Dissertation Note: “The Edwardsean Isaac Backus”

Brandon O’Brien. “The Edwardsean Isaac Backus.” PhD diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2013.

As an intellectual biography of Isaac Backus, the 18th-century Baptist preacher and activist, Brandon O’Brien’s dissertation* makes the case for another Edwardsean strain, beyond those that scholars have traced largely within Congregationalist and Presbyterian circles in early American culture: this time, within Baptist circles, prefiguring the Baptist co-option of Edwards today, as seen in the ministries of prominent Baptist leaders such as Al Mohler, John Piper and Josh Moody. Where previous studies of Backus have emphasized pieces of Backus’s corpus to focus on one issue or another (predominantly religious liberty), O’Brien takes in the whole of Backus’s published writings. His central concern is to drive Backus’s Calvinism and his concern for the New England tradition to the center of Backus’s life’s work, looking at his writings as an organic whole in which each work supports the other. In this framework, the influence of Edwards is undeniable and extensive. Backus draws extensively on Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, Humble Inquiry, and Freedom of Will in particular in his anthropology, epistemology, and sociopolitical arguments. For Backus, Edwards’s view of the operation of the human will was essential and was applicable to many areas. (See, for example, Edwards’s letter of Feb. 9, 1744 to Elnathan Whitman on “liberty of conscience,” in Works of Jonathan Edwards 16:128-33.)

However, the study does not simply show the use of Edwards, but does so for broader purposes, purposes that make Backus’s an original voice while drawing on other great voices. Two impulses, the author claims, characterize Backus’s thought. The first is that New England Congregationalism, established by true agents of reform and of the Reformation, had over time strayed from its original glory to become a persecuting and narrow way. Despite this declension, there was nonetheless a continuing Reformation, which was now in the hands of the Baptists, who had taken up where the founders of New England had left off.

This study actively builds on as well as critiques existing scholarship (McLoughlin, Grenz, etc.). It points to the compatibility of Calvinism (or the Reformed tradition) and the concept of religious liberty, a theme taken up recently by writers such as Chris Beneke, Evan Haefeli, and Andrew Murphy in their work on religious tolerance and the First Amendment. Revivifying in interesting ways Alan Heimert’s thesis about the relationship of evangelical theology and republicanism, O’Brien also reassesses the relationship of evangelicalism and the Enlightenment.

The methodology of this study is rather traditional, insofar as it relies on printed elite sources. It would have been helped by attention to Backus’s unpublished corpus, and to his private writings. While we don’t have Backus’s sermons because he was an extempore preacher, there are manuscript letters and other items, as well as his three-volume printed Diary. Perhaps this could be a dimension that O’Brien adds when he writes the new biography of Backus, which is sorely needed, since soon it will be half a century since the last one came out.

Kenneth Minkema
Executive Editor and director of the Works of Jonathan Edwards and Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University