A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Browsing: Diary of John Adams, Volume 2

This note contained in document ADMS-01-02-02-0004-0007-0015
3. In his Autobiography JA elaborates from memory on this conference of the Massachusetts delegates with certain Baptist leaders from New England and several prominent Philadelphia Quakers. But the fullest account is in Alvah Hovey, A Memoir of the Life and Times of the Rev. Isaac Backus, A.M., Boston, 1859, chs. 15–16. James Manning, president of the newly established Rhode Island College (now Brown University), and Isaac Backus (somewhat quaintly spelled “Bacchus” by JA), Baptist minister at Middleborough, Mass., had been sent to Philadelphia by an association of their churches to see what could be done for the relief of Baptists who under Massachusetts law were obliged to pay taxes for the support of “established” ministers not of their own choosing—or who at any rate had great difficulty obtaining exemption from such taxation. On the advice of conservative Quakers, who were not disinclined to embarrass the radical Massachusetts delegates, Manning and Backus requested the conference JA describes. Backus' Diary (quoted by Hovey) gives the names of many who attended and reports the proceedings in full. The discussion was warm and lasted four hours. Backus and Manning pointed out that in a number of instances the Baptists in Massachusetts had been victims of taxation without representation, and Backus recorded that at one point Robert Treat Paine remarked, “There was nothing of conscience in the matter; it was only a contending about paying a little money” (Hovey, Backus, p. 211). Paine's Diary (MHi) is, as usual, laconic on the incident, but on his way home later this month Paine told Ezra Stiles about it, and from this and other evidence Stiles concluded that the Baptists, and Manning especially, were in alliance with the Anglicans and hostile to the patriotic cause (Stiles, Literary Diary, 1:168–170, 472–475, 491, 528; 2:23, 51).
The most protracted of the cases of religious scruple mentioned by JA, all of which can be traced in the histories of the towns concerned, was that of Ashfield. In 1767 certain Baptists of that “new plantation” refused to contribute to the building of a Congregational meetinghouse where they had settled first and had their own place of worship. When property of theirs was distrained to satisfy the tax requirement, they petitioned the General Court and ultimately carried their case to the King in Council. A mass of petitions, legislative acts and resolves, and other documents concerning the troubles in Ashfield from 1767 to 1774 will be found in Mass., Province Laws, 4:1015–1016, 1035–1046; 5:111–113, 143, 228–230, 278–279, 331–334, 371–375; 18:333–334, 450–451. Despite his lack of sympathy with the Baptists' position, Ezra Stiles acknowledged in a long and informative letter of 20 Nov. 1772 that injustice had been done at Ashfield (Literary Diary, 1:472, note). Backus' account of the Ashfield case was published in an anonymous pamphlet entitled An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, Boston, 1773, p. 33 ff., and copies of this tract were handed out to those who attended the conference at Carpenters' Hall. Chagrined as they were by the surprise sprung upon them by the Baptist and Quaker lobbyists, the Massachusetts delegates promised to do what they could { 154 } to redress the grievances complained of, but on their own ground, i.e. in Massachusetts. Accordingly, in Nov. 1774, Backus submitted a memorial of grievances to the Provincial Congress sitting in Cambridge. A Baptist leader who obtained his information from one of the members reported: “It was generally agreed not to do anything about it, but throw it out; when Mr. Adams got up and said, he was apprehensive, if they threw it out, it might cause a division among the provinces; and it was his advice to do something with it” (Hezekiah Smith to James Manning, 20 Jan. 1775, Hovey, Backus, P. 222). The action taken, however, consisted only of a resolution, 9 Dec. approving of religious liberty for all denominations and advising the petitioners to lay their complaints before the next “general assembly [when it] shall be convened in this colony” (Mass. Provincial Congress, Jours., p. 65, 67).
Cite web page as: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2018.