Brandon O’Brien on Isaac Backus and Religious Liberty
Date: June 10th, 2018

One of our favorite topics of discussion on Research on Religion is religious liberty.  Dr. Brandon O’Brien, the Director of Content Development at Redeemer City to City, provides a new angle on that topic as he joins us to discuss Isaac Backus and his new book Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom.  After Tony notes that Dr. O’Brien appeared on our show previously talking about the Apostle Paul, Brandon explains his interest in colonial American religious history and how this new book emanated from his dissertation about the religious and political developments of the late 18th century.

Brandon then notes that although we Americans take religious liberty for granted and that it is part of our DNA from the earliest days of our nation, in reality there was an ongoing struggle for religious liberty in the colonial period and the First Amendment to the US Constitution was in no way guaranteed.  There were forces championing full public support of religious (select) institutions and partisans on the other side that were very secularist in nature.  Enter Isaac Backus, who found a way to thread the needle of these two positions.  Brandon reviews the life and times of Isaac, noting his conversion to New Light Christianity during the First Great Awakening, moving towards a “separatist” position.

There were two critical issues that formulated Backus’s view of religious freedom – one theological and the other political.  Theologically, Backus wanted to figure out a way to manage the divisive issue of infant baptism when he was a pastor in his Titicut parish.  For him, the optimal solution was to allow the freedom for different viewpoints to pursue their own conscience on the matter — i.e., religious freedom.  Politically, the issue of religious taxes (or mandatory tithing) was a costly issue for he and his congregants at the time.  While Baptists were technically exempt from the Standing Order that required the tax subsidized support of Congregationalist churches in New England, the administration of theses taxes was often arbitrary in execution.  Backus pointed out that the British tyranny that patriots were fighting against in the 1770s was the same as minority religious congregations facing the Congregationalist hegemony.  All of these came out in Backus’s Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, which helped shaped the background discussion that eventually gave rise to the Bill of Rights.

We finish with some of Dr. O’Brien’s reflections on what he has learned in his varied studies of everything from small churches in the contemporary US, to the bad behavior of Paul, to his most recent publication on Backus.  Recorded: June 8, 2018.



Brandon J. O’Brien’s personal website and Redeemer City to City.

Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom, by Brandon J. O’Brien.

The Strategically Small Church, by Brandon J. O’Brien.

Paul Behaving Badly, by Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, by Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien.

An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty,” by Isaac Backus.


Brandon O’Brien on Paul Behaving Badly.

Anthony Gill on the Political Origins of Religious Liberty.

Mark David Hall podcasts on religion and the Founding Fathers.

Podcasts on Religious Liberty.

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