MORE than four years have passed since the writer was requested, by the councillors of the Backus Historical Society, to prepare for tile press a new edition of the Ecclesiastical History of New England, by the Rev. Isaac Backus. Several considerations, some of which may be specified, led him to attempt a compliance with this request.
It seemed quite possible for one who was entrusted with the department of Church History in this Institution, to perform such a task, not only without detriment to his special work, but even with some prospect of advantage, as it would prepare him, partially at least, to satisfy a desire which had been expressed by friends of Newton, that the history of baptized Christians in modern times might enter more largely into the course of instruction.
And further, it seemed desirable that a new edition of the history mentioned above should be published with all convenient despatch, inasmuch as it had become very rare and almost inaccessible, while at the same time it was of great value, both as a storehouse of important facts not elsewhere preserved, and as a record of sentiments worthy of attention at the present day. It was felt that it would be a great oversight in the Baptist denomination to suffer this memorial of their New England fathers to perish, and that the time which might be consumed in preparing a new edition would be wisely spent in the Master's service.
It also seemed reasonable to expect that the publication of this valuable history would serve to awaken a deeper and more general interest in the society which had given it afresh to the public. And the cooperation of a large number was looked upon as indispensable to success in carrying out the purposes of the society, and thus securing the objects for which it was formed. These objects, it is generally known, were two; first, to collect, so far as possible, and preserve at some accessible point, the materials which still exist for a history of the Baptist denomination, especially in New England; and, secondly, to secure from time to time the publication of such monographs or more general works as might be deemed of present interest and permanent value.
The object first named was understood to be of paramount importance and to demand immediate attention. Many documents were believed to be still in existence, which are necessary to elucidate the history of the denomination, and which, unless systematic efforts were made to collect and preserve them, must speedily and inevitably perish. Pamphlets, addresses and periodicals, centennial, semi-centennial and funeral discourses, minutes of conventions, associations and councils, manuscript sermons, journals, and records of extinct churches, in short a great variety of papers, unpublished as well as published, which were written by Christians of a former age, are still preserved in the older Baptist dwellings, which, if brought together and properly arranged, would be invaluable to every student of the past. It is only, however, by gathering them together and thus uniting and blending their scattered rays of light, that they can avail to illuminate the darkness of an earlier period. Separately their light is too feeble and uncertain to guide tile explorer's steps. Hence the wisdom of immediate and systematic efforts to obtain and deposit in a suitable place these frail and diminishing but precious records. To secure the cooperation of their brethren throughout New England in accomplishing this primary object of the society, it was deemed advisable by the Board of Councillors to undertake at once a new edition of Backus's History. It was at the same time proposed that this new edition be introduced by some account of the Life and Times of Isaac Backus; and the fruit of this proposal is the present volume.
By way of apology for the late appearance of this volume, the writer desires to say that the preparation of it has involved a much larger amount of historical investigation than was anticipated at the outset; and that a change in his sphere of labor in the Institution, made soon after he undertook the present work, has diminished very greatly the amount of time which he could devote to it.
If the following pages do not give so favorable an account of churches of the standing order, during the last century, as might have been expected from the high character of Congregationalists as a body at the present day, it should be borne in mind that the regular churches of that period comprised certain heterogeneous elements which have since parted asunder and become two very distinct if not antagonistic bodies. It should also be remembered that the presence in the community of a growing denomination which insists upon a credible profession of faith as prerequisite to church membership, must have had a powerful tendency to bring every other evangelical denomination to insist upon the same thing. And, finally, it should be noted, that, owing to peculiar circumstances, Mr. Backus was led to expose the errors and defects of the standing order more frequently, perhaps, than to commend the right principles maintained or illustrated by it.
Should it be thought that undue prominence has been given in this volume to the question of religious liberty, or that it is unwise to perpetuate the remembrance of wrongs which have passed away forever, it may be answered that no more prominence has been given to the subject specified than was necessary in order to afford the reader a true idea of Mr. Backus and his life; and that the spirit of religious oppression is not so thoroughly eradicated from the hearts of men as to relieve thoughtful observers of all apprehension as to the future. Is it not customary even now to excuse or justify the fathers of Massachusetts by saying: "they simply expelled from their commonwealth those who stubbornly refused to comply with requisitions which they deemed essential?" and by adding: "they were a voluntary association, and had certainly a right to prescribe the rules of their own society?" Just as if men have a right to bind themselves under civil pains and penalties not to receive any more light from the Word of God! and not to relinquish any error which they now ignorantly hold! Or as if they have a right to bind their own children, under pain of banishment, to believe just what they believe I or to dispossess their neighbor of his property and home because his conscience will no longer permit him to endorse their views of God's truth! While such opinions are advocated by intelligent and influential men, liberty of conscience, and the relation of civil government to the Church of Christ, cannot be properly understood.
It remains for the writer to express his gratitude to those who have assisted him in this work; and in particular to the Rev. Frederick Denison, of Norwich, Connecticut, for examining and transcribing important records preserved in that place, both at the Backus homestead and elsewhere; to the Rev. Silas Hall, who generously placed in the writer's hands the results of his protracted study of the Backus papers, and at the same time communicated his early impressions and recollections of the subject of this narrative; and to one whose name he is not permitted to mention, but without whose aid in transcribing nearly the whole work, its publication must have been indefinitely postponed.
May the Head of the Church accept this memorial of one who recognized His authority and loved His service, and make it a blessing to Zion!