John Clarke was born in England, (tradition says in Bedfordshire) on the 8th of October, 1609. Where he was educated is not known; but the following clause in his will may give some idea of his learning - "Item, unto my loving friend, Richard Bayley, I give and bequeath my Concordance and Lexicon thereto belonging, written by myself, being the fruit of several years' study: my Hebrew Bible, Buxtorff's and Parsons' Lexicons, Cotton's Concordance, and all the rest of my books." Previous to his coming to this country, he was married to Elizabeth, daughter of John Harges, Esq., of Bedfordshire. He entered the medical profession, and was, for some time, a practising physician in London. Under what circumstances, or in what year precisely, he came to America, I am unable to ascertain; but he seems to have brought with him a strong antipathy to the reigning spirit of the times, and an intense love of religious liberty. He settled in Boston as a medical practitioner; but so much was he disgusted with the tone of public feeling in the Massachusetts Colony, especially as evinced by the banishment of Mr. Wheelwright and Ann Hutchinson, that he proposed to several of his friends to remove with him out of a jurisdiction that was the seat of so much intolerance. His friends listened to his proposal; and it was agreed that he and some others should look out for a place where they might enjoy the blessing of religious freedom. By reason of the extreme heat of the preceding summer, they first went North to a place which is now within the bounds of New Hampshire; but the severity of the next winter there led them, the following spring, to take a Southern direction. They agreed that, while their vessel was passing around Cape Cod, they would cross over, by land, having either Long Island, or Delaware Bay, in view, as a place for settlement. They stopped at Providence, where they found Roger Williams, who fully sympathized in their principles and designs, and was disposed to render them all the aid in his power. He suggested two places to them as worthy of their consideration, - namely, Sowams, now called Barrington, and Aquetneck, now Rhode Island. Mr. Williams accompanied Mr. Clarke and two others of the company to Plymouth, to see whether either of these places was considered as falling within the Plymouth jurisdiction. They were met with great kindness; and, while they were told that Sowams was "the garden of their patent," they were advised to settle at Aquetneck, and were promised
* Backus' History N. E. III. - Benedict's History of the Baptist. I. - Calender's Hist. Disc. - Peterson's History of Rhode Island.
that they should be regarded as "free," and "treated and assisted as loving neighbours."
On their return, March 7, 1638, they incorporated themselves (eighteen in number) as a body politic, and chose William Coddington their chief magistrate. They forthwith purchased Aquetneck of the Indian Sachems, and called it the Isle of Rhodes or Rhode Island. The Indian deed is dated March 24, 1638. The settlement commenced at Focasset, or Portsmouth, near what is called Common Fence Point, but they soon removed to Newtown, some two miles South. In May, 1639, Mr. Clarke was one of nine who founded Newport.
It seems not to be fully settled when Mr. Clarke became either a preacher or a Baptist; as no record, or even tradition, remains in respect to either his Baptism or Ordination. He conducted religious worship in the Colony until 1641, when they held meetings in two or more separate bodies. He was the Founder and first Pastor of the Baptist Church in Newport, which tradition dates back to 1644, and which was the second Baptist Church established in America. He was also the Physician of the Island for several years.
In 1649, Mr. Clarke was Assistant and Treasurer of the Rhode Island Colony. In July, 1651, he, in company with Mr. Obadiah Holmes and a Mr. Crandall, made a religious visit to one William Witter, a resident of Lynn, near Boston, which, in its results, marked an important epoch in his history. Mr. Witter, by reason of his advanced age, and partial or total blindness, could not undertake so great a journey as to visit the church at Newport. He lived about two miles out of the town ; and, the next day after their arrival being Lord's day, they concluded to hold a religious service at his house. Mr. Clarke commenced preaching from Rev. iii. 10 - "Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world to try them that dwell upon the earth;" and, in the midst of his discourse, he had an opportunity, according to his own account, practically to illustrate some of the truths he was endeavouring to set forth. The following description of the scene which ensued, is from his own pen.
Having referred to the fact that he was then engaged in a religious service, he says, -"Two constables came into the house, who, with their clamorous tongues, made an interruption in my discourse, and more uncivilly disturbed us than the pursuivants of the old English bishops were wont to do, telling us that they were come with authority from the magistrates to apprehend us. I then desired to see the authority by which they thus proceeded; whereupon, they plucked forth their warrant, and one of them, with a trembling hand, (as conscious he might have been better employed,) read it to us; the substance whereof was as followeth: -
"'By virtue hereof, you are required to go to the house of William Witter, and to search from house to house, for certain erroneous persons, bcing strangers, and them to apprehend, and in safe custody to keep, and to-morrow morning at eight o'clock, to bring before me. "'Robert Bridges.'
"When he had read the warrant, I told them, Friends, there shall not be, I trust, the least appearance of a resisting of that authority by which you come unto us; yet I tell you that, by virtue hereof, you are not strictly tied, but, if you please, you may suffer us to make an end of what we have begun, so you may be witnesses either to or against the faith and order which we hold. To which they answered they could not. Then said we, notwithstanding the warrant, or anything therein contained, yon may. They apprehended us, and carried us away to the ale house or ordinary, where, at dinner, one of them said unto us, Gentlemen, if you be free, I will carry you to the
meeting. To whom it was replied, Friend, had we been free thereunto, we had prevented all this; nevertheless, we are in thy hand, and it thou wilt carry us to the meeting, thither we will go. To which he answered, Then will I carry you to the meeting. To this we replied, If thou forcest us into your assembly, then shall we be constrained to declare ourselves that we cannot hold communion with them. The constable answered, That is nothing to me; I have not power to command you to speak when you come there, or to be silent. To this I again replied, Since we have heard the word of salvation by Jesus Christ, we have been taught as those that 'first trusted in Christ,' to be obedient unto Him both by word and deed; wherefore, if we be forced to your meeting, we shall declare our dissemt from you both by word and gesture. After all this, when he had consulted with the man of the house, he told us he would carry us to the meeting; so to their meeting we were brought, while they were at their prayers and uncovered; and, at my first stepping over the threshold, I unveiled myself, civilly saluted them aud turned into the seat I was appointed to, put on my hat again, and sat down, opened my book and fell to reading. Mr. Bridges, being troubled, commanded the constable to pluck off our hats, which he did, and where he laid mine, there I let it lie, until their prayers, singing and preaching was over. After this, I stood up aud uttered myself in these words following - I desire, as a stranger, to propose a few things to this congregation, hoping, in the proposal thereof, I shall commend myself to your consciences, to be guided by that wisdom that is from above, which, being pure, is also peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated; and therewith made a stop, expecting that, if the Prince of Peace had been among them, I should have had a suitable answer of peace from them. Their Pastor answered, We will have no objections against what is delivered. To which I answered, I am not about at present to make objections against what is delivered, but, as by my gesture, at my coming into your assembly. I declared my dissent from you, so, lest that should prove offensive unto some whom I would not offend, I would now, by word of mouth, declare the grounds, which are these: first, from consideration we are strangers each to other, aud so strangers to each others' inward standing with respect to God, aud so cannot conjoin and act in faith, and what is not of faith is sin. Aud, in the second place, I could not judge that you are gathered together, aud walk according to the visible order of our Lord. Which, when I had declared, Mr. Bridges told me I had done, and spoke that for which I must answer, and so commanded silence. When their meeting was done, the officers carried us again to the ordinary, where being watched over that night, as thieves and robbers, we were the next morning carried before Mr. Bridges, who made our mittimus and sent us to the prison at Boston."After they had remained in prison about a fortnight, the Court of Assistants sentenced Mr. Clarke to pay a fine of twenty pounds, Mr. Holmes of thirty, and Mr. Crandall of five, or to be publicly whipped; and as they all refused to pay their fines, they were remanded back to prison. Some of Mr. Clarke's friends paid his fine, without his consent. Mr. Crandall, against whom nothing was alleged, except that he was found in company with the other two, was released upon his promise of appearing at their next Court; but the time was passed before he was informed of it, and then they exacted his fine of the keeper of the prison. But Mr. Holmes was kept in prison until September, when the sentence of the law was executed upon him with the utmost severity. It is stated in a manuscript of Joseph Jenks, - Governor of Rhode Island from 1727 to 1732, - that "Mr. Holmes was whipped thirty stripes, and in such an unmerciful manner, 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."*
* Obadiah Holmes was born at Preston, Lancashire, England, about the year 1606; arrived in America about 1639, and continued a communicant with the Congregationalists, first at Salem, and then at Rehoboth, eleven years, when be became a Baptist, and joined the Baptist Church in Newport. After he had recovered from his wounds, inflicted at Boston, he removed his family from Rehoboth to Newport, and, in 1652, the year after Mr. Clarke sailed for England, was invested with the pastoral office, which he held till his death, which occurred in 1682, at the age of seventy-six. He was buried in his own field, where a monument has been erected to his memory. He had eight children, and his posterity are widely spread through several different States. His son, Obadiah, was long a Judge in New Jersey, and a preacher in the Baptist Church at Cohansey. Another of his sons, John, was a magistrate in Philadelphia at the time of the schism occasioned by Keith. One of his grandsons was living in Newport, in 1770, in the ninety-sixth year of his age.
Mr. Clarke is said to have defended himself and his brethren, on the trial, with much ability. But the Governor seems to have listened with little patience to his statements; for he stepped up and told them all that they had denied Infant Baptism, and told Mr. Clarke that he deserved death, and declared that he "would not have such trash brought into his jurisdiction;" and he added, as Mr. Clarke states, "You go up and down, and secretly insinuate into those that are weak, but you cannot maintain it before our ministers." But before Mr. Clarke had time to reply, the Governor commanded the jailor to take them away. The next morning, Mr. C. availed himself of an opportunity to make the following motion to the Court:"To the Honourable Court assembled at Boston: -The motion was presented, and in due time Mr. Clarke was informed that a disputation was granted, to be held the next week. Mr. C., after some further conference between himself and the magistrates, committed to writing the several positions he proposed to defend, which were no other than the distinctive principles of the Baptist system. But this disputation, which had been anticipated with great interest, was prevented by the payment of Mr. C.'s fine, and his consequent release from prison. Fearing that the failure might be attributed to himself, he immediately sent the following note to the magistrates: -
"Whereas, it pleased this honoured Court, yesterday, to condemn the faith and order which I hold and practise; and, after you had passed your sentence upon me for it, were pleased to express I could not maintain the same against your ministers, and thereupon publicly proffered me a dispute with them: Be pleased, by these few lines, to understand 1 readily accept it, and therefore desire you to appoint the time when, and the person with whom, in that public place where I was condemned, I might, with freedom, and without molestation of the civil power, dispute that point publicly, where I doubt not, by the strength of Christ, to make it good, out of his last will and testament, unto which nothing is to be added, nor from which nothing is to be diminished. Thus desiring the Father of Lights to shine forth, and by his power to expel the darkness, I remain your well wisher,"
"From the prison this)
1st day, 6th mo., 1651.)
"This motion, if granted, I desire might be subscribed by the Secretary's hand, as an act of the same Court, by which we were condemned.""Whereas, through the indulgeney of tender hearted friends, without my consent, and contrary to my judgment, the sentence and condemnation of the Court at Boston (as is reported) have been fully satisfied on my behalf, and thereupon a warrant hath been procured, by which I am secluded the place of my imprisonment; by reason whereof 1 see no other call for present but to my habitation, and to those near relations which God hath given me there; yet, lest the cause should hereby suffer, which I profess is Christ's, I would hereby signify that, if yet it should please the honoured magistrates, or General Court of this Colony, to grant my former request, under their Secretary's hand, I shall cheerfully embrace it, and, upon your mention, shall, through the help of God, come from the island to attend it, and hereunto I have subscribed my name."The above called forth another letter from the magistrates, and a rejoinder from Mr. Clarke, but the disputation never took place.
"11th day 6th mo., 1651."
In 1651, shortly after this event, so characteristic of the times, Mr. Clarke was sent to England, with Roger Williams, to promote the interests of Rhode Island, and particularly to procure a revocation of William Coddington's commission as Governor. Soon after his arrival in
England, he published a book, giving an account of the New England persecutions, with the following title: - "Ill News from New England, or a Narrative of New England's Persecution; wherein it is declared that while Old England is becoming New, New England is becoming Old; also Four Proposals to Parliament and Four Conclusions, touching the Faith and Order of the Gospel of Christ, out of his Last Will and Testament." This was a quarto, of seventy-six pages, and was answered by Thomas Cobbett, of Lynn.
The more immediate object of the mission to England was accomplished by the annulling of Mr. Coddington's commission, in October, 1652. Though Mr. Clarke's colleague returned to this country in 1654, he himself remained behind in England, as agent for the Colony. The second charter was granted on the 8th of July, 1663, though, in order to obtain it, Mr. C. was obliged to mortgage his estate in Newport. He came home in 1664, and immediately resumed his relations with his church, and his practice of medicine, and continued them till the close of life. The Assembly did not at once pay the expenses to which he had been subjected during his absence, but they ultimately voted him a handsome consideration. A few years after his return, he seems to have been brought, in some way, in conflict with the Quakers; and, in October, 1673, five of the members of his church were excluded from communion for asserting that "the man Christ Jesus was not now in Heaven, nor on earth, nor anywhere else; but that his body was entirely lost."
Mr. Clarke died, resigning his soul to his merciful Redeemer, on the 20th of April, 1676, in the sixty-sixth year of his age.
Mr. Clarke was three times married. His first wife died without issue. His second wife, who was Mrs. Mary Fletcher, died on the 19th of April, 1672, leaving an only daughter, who died at the age of eleven years. His third wife was Mrs. Sarah Davis, who survived him. He was buried, by his own request, between his two wives, in a lot which he gave for a burial ground to the church. He left considerable property in the hands of trustees, empowered to choose their successors, - for the relief of the poor and the education of children, according to instructions given in his will, - namely, "that, in the disposal of that which the Lord hath bestowed upon me, and with which I have now entrusted you and your successors, you shall have special regard and care to provide for those that fear the Lord; and, in all things, and at all times, so to discharge the trust that I have reposed in you, as may be most to the glory of God, and the good and benefit of those for whom it is by me especially intended." His whole estate was appraised at L1080, 12s.
Mr. Clarke left three brothers, Thomas, Joseph and Carew. From Joseph many of the families by the name of Clarke, in Rhode Island, have sprung.
He left behind him a statement, in manuscript, of his religious opinions, from which it appears that, with the distinctive views of the Baptists he united those which are commonly called Calvinistio.
The Rev. John Callender, the Historian of the First Century of the Colony of Rhode Island, has left the following testimony concerning Mr. Clarke:
"He was a faithful and useful minister, courteous in all the relations of life, and an ornament to his profession, and to the several offices which he sustained. His memory is deserving of lasting honour, for his efforts towards establishing the first government in the world, which gave to all equal civil and religious liberty. To no man is Rhode Island more indebted than to him. He was one of the original projectors of the settlement of the island, and one of its ablest legislators. No character in New England is of purer fame than John Clarke."[William Buell Sprague, editor, Annals of the American Pulpit: Baptist, 1860, pp. 21-26. The document is from Google Books. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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