For those of you who are curious and interested—and I suspect the number will be relatively small—below is an expanded version of the handout I distributed at my proposal hearing that explains the focus of my dissertation research in a nutshell.
The Edwardsean Isaac Backus
Relevance of the topic/Contribution
First, and most specifically, this research will add much needed depth to our understanding of Isaac Backus himself. For over a hundred years, the little attention paid to Backus has focused almost exclusively on his efforts to secure religious liberty for Baptists and other Christians before, during, and after the American Revolution. Historians have largely ignored his writings in defense of Calvinism and his acclaimed church history of New England. I trust this research will push historians to consider Backus in light of his entire corpus. In doing so, I believe they will discover Backus was a holistic and creative thinker whose views on history, theology, and religious liberty each informed the other. More specifically, I will show that it is Backus’s reliance upon the theology of Jonathan Edwards that holds these issues together. My hope is that historians in the future will speak of Backus as an important Baptist theologian rather than simply as a political activist.
More broadly, this research will contributing to our understanding of Baptist history and theology in general. In the most popular surveys of American Christianity, Baptist figures such as Roger Williams, Isaac Backus, and John Leland are typically lumped together as cobelligerents for religious disestablishment with little consideration for their fundamental differences in theological perspective. This research will help identify the important differences between these figures. There is still a great deal of work to be done in the historical development of Baptist theology. I hope this research will provide the perspective of a sympathetic outsider and bring attention to the need for other outsider historians in Baptist studies.
There is a growing historiography of the legacy of Jonathan Edwards among Baptists. This research will begin to flesh out the ways Edwards’ theological perspective was adopted and adapted by Baptists in the Revolutionary period and beyond.
Finally, I trust this research will be of value to contemporary pastors and lay people involved in conversations about the Baptist theological heritage. It will be an honor to contribute to efforts such as Founders Ministries as they strive to explore the theological origins of the Baptist movement in America.
Isaac Backus understood his position regarding the separation of church and state as organic to his overall theological framework, which was essentially Edwardsean Calvinism. Backus did not consider his positions on disestablishment, baptism, ecclesiology, or clergy qualifications innovative, but simply the logical end of the New England Protestant vision for Christianity in America that began with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In each of these issues, Backus appeals to the person and work of Edwards to establish his continuity with American Puritan tradition.
Major conversation partners
The major interpreters of Isaac Backus and his legacy were Stanley Grenz and William McLoughlin.
- Introduction: Historiographical survey and biographical sketch
- Backus as Student of Edwardsean Calvinism (emphasizing Backus’s tracts on Calvinism)
- Backus as Biblical Interpreter
- Backus on Religious Liberty (emphasizing Backus’s tracts on disestablishment)
- Backus and the Baptists as Heirs of the American Puritan Tradition (emphasizing Backus’s church history of New England)
- Conclusion: Significance and implications of research