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Book Review: “Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom” by Brandon J. O’Brien

Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom explores, largely, the life and thought of Isaac Backus, a Baptist pastor who helped navigate between the completely hands-off approach to religion that Thomas Jefferson argued for and the notion of theocracy other Americans were trying to establish.

O’Brien’s look at Backus’s life begins with a look at the reasoning behind seeing the need for revival in the United States. Backus was struck by the need for this revival and dedicated his life to preaching. Ultimately, he moved to Baptist theology from his life as a farmer and part of the “separate church.” His theology developed through his life. It is in outlining this development that I found O’Brien’s book occasionally problematic. It is difficult to present such large theological issues in such a small space, but at times it seemed as though Backus’s movement theologically is one all should make–somewhat odd considering O’Brien says his own theological journey moved him in the opposite direction (from Baptist to Presbyterian). Perhaps this is a case of a biographer effectively conveying the convictions of their subject, but it was distracting at times here. It felt jarring to be pulled from a narrative of Backus’s life into an exposition of Baptist theology, only to be thrown back in again.

Backus’s look at how religion and state should work continued to develop as well. His view ultimately helped influence how we view religious liberty today. Backus refused to affirm anything like a theocracy in which the state was simply established with a religion. But he also argued against a complete separation that did not allow the state to have some involvement in religion. The issue was to do so fairly. Backus had drafted his on bill of rights for protecting religious liberty which has many parallels to the Constitution that was ultimately adopted. Backus’s bill provided for all people to follow their own convictions regarding faith, though it also was rejected because many thought Backus was bringing false accusations about his own liberties being constrained. It is interesting, then, to see that Backus was a rival of Paine and Adams, and it was ultimately they who adopted a bill of rights quite similar to the one that Backus presented.

Demanding Liberty is a somewhat uneven look at the life of a man who was more influential on the formation of the United States than most may think. It provides an interesting but flawed overview of his life and influence. For those interested in the topic of religious freedom in the United States, it is worth picking up for a read.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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