John Clarke, Pioneer of Freedom
From a sermon by Pastor L. Edgar Stone
preached at The United Baptist Church
(John Clarke Memorial), Newport, Rhode Island
History is not always a popular subject. Yet history can frequently help us to understand and to deal with some of the events of the present. And if ever there were a time when people need help in understanding and dealing with events, it is now. To this end, then, we would consider the story of a man who, while of great local interest, had an influence upon the larger context of our nation. I would like to have us think about John Clarke. Our church bears his name within its name, “John Clarke Memorial.” There is a Clarke Street in our community, a John Clarke School, and on the state level, there is a John Clarke Building on the campus of Rhode Island College. Cotton Mather of colonial history has referred to Clarke as the “angelic conjunction” because of his unique ability to deal with men’s bodies and their souls. As a founder of this community, as a religious leader of the colony, and as a political figure in the early history of our nation, Clarke holds a singular position. He was, many believe, the originator of the principle of complete freedom in civil and religious matters upon which our nation’s Constitution is built. Allow me, then, to tell you something of this great man, and then to make an observation or two about the significance of his life for the days in which we live.
Our story begins in England in the early years of the seventeenth century. Europe was continuing to emerge from the slumber of the Dark Ages, a process started about a century before. All over the Continent thoughtful people were beginning to yearn for more freedom and to assert something of that God-given right. The printing press first used in the early part of the sixteenth century now made available to many more people than ever before information and knowledge which challenged men’s desires to read. The Bible for the first time in history was available to the person who had never previously had the privilege of owning a book. Martin Luther, the great reformer, had, in the early sixteenth century, initiated a movement against the restrictions of the established Church that was still being felt across the face of Europe 100 years later. The great common mass was beginning to come to life, to flex its muscles and to reach out for a long-denied freedom of choice. The constraints of kings and popes which long has kept men bound in both civil and religious life were beginning to be loosened. It was a world in transition, and it was into this changing world that John Clarke was born in Westhorp, Suffolk, England, on October 8, 1609. Whether it was the times or his heritage, we do not know, but there was literally born into him a love of liberty, and liberty became the very mark of his person.
James I, under whose direction the King James translation of the Bible was prepared, ascended to the throne of England in 1603, just as Puritanism was beginning to gather momentum. Under James I, the Puritan movement received a severe blow, and he is reported to have said of the rebellious Puritans who were fighting against the state Church of England, “I will make them conform or will harry them out of the kingdom.” Persecutions and martyrdoms followed, but in spite of - or perhaps even because of - the persecutions, Puritanism flourished. Its yearning for freedom soon caught the imagination of young John Clarke.
Clarke was the sixth in a family of eight children of Thomas and Rose Clarke, people of considerable means who prized intellectual and spiritual riches more highly than material wealth. Both parents died in 1627. Clarke received his education in the schools and institutions of higher learning in England, and there is the possibility that he also studied at the University of Leyden, in Holland, to which some of the Puritans had fled to escape persecution in England. He held degrees in law, medicine, and theology, and was acknowledged by reviewers of history as “one of the ablest men of the 17th century” and as a “scholar bred.” That study and books and learning were an important part of his life is indicated by the fact that at his death he included some of his beloved volumes in his will, specifying to whom they should be given. While there exists little information as to his religious thinking during this period, there is some evidence that he was in sympathy with the Puritans.
Perhaps it was his love of liberty, possibly his sense of adventure, maybe even the challenge of a new religious political system, we do not know, but for whatever reason, John Clarke came to Massachusetts in 1637.The colony was seven years old; Clarke was 28. He had been married only a short time before. When he arrived in Boston in September of that year, he found the colony “in intense agitation and controversy over the opinions of Anne Hutchinson,” whom a local authority had indicated was at best a rather difficult person. In his own words, we read his estimate of the New World, “I was no sooner on shore, but there appeared to me differences among them touching the Covenant of Works, and for sanctification to be the first and chief evidence. Others pressed hard for the Covenant of Grace that was established upon better promises, and for the evidence of the Spirit as that which is a more certain, constant, and satisfactory witness.” Clarke’s belief in the Covenant of Grace obviously allied him with Anne Hutchinson, and he and his followers agreed that they could not bear with the faction professing belief in the Covenant of Works. Clarke offered to move, and his offer was accepted. (In presenting his case, Clarke compared the situation to that of Abraham and Lot, in which they agreed to disagree, and each went his own way.) The same fall, 1637, he and other like-minded folk went North looking for a possible site to colonize, but finding the winter too severe, they decided early in the spring of 1638 to move South.
Clarke’s strong religious convictions pervaded his life; indeed his travels in search of a haven were guided by prayer. Originally he set out for Long Island or Delaware Bay, and while their ship was going around a “long and dangerous Cape” - obviously Cape Cod - Clarke and several others journeyed overland to Providence to seek advice from Roger Williams - also exiled from Boston. They were well received, and Williams suggested two possible sites, Sowams - now Warren - and the Island of Aquidneck. A journey to Plymouth - remember these journeys were all accomplished on foot - revealed that Sowams was a part of Plymouth Patent, but Adquidneck Island was unclaimed. So Clarke, William Coddington, William Hutchinson and others purchased the Island of Aquidneck for forty fathoms of white beads and some coats and hoes, to be divided equally between the two chiefs, Miantonomi and Canonicus. It is interesting to note that Coddington cleverly had the deed made to him personally.
The first settlement was made in Portsmouth in March, 1638. The Portsmouth Compact was signed by twenty-three men, Clarke’s signature being second on the list. The Compact was written in a sense of commitment, “(we) submit our personal lives and estates unto our Lord Jesus Christ.” Some 300 settlers soon joined the new colony. But, as Edwin Gaustad has observed, we do well to realize that all was not perfect there, for by August of 1638, “it was deemed wise to construct a pair of stocks, a whipping post, and a 12-foot jail.” A further comment indicates that by September the jail was overcrowded.
These rugged men soon explored the new island from one end to the other, and we can well imagine them walking over the cliffs of Cliff Walk or along the rocks of the Ten Mile Drive. In April, 1639, they agreed to establish another plantation else where, and so Newport was founded. The following year the two settlements merged and formed Rhode Island, named for the Isle of Rhodes in the Mediterranean Sea.
It was a unique colony. Civil and religious liberty were the cornerstone of its government. There were no religious tests required of any settler. It was a government by popular consent, a democracy. “Each man’s peaceable and quiet enjoyment of his right and liberty, not withstanding our different consciences, touching the truth as it is in Jesus.” True to the Puritan background out of which many of the settlers came, a place of worship was among the first buildings constructed, and people of various persuasions worshipped together under the leadership of “Elder” John Clarke, as he was called. Even Baptists and Quakers, despised in England and tormented in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, were tolerated - in fact, welcomed - in the universal spirit of Rhode Island.
While there is some question of just when the Newport Church claimed for itself Baptist principles, we do know that this happened early in the life of the Colony. The congregation which Clarke served was an interesting one. While most of its members lived in Newport or Portsmouth, there were isolated members all over Southern New England. There were few, if any churches holding Baptist principles in New England, and so it was the custom of people living in distant places to continue their relationship to the Newport Church. As a faithful pastor, Clarke spent much time attending to the far-flung members of his flock.
One event is significant. In July, 1651, Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, and John Crandall journeyed to Lynn, Massachusetts, to minister to William Witter, an aged member of the congregation. They arrived Saturday evening and prepared to hold a worship service on the Sabbath day. Word of the plan apparently reached the authorities of the Colony, and the three were subsequently arrested. All were found guilty and sentenced to pay a fine or be whipped on Boston Common. The fines were paid for Clarke and Crandall, but Holmes refused to allow his fine to be paid for him, and so he was publicly whipped.
It was the following fall that circumstances within the Colony reached the point that Clarke felt he was needed in England, and so he and Williams journeyed across the Atlantic on a mission which was to keep Clarke in England for thirteen years, but which was to result in the greatest step toward civil and religious liberty ever taken in the history of the world. During Clarke’s absence, the ministry of the church was continued by Holmes. Upon his return to Newport in 1663, Clarke resumed his pastoral responsibilities until his death.
Clarke’s devotion to his church was interrelated with his devotion to the colonial government. His vision of a new colony was one in which there would be both civil and religious liberty. However, this dream was not to be realized without some struggle. Among other complications of the fledgling colony was William Coddington’s sly contriving to become its Governor for life. Clarke and Roger Williams went to England in 1651. The following April Coddington’s commission was revoked and the Colony was forced to move in new directions.
Soon after this, Clarke published his only known work, entitled “Ill News From New England,” in which he described how “Old England was becoming new and New England was becoming old.” He illustrated by describing the whipping of Obadiah Holmes on Boston Common.
In 1654, Williams had returned to Providence, but Clarke remained in England, supporting himself at his own expense in the interests of the Colony. Edwin Gaustad notes, “John Clarke, although he may not have wrought miracles, must have believed in them. Otherwise, it would be difficult to explain how he sustained himself during twelve bleak, unpromising, impoverished and maddeningly frustrating years in London. Mortgaging his own home in Newport to sustain his lobbying activities a little longer, he persevered with integrity and tack on behalf of a colony that might or might not appreciate and approve his efforts.”
It was not until July 8, 1663, that Clarke saw the culmination of his efforts, when the Second Charter of Rhode Island Colony was granted by King Charles II. This charter gave the right of self rule, guarantees of civil and religious liberty. George Bancroft writes, “Nowhere in the world were life, liberty, and property safer than in Rhode Island.”
Victoriously, Clarke returned to Newport to resume his work as pastor and counsel to the new Colony. It is interesting to note that when a special tax was enacted to repay Clarke for his expense, the colonists were so ungracious that years after his death, the debt was not fully repaid. He held a variety of public offices although he never served as Governor of the Colony. He was in constant demand for advice, and even six days before his death he was sought out for counsel. He died suddenly April 20, 1676, and was buried in a small cemetery which was then a part of his property and is located on what is now West Broadway in downtown Newport. In his will he established a trust which continues to this day, the income from which is to be used “for the relief of the poor and the bringing up of the children unto learning.” It is presumably the oldest charitable trust in America. The church which he established, continues to bear his name, The United Baptist Church (John Clarke Memorial).
In one sense, the life of John Clarke speaks for itself. Being in conflict with the established Church of his time, he left his country to build a colony where men could be free. The freedom to dissent was won through as strenuous struggle. If in our time we would silence the voices of dissent, let us remember the price with which that privilege was purchased. John Clarke in petitioning King Charles II spoke in the desire to conduct a “livelie experiment.” Of this, Edwin Gaustad observed, “It is a part of the law of life and I presume of liveliness, that there must be new births of freedom, with all of the joy and all of the pangs that the appearance of new life brings.” In the struggles of the present day may God grant that we are witnessing the “liveliness” necessary to bring into being the new life of the twenty-first century.
[From Milburn Cockrell, editor, The Berea Baptist Banner, April, 1999. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
More on John Clarke
Baptist History Homepage