committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs

churches     devotionals     timeline     contact


A History of the Baptists


William Penn—Pennsylvania—The "Frame of Government" —"The Great Law"—Liberal Provisions in Religion—Baptists from Rhode Island—Thomas Dungan—Cold Springs—Pennepek—Baptists from Wales, Ireland and England—Elias Keach—The Keithian Quakers—Mennonites—Baptists in Philadelphia—Jersey Baptists—Emigrants from Many Countries—The Congregationalists in Newark—A Curious Incident.

THE accession by Great Britain of Pennsylvania and the Jerseys from the Swedes and the Dutch brought many Quakers, and at a later date Baptists, into this section. William Penn, whose father was a Baptist, acquired the territory of Pennsylvania. "This day (March 5, 1681) my country," says Penn, "was confirmed to me under the great seal of England, by the name of ‘Pennsylvania."’ He had proposed to name it New Wales, "being as this is a pretty, hilly country"; and when this was objected to, he suggested Sylvania. "They added Penn to it," he continues, "and though I much opposed it and went to the king to have it struck out, he said it was past, and would take it upon him; nor could twenty guineas move the under Secretary to vary the name; for I feared it would be looked on as a vanity in me and not in respect to the king, as it truly was, to my father."

The first "Frame of Government" was a compound of feudal, monarchial, aristocratic and democratic elements. The proprietor was the lord paramount of the soil and all the colonists were his tenants; he claimed the right not only to appoint the judges; but to organize the courts; the assembly had the power to assent to or to reject proposed laws, but the initiative in legislation as well as supreme judicial and administrative authority were vested in the council, which was thus a copy, in miniature of the House of Lords and Privy Council rolled into one. The assembly chafed under the restrictions placed upon its action; and it was finally modified into a liberal government.

Penn, at the beginning of his legislation in Pennsylvania, had passed by the Assembly the "Great Law," the first section of which had regard to religious matters; and, among other things, provided:

That no person, now, or at any time hereafter, Living in this Province, who shall confess and acknowledge one Almighty God, to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World, and who confesses him, or herself, Obliged in Conscience to Live peaceably and quietly under the civil government, shall in any case be molested or prejudiced for his or her Conscientious persuasion or practice. Nor shall hee or shee at any time be compelled to frequent or Maintain anie religious worship, place, or Ministry whatever, Contrary to his, or her mind, but shall fully and freely enjoy his or her Christian Liberty in that respect, without any interruption or reflection. And if any person shall abuse or deride any other for his, or her, different persuasion and practice in matters of religion, such a person shall be looked upon as a Disturber of the peace, and be punished accordingly (Charter and Laws of the Province of Pennsylvania, 1682-1700, pp. 81-99. Harrisburg, 1879).

The provisions in Chapter VI. are as follows:

That all officers and persons Commissionated and employed in the service of the government of this Province, and all Members and Deputies elected to serve in the Assembly thereof, and all that have a Right to elect such Deputies, shall be such as profess and declare they believe in Jesus Christ to be the Son of God, the Saviour of the world, And that are not Convicted of ill-fame, or unsober and dishonest Conversation, and that are of twenty-one years of age at Least (Ibid, 108).

The law was liberal but departed widely from religious liberty. No unbeliever in Jesus, infidel or Jew, had any rights under its provisions. In 1696, William Markham being governor, a new Frame of Government was enacted, in which a property qualification for electors and deputies was substituted for the religious, and the guarantee of freedom of conscience was omitted. By the first code of March 1, 1664, it was enacted that all ministers must present certificates of episcopal ordination, and were to be paid out of the common treasury. It does not appear that this law was ever effective. The charter contained liberal provisions. "It is one of the marvels of history;" says Dr. Newman, "that such a king as Charles II. should have sold to such a man as William Penn so large and valuable territory as Pennsylvania on terms so highly favorable to civil and religious freedom, and with the certainty that it would be used for the freest development of what was then regarded as one of the most radical forms of Christianity" (Newman, History of the Baptists in the United States).

The first company of Baptists to settle in the State came from Rhode Island, in 1684. This was three years after Penn had received his patent, and one year after the death of Roger Williams. Morgan Edwards, in his history of Pennsylvania Baptists, makes the following statement: "In 1684, Thomas Dungan removed from Rhode Island and settled in a place called Cold Springs, in Bucks county, between Bristol and Trenton." Probably there were other Baptists who came with him. "Of this venerable father," says Edwards, "I can learn no more than that he came from Rhode Island, about the year 1684; that he and his family settled at Cold Spring, where he gathered a church, of which nothing remains but a grave yard and the names of the family which -belonged to it; . . . that he died in 1688, and was buried in said graveyard; that his children were five sons and four daughters . . . To mention the name, alliance and offspring of these would tend toward an endless genealogy. Sufficeth that Rev. Thomas Dungan, the first Baptist minister in the province, now (1770) existeth in a progeny of five or six hundred" (Edwards, Material for a Baptist History of Pennsylvania, note).

The second company of Baptists were Welsh emigrants who settled in Pennepek, or Lower Dublin, in 1686. There were already a number of persons in this Community from Wales, England and Ireland. The place they selected for their residence must have exhibited a most inviting aspect to these early emigrants. Though the hand of cultivation has marred the native beauties of the scenery, even yet there is much to invite the eye of him who loves to gate upon nature’s loveliness. Along the banks of the Pennepek there is a sweetness and a silence which invites contemplation. Many native trees of the forest, which the indulgence of an importunate cultivation has yet spared, there interweave their hospitable branches and cover with pleasant shade the green margin by which the laboring current softly meanders. A flat rock, which projects into the stream at a certain point, and leaves an easy slope into the water, has been for a series of years the platform on which the administrator of baptism has stood to propound the way of truth to the surrounding multitude, and from which he has conducted into the yielding elements below him, the placid forms of the new converts.

The records of the church state that "by the good Providence of God, there came certain persons out of Radnorshire in Wales, over into this Province of Pennsylvania, and settled in the Township of Dublin, in the County of Philadelphia, viz.: John Eatton, George Eatton and Jane, his wife, Samuel Jones, and Sarah Eatton, who had all been Baptized upon Confession of Faith and Received into Communion of the Church of Christ meeting in the Parishes of Llandewi and Nantmel, in Radnorshire, Henry Gregory being Chief Pastor. Also John Baker who had been Baptized and was a member of a congregation of Baptized believers in Kilkenny, in Ireland, Christopher Blackwell, pastor, was in the providence of God settled in the township aforesaid. In the year 1687 there came one Samuel Vaus out of England, and settled near the aforesaid Township and went under the denomination of a Baptist and was so taken to be."

The next year Elias Keach came from London and baptized some persons. Twelve entered into church relations and chose Mr. Keach as pastor. Soon after, a few Baptists from this province and West Jersey joined them, also some persons baptized at the Falls, Cold Spring, Burlington, Cohansey, Salem, Penn’s Neck, Chester, Philadelphia and elsewhere united with the church. These were all in one church, and Pennepek was the center of the union, where as many as could met to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Quarterly meetings were held in other places to accommodate the members there. From this church went out many others. They were orthodox according to the Baptist faith; but at times they were disturbed by such subjects as absolute predestination, laying on of hands, distributing the elements, singing psalms, seventh-day Sabbath and other ecclesiastical fevers (Horatio Gates Jones, The Baptists in Pennsylvania. Being a sketch of the Pennepek or Lower Dublin Baptist Church. The Historical Magazine, August, 1868. New Series, IV., p. 76).

Elias Keach, the first minister of the church, was a son of the celebrated Benjamin Keach of London. He came to this country about the year 1686, and was then a very wild youth. On his landing he dressed in black and wore a band in order to pass as a minister. The project succeeded to his wishes, and many persons resorted to hear the young London divine. He performed well enough till he advanced pretty far in the sermon, then, stopping short, he looked like a man astonished. The audience concluded that he was seized by some disorder; but, on asking what the matter was, received from him a confession of imposture, with tears in his eyes and much trembling. Great was his distress, though it ended happily; for from this time he’ dated his conversion. He visited Dungan, was instructed, baptized and ordained. He traveled through the wilderness of Pennsylvania and the Jerseys, preaching the gospel with great success. He became the chief apostle of the Baptists in this country. With his family he finally returned to London and became a most successful minister (Morgan Edwards, Materials Toward a History of the Baptists of Pennsylvania, p. 9-11. Philadelphia, 1770).

The third company of the Baptists originated from the Keithian Quakers, called after their leader, George Keith. On account of some differences they separated from the main body of the Quakers and published reasons for their separation. They were prosecuted in the courts by the Quakers. Morgan Edwards remarks:

Whether these complaints be just or not, is neither my business nor inclination to determine. If just, the Quakers have also shown: "That every sect would persecute if they had the power." I know but one exception to this satirical remark, and that is the Baptists; they have had the civil power in their hands in Rhode Island government for an hundred and thirty-six years, and yet have never abused it in this manner, their enemies themselves being judges. And it is remarkable that John Holmes, Esq., the only Baptist magistrate in Philadelphia at the time referred to, refused to act with the Quaker magistrates, against the Keithians, alleging, "That it was a religious dispute, and therefore not fit for a civil court." Nay, he openly blamed the court, held at Philadelphia, December 6-12, 1692, for refusing to admit the exceptions, which the prisoners made to the jury. However the Keithian Quakers soon declined; their head deserted them, and went over to the Episcopalians. Some followed him thither; some returned to the Penn Quakers; and some went to other societies. Nevertheless others persisted in the separation, particularly the Upper Providence; at Philadelphia; at Southampton; and Lower Dublin. These, by resigning themselves to the guidance of Scripture, began to find water in the commission; bread and wine in the command; community of goods, love feast, kiss of charity, right hand of fellowship, annointing the sick for recovery, and washing the disciples’ feet; and were therefore determined to practice accordingly (Edwards, pp. 56, 57).

There were other companies of Keithian Quakers who arrived at the same conclusion. Edwards continues:

Thus have we seen that the Keithian Quakers ended in a kind of transformation into Keithian Baptists; they were also called Quaker Baptists, because they still retained the language, dress and manners of Quakers. We have seen also, that the Keithian or Quaker Baptists ended in another kind of transformation into seventh-day Baptists, though some went among the first-day Baptists and other societies. However, these were the beginning of the Sabbatarians in Pennsylvania. A confession of faith was published by the Keithian Baptists in 1697; it consisted chiefly of the articles in the Apostles’ Creed. The additions are articles which relate to baptism by immersion, the Lord’s Supper; distinguishing days and months by numerical names, plainness of language and dress, not swearing, not fighting, etc. (Edwards, pp. 59, 60).

There came, in 1692, companies of Mennonites from the Dutch settlements in New York. They were found mostly in the neighborhood of Germantown and Frankfort. There also came into the country a company of persons from Germany who became Tunkers or Dunkers. They were from Schwartzenau, Friesland. With but one exception these people had been bred Presbyterians. They consorted together to read the Bible and edify one another in the way they had been brought up, for as yet they did not know that there were any Baptists in the world. "However, believers’ baptism," says Edwards, "and a congregational church soon gained upon them, insomuch they had determined to obey the gospel in these matters. They desired Alexander Mack to baptize them; but he, deeming himself in reality unbaptized, refused. Upon which they cast lots to find who should be administrator. On whom the lot fell hath been carefully concealed. However, baptized they were in the river Eder, by Schwartzenau, and they formed themselves into a church, choosing Alexander Mack to be their minister. Persecution drove them from Holland. "Thus we see that all the Tunker churches in America sprang from the churches at Schwartzenau in Germany; that the church began in 1708, with only seven souls, and that in a place where no Baptist had been in the memory of man, nor any now are. In 62 years that little one has become a thousand, and the small one a great nation" (Edwards, pp. 65, 66).

There were Baptists in Philadelphia in 1686, but for forty-six years the church had no settled pastor. It was regarded as a branch of the church at Pennepek. The church was formally constituted May 15, 1746.

New Jersey was at first settled by the Dutch and the Swedes. It soon passed under the control of England; and finally came into the possession of Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret. The proprietors February 10, 1664-5, issued certain "Concessions and agreements of the Lord Proprietors of New Jersey to and with all and every one of the adventurers and all such as shall settle and plant there." It distinctly provides:

That no person qualified as aforesaid within the said Province at any time shall be anyways molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any difference in opinion or practice in matters of religious concernment, who does not actually disturb the civil peace of the said Province; but that all and every such person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their judgments and consciences in matters of religion throughout the said Province (Whitehead, New Jersey Under the Proprietors, p. 27. 1846).

However, the Assembly of the Province was authorized to appoint as many ministers as should be thought proper, and to provide for their maintenance (Winsor, Narrative and Critical History of the United States, III.). Benedict calls it a "mild shade of religious toleration" (Benedict).

Some towns enacted statutes which were oppressive. The following is from Newark:

None shall be admitted freemen or free burgesses, within our town upon Passaick River in the Province of New Jersey, but such planters as are members of some or other of the Congregational churches; nor shall any but such be chosen to magistracy . . . or to any chief military trust or office. Nor shall any but such church members have any vote in any such elections (Henry F. Smith; Celebration of the twenty-fifth Anniversary of the First Baptist Church of Bloomfield, N. J.).

One of the celebrated Baptist churches of this section was the Welsh Tract church from Pembrokeshire, Wales. It emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1701, and their pastor, Thomas Griffith, came with them. They received in 1703 a large grant of land on the Delaware, known as Welsh Tract. They greatly prospered, furnished many able ministers to the denomination and sent forth a strong colony to South Carolina. Morgan Edwards declares that this church "was the principal, if not the sole, means of introducing singing, imposition of hands, and . by 1712" all the ministers in Jersey "had submitted to the ordinance."

The State of New Jersey from ancient times had strong and respectable Baptist churches in its borders. Edwards gives the following general account of the origin of the Jersey Baptist churches: "In the year 1675, and afterwards, emigrants arrived in the Delaware from England and settled in the parts adjoining the river, since distinguished by the name West Jersey; some of these were also Baptists. About 1683, a company of Baptists from the county of Tipperary, in Ireland, arrived at Amboy; they proceeded toward the interior parts. In the fall of 1729, about thirty families of the Tunker Baptists from Holland (but originally from Schwartzenau in Germany) arrived in Philadelphia; some of whom, in 1733, crossed the river Delaware and settled in Amwell in Hunterden county. In 1734 the Rogerene Baptists arrived from Connecticut and settled near Schoolymountain, in the county of Morris. Thus it appears that among the first Jersey settlers some were of the Baptist denomination; the present Baptists are, partly, the offspring of those adventitious Baptists; and, partly, such as have been proselyted to their way" (Edwards, Materials Toward a History of the Baptists in New Jersey, p. 10. Philadelphia, 1792) . Most of these churches were from Wales, but Cohansy originated in Ireland. Obadiah Holmes, who suffered as a Baptist in Massachusetts, came in 1664-5 into New Jersey with other Baptists and some Quakers and settled in Monmouth county. John Bray was pastor in 1707. The following, taken from the records of the court of that date, shows something of the trials and perplexities of the Baptists:

Court of Sessions begun and held at Shrewsbury for the county of Monmouth on the third Tuesday in September, Anno Dom. 1707. WHEREAS, Mr. John Bray, minister of the Baptists of the county of Monmouth, made application to the Court of Sessions, held last month, that he might be permitted to qualify himself as the law directs in the behalf, and the Court there ordered the further consideration thereof should be referred and now said John Bray appearing in open sessions, being presented by several of the said congregation, viz.: Lawrence, John Garret Wall, Jacob Troax, Jr., James Bolen, in behalf of themselves and the rest of their brethren, and accordingly the said John Bray had qualified himself as the law in the case directs, viz.: he did take the oath made in a statute, made in the first year of her majesty’s reign, entitled an act for removing and preventing all disputes concerning the assembly of that Parliament and did make and subscribe the declaration mentioned in the statute made in the thirtieth year of the reign of King Charles II, entitled an act to prevent Papists from sitting in either house of Parliament and also did declare his approbation of and did subscribe the articles of religion mentioned in the statute made in the thirtieth year of the reign of the late Queen Elizabeth, except the 34, 35, 36 and those words of the 20th article, viz.: the church hath full power to decree rites and ceremonies and authority in matters of faith and that part of the 27th article concerning infant baptism, all of which are entered on record. According to the direction of another act of Parliament entitled, an ‘act for exempting her majesty’s Protestant subjects, dissenting from the Church of England from the penalty of certain laws.

Such were some of the restrictions thrown around Baptist preachers. For long periods many of these churches were destitute of settled pastors. Most of these early churches were endowed. Some of these endowments were lost, by what Morgan Edwards denominated "that sacraligious thing called continental money."

An interesting occurrence happened in one of the churches. A zealous Pedobaptist was desirous of having his first child initiated into the church according to established forms. His wife was averse to the measure, and would not consent until some plain passage of scripture could be adduced in its favor. He repaired to his minister, who frankly admitted that there was no such scripture, but showed him how the proofs were made out. On hearing of this Robert Calver inserted an advertisement in the newspaper offering twenty dollars reward to any one who would produce a text proving infant baptism. Rev. Samuel Harker took him up and carried a text to the advertiser; Calver would not allow that infant baptism was in it; Harker sued him; the Court was of Calver’s mind and Harker had the costs to pay. Calver then offered forty dollars for such a passage, but no one accepted his challenge. The historian of the times made this quaint remark: "It does not appear that the Court had any bias in favor of Baptist sentiments; their decision was, no doubt, made according to the law and evidence, and as what is wanting cannot be numbered, no other verdict could be rendered."

   Books for further reading:
   Thomas S. Griffiths, A History of the Baptists of New Jersey. Hightstown, 1904.
   Henry C. Vedder, A History of the Baptists to the Middle States. Philadelphia, 1898.

The Reformed Reader Home Page 

Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved