committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs








Baptists in North America—Church at Providence—Baptists in Massachusetts—Persecuting Enactment against them—The Whipping of Obadiah Holmes—First Church at Boston—Newport—Swansea—Other Churches—Roger Williams—Gregory Dexter—Obadiah Holmes—John Miles—Elias Keach

I now proceed to give some information respecting the introduction of Baptist principles into America. There were Baptists among the first emigrants to New England; but their number must have been small, as no effort was made for some time to set up separate worship. “Some few of these people,” says Cotton Mather, “have been among the planters of New England from the beginning, and have been welcome to the communion of our churches, which they enjoyed, reserving their particular opinions unto themselves.”1

Roger Williams’s preaching at Salem, prior to his banishment, of which an account will be hereafter given, was distasteful to some of his hearers, because he continually testified against the assumption of power in things religious by the magistrate, and they said that he inculcated principles “tending to Anabaptism.” This probably meant nothing more than that he taught the individuality of religion, and laid such stress on personal piety, as essential to union with the Church, as seemed inconsistent with the P?obaptist theory of membership. It is certain that he had not then professed Baptist sentiments.

But shortly after his settlement at Providence, the whole subject of baptism came under consideration and discussion. How it originated; and in what way the inquiry was carried on, we know not. The result was, however, that in 1638, twelve men declared themselves Baptists in principle. Then the question arose, How were they to be baptized, since they had no minister? They might have sent to England for one; but the application might not have been successful, and it would have involved an expense which they were ill-prepared to meet; besides which, a long delay would have occurred. In this dilemma they adopted the only expedient that seemed likely to meet the case. One of their number, Thomas Holliman, was chosen to baptize Mr. Williams, who then baptized the others.2 A church was immediately formed, of which Mr. Williams became pastor. But he soon vacated the office; some thinly after the lapse of only a few months; while others are of opinion that he resigned when he embarked for England to procure a charter for the colony, and that it was on that occasion Mr. Chad Brown was chosen as his successor. On his return from England he refrained from fellowship with the Church, and lived in an isolated religious condition, preaching the Gospel to the Indians as he found opportunity, but refusing to participate in the ordinances. He had embraced a, singular notion, which is thus stated by one of his biographers:—“He denied that any ministry now exists, which is authorized to preach the Gospel to the impenitent, or to administer the ordinances. He believed that these functions belonged to the Apostolic race of ministers, which was interrupted and discontinued when the reign of Antichrist commenced, and which will not, as he thought, be restored, till the witnesses shall have been slain and raised again (Rev. 11:11) . . . He says in his Hireling Ministry None of Christ’s, published in 1652:—‘In the poor small span of my life, I desired to have been a diligent and constant observer, and have been myself many ways engaged, in city, in country, in courts, in schools, in universities, in church, in Old and New England, and yet cannot, in the holy presence of God, bring in the result of a satisfactory discovery, that either the begetting ministry of the Apostles or messengers to the nations, or the feeding or nourishing ministry of teachers, according to the first institution of the Lord Jesus, are yet restored and extant. The only ministry which, in my opinion, now exists, is that of prophets, i.e. ministers, who explain religious truths, and bear witness against error.’”3

The second Baptist church in Rhode Island was formed at Newport, in 1644, by Dr. John Clark and eleven others. Dr. Clark became the pastor: he resigned the pastorate in 1651, and accompanied Roger Williams to England on business connected with the charter of the colony. He was succeeded by Obadiah Holmes.

A second church was formed at Newport, in 1656, by twenty-one persons, who seceded from the first church on account of the use of psalmody, to which they objected, the “restraints on the liberty of prophesying,”—particular redemption,—and the indifference shown by the church to the laying on of hands, a practice regarded by the seceders as essential. William Vaughan was the first pastor.

Four additional churches were organized in Rhode Island during this period, viz., North Kingston, 1665; Seventh Day Baptists, Newport, 1671; South Kingston, 1680; Dartmouth (afterwards removed to Tiverton), 1685.

Year after year, more Baptists emigrated from England to Massachusetts, and, as a matter of course, openly avowed their sentiments. “The Anabaptists,” says Winthrop, “increased and spread in Massachusetts.” Various methods were adopted to annoy them, which so far produced the desired effect that many of them left the country, and took refuge among the Dutch in the State of New York. But others remained, who, it would seem, took no pains to conceal their views, naturally concluding that those who had fled from England to gain religious freedom would concede to their fellow-Christians what they sought for themselves. But the New Englanders were very imperfectly instructed in this matter. They still held the Establishment principle, and dreamed that the Jewish theocracy was to be perpetuated in Christian states. An Act was passed for the banishment of Baptists. It was easier to banish than to convince them. Here is a copy of the Act:—

“Forasmuch as experience hath plentifully and often proved that, since the first rising of the Anabaptists, about one hundred years since, they have been the incendiaries of commonwealths, and the infectors of persons in main matters of religion, and the troublers of churches in all places where they have been, and that they have held the baptizing of infants unlawful, have usually held other errors or heresies therewith, though they have (as other heretics used to do) concealed the same, till they spied out a fit advantage and opportunity to vent them, by way of question or scruple; and whereas divers of this kind have, since our coming into New England, appeared amongst ourselves, some whereof (as others before them) denied the ordinance of magistracy, and the lawfulness of making war, and others the lawfulness of magistrates, and their inspection into any breach of the first table [that is, the first four of the Ten Commandments]; which opinions, if they should be connived at by us, are likely to be increased amongst us, and so must necessarily bring guilt upon us, infection and trouble to the churches, and hazard to the whole commonwealth; it is ordered and agreed, that if any person or persons, within this jurisdiction, shall either openly condemn or oppose the baptizing of infants, or go about secretly to seduce others from the approbation or use thereof, or shall purposely depart the congregation at the ministration of the ordinance, or shall deny the ordinance of magistracy, or the lawful right and authority to make war, or to punish the outward breaches of the first table, and shall appear to the court willfully and obstinately to continue therein, after due time and means of conviction,—every such person or persons shall be sentenced to banishment.”4

This Act was passed November 13th, 1644. That same year Roger Williams had published his immortal book, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Discussed. It was a bitter pill to John Cotton, the minister, and to the magistrates who were so ready to do his bidding. They gnashed their teeth at Williams, as he passed through Boston on his way from England to Rhode Island, but they durst not bite—they could not even scratch him; their claws were pared; they stood in awe of the men at home. So Williams got safe to his free colony; but “a poor man by the name of Painter” was “tied up and whipt” because he would not have his child sprinkled!

There was a pressure on the Baptists in Massachusetts. They were few and fearful. Can we wonder at it? It was no small trial to be driven beyond the bounds of civilization in those days. We hear but little of them for seven years, and then it is whipping again! William Witter, an aged Baptist, lived at Lynn. The distance, coupled with his infirmities, prevented him from enjoying Christian fellowship with his brethren of the church at Newport, to which he belonged. There were other brethren in the same neighborhood. A pastoral visit was resolved on. Dr. John Clark, pastor of the church, accompanied by Obadiah Holmes, a ministering brother, and by another brother of the name of Crandal, repaired to Lynn for that purpose, and proposed to hold a meeting with the brethren on the Lord’s Day. They were assembled, and Dr. Clark had commenced his discourse, when the constables made their appearance, charged to apprehend the intruders, and keep them safely till the next day. They obeyed their orders, and the meeting was broken up. Next day the Puritan magistrates committed them to prison, and, about a fortnight after, the Court of Assistants adjudged Dr. Clark to pay a fine of twenty pounds, Mr. Holmes a fine of thirty pounds, and Mr. Crandal five pounds. Some friends paid Dr. Clark’s fine. Mr. Crandal was released on promise to appear the next court-day. There was some talk about a disputation on baptism between Dr. Clark and the clergy of Boston, who had intimated a willingness to meet him, but it came to nothing.

Mr. Holmes’s fine was the heaviest, most probably on account of the circumstances mentioned in the sentence, presently to be quoted. He would not allow the fine to be paid for him, nor would he pay it himself. But he must either pay or be “well whipt.” So ran the sentence. It is a curiosity, and should be preserved:—

“The sentence of Obadiah Holmes, of Seaconk, the 31st of the fifth month, 1651.”

“Forasmuch as you, Obadiah Holmes, being come into this jurisdiction about the gist of the fifth month, did meet at one William Witter’s house, at Lynn, and did here privately (and at other times), being an excommunicated person, did take upon you to preach and baptize upon the Lord’s Day, or other days, and being taken then by the constable, and coming afterward to the assembly at Lynn, did, in disrespect to the ordinance of God and His worship, keep on your hat, the pastor being in prayer, insomuch as you would not give reverence in veiling your hat, till it was forced off your head, to the disturbance of the congregation, and professing against the institution of the Church, as not being according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and that you, the said Obadiah Holmes, did, upon the day following, meet again at the said William Witter’s, in contempt to authority, you being then in the custody of the law, and did there receive the sacrament, being excommunicate, and that you did baptize such as were baptized before, and thereby did necessarily deny the baptism before administered to be baptism, the churches no churches, and also other ordinances and ministers, as if all was a nullity; and did also deny the lawfulness of baptizing of infants; and all this tends to the dishonor of God, the despising the ordinances of God among us, the peace of the churches, and seducing the subjects of this commonwealth from the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and perverting the straight ways of the Lord; the Court doth fine you thirty pounds, to be paid, or sufficient sureties that the said sum shall be paid by the first day of the next Court of Assistants, or else to be well whipt : and that you shall remain in prison till it be paid, or security given in for it.”

“ By the Court,”

The sentence was passed in July. Mr. Holmes was kept in prison till September, when he was publicly whipped, and so barbarously “that in many days, if not some weeks, he could take no rest but as he lay upon his knees and elbows, not being able to suffer any part of his body to touch the bed whereon he lay.” His own account of the affair, in a letter addressed to Messrs. Spilsbury, Kiffin, and other Baptists in London, is deeply affecting, but too long for transcription here. He tells the brethren how he declined the proffered kindness of his friends, who “came to visit him, desiring him to take the refreshment of wine and other comforts,” having resolved “not to drink wine nor strong drink that day, until his punishment was over,” lest the world should say “that the strength and comfort of the creature had carried him through;”—how he withdrew to his chamber, to seek strength from the Lord, and “prayed earnestly that He would be pleased to give him a spirit of courage and boldness, a tongue to speak for Him, and strength of body to suffer for His sake, and not to shrink or yield to the strokes, or shed tears, lest the adversaries of the truth should thereupon blaspheme and be hardened, and the weak and feeble-hearted discouraged;” how he attempted at the place of suffering to address the people, but was prevented by the magistrate in attendance; and how graciously he was strengthened to endure the pain. “As the man began to lay the strokes upon my back, I said to the people, ‘Though my flesh should fail, and my spirit should fail, yet my God would not fail.’ So it pleased the Lord to come in, and to fill my heart arid tongue as a vessel full, and with an audible voice I broke forth, praying unto the Lord not to lay this sin to their charge, and telling the people that now I found He did not fail me, and therefore now I should trust Him for ever, who failed me not; for in truth, as the strokes fell upon me, I had such a spiritual manifestation of God’s presence, as the like thereof I never had nor felt, nor can with fleshly tongue express; and the outward pain was so removed from me that indeed I am not able to declare it to you; it was so easy to me that I could well bear it, yea, and in a manner felt it not, although it was grievous, as the spectators said, the man striking with all his strength (yea, spitting in his hands three times, as many affirmed) with a three-corded whip, giving me therewith thirty strokes. When he had loosed me from the post, having joyfulness in my heart and cheerfulness in my countenance, as the spectators observed, I told the magis?trates, ‘You have struck me as with roses,’ and said more?over, ‘Although the Lord hath made it easy to me, yet I pray God it may not be laid to your charge.’” Mr. Holmes then proceeds to state that John Hazel and John Spur, who expressed their sympathy by shaking hands with him after it was over, were sentenced “to pay forty shillings or be whipt;” and that a surgeon who dressed his wounds was inquired after as if he had committed some crime. But “it hath pleased the Father of mercies,” he adds, “to dis?pose of the matter, that my bonds and imprisonment have been no hindrance to the Gospel, for before my return some submitted to the Lord and were baptized, and divers were put upon the way of inquiry. And now, being advised to make my escape by night, because it was reported there were warrants forth for me, I departed; and the next day after, while I was on my journey, the constable came to search the house where I had lodged; so I escaped their hands, and was, by the good hand of my Heavenly Father, brought home again to my near relations, my wife and eight children, the brethren of our town and Providence having taken pains to meet me four miles in the woods, where we rejoiced together in the Lord.”5

“Bonds and imprisonment” awaited all Baptists in New England. They met for worship as they were able, and constantly testified against infant baptism, for which they were harassed by the courts without mercy. In 1665 they ventured to form themselves into a church at Charlestown, near Boston. This church was afterwards removed into the city, and considered the first Boston church. Its early history was one long tale of vexation and annoyance, inflicted, there is too much reason to believe, at the instigation of the ministers. Thomas Gould, the founder of the church, was ordered, with two others, after a year’s imprisonment, to “depart out of the jurisdiction.” This occasioned the removal of the church, for some time, to Noddle’s Island, in Boston Harbor,—now East Boston.

The Congregational clergy, by whom the magistrates were instigated, were proof against all influence or entreaty. Nothing softened them. When a number of persons, some of them men of high standing in the colony, petitioned for lenity to the Baptists, they were fined for petitioning. A letter of remonstrance from England, signed by Dr. Goodwin, Dr. Owen, Philip Nye, John Caryl, and other eminent divines, failed to produce any effect. Even the king’s interference was in vain. A royal letter, “requiring that liberty of conscience should be allowed to all Protestants,” and that “no good subjects should be subjected to fines and forfeitures for not agreeing in the Congregational way,” was disregarded. When the Baptists, encouraged by this interposition, repaired for worship to a meeting-house which they had built, its doors were nailed up, and they were forbidden to open them, “at their peril.” But they insisted on their rights, pleaded the king’s authority, and at length were allowed to meet in peace.

Thomas Gould was the first pastor of the Boston church. Isaac Hull succeeded him, with whom John Russell was for a short time associated. John Emblem, who was sent for from England, became co-pastor with Mr. Hull in 1684

We have given full particulars respecting the churches already mentioned, on account of the interesting circumstances connected with their early history. The remaining portion of American statistics for this period may be com?pressed into a small space.

In 1663, the church at Swansea, Massachusetts, was con?stituted by John Miles, who had just come from Swansea, Wales, with some of his brethren. The place where they ultimately settled was called after that which they had left. Meetings of the Baptists had been held there for thirteen years before, but no church had been founded. The Mas?sachusetts government tried to strangle the church in its infancy, and actually fined all the members five pounds each for worshipping God contrary to the order established in the colony; but at last they yielded, and the church lived.

A church was formed at Kittery, Maine, in 1682, but it died in its infancy. A church was organized at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1683. There were two churches in Pennsylvania:—Cold Spring, founded in 1684; Pennepek, in 1688. In the same year a church was established at Middletown, New Jersey.

In 1688, the Baptist denomination in North America comprised thirteen churches only. Seven were in Rhode Island, two in Massachusetts, one in South Carolina, two in Pennsylvania, and one in New Jersey. Times have greatly changed since then! There are now upwards of thirteen thousand churches! The “little one” has literally “become a thousand!”

We conclude this chapter with a brief biographical sketch of Roger Williams, whose name has been already men?tioned.

Very little is known of the early life of this great man. It is supposed that be was a native of Wales, and that he was born in the year 1599. Sir Edward Coke, as tradition states, observed his attention at church, where he was accustomed to take notes of the sermons, and liberally took charge of his education, thinking that he would prove in future years an able lawyer. This was a providential interposition, for Williams’s parents were poor, and, had it not been for Sir Edward’s generosity, he would have remained in humble life all his days. Having received a good classical education, he “commenced the study of the law, at the desire and under the guidance of his generous patron, who would naturally wish to train his pupil to the honorable and useful profession which he himself adorned. The providence of God may be seen in thus leading the mind of Mr. Williams to that acquaintance with the principles of law and government, which qualified him for his duties as legislator of his little colony. But he probably soon found that the study of the law was not congenial to his taste. Theology possessed more attractions to a mind and heart like his. To this divine science he directed his attention, and received episcopal orders. It is stated that he assumed, while in England, the charge of a parish; that his preaching was highly esteemed, and his private character revered.”6

But Roger Williams’s mind was not formed for such subjection as the Church of England requires of its members. He understood Christian freedom too well to continue under the heavy yoke of an established church. Nor did he conceal his views. He had “presented his arguments from Scripture” to Messrs. Cotton and Hooker, who afterwards followed him to New England, “why he durst not join with them in the use of Common Prayer.” Whether he was driven out by violence, or whether he voluntarily withdrew from the communion of the Church of England, cannot now be ascertained. This only is certain, that he left his native country, in search of Evangelical liberty, and landed at Boston on the 5th of February, 1630-31.

He had been but a few weeks in the colony, when he was invited by the church at Salem to become assistant to their minister. Mr. Skelton. He complied, and laboured there for a short time, when, in consequence of the opposition of the Boston people, he left for Plymouth, and preached there two years. Returning to Salem, and gladly received by the church in that place, he remained with them till his banishment.

Mr. Williams had been disappointed by the aspect of affairs in New England. He found that the colonists had set up a government of a theocratic kind; that none were admitted to the exercise of civil rights unless they were members of one of their churches; and that the offences against religion were punishable by the magistrate. These things he abhorred, and he testified his dislike from the very commencement of his residence. There was much jangling and disputation, and no small amount of high-handed oppression on the part of the colonial authorities. At length, sentence of banishment was passed upon Mr. Williams. It was thus expressed:—

“Whereas, Mr. Roger Williams, one of the elders of the church at Salem, hath broached and divulged divers new and dangerous opinions against the authority of magistrates; as also writ letters of defamation, both of the magistrates and churches here, and that before any conviction, and yet maintaineth the same without any retractation; it is therefore ordered, that the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks now next ensuing, which, if he neglect to perform, it shall be lawful for the governor and two of the magistrates to send him to some place out of this jurisdiction, not to return any more without license from the Court.”

Such were the “tender mercies” of the New England Puritans of those days. They had resisted the magistrate at home by refusing to obey him in things ecclesiastical, and, in consequence, had gone into exile; and now they banished their ministering brother for the very offence which they had themselves been guilty of. It seemed as if their boasted love of freedom was only a love of freedom for themselves, conjoined with the assumption of power to take it away from others.

This sentence was passed November 3rd, 1635. Six weeks were allowed Mr. Williams for his removal. But he could not be silent. Meetings were held at his house, where he discoursed in his usual manner, much to the annoyance of the magistrates, who concluded that the only way to stop him would be to ship him off for England in a vessel then lying in the harbor. He heard of their design, and prevented its execution by flight. In the month of January, 1635-6, he left his home, and for fourteen weeks wandered about, exposed to the rigors of the seasons—sometimes in an open boat, sometimes in the woods—“not knowing what bread or bed did mean.” At last he pitched his tent at Seekonk, where he purchased land of the Indians, and began to build and plant. Yet even there the spirit of persecution followed him. The place was supposed to be within the colony of Plymouth, and the magistrates of that town were afraid of those of Boston; so they requested him to go further off. Again he sallied forth on pilgrimage, accompanied by some of his friends who had joined him. “As they approached the little cove, near Tockwotton, now Indian Point, they were saluted by a company of Indians with the friendly interrogation, What cheer?7—a common English phrase, which they had learned from the colonists. At this spot they probably went on shore, but they did not long remain there. They passed round Indian Point and Fox Point, and proceeded up the river on the west side of the peninsula, to a spot near the mouth of the Moshassuck river. Tradition reports that Mr. Williams landed near a spring which remains to this day. At this spot the settlement of Rhode Island commenced.

‘Oh, call it holy ground,
The soil where first they trod;
They have left unstained, what there they found,
Freedom to worship God.’

To the town here founded, Mr. Williams, with his habitual piety, and in grateful remembrance of God’s merciful providence to him in his distress, gave the name of PROVIDENCE.”8

Three years after, Mr. Williams avowed himself a Baptist, as has been already stated, and assisted in forming a Baptist church, of which he was the first pastor. The noble principles he had so fearlessly inculcated were adopted by the new colony, and embodied in its constitution. The first settlers in Providence signed the following covenant:—

“We, whose names are here under-written, being desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to submit ourselves, in active or passive obedience, to all such orders or agreements, as shall be made for public good of the body, in an orderly way, by the major consent of the present inhabitants, masters of families, incorporated together into a township, and such others as they shall admit into the same, only in civil things.”

When the charter was obtained, a code of laws was prepared, of which these are the closing words: “Otherwise than thus, what is herein forbidden, all men may walk as their consciences persuade them, every one in the name of his God. AND LET THE LAMBS OF THE MOST HIGH WALK IN THIS COLONY, WITHOUT MOLESTATION, IN THE NAME OF JEHOVAH THEIR GOD, FOR EVER AND EVER.”

Under the influence of certain new views of religion which he had embraced, Mr. Williams did not resume his connection with the church when he returned from England, but lived apart. Yet his was no idle life. He preached the Gospel among the scattered settlers; he promoted, in various ways, the temporal and spiritual welfare of the Indians; he was the adviser and friend of all the inhabi?tants; he took an active part in the government of the colony, of which he was repeatedly chosen President. In 1651, he visited England a second time on its behalf, and obtained a confirmation of the original charter. The uniform justice and kindness with which he treated the Indians so impressed them, that when, on occasion of “King Philip’s War,” they attacked the colony, in 1676, and “Mr. Williams took his staff, and went to meet them,”—endeavoring to dissuade them from their enter?prise, on the ground that the number and power of the English would prove overwhelming,—one of the chiefs said: “Well, let them come—we are ready for them. But, as for you, Brother Williams, you are a good man. You have been kind to us many years—not a hair of your head shall be touched.”9

Mr. Williams, like many other true patriots, died poor. For several years before his death, he was mainly depen?dent upon his children.

He died in the early part of the year 1683, in the 84th year of his age. No record of his last illness, and of the state of his mind at that time, has been furnished. There can be no doubt, however, that he was fully prepared for the event. In a letter addressed to Governor Bradstreet, at Boston, dated May 6th, 1682, after referring to recent intelligence from England, he says:—“All these are but sublunaries, temporaries, and trivials. Eternity (O eternity!) is our business.” In less than a year from that time he had entered eternity. His body “was buried with all the solemnity the colony was able to show.” His spirit rejoiced in perfect purity and freedom.

So little is known of Williams’s successors at Providence, and of most of the other pastors of the churches founded in this period, that it is not worth while to give mere lists of names and dates.


1  Magnalia, book vii. chap. ii.
2  It was not, perhaps, generally known that Hanserd Knollys was at that time preaching at Dover, and that his services might have been obtained.
3  Knowles’s Memoir of Roger Williams, p. 171?.
4  Benedict (Ed. 1848), p. 370.
5  Ivimey, ii. pp. 208-211.
6  Knowles’s Memoir, p. 24.
7  A poem called, “What Cheer?” by the Hon. Judge Durfee, would be read with interest. It refers to the incidents above briefly narrated. It was re-published in England some years since, with a Recommendatory Preface by the Rev. John Eustace Giles.
8  Knowles, p. 102.
9  Knowles, p. 354.

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