"John Clarke, Pioneer in American Medicine, Democratic Ideals, and Champion of Religious Liberty"
By Louis Franklin Asher
Reviewed by Ben Stratton, Feb. 2021
When examining the life of John Clarke, one quickly realizes that he is just as significant in Baptist history as Andrew Fuller, Adoniram Judson, or even Charles Spurgeon. This may seem like a bold statement until you consider the following: Clarke established the first lasting Baptist church in America at Newport, Rhode Island. He is at the center of the most famous story of Baptist persecution in American history. Most importantly he authored the 1663 Rhode Island Royal Charter, granting full religious liberty for citizens in the New World, for the first time ever. Unfortunately, despite these accomplishments, Clarke’s name is only recognized by Baptist historians.
Louis Asher’s book goes a long way to remedying this problem. For thirty years Asher was the world's leading expert on John Clarke. His interest in Clarke started with a Master's Thesis at Stephen F. Austin State University in 1966. In addition to serving as a Baptist pastor for forty years, Asher was also a professor of Church History, Old Testament, and Ancient Languages at the Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary in Jacksonville, Texas. During these years he continued to research the life of John Clarke and expand his original thesis. Shortly before his death in 1996 Asher completed his manuscript. The book was originally published in 1997 by Dorrance Publishing Company. When these copies were exhausted, Asher’s family permitted the Baptist Standard Bearer to republish the book in 2004. It remains in print today.
Reading this book, it quickly becomes obvious that Asher went to painstaking effort in his research. One thing that makes a study of John Clarke so difficult is his name is so commonplace. From 1630-1664 there were at least five men with the name John Clark(e) in New England. One of these namesakes was a disciple of Anne Hutcheson and is often confused with the Baptist preacher, even by modern historians. Asher sorts through all of this as well as John Clarke’s education. He gives the evidence that Clarke attended both Cambridge and Leyden Universities and demonstrates the Baptist preacher's credentials were never criticized by his Puritan opponents.
Through eleven chapters and four appendixes, we see the story of John Clarke. Asher often gives quotes from Clarke such as when the pioneer preacher told the Puritans he wanted "to get clear of all, and be ourselves." Leaving Massachusetts Bay Colony, he followed Roger Williams to Rhode Island, settling first in Portsmouth and then in Newport. Along the way Clarke established the Newport Baptist Church and saw many Christians receive Scriptural baptism, including a young Puritan named Obadiah Holmes. When Clarke and Holmes visited a church member in Massachusetts Bay Colony they were arrested by the Puritans for unlawful preaching. Clarke's fine was paid by an anonymous benefactor, but Holmes refused this offer. In 1651 Obadiah Holmes was publicly flogged with a three-braided whip. Though Holmes was beaten badly and would bear the scars for the rest of his life, afterward he told the magistrates "you have struck me as with Roses." This moving yet forgotten story from Baptist history is ably told by Louis Asher.
The most encouraging part of the book was Clarke's role as a "Philosopher Statesman." In 1650 the town of Newport chose Clarke to go to London to seek official protection for the religious liberty of Rhode Island. Clarke and his friend Roger Williams sailed in 1651. Although Williams would return home in 1654, Clarke would remain in London till 1663. Through the government of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell to the restoration of the monarchy of Charles II, Clarke remained faithful. This extended stay forced Clarke into lifelong debt, but he remained faithful. Finally, in 1663 Charles II gave his seal to the charter Clarke had penned. This was a historic moment in American history that preceded the Bill of Rights. While Roger Williams is often championed as a pioneer of religious liberty, it was John Clarke who made it permanent for the citizens of Rhode Island.
Several aspects of John Clarke's life are controversial today, such as exactly when he became a Baptist, when he adopted immersion as his sole mode of baptism, and when precisely the Newport Baptist Church was started. Asher examines all these questions and gives the reasons he believes Clarke became a Baptist in 1637 before he arrived in New England. He presents evidence that Clarke had started a congregation in 1638 in Portsmouth before he moved south to Newport in 1639. This is extremely significant because it would make Clarke's church rival Roger William's church at Providence as the First Baptist Church in America. Lastly, he is convinced that both Clarke and Williams practiced full immersion from the beginning of their respective congregations. While Asher's documentation is convincing, these questions need greater attention. Besides, more research on these subjects has become available since 1996 from writers as diverse as Sydney James, R.E. Pound, Terry Wolever, Ted Alexander, J. Stanley Lemons, and Josh Davenport.
In the last few years, there has been a revival of interest in John Clarke and Louis Franklin Asher's book has played a key role in this. Thankfully the book is still available and can be purchased for a very reasonable price from the Baptist Standard Bearer in paperback, hardback, or e-book format. Hopefully, in the future, it will be revised to include a bibliography and a much-needed index. Despite these deficiencies, it is the most thorough work available on John Clarke. I heartily recommend the work and hope through it a new generation will discover the life of this important Baptist pioneer.
==================[From Ben Stratton. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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