No More Nursing Fathers: A Baptist Theological Rationale for Religious Liberty

Editor’s Note: This is part 1 in our Lyceum Disputation series considering Baptists, Religious Liberty, and the State. Stay tuned for further installments. As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

[1]On May 16, 1920 George W. Truett in a sermon preached on the steps of the United States Capitol in Washington D.C. stated that the “chiefest contribution that America has thus far made to civilization” was religious liberty and that this contribution was “pre-eminently a Baptist contribution.”[2] Why then did Baptists champion religious liberty? What was the theological reason for seeking true religious liberty as opposed to religious toleration?

Isaac Backus (1724-1806) provides a robust Baptist theological rationale for religious liberty that is grounded in his understanding of the very nature of liberty itself. For Backus, “the true liberty of man is, to know, obey and enjoy his Creator, and to do all the good unto, and enjoy all the happiness with and in his fellow-creatures that he is capable of.”[3]  Backus advocated for religious liberty in a cultural context in which a religious establishment was an assumption and to challenge that assumption threatened to undermine the very fibers of society in colonial New England. Backus challenged a religious status quo that advocated for a model of church/state relations tied to the scriptural metaphor of “nursing fathers.” This article will explore the concept of nursing father and then show how Backus advocated for a concept of liberty that abrogated this concept and laid the groundwork for a thoroughly Baptist understanding of liberty.

Isaac Backus was born in Connecticut, as a part of the religious establishment on January 9, 1724.[4] Backus was converted during the revival years known as The Great Awakening in 1741.[5] Backus would in a few short years leave the established Congregational church of his childhood and join with a Separatist congregation until coming to hold Baptist convictions regarding Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the early 1750’s.[6] Backus would serve as the founding pastor of the First Baptist Church of Middleborough, Massachusetts from 1756 until his death in 1806.

After his conversion to Baptist principles, Backus did not isolate himself with his own congregation. He traveled throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, a practice which over the course of his life would register more than 67,000 miles traveled.[7] Through these travels, Backus was exposed to the troubles experienced by Baptists and other religious dissenters in colonial New England. He saw the use of civil authority being used for ecclesiastical purposes. He saw danger in the power of the state to coerce private individuals on religious matters through the use of taxation, punishments, and in extreme cases, banishment.[8] This use of coercive power plagued religious dissenters in colonial New England and affected Backus when his own mother and brother were imprisoned for failing to pay the prescribed religious taxes.[9]

As Backus ministered to his fellow Baptists and the political climate shifted in respect to the relationship of the colonies to England, in 1769, Backus and his fellow Baptists in the Warren Baptist Association sought to address the perceived grievances of the standing order.[10] Backus was appointed to the Grievance Committee of the Warren Association to gather stories from those who had been oppressed by the political authorities due to their religious beliefs and to advocate for religious freedom.[11] One such story that Backus collected was sent in a letter from Martha Kimball in which she described her own experience in 1768 when on “a very cold night in the winter, about nine or ten o’clock in the evening, I was taken prisoner and carried, by the collector in the town where I live, from my family, consisting of three small children, in order to be put into jail.”[12] Stories such as this were common amongst the religious dissenters of Backus’s day and served as fuel for the political advocacy of religious liberty.[13] 

The New England in which Backus lived and ministered was the product of the seventeenth century and the dominance of Puritanism.[14] This dominance and the quest for a ‘“New England Way’” shaped the discussions regarding liberty in a fundamental way. What then is the New England Way, and in what way does the existence of this view of society drive the work of Backus?

The New England Way centered on the belief that society should be faithful and united in devotion to God.[15] In keeping with this view was the belief that all aspects of society were connected and unified.[16] Affirming this unity meant that a stark distinction between church and state did not exist but that rather they are “not unrelated spheres of life but are complementary, intimately connected by God’s acts of creation and his continuing providence.”[17]

This understanding of the interconnectedness of religion and society is further complicated by the legal distinctions that emerged in the early years of New England. In a technical sense, church and state were considered separate in that New England was not a theocracy, but church and state were to work together toward the accomplishment of shared goals.[18] This official separation of church and state was seen in that “the state had no voice in church affairs and the church none in state matters.”[19] This cooperation was geared toward the achievement of what could be considered a godly society.[20]

The New England Way was accomplished using strong government involvement in legislation that would promote religious practice and limit the threat of dissent.[21] The use of such government legislation and power was not seen to be in opposition to the Puritan concept of liberty, as the goal was to be free to practice what theologically was perceived to be the one true faith.[22] The primary method in which the New England Way was enforced was through religious taxation to support the Established Church in many of the colonies.[23] This taxation also took the form of fines levied against dissenters and those not in cooperation with the Established Church.[24] While this may seem counter to the idea of liberty, the Puritan advocates of the New England Way saw this as in keeping with the liberty that came through what they believed was the correct understanding of the Bible.[25] The Puritans saw in their reading of the Bible the image of a good and moral society that could be achieved.[26] This was in keeping with the belief that through proper obedience to God and observance of biblical commands, liberty for the individual would be achieved. It is helpful to see that these Puritan leaders did not see the New England Way as oppressive but rather as the way to experience the true liberty that comes from knowing God. In this way, the goals of the early Puritan religious establishment were similar to Backus in that both sought liberty. The fundamental difference emerged in how that would be achieved. 

The imagery that appeared to define the relationship between church and state in eighteenth-century New England was not new to that era but served as a key defense of the religious establishment against calls for true religious liberty. The imagery of the role of the state toward the church as a ‘nursing father’ is found in the Old Testament book of Isaiah and was employed by Reformers such as John Calvin to support the involvement of the government in the promotion of religion.[27] This concept of ‘nursing father’ is deeply ingrained in the larger political philosophy that emerged in the colonies following the events of the seventeenth century.[28] The upheaval of the Glorious Revolution led to a new understanding of kingship that saw that the “first goal of government was the protection of the liberty and property of the subject from encroachment by any one element of the nation.”[29] The king, and by consequence the state itself, became representative of the need to protect the Protestant faith, and specifically the established church, in order to protect what was perceived as the true liberties of individuals.[30] This imagery of the king as a ‘nursing father’ meant that through the promotion of true religion that the spiritual benefits of religion to society and the salvation of individuals could be achieved.[31]

The concept of ‘Nursing Father’ as a description of the relationship of church and state found a receptive audience among those who advocated for the New England Way. For many New England Congregationalists, the concept of civil rulers as “nursing fathers” served as a functional metaphor to describe how the church and state interacted.[32] In the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the ideals of the Congregational establishment in terms of ‘nursing father’ language were laid down and given its most concrete doctrinal expression.[33]

The Cambridge Platform saw the relationship of civil and ecclesiastical government as being in cooperation with one another while maintaining unique spheres. This cooperation was somewhat one-sided as the platform stated that “[i]t is the duty of the Magistrate, to take care of matters of religion & to improve his civil authority for the observing of the duties commanded.”[34] This is the essence of the ‘nursing fathers’ metaphor, that those in positions of civil authority have a responsibility to promote religious observance and obedience without overstepping into matters of church business.[35] This complex understanding of the role of the government is what made the metaphor an attractive one for many. It stressed that the government should have an active role in the promotion of a godly society as opposed to a passive role in which the government does not interfere. This active role did not mean that the government would control the church but rather that the government would seek to promote through all legal means appropriate the development of a godly society.[36]

The concept of “nursing fathers” was used by many to promote what could be seen as the benevolent role that the government can have in the formation of a godly society. George Whitefield preached in 1746 that the title of a “nursing father” applied to the King of England was a “great and glorious title.”[37] For Whitefield, the establishment of the Church of England in no way diminished the liberties of anyone as there had “been no authorized oppression in the state (or) there has been no publicly allowed persecution in the church.”[38] For Whitefield, the concept of “nursing fathers” implied protection of Protestantism as well as promotion of a godly society and was evidence of divine favor and a sign of the kingdom of God.[39]

In 1765, Edward Dorr, a pastor in Hartford, Connecticut, promoted this theme of “nursing fathers” in his sermon titled “The Duty of Civil Rulers to be Nursing Fathers of the Church of Christ.” Dorr argued that the concept of “nursing fathers” was essential for the promotion of liberty because the duty of a civil ruler was “to suppress all immorality and vice, and to encourage the practice of virtue and piety.”[40] Dorr defended the establishment of religion as the best means to accomplish this goal and that the simple promotion of religion in generic terms is not sufficient but that rulers should “provide for the publick exercises of it.”[41] It is this that Dorr then sees saw as the justification for religious taxation as “[r]eligion can’t be supported and maintained in the world, without some expence.”[42] Thus, the establishment of religion is a beneficial good for society, and the expenses associated with the establishment are a necessary component of a godly society.

Dorr goes went one step further in his promotion of religious establishment by arguing that religious establishment is the means ordained by God. Dorr argued that since God as king has ordained civil rulers to serve a substitutionary role in the exercise of divine authority, it is the logical consequence that this extends to the promotion and establishment of religion.[43] The divine mandate of civil rulers is therefore one means by which the gospel is to spread throughout the world and since every believer is obligated to spread the message of Christ to the world and pray that His kingdom come, the King as “nursing father” of the church in the world is one way “to endeavor to promote the REDEEMER’s kingdom in this world.”[44]

For Dorr, and others, the establishment of religion was not contrary to liberty for the individual but the best protection for liberty of the individual. Religion was a net positive for society and the promotion of the truth should not be discouraged since “religion tends to make men quiet and peaceable, one towards another; it endeavors to implant in us all these qualities and dispositions of mind, which tend to peace and unity.”[45]

For Dorr, the civil ruler as a “nursing father” did not mean that uniformity must be enforced. Individuals should be allowed to believe and practice as they wished, but that did not mean that the establishment needed to be dismantled.[46] Rulers were to promote the observance of religion while leaving dissenters at liberty to practice as they wished “without descending to the dirty work of persecution.”[47] Dorr’s advocacy was for religious toleration in which an establishment allowed dissent but maintained a preferred position within the larger society. Religious toleration, while a suitable compromise for many, was at odds with true liberty. For Backus, the establishment of religion created an inherent conflict because the power wielded by the establishment through taxation and penalties proved a deterrent for true liberty. In Government and Liberty Described published in 1778, Backus took this very issue to task when he argued:

[I]t is not the pence but the power, that alarms. And since the legislature of this State passed an act . . . to continue a tax of Four Pence a year, upon the Baptists in every parish (to pay the tax would be) an acknowledgement of the Power that they have long assumed over us in religious affairs.[48]

Religious toleration undermined the principle of true liberty because it misunderstood the nature of power. The granting of permission implied a power that could revoke that same permission. True liberty as the unhindered enjoyment of God did not depend upon government permission, and the spread of the gospel did not depend upon “nursing fathers” to promote religion.

How did Backus address the issue of the ‘nursing father’ metaphor? In his advocacy for liberty addressing the metaphor did not have a prominent role but it did appear in the context of a published dialogue between Backus and RevReverend Joseph Fish. In 1767, Backus published a reply to a series of sermons preached by Rev. Fish titled, A Fish Caught in His Own Net in which Backus focused his argument on ecclesiology. While not the focus, Backus did address the ‘nursing fathers’ metaphor in response to Fish. Backus humorously sought to destroy the metaphor of kings and queens as nursing fathers and nursing mothers with a reductio ad absurdum argument:

[W]hat an odd story would it be, for any to tell of very kind parents, who manifested such a tender regard for their children that they would rob one child of his food, or cast him into a dungeon, to uphold another in grandeur.[49]

Backus saw the ‘nursing fathers’ metaphor as an insufficient model for church-state relations because it by default creates a system in which those who do not cooperate with the state are punished. By extending the metaphor to its conclusion of seeing not only kings and queens as parents but also subjects of the crown as children, Backus can show the sheer absurdity of the metaphor as a beneficial argument. Backus supported his argument by appealing to the nature of power and authority itself. Power cannot force belief, it can only “restrain one person or community from injuring another,” and only “light and truth” can bring individuals into correct behavior.[50]

Joseph Fish responded to Backus and A Fish Caught in His Own Net in his published refutation entitled The Examiner Examined. In this work, Fish challenged the assertions of Backus and sought to reinforce his commitment to the ‘nursing fathers’ metaphor. Fish alluded to Backus’s family analogy when he stated that “nurses or parents take care of the helpless children, carrying of them in their arms, treating them with tenderness and affection, and stretching out their hands for their protection and defence.”[51] Fish concluded that if this is what parents are to do, kings and queens (and by inference civil rulers) are to do the same with the church.[52] For both Backus and Fish, the issue was deeper than a disagreement over the use of a metaphor but settled on the nature of what constituted a true church.

Backus and Fish disagreed on the correct role of the government as it related to the liberty of individuals to practice their respective religious convictions. For Fish, an Established Church with religious toleration was a good thing and civil rulers are given by God “for the benefit of the church, as well as the protection of the state.”[53] Fish sought to ground his argument in the history of New England in contradiction to Backus’s assertions about the principles of the founders of New England.[54] Fish saw the ‘nursing fathers’ imagery as essential to understanding the history of New England and that with developments such as the Cambridge Platform, the earlier generation was “sensible of the duty and importance of the magistrates interposing in matters of religion.”[55]

Backus did not allow Fish to go unanswered in his refutation. Backus penned a reply to Fish with the long title of A Discourse, Concerning the Materials, the  Manner of Building, and Power of Organizing of the Church of Christ; With the True Difference and Exact Limits between Civil and Ecclesiastical Government. This work, while focused on ecclesiology, deals with Fish’s assertion that government involvement in the church is beneficial for society. Whereas Fish used examples such as David to show a biblical model of a “nursing father” that blends both church and state, Backus pointed to the higher principle of liberty at work even in the commands of God. For Backus, the commands of God are always given to be obeyed out of a willing and obedient heart and not by the compulsion of the sword.[56] Thus, while it is God’s desire that man obey God and serve Him, it is to be done out of a heart moved with a sense of respect and gratitude.

In many ways, the dispute between Fish and Backus is a prime example of the distinction that could be drawn in the eighteenth century as a whole. The question of liberty for the individual versus the perception of communal good is found just below the surface of Fish’s and Backus’s dialogue. For Backus, the liberty of the individual was what would bring about the greatest good for the community. For Fish, the good of the community could only be preserved through an establishment of religion that promoted what he viewed as best for society as a whole. Backus’s belief in liberty as the individual enjoyment of God could make it appear that Backus was a strident individualist.[57] But Backus’s theological rationale of liberty is not that every person should do what he desires, but that every person must reckon with God as an individual. Since authority is a good gift, given by God, submission to the authority of God is the only way to recover “the liberties of paradise.”[58] Only when individuals submit to God can they enjoy true liberty. Since the relationship with God is personal, it is not the responsibility of the civil authorities to compel religious belief since that is a violation of the individual’s conscience. Thus, in order for religion to be true, it must and always remain “a voluntary obedience unto God.”[59]

In many ways, Fish would not disagree with Backus on the benefit of authority, but for Fish, to maintain the well-being and peace of the community, one of the means given by God is the civil authorities to promote religious observance. The ‘nursing father’ metaphor is critical for understanding why Fish (and others) were willing to submit to an establishment of religion. For proponents of the ‘nursing father’ metaphor, the answer to the lack of uniformity in religious opinions would be found in religious toleration. Religious toleration would allow the dominant and Established Church to provide for those who disagreed but to do so in such a way that the Established Church maintained the belief that it was the correct or true church.

Religious toleration, while accepted as a matter of principle for many in the eighteenth century, was not sufficient to the demands of advocates for true liberty such as Backus.[60] Only true religious liberty in which church and state operated in their appropriate sphere was acceptable. In such a system, the church and the state would attend to their own affairs, exercising their own God-given authority for the benefit of both. The civil rulers could function as a “nursing father,” but not through the promotion of a specific religious sect, but rather through the general promotion of religious liberty. With religious liberty established, true liberty could be achieved—liberty in which individuals enjoy the benefits of full submission to the sovereign God of Scripture.

As a Baptist, religious liberty for Backus was tied to his understanding of the nature of the church and the authority of the state. Backus did not see church and state as operating in opposition to one another, but rather when both fulfilled their God-given role, there would be true liberty. This is the nuanced theological understanding of religious liberty that makes Backus a helpful model for contemporary religious liberty advocates. Church and State were both given by God but intended for different purposes. For Backus, “there may and ought to be a sweet harmony between them; yet as there is a great difference between the nature of their work, they never ought to have such a union together.”[61]

Matt Thomas (Ph.D., Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Denmark, SC. His areas of research interest are church/state/religious liberty issues and Baptist history. He can be reached on Twitter @RevPastorMatt and Instagram @RevPastorMatt

[1] The material presented in this article is explored in greater detail in my dissertation, Snares on Every Hand: Isaac Backus’s Theology of Liberty 2022 Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[2] Ken Camp, “George W. Truett on Religious Liberty,” Baptist Standard,

[3] Isaac Backus, An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, against the Oppressions of the Present Day. [Three Lines from Galatians] (, 1773), 4.

[4] Isaac Backus and William G. McLoughlin, The Diary of Isaac Backus1741-1764, vol. 1, The Diary of Isaac Backus. (Providence, R.I. : Brown University Press, 1979), xv.

[5] Backus and McLoughlin, Diary vol. 1, xvii. Ibid.

[6] Hovey, A Memoir of the LifeMemoir, 91–92.

[7] David Holcomb, “Isaac Backus: Champion of Religious Liberty,” in Witnesses to the Baptist Tradition: Thirty Baptists Every Christian Should Know, ed. Michael E. Williams, Sr. (Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 2015), 39.

[8] Hovey, A Memoir of the LifeMemoir, 139.

[9] Hovey, A Memoir of the Life, Ibid., 28–-29.

[10] McLoughlin, Isaac Backus and the American Pietistic Tradition, 111.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Hovey, A Memoir of the LifeMemoir, 184.

[13] Brandon J. O’Brien, Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2018), 106.

[14] Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 135.   

[15] A Religious History of the American People, 135.  149.

[16] Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 33.Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, 33.

[17] Ibid.Ibid.

[18] John Jr. Witte Jr., Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment,., Fourth 4th edition. (Oxford University Press, 2016), 26–28.  

[19] Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. (Princeton University Press, 2003), 83.

[20] Francis J. Bremer, The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995), 93.

[21] Bremer, The Puritan Experiment 92.

[22] Bremer, The Puritan Experiment, 92. The principle being that if Puritanism was the one true faith, the use of the state to encourage adherence was not only appropriate but beneficial.

[23] David Dean Bowlby, The Garden and the Wilderness : Church and State in America to 1789 (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2013), 32.

[24] IbidIbid., 32..  

[25] Thomas J. Curry, The First Freedoms : Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 4.

[26] Thomas S. Kidd, America’s Religious History : Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 24.

[27] John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion (N.p.: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), . Book4.20.  IV Chapter XX. Calvin calleds Christian rulers “defenders of God’s pious worshippers” in exploring how the ‘nNursing fFathers’ mMetaphor should be understood.

[28] Benjamin Lewis Price, Nursing Fathers: American Colonists’ Conception of English Protestant Kingship, 1668-1776 (Lanham: Lexington Books, 1999), 3.

[29] Price, Nursing Fathers,3.

[30] Ibid., 13-14.

[31] James Hutson, “‘Nursing Fathers’: The Model of Church-State Relations in America from James I to Jefferson,” in Forgotten Features of the Founding: The Recovery of Religious Themes in the Early American Republic (New York: Lanham Books, 2003), 54.

[32] Hutson, “‘Nursing Fathers,” Ibid., 55.

[33] Noll, A History of Christianity, 43–-44.

[34] Williston Walker, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism. (New York : Charles Scribner, 1893), 236.,

[35] The difficulty this presented was in defining the nature of the proper boundaries between church and state in a ‘nNursing fFathers’ context.

[36] Walker, The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, 236. “The End of the Magistrates office, is not only the quiet & peaceable life of the subject, in matters of righteousness & honesty, but also in matters of godliness.”

[37] George Whitefield, “God’s Mercies and Britain’s Duties,” in Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730–1805, vol. 2nd  ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Inc, 1998), 125.

[38] Ibid. Ibid. Backus would disagree with Whitefield’s assessment of a lack of persecution.

[39] Ibid., 125.

[40] Edward Dorr, The Duty of Civil Rulers, to Be Nursing Fathers to the Church of Christ. A Sermon Preached before the General Assembly, of the Colony of Connecticut, at Hartford; on the Day of the Anniversary Election; May IXth, 1765. / By Edward Dorr, A.M. Pastor of the First Church in Hartford (., 1765), 9.  

[41] IbidIbid., 9.

[42] Dorr, The Duty of Civil Rulers, Dorr, The Duty of Civil Rulers, 10.

[43] Ibid. 10.Ibi

[44] Ibid., 15.

[45] Dorr, The Duty of Civil Rulers, Ibid., 19.

[46] Dorr, The Duty of Civil Rulers, Ibid., 23–-24.

[47] Ibid., 24.

[48] Backus, Government and Liberty, 13.

[49] Backus, Fish Caught in Isaac Backus on Church, State, and Calvinism, 75.

[50] Backus, Fish Caught, 75.Ibid. It is this understanding of the necessity of belief to be voluntary that undergirds Backus’s overall understanding of the nature of authority and power.

[51] Joseph Fish, The Examiner Examined. Remarks on a Piece Wrote by Mr. Isaac Backus, of Middleborough ; Printed in 1768. Wherein Those Sermons Are Vindicated, from the Exceptions Taken aAgainst Them by Mr. Backus–Many of His Errors Confuted, and His Mistakes Corrected. By Joseph Fish, A.M. Pastor of a Church in Stonington, and Author of Said Sermons. [Four Lines of Scripture Text]., (1771), 58.

[52] Fish, The Examiner Examined, 58.Ibid.

[53] Fish, The Examiner Examined, 58.

[54] See Backus, History of New England, for Backus’s understanding of the founding principles of New England.

[55] Fish, The Examiner Examined, 58.

[56] Isaac Backus, A Discourse, Concerning the Materials, the Manner of Building, and Power of Organizing of the Church of Christ; Wwith the True Difference and Exact Limits between Civil and Ecclesiastical Government; and Also What Are, and What Are Not Just Reasons for Separation. : Together Wwith, an Address to Joseph Fish, A.M. Pastor of a Church in Stonington, Occasioned by His Late Piece Called tThe Examiner Examined. / By Isaac Backus, Pastor of a Church in Middleborough. ; Designed to Correct What Has Been Amiss on Both Sides, and to Point out the Way Wherein We Should Go., (1772), 34.

[57] Barry Alan Shain, The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 219. Shain argues that Backus promoted religious individualism to the potential detriment of the communal good.

[58] Backus, An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, 5.

[59] Backus, Government and Liberty, 4.

[60] See Curry, The First Freedoms, 78–-82, on the acceptance and rejection of religious toleration.

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