January 27: J. Trumbull Backus, D.D.

Another great resource for Presbyterian biography is Alfred Nevin’s 1884 publication, The Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America: Including the Northern and Southern Assemblies. This is a huge volume of about 1250 pages, and copies can occasionally be found on the used book market or on eBay.

Today we will focus on Jonathan Trumbull Backus, D.D., LL.D., son of E.F. Backus, who was born in the city of Albany, New York on this day, January 27, in 1809. His lower level education took place at the Albany Academy and he later graduated from Columbia College in New York City, in 1827. From 1827 to 1830, he attended Princeton in preparation for entering the ministry and he concluded his theological studies at Andover, 1830-1831 and New Haven, 1832.

He was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of New York in 1830 and then was ordained by the Presbytery of Albany and installed as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Schenectady, New York, in 1832.

As an aside, we have to mention that First Presbyterian Church was organized in 1760, but left the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. denomination in 1977, later affiliating with the Presbyterian Church in America in 1989. In 2010 this congregation marked its 250th anniversary, and it is today one of the five oldest churches in the PCA. An important volume on the history of the church was published on that occasion. A brief synopsis of the church’s history is available here. The Rev. Larry Roff is the current pastor of the church, though he is perhaps better known across the PCA as the organist for the worship services at General Assembly each year.

Rev. Backus continued as the pastor of First Presbyterian for forty-one years, until 1873, by which time his own health had so weakened that he could no longer properly fulfill his duties as pastor. He died on January 21, 1892, having not quite reached the age of 83.

Honors accorded to Rev. Backus during his life included the honorary degree of Sacred Theology Doctor, awarded to him by Union College, Schenectady, NY, in 1847. He was a commissioner to General Assembly seven times and he actively served the Church on a number of important committees. To mention just one of those committees, he served on the Committee which prepared the Presbyterian Hymnal, working alongside the Rev. Joseph Duryea in the preparation of that volume, published in 1874.

Of particular note, Rev. Backus was unanimously elected Moderator of the first reunited General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. in 1870. Nevin’s Encyclopedia says of Rev. Backus that “In the discharge of his duties in this high office he gained the commendation of all his brethren, for the impartiality, suavity, and dignity with which he presided over the deliberations of the Assembly.”

Words to Live By: Some pastors serve important, historic churches. Others labor in small, relatively unknown places. But wherever the church, regardless of its fame or lack thereof, godly pastors are called to serve because of the people in their churches, because those lives matter. They—we—are the Lord’s chosen people, a holy nation. We are each of us made in the image of God, and now called according to His purpose, a people for His possession. Your life matters, regardless of your station in this world, because you have been called to serve the King of Kings and the Lord of all creation.

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