Late one cold night in October 1752, as widow Elizabeth Backus sat by her fire, wrapped in blankets reading the Bible, Massachusetts law officers came for her. They hauled the elderly, ailing Baptist off to jail for failing to pay taxes.
The law she had refused to obey obliged her to pay taxes to support the state-sanctioned Congregational church. The “Pilgrim Fathers” had established the pertinent legislation more than a century before.
Religious views diverging from the majority Congregationalists might be tolerated by the state, according to 17th-century Puritan Divine John Cotton, if they concerned unimportant matters and those who held them did so quietly. The state church decided what defined important and quiet, of course.
Baptists, including Elizabeth and her preacher son Isaac, considered religious liberty important and refused to be quiet about it. They also refused to pay taxes that would support a minister who thought otherwise.
In 1727, some New England states passed “exemption laws.” These ordinances allowed Baptists to receive a tax refund if they met a few conditions, such as proving they attended worship regularly and paying for the certificate of exemption.
Baptists resented state interference in church life, and most applied for certificates. Others held that the state had no right to legislate religious matters of any kind, and therefore had no grounds to offer religious tolerance to a spiritually free people.
Baptists with this radical stance toward church and state did not pay their legal taxes, but they did pay a price. In Sturbridge, Mass., four years before Elizabeth’s arrest, a Congregational minister convinced authorities to clear Baptist homes of cookware, tools, spinning wheels and even livestock used to make livings, among other valuable goods. A number of Baptists were imprisoned. A collection of such incidents by Isaac Backus shows Sturbridge was no exception to the rule in New England.
By 1773, even those Baptists who applied for exemptions to the state church tax often were refused. Backus called for mass civil disobedience to the law. His request—that churches not cooperate with people seeking exemption certificates—resulted in considerable progress, and was aided by the spirit of the times.
Backus appealed for religious liberty before the Massachusetts delegation of the 1775 Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Patriots of the time rallied around the cry, “No taxation without representation.” Backus made the same point about the injustice of state church taxes on Baptists.
Massachusetts delegate and future U.S. President John Adams disparaged Backus, saying, “[Baptists] might as well expect a change in the solar system, as to expect they would give up their establishment.”
New England held no patent on religious persecution. George Washington supported a bill that advocated universal taxation for the church of each citizen’s choice. Virginia Baptists opposed the bill in 1785, declaring, “The gospel wants not the feeble arm of man for its support.”
The Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment, added to the new nation’s constitution in 1791, turned the tide toward religious liberty and heralded the resolution of colonial Baptists’ tax problem.
One hundred eighty-five years after it was established, and seven decades after widow Backus went to prison for defying it, Massachusetts’s state church was dismantled and its tax support repealed.
The solar system remains unchanged, but Baptists and Congregationalists in the United States are tax-free in regard to church matters, even on April 15.
Loyd Allen is professor of church history and spiritual formation at the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology.