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Isaac Backus papers

Call Number: RG 280

Scope and Contents

The Isaac Backus Papers, 1660-1806, consist of two major components: personal papers and collected papers. The Personal Papers (1746-1806) of Series I document the professional work of Backus and are arranged according to the following categories: diaries, travel journals, autobiographical statements, ordination booklet, sermons, publications, unpublished manuscripts, and extracts from readings. A card index, prepared by Brown University personnel, provides main entry access to the diary. The diary and index are published: William G. McLaughlin, ed., The Diary of Isaac Backus, 3 vols. (Providence: Brown University Press, 1979)

The Collected Papers (1660-1806) of Series II are primarily correspondence and narratives chronicling the Separate Baptist struggle for religious freedom, gathered by Backus. This section also includes all correspondence of Backus and extant records of the Warren Baptist Association. A card index, prepared by Brown University personnel, provides main entry access to the Collected Papers. The index is divided into three general categories: Baptist History, Letters, Warren Association. The following usage notes may be helpful in working with individual indexes: 1) Baptist History --The scope of the index is self-explanatory. IB references include letters of IB to others and IB as the subject of a specific document. 2) Letters -- The index includes letters of others to IB. 3)Warren Association -- The index includes annual letters of individual churches to the association and correspondence dealing with business related to the annual meeting. The index also provides subject access to the unpublished manuscript, "History of the Warren Association.”

The third series includes additional documents, fragile originals, and a set of lantern slides related to Backus. These materials are not described in detail in the finding aid that was received with the collection from Andover Newton Theological School. The lantern slides are stored onsite with restricted oversize material due to their fragile nature. Series IV consists of microfilm of the Backus collection, reels 804-818, which were received from Andover Newton Theological School when the papers were transferred to the Divinity Library. These microfilm reflect the order of the original Backus finding aid.

The original PDF finding aid created by Andover Newton Theological School staff, which contains more detailed description of the collection, is linked to from


  • 1660 - 1806


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

From the Andover Newton Theological School collection, transferred in 2017


The papers are arranged in four series:

Series I.
Personal Papers
Series II.
Collected Papers
Series III.
Addendum and Fragile Originals
Series IV.
Microfilm of Backus Papers


8 Linear Feet (20 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


Personal papers of Backus document his professional work and include diaries, travel journals, autobiographical statements, sermons, published and unpublished writings, and extracts from readings. Collected papers include correspondence and narratives chronicling the Separate Baptist struggle for religious freedom, gathered by Backus.

Biographical / Historical

Isaac Backus was born in Norwich, Connecticut, January 9, 1724. Little is known of his childhood. In "An account of the life of Isaac Backus" (completed to 1756), he provides genealogical information and then begins a detailed chronicle of events leading to his religious conversion and his life after that point.

In response to preaching of the Great Awakening, in 1741 Backus joined the Standing church in Norwich. The Norwich minister was distressed that the converts caused too much agitation and after a few years refused to invite itinerant New Lights, so in 1746 Backus and several other church members withdrew and formed a New Light church. In 1748 Backus became minister of a New Light church in Middleborough, Massachusetts; he continued his association with the New Lights until 1756, when he withdrew because of his opposition to infant baptism. He organized a Separate Baptist church in Middleborough and remained as minister there until his death.

Backus published a large number of tracts and a 3-volume history of the Baptist denomination. His two major concerns are reflected in these works: unification of the Separate Baptists and the struggle against religious taxation as part of efforts to achieve religious freedom. Throughout his professional career Backus travelled extensively in New England, helping to organize churches and settle disputes among various Baptist groups. The Warren Baptist Association was established in 1767; Backus was a member of the Grievance Committee formed to work toward elimination of persecution by civil authorities. As an agent of the Committee he worked to keep the issue of separation of church and state before the general public; and in 1774 he travelled to Philadelphia with other Baptists to seek assistance from the First Continental Congress.

In his later years, Backus continued to be a spokesman for Baptists. He argued for ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1790, convinced that in effect it stood for separation of church and state by prohibiting any religious test for officeholders. In 1796 he published the third volume of his History, and in 1803 an Abridgement. Backus died in Middleborough, November 20, 1806.

Guide to the Isaac Backus Papers
Staff of Andover Newton Theological School Library and Yale Divinity Library
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Yale Divinity Library Repository

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