Religious liberty is one of the most contentious political issues of our time. How should people of faith engage with the public square in a pluralist era? Some citizens hope to reclaim a more Christian vision of national identity, while others resist any religious presence at all.
This dispute is not new, and it goes back to the founding era of American history. As the country was being formed, some envisioned a Christian nation where laws would require worship attendance and Sabbath observance. Others advocated for a thoroughly secular society where faith would have no place in public life. But neither extreme won the day, thanks to the unsung efforts of a Connecticut pastor who forged a middle way.
Historian Brandon O'Brien unveils an untold story of how religious liberty came to be. Between the Scylla and Charybdis of theocracy and secularism, Baptist pastor Isaac Backus contended for a third way. He worked to secure religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all Americans, not just for one particular denomination or religious tradition. Backus's ideas give us insight into how people of faith navigate political debates and work for the common good.
Backus lived in an age of both religious revival and growing secularism, competing forces much like those at work today. The past speaks into the present as we continue to demand liberty and justice for all.
"Brandon O’Brien has done us a great service. He has addressed the current, hot issue of religious liberty by reminding us of one of its greatest American champions, Isaac Backus. He brings to life the contentions of Backus’s day to illumine our own and helps us pursue a liberty that will be a blessing to unbelievers and religious alike. As is often the case, looking backward is the soundest way to go forward."
"In this enjoyable history, O'Brien, content director for the N.Y.C.-based Christian leadership organization Redeemer City to City, proposes that born-again activist Isaac Backus should be thanked for the development of religious freedom within the United States. . . . O'Brien provides strong evidence that government and traditional churches have long used each other to maintain authority and illustrates that civil disobedience has been necessary since the Colonial era to advocate for minority rights. Those interested in the origins of America’s policy on religious regulations will enjoy this assured history of the battles Backus fought when freedom of belief was no foregone conclusion."
"Brandon O'Brien's Demanding Liberty reintroduces us to a forgotten hero who deserves to be remembered and emulated. Isaac Backus found the courage through his faith and earnest conviction to pursue religious liberty for all Americans. He was willing to work with Deists and anyone else who would help to ensure that all Americans could choose to either worship God or not based on the dictates of their conscience rather than the demands of the majority. In these days of hyper-partisanship, it is important to be reminded that we can only secure freedom for ourselves when we secure it for all. Brandon O'Brien achieves this and more in his excellent popular biography of Isaac Backus. I recommend it for your reading pleasure as we prepare to celebrate our nation's birth."
Introduction: Start Here
1. "Filled Up with Sin": Why America Needed a Revival
2. Ministry and the Holy Spirit
3. Becoming Baptist
4. No More "Nursing Fathers"
5. A Record of Wrongs
6. Religious Liberty on the Eve of War
7. New Liberties in the New World: A Lesson in Controlling the Narrative
8. Backus, Baptists, and the Bill of Rights
9. Where to Go from Here
Appendix: Complete List of Writings by Isaac Backus