall walk incorrigibly or obstinately in any corrupt way of their own, contrary to the rule of the Word; in such case the magistrate is to put forth his coercive power, as the matter shall require." This language evidently claims for the standing order of churches in New England the same support from the civil power which in other lands is claimed for the papal church by the Romish hierarchy. It assigns the duty of preventing any important deviation from the faith or practice of the established churches to the civil power, and calls upon this power to bring heretics back into the fold even by coercion. This was in reality, though not formally and directly, subjecting every particular church to the authority and control of other churches; and it was doing this, not with spiritual but with carnal weapons.
To the control of other churches, we say; because, in Massachusetts, when this Platform was adopted, none but church members were allowed to participate in the civil government; and hence it must be presumed that the majority of electors, being at the same time the majority of church members, were able to put men in office whose views of ecclesiastical orthodoxy were identical with their own. Thus each particular church was liable to coercion from a power originated by the great body of churches and representing their judgment. Vox populi vox Dei; the voice of the people of God, or rather of the major part of them, was to be enforced by pains and penalties as the voice of God.
A similar connection between Church and State existed in Connecticut. In their original constitution the citizens the Norwich minister had censured their representatives, he consented to refer the matter to a council; and they followed it with council after council for about six years. Governor Saltonstall came there himself upon one of those occasions, and Mr. Stoddard of Northampton was moderator of the last but one of those councils. * * * * At last, by advice of a council that met August 31st 1716, said minister was dismissed; and the church in Norwich determined to abide upon its ancient foundation. * * * * The church in East Windsor, under the care of Mr. Timothy Edwards, father of Mr. Jonathan, also refused to receive the Saybrook Platform."
It appears from the events just recited that the inhabitants of Norwich were distinguished for their adhesion to pure Congregationalism. While the churches generally accepted without hesitation the Saybrook Platform, the leading members of the church in Norwich resisted its acceptance with a persistent and successful resolution. By a formal agreement, Mr. Lord, the successor of Mr. Woodward, pledged himself at the time of his settlement to adhere to the Cambridge Platform, and peace was thereby restored to the church. And it is reasonable to presume that the long and serious contest between Mr. Woodward and some of his people made the whole community familiar with questions of church polity, and filled the social atmosphere with the spirit of ecclesiastical independence.
Having ascertained the ecclesiastical views and spirit of the people generally with whom Isaac Backus spent the early years of his life, we may now approach the narrower circle composed of his relatives, and examine the principles of those who had a more direct and controlling influence over his youthful mind. It will be found that his course in manhood was in no small degree the result of his training in boyhood, that his character through life was the ever ripening fruit of seed planted in his mind when a child. Front the atmosphere of piety and freedom which pervaded the home of his youth he inhaled the spirit which animated him to the hour of death.
Joseph Backus, the grandfather of Isaac, was a leading man in the town. Besides being a Justice of the Peace, an officer of much dignity at that time, he was for several years a representative of Norwich in the Legislature of Connecticut. We have already mentioned his opposition to the Saybrook Platform in that body, and likewise his expulsion from it, because he had withdrawn with others from the church in Norwich when it accepted the Platform. This, however, did not abate his zeal. So anxious was he to have the church resume its former position and maintain the principles of Congregationalism, that he made a journey to Ipswich in Massachusetts, for the purpose of consulting with Mr. John Wise, minister of that place; for not long before Mr. Wise had written a keen and convincing answer to proposals for an ecclesiastical constitution in Massachusetts somewhat similar to that which had now been established in Connecticut. He desired Mr. Wise to publish a new edition of his answer, but the latter did not at that time see fit to comply with the request. Mr. Backus also visited the two Mathers in Boston, whose views upon the question at issue agreed with his own. He seems, indeed, from the brief notices which remain of him, to have been a genuine lover of "the old paths," an able and energetic defender of the congregational polity, a man of deep, radical convictions which governed his action and made him willing to suffer loss for the sake of Christ and His truth. The tone and spirit of such a man are a legacy to his offspring, and not unfrequently do they transmit themselves to the third or fourth generation.
His wife, the grandmother of Isaac, was altogether worthy of her companion. A woman of truly Puritanic energy and devotion, she survived her husband many years, living to a very advanced age, and is often mentioned in the journals of Isaac Backus, sometimes with admiration and always with great respect. A few of these references will be cited in the progress of our narrative.
Mr. John Tracy, grandfather of Isaac on his mother's side, "was a man eminent for vital and practical religion. He was strict in the religions education of his family; for which, we are told, his daughter was ever thankful as long as she lived." Indirectly through her he may be said to have participated in the early training of Isaac; but only thus, for in 1726, when the latter was but two years of age, he died, "with such comfortable views of another world, it is said, that he charged his friends to give him up and not hold him any longer by their prayers." 6
Samuel Backus, the father of Isaac, was a quiet, enterprising farmer, prosperous in his own business, but having little to do with public affairs. He was an affectionate husband and kind father; but he made no profession of religion until 1736, four years previous to his death. It must therefore be presumed that his influence as a Christian upon the minds of his children was limited to this brief period. We find no evident allusions to it, in distinction from that of his wife, in the writings of his son.
The mother of Isaac Backus was, in the truest and highest sense of the expression, an excellent woman. Often does he speak of her in terms of deep respect and love. With special satisfaction does he dwell upon the fruits of genuine piety which appeared in her life. In a sermon occasioned by her death he calls her "my dear godly mother;" and there is ample reason for the belief that she was worthy of such a designation. In order therefore to understand the christian influences pervading the domestic circle in which the early years of Isaac were passed, it will be necessary for us to exhibit more fully the character of his mother. This shall be done, for the most part, in her own language or in that of her son.
She was received into the regular church of Norwich in 1720, and sometime in the following year was, by the grace of God, made a living member of the household of faith.7
"She has often," says her son, "mentioned to her children a work of conviction and conversion which she experienced ill the year 1721." From this time forward she manifested a tender solicitude for the spiritual welfare of her family, and illustrated in some good degree by her life the power of vital godliness. After the death of her husband in 1740, her christian character seems to have matured very rapidly. By the blessing of God, affliction bore fruit in sanctification. The following words which she wrote some time after the death of Mr. Backus will confirm the statement just made. "And now some months after this, having examined my case often, and comparing the case of my soul now with what it had been in months past, I could freely say from my heart, I could not be willing to be again in that sleepy state of soul towards God and the things that concern my everlasting peace, no, not to be in the most prosperous condition in temporal things that ever I was in, all my life. Now I can say, I hunger and thirst after the Word, it is the delight of my soul." The subjoined extracts from her correspondence with the subject of this work after his settlement in Middleboro' will reveal the exercises of her mind and the depth of her religious experience.
"Jan. 11, 1748. The Lord hath sweetly comforted and quickened my soul from time to time; I have had many sweet love-feasts. The Lord hath brought me into his banqueting house, and His banner over me was love."
"Oct. 21, 1748. The last Sabbath was a day much to be remembered. Your grandmother almost left the body. As to my own case, I have had a more abiding sense of the uncertainty of visible things and of the certainty of invisible things."
"March 26, 1750. My dear Son: I long you should hear of and rejoice with us in the work of God amongst us. It began the fore part of February, and for three weeks or more it was as great a time of conviction as I ever saw. Great flocking to hear the Gospel; meetings every day, especially among the children at our end of the town; sundry of them converted, some backsliders came home, and such adoring free grace, such calls and invitations to sinners, as make the town shake. * * * I remember my love in Jesus to the saints in the house where you live, and to all that little flock."
The following letter has been often published, but the present sketch would be imperfect without it.
- "Norwich, Nov. 4, 1752. My dear Son; I have heard something of the trials amongst you of late, and I was grieved till I had strength to give up the case to God, and leave my burden there. And now I would tell you something of our trials. Your brother Samuel lay in prison twenty days. October 15th, the collectors came to our house, and took me away to prison, about nine o'clock, in a dark, rainy night. Brothers Hill and Sabins were brought there the next night. We lay ill prison thirteen days, and were then set at liberty, by what means I know not. Whilst I was there a great many people came to see me, and some said one thing and some said another. Oh the innumerable snares and temptations that beset me! more than I ever thought of before. But oh, the condescension of Heaven! though I was bound when I was cast into this furnace, yet I was loosed and found Jesus in the midst of a furnace with me. Oh, then I could give up my name, estate, family, life and breath freely to God. Now the prison looked like a palace to me. I could bless God for all the laughs and scoffs made at me. Oh the love that flowed out to all mankind; then I could forgive as I would desire to be forgiven, and love my neighbor as myself. Deacon Griswold was put in prison the 8th of October; and yesterday old brother Grover, and [they] are in pursuit of others, all which calls for humiliation. This church has appointed the 13th of November to be spent in prayer and fasting on that account. I do remember my love to you and your wife, and the dear children of God with you, begging your prayers for us in such a day of trial. We are all in tolerable health, expecting to see you. These from your loving mother,
- ELIZABETH BACKUS."
The Rev. F. Denison, of Norwich, mentions the following particulars respecting Mrs. Backus, when she was taken by the collectors for rates due to Mr. Lord, pastor of the regular church.8 "She was sick, and, thickly wrapped in clothes to produce perspiration, sat near the fire by her stand, reading the family Bible. The officer thought that, under the circumstances, she would yield and pay the rates. But Mrs. Backus was not the woman to abandon her religious principles."9
"March 20, 1754. Last Friday I was brought to a stand and made to see the awfulness of trifling away time. * * * And now I saw that a Christian cannot enjoy God and live in conformity to the world. * * * Oh that I might improve my time well!"
"June 15, 1754. I am still in the furnace, wave after wave rolling over me; and my God is graciously supporting, teaching and comforting my soul from time to time in the midst of my various trials. Blessed be his name! The cause of Zion lies near my heart, but there is hope in God, that is able to deliver."
"March 6, 1757. I am waiting for my great and last change. Scarce one day hath past for some months without some realizing sense of death and eternity. And though I am so full of sin, Jesus hath come over the mountains and spake peace to my soul."
"March 24, 1754. I tell you I am quite sick of myself, the more I am acquainted with my heart. But oh, how good is my Lord to me, who does many a time speak a word to my soul that gives it a lift with a view of the stability of the covenant of His faithfulness and loving kindness, and the sweetness of His kingly power in subduing us to himself. Praised be his name!"
And Isaac Backus says of his mother: "When He (Christ) granted a glorious visitation of his spiritual presence to this land, in the year 1741, it was as welcome and joyful a season to her as His personal company was to Elizabeth of old. Oh, how freely did she speak of the wonders of redeeming grace to her children and others around. And I believe very few have lived with more constant devotedness to God than she has ever since." In his sermon occasioned by her death, he remarks: "Did I say loss? Must I not retract the expression? For we are not wont to call our weary friends lost, when they are got to rest in a quiet sleep; and none sleep so quietly as those who sleep in Jesus. They have done their work and are receiving their reward, have fought the good fight and are shouting the glorious victory. And shall we begrudge them their happiness? Rather let us congratulate their safe arrival to the realms of peace."
Our account of the family in which the childhood and youth of Isaac Backus were spent, may be fitly closed by the following passage from an imperfect sketch of his life, written by himself, when more than eighty years old. "My mother sprang from the family of Mr. Winslow, who came over to Plymouth in 1620, and my father from one of the first planters in Norwich in Connecticut in 1660. My father, Samuel Backus, was born in Norwich, Jan. 6, 1693, and Elizabeth Tracy, my mother, on April 6, 1698; and they were married, January 18, 1716. Both they and their parents were members of the first church in Norwich, and trained up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. I was born there January 9, 1724, and was well educated in the christian religion and also in the principles of civil liberty."
The literary advantages of Mr. Backus in early life were limited to the public schools of his native place. In these lie learned the use of figures, became a ready penman, and acquired some knowledge of his native language. Without brilliant parts, he possessed a good understanding, and became an accurate scholar in the branches of study which engaged his attention. Whether he acquired a taste for reading at this period we have not been able to ascertain, but even in youth, it is manifest he formed his mind to habits of careful observation and reflection, which were of great service to him in later years.
It is, however, for many reasons, to be regretted that his literary culture was so defective, since he possessed a natural taste for composition and was called, by Divine Providence, not only to take part in the ministry of reconciliation, but also to put on record a portion of the history of God's people. He was fully aware of this defect and made persevering efforts to remedy it. These efforts were in part successful; and if nevertheless in his best productions, there are few graces of style to attract the reader, the simplicity, perspicuity, integrity and manliness, which reveal themselves in every line, more than compensate for the lack of lighter attractions.