In continuing our brief look at the history of the Baptists, we now come to the origin of our Brethren in America. There have been many myths propagated by, no doubt, well-meaning people about the Baptists in this country. All, I’m sure, have heard the story of Roger Williams being the first Baptist in America. However, Mr. Williams was never a Baptist in the Scriptural or historical sense of the word. We shall show there were Baptists and Baptist Churches in this country, before Mr. Williams ever came to any conclusions about baptism.
To find the origin of our people in this country, we must go back to England to see what the situation was there at the time of the first immigrations to the New World. The first great time of immigration was during the reigns of James I, and Charles I. The religious persecutions of those times caused many, such as the Pilgrims and Puritans, to leave England and search for a better place in America. The Protectorate of Cromwell was a period of great religious peace m England. The rights of free men to worship God according to the dictates of their consciences were affirmed, but were not to last. After the time of Cromwell, when Charles the Second was restored to the throne of England, religious persecution began again. Charles made great promises of freedom to gain the support of all parties securing his bloodless return to the throne from which his father was ejected. His secret aims, however, were to restore the Church of England’s ceremonies (which had been suppressed under Cromwell) to the most exalted place in English church life. Indeed, it is believed he would have attempted to make the Church of Rome the established church in England, if he thought he could have gotten away with it. Because of this revival of persecution, many nonconformists sought refuge on the shores of the New World. Most of these who sought religious freedom were Congregationalists or Presbyterians who subsequently became as intolerant as the Episcopalians they left behind. However, among those who immigrated were also some Baptists.
Most of these first Baptist immigrants did not leave their names recorded in the annals of history. Their worship was proscribed by the Puritans of Massachusetts and the Episcopals of Virginia. If they met together with others it must have been with the utmost secrecy. However, we know from their writings that many who later became leaders among the Particular Baptists in England came to embrace (at least) Baptist principles while in America. Indeed, we have been told (and if any can supply us a source for this we would be grateful) Hansard Knollys may have been baptized while in America. Thomas Patient, in the preface to his work on baptism, speaks of being enlightened by the Holy Spirit to Baptist views while in New England. The New England clergy could not stand this influx of “anabaptists and antinomians” and began a rigorous, systematic persecution of all who would not conform.
Into this sphere of united church and state came Roger Williams. Williams’ sufferings have been told and re-told, and his avid defense of religious liberty has been praised by millions since their original publication. We would take nothing from his character either as a man, a statesman, an author, or the defender of the religious rights of all men, but we will deny he was ever a Baptist, or founded a Baptist Church. As a man of deep thought and conviction, Williams sought to find out the truth in matters of religion. He was, on his immigration to America, Pastor of a Congregational Church at Salem, Massachusetts. He fell out with the political and religious hierarchy (which were the same) of the Colony on the following points: 1. That we have our land by patent from the King, but the natives are the true owners of it. 2. That it is not lawful to call upon a wicked person to swear, or to pray, as being actions of God’s worship. 3. That it is not lawful to hear any of the parish assemblies of England. 4. That the civil magistrate’s power extends only to the body and goods and outward state of man. For affirming these four things, Williams was sentenced to banishment in 1635. He was given six weeks to leave the Colony, but the sentence was not carried out as decreed by the Court. He was instead given twelve weeks, and when he had not left, plans were made to send him back to England. He chose, however, to leave in the middle of winter rather than go back to England. Because of his friendship with the native Indians who trusted him more than most white men, Williams was able to secure a place to stay through the winter, and from them purchased the land which became Providence, Rhode Island.
In 1639 Williams, along with several others, believed the Holy Spirit was moving on them to “recommence” the ordinances of the Gospel. So Ezekiel Holliman immersed Mr. Williams, and then Mr. Williams immersed Mr. Holliman and eleven others. They were quite satisfied that their actions were scriptural and justified. Williams, however, seems to have had second thoughts about the order (or lack of order) under which they began. About four months after their dipping, he declared invalid the actions they had taken and declared there were no true churches, ministry or church authority on the earth and it would take an Apostle to begin them again. He never again (as far as is known) took part in any denomination’s meetings. According to Cotton Mather, a New England Puritan who was no friend to the Baptists, Williams “society” had “come to nothing” by 1642. It fell apart with the defection of its leader from the principles on which they started. Any who attempt to make Roger Williams the founder of the Baptists in America know nothing of the true history of our people.
One of the earliest Baptist Ministers to immigrate was Dr. John Clarke. Elder Clarke was a medical doctor and minister in England before coming to America in 1637. Of his early history not much is known, but he received his medical education in England before his immigration. He was also baptized (one source says by an Elder Stillwell) and ordained probably by either John Spillsbury’s or William Kiffin’s Church because his only published work was addressed to those churches. Because of the intolerance of the Boston ministers (who called him an Antinomian) he settled with others of like persuasion at Aquidneck Island which is now called Newport, Rhode Island. The compact which Dr. Clarke drew up on their leaving was signed by seventeen beside himself Among the signers were a William Aspinwall and Edward Hutchinson. Whether these were the same men who were later widely known in England for promulgating Baptist sentiments we are not sure, but it would be a striking coincidence if they were not.
After settling on the Island, Dr. Clarke constituted a Baptist Church in 1638. This was the first Baptist Church of which we have knowledge in America. The scattered Baptists who came earlier than these would have been compelled by persecution to remain in hiding, so if any churches were constituted before this one, they would probably have left no records.
Dr. Clarke, Obadiah Holmes (who was an Elder in the Church) and John Crandall (a deacon) suffered from the Massachusetts Puritans. They went to Lynn, Mass, to visit an aged member of their Church who could no longer come to the meetings. While preaching in the home of this aged brother, the magistrates entered and arrested them for holding an unauthorized conventicle during the time of the regular church meeting. These three were imprisoned for this heinous crime. That night they were forced to attend a meeting of the established church. They showed their contempt for this false order by sitting with their hats on until a magistrate who was present ordered their hats removed by force. They read their Bibles during the service, and when it was ended attempted to address the people to give their reasons for not taking part, but were forbidden. They were taken before the justices and there found guilty of disturbing the peace of the congregation by holding a private meeting at the time of regular worship and contempt of their public worship. For this offense Dr. Clarke was fined twenty pounds, Deacon Crandell five pounds and Elder Holmes thirty pounds or be well whipped. Friends paid Dr. Clarke’s fine without his knowledge or approbation. Mr. Crandell was not told when his fine was due, so his prison-keeper was charged his fine. Elder Holmes, however, would let no one pay what he considered an unjust judgment, so he remained in prison and was given thirty lashes with a three-corded whip.
That Dr. Clarke was a Particular Baptist let none doubt. It is said he left a confession of faith which was “strongly Calvinistic.” He returned to England to secure a charter for the new colony and spent several years there in prosecution of this work. While there he served as pastor of the Baptist Church at Worcester House in London. When he returned to Rhode Island, he continued in public service and ministry until his death in 1676.
Here, as far as churches are concerned, is one of the beginnings of the Particular Baptist cause in America. May God bless us to continue in this faith, and, if called upon, be willing to suffer as these did for the Truth as it is in Jesus. God willing, we will look at other early immigrants in another issue.
Elder Robert N. Lackey
May - June 1992