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John Comer
Early Rhode Island Baptist
By Rev. David Benedict, D. D.
Pawtucket, R. I., May 16, 1859

      Dear Sir: My estimate of the character of John Comer is such that I am more than willing to do any thing in my power to honour and perpetuate his memory. In compiling the following sketch, I have access to his well known Diary, which is the principal original source of information concerning him.

     JOHN COMER, the eldest son of John and Mary Comer, was born in Boston, Aug. 1st, 1704. His father died at Charleston, S. C., as he was on a voyage to England, to visit his relatives, when John was less than two years of age. He was then left to the care of his mother, and grandfather, of the same name. The mind of this well disposed youth, according to his own recollections, which go back to his earliest years, was wholly bent on study, merely for the sake of it, and without any particular vocation in view; but, as the family was not in circumstances to support him in his chosen pursuit, at the age of fourteen, he was bound out to a seven years' apprenticeship to learn the glover's trade. For upwards of two years, he submitted quietly to the disposition which his grandfather, who acted as his guardian, had made of him. His master made no complaint of him, except that he "read too much for his business." *
* In Comer's Diary, I find the following statement: "This year I composed a set Discourse from Ecclesiastes xii. 1 - "Remember now thy Creator," &c. This was at the age of fifteen, while he was an apprentice; and it evidently shows the bent of his mind at that early age.

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      Being now in his seventeenth year, by the intercession of Dr. Increase Mather, to whom he applied for his friendly aid, and by the consent of his grandfather, he was released from his apprenticeship, commenced his preparatory studies, and in due time entered the College at Cambridge. His grandfather, dying soon after, left him a legacy of L500. "This," he says, "was to bring me up, and introduce me comfortably in the world, which it did."*

      After spending some years at Cambridge, - as some of his companions had gone to New Haven, and as living was cheaper there, - by the consent of the Rev. Mr. Webb, who, by his grandfather's will, had become his guardian, he repaired to that institution, where he finished his college course, though I believe he did not graduate on account of ill health. This college then consisted of about fifty students.

      Relative to Mr. Comer's experience in the concerns of personal religion, and his change of denominational position, the account may be thus briefly given: His pious propensities in early life have already been stated; but, not relying on the goodness of his morals, or the soundness of his ancestral creed, he sought, and, after a long course of anxious enquiry, obtained, a satisfactory evidence of his conversion, according to what he believed were the scripture requirements. This was at the age of seventeen. In due time, while a member of the College, he united with the Congregational church in Cambridge, then under the pastoral care of the Rev. Nathaniel Appleton. His membership in this church continued about four years, during all which time, he appears to have had much satisfaction with his spiritual home; and all his accounts of his Pastor breathe the spirit of filial affection and Christian fellowship; and the same may be said, by what appears in his Diary, respecting the other ministers of Boston and elsewhere, who took an interest in his welfare, and of the churches under their care, with which he associated, and occasionally communed.+

      There was one very alarming event which happened to Boston and vicinity in 1721, just at the time of the serious awakening of young Comer, which served to deepen his religious impressions, and increase his fearful apprehensions of being hurried to his grave, without a due preparation for an exchange of worlds. The small-pox, then the terror of mankind, was making a rapid and, to a great extent, fatal progress, among the people, most of whom had no protection against it. Among the victims of this terrible disease, were some of the most intimate friends of young Comer, whose dread of it was so great, that, according to his own representations, it might be literally said of him, in the language of Young, -

"He felt a thousand deaths in fearing one."

      After all his precautions, he was soon seized with the loathsome malady, from the effects of which he barely escaped with his life.x
     * Diary, 1721.
     + These churches, with their Pastors, in 1723, in addition to Cambridge, were, in Boston, the Old North, Cotton Mather; the New North, John Webb; the New Brick, William Waldron.
      In Andover, John Barnard. In this place young Comer occasionally pursued his classical studies. Andover then was a frontier town.
      In Newport, R. I., Nathaniel Clap.
      In New Haven, Joseph Noyes.
      x In the then small population of Boston and vicinity, compared with the present, between eight and nine hundred died of this disease. "The practice of inoculation was now set;. . . . Dr. Zabdiel Boylston was the chief actor in it - I joined in the lawfulness of the pratice, though some wrote and printed against it." Comer was preparing to avail himself of the benefit of this new method of prevention, when he found it was too late, and the malady had its natural course. The whole College was dispersed.
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      This assiduous enquirer, and very conscientious man, after an investigation of about two years' continuance, adopted the sentiments of the Baptists on the subject and mode of Baptism, and, according to his Diary, was baptized by the Rev. Elisha Callender, January 31, 1725, and united with the First Baptist Church in Boston, of which Mr. C. was then Pastor. Relative to this transaction, in the old journal before me, I find the following entry: - "Having before waited on Rev. Mr. Appleton, of Cambridge, I discoursed with him on the point of Baptism, together with my resolution - upon which he signified that I might, notwithstanding, maintain my communion with his church - by which I discovered the candour and catholic spirit of the man. He behaved himself the most like a Christian of any of my friends, at that time, upon that account."*

      Mr. Comer commenced preaching in 1725, not long after he united with Mr. Callender's church. His first efforts were made with the old Swansea church, which was planted by the famous John Miles, from Wales, in 1663. It was then under the pastoral care of Elder Ephraim Wheaton.+ Efforts were made to settle the young and promising preacher, as a colleague with the aged Pastor, but, as the plan failed of success, he repaired to Newport, where, in 1726, he was ordained as co-pastor with elder William Peckham, in the first church in that town, which bears date, 1644. His ministry here was short but successful; by his influence singing in public worship was there first introduced. He also put in order the old Church Records, which he found in a scattered and neglected condition. The practice of the laying on of hands, (Hebrews vi. 2,) as a mode of the initiation of newly baptized members to full fellowship into the church, had hitherto been held in a lax manner, by this ancient community, and Mr. Comer's attempt to have it uniformly observed, was the cause of his dismission from his pastoral charge in 1729. In former ages, this religious rite was a subject of no little discussion and agitation among the Baptists, both in the old country and the new, and sometimes churches were divided on account of differences of opinion respecting it. The Six Principle Baptists, so called, from tenaciously adhering to this number of points laid down in the passage above named, still hold on to this ancient rule of Church Discipline. As a general thing, however, the practice has long been disused among the Baptists, both American and foreign.

      Mr. Comer preached, as a supply, for nearly two years, in the Second Baptist Church in Newport, which was founded in 1656. It was then under the pastoral care of Elder Daniel Wightman, from whom Mr. Comer received the imposition of hands, in Gospel Order, according to his judgment and belief.

      In 1732, this transitory peacher, whose race was rapid and peculiar, and lamentably short, became the Pastor of a church of his own order in the Southern part of old Rehoboth, near to Swansea, and about ten miles from
      * Elsewhere Mr. C. remarks that, at this time he knew of no one of his relatives, who was in the Baptist connection.
     + Ephriam Wheaton was an Associate Pastor of this Church as early as 1704; and he continued in the faithful discharge of his duties here until his death, which occurred in 1734, at the age of seventy-five. He lived within the bounds of Reboboth.

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Providence, R. I. Here he died of consumption, May 23, 1734, aged twenty-nine years, nine months and twenty-two days. "He was," says Dr. Jackson, "a gentleman of education, piety, and of great success in his profession. During his brief life, he collected a large body of facts, intending, at some future period, to write the history of the American Baptist Churches. His manuscripts he never printed, nor did he, as I learn, ever prepare them for publication. He was even unable to revise them, and they were, of course, left in their original condition. Nevertheless, he made an able and most valuable contribution to Rhode Island History. His papers were probably written about 1729-1731.*

      For the historical purposes above named, this industrious man visited most of the churches in New England. He also went as far as Philadelphia, through the Jersies, in a Southern direction. He corresponded, somewhat extensively for that age, with intelligent men in all the Colonies, where those of his own order could be found, as well as in England, Ireland, and Wales, from which regions many of the earliest emigrants, of the Baptist faith, came to this country. In Comer's time, and at a still later period, Pennsylvania and the Jersies were more distinguished than any of the Colonies for the number of their strong men of this creed. Here were found the Joneses, the Morgans, the Mannings, the Smiths, the Harts, and many others. Could this diligent enquirer have lived to make out the history he proposed, from personal interviews, and from historical documents, then easily obtained, and from reliable traditions, in all the Colonies, where the Society had planted their standards, a great amount of labour would have been saved to the historians who succeeded him.

      Comer's Diary, to which reference has already often been made, consists of two thin folio manuscript volumes, of about sixty pages each. Most of them are occupied in the relation of passing events, and in them are found many historical facts concerning the affairs of his own people, and also of all the religious denominations in the land, so far as he had any knowledge of them, or intercourse with them, which appears to have been quite extensive and familiar.

      "Comer," says Backus, "was very curious and exact in recording the occurrences of his time." This remark is fully verified by looking over the details of the journal in question. Here we find accounts of earthquakes and storms, of wars and rumours of wars among the Indians at home, and the nations abroad: the doings of the Colonial governments; the names and characters of governmental men, especially of those in the Rhode Island Colony, are often met with in this Diary; and, among other things, is a full account of a petition, which was got up by the ministers and lay-members of the Baptist people, with whom Mr. Comer was associated, against the oppressive laws, which were bearing hard on the few of their brethren, who were scattered "up and down," in the adjoining Colony of Connecticut. The chief matter of complaint in this petition was the parish taxes, for the support of the Standing Order. This document, which is transcribed in full, was endorsed by Governor Jenks, in a respectful note to the Colonial Assembly.
      * Churches in Rhode Island, pp. 80, 81.

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     The arrival of the celebrated Dean George Berkeley, at Newport, and some items respecting the popularity of this distinguished visitor, and of the personal interviews which he, in company with others, had with this affable man, are pleasantly related.

     Mr. Comer's popularity amongst the ministers and people of different orders is plainly indicated by the frequent entries in his Diary of his correspondence and personal conferences with them. In this way we learn many interesting facts, some painful, some pleasant, respecting men with whom this youthful divine had no ecclesiastical connection. At one time, he informs us that he was invited to the pulpit of the Rev. Mr. Cotton, then the only Congregational clergyman of Providence, which he would gladly have complied with, had not a previous engagement hindered him.

      This young minister, during his short race of about nine years after he entered into public service, made his mark unusually high for the time. His name is still had in grateful remembrance in a large religious and literary circle. He left one son and two daughters, and his descendants still survive in Warren, R. I.

Yours respectfully,

[From Annals of the American Pulpit, 1860. Document from Google Books On-line. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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