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Hanserd Knollys in America
The Southern Baptist Review Journal, 1858
THE name of Hanserd Knollys is eminent among the English Baptists of the seventeenth century. Of late years it has been widely spread, in connection with the valuable issues of the Hanserd Knollys’ Society of London, a society which was organized in 1844, for the purpose of preparing and publishing by subscription, accurate editions of the earliest Baptist Tracts on Liberty of Conscience, (in which they preceded all others,) and other rare Baptist books of that period, with suitable notes and introductions. The society thus nobly employed in bringing before the public, treasures, rarer and more precious than the purest pearls of the ocean, deemed itself honored by the selection of his name.

The life of Hanserd Knollys embraced nearly a century, from 1598 to 1691; and that century is the most interesting and momentous in English annals. In most of the religious movements of that remarkable age, his biography is interwoven. His influence, like that of his great cotemporary, Roger Williams, was felt both in England and America, and would furnish some striking parallels as well as contrasts, were this the time to trace them. One point of difference, alone, can be noticed here, namely, that while the chief obscurity in the biography of Williams rests on his residence in England, the chief obscurity in that of Knollys rests on the years of his residence in America. The object of this paper is to throw light upon this dark portion of his history.

To do this effectually, some brief preliminary statements may be necessary. It is important to know what he was before he came to this country; and happily Mr. Crosby, in his History of the English Baptists, has preserved all the necessary facts. Mr. Knollys was born in Chalkwell, Lincolnshire, in 1598. His parents were pious, and as Crosby says, “took good care to have him trained up in good literature, and instructed betimes in the principles of religion.” While at the University of Cambridge, he was converted, and his Christian character became of the highest order. “Happy would it be for this nation,” says Crosby, after relating particulars, “if our universities and private academies were filled with such students.”1 After his graduation at Cambridge, Mr. Knollys was chosen master of the Free Grammar School at Gainsborough. Here he continued till June, 1629, when he entered the ministry as a clergyman of the Church of England. He was ordained by the Bishop of Peterborough; and the Bishop of Lincoln soon after gave him the living at Humberstone. His diligence here was greater than his success. He preached three or four times every Sabbath, alternately at Humberstone and Hotton, besides his labors at other seasons, among the poor as well as the rich. About 1632, he began to doubt the lawfulness of conformity to the State Church, and resigned his living for conscience' sake; but through the connivance of the Bishop, continued to preach some years longer as a Puritan, in the parish church, without surplice or prayer-book. In 1636 he was arrested at Boston, in his native county of Lincolnshire, by a warrant from the High Commission Court; but his keeper, being conscience-stricken, allowed him to escape, and he went up to London to find a passage to America. There, with his wife and only child, he was detained so long, that when he embarked, as he tells us himself, he had “but just six brass farthings” left, and no silver or gold. Some gold preserved by his wife paid their passage.” They arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, early in 1638. As he returned to London about Christmas, 1641, his residence in America was somewhat less than four years. But he was no common man. He was in the full vigor of life, in the fortieth year of his age, and the full maturity of his faculties. How did he spend these four years in America? Where did he live? What character did he sustain? What influence did he exert? Why did he return to England? Did he leave his mark behind on the rising institutions of this country, and engrave his name on the foundations of American history? These are the questions it will be our business briefly to answer, by a narrative of facts. All the early historians of New England mention Hanserd Knollys - Winthrop, Morton, Hubbard, Mather, Callender, Prince, Hutchinson and Neal. Backus, Belknap, Elliott, Adams, Allen, Farmer and Winslow, belonging to a somewhat later period; the last four are decidedly modern. Opinion is much divided about Mr. Knollys. We must sift the facts out of them all, and make due allowance for the power of prejudice. Some hints may be learned from this brief autobiography, and some from the early New Hampshire Court Records, which I have been permitted to examine through the courtesy of a friend, John Kelly, Esq., of Exeter, New Hampshire.

Mr. Knollys arrived in Boston early in 1638, in a state of utter destitution. He had sacrificed every thing for conscience' sake. His child had died on the passage. His wife's money was all expended. Governor Winthrop, in his journal, calls him “a poor man.” Will it be believed that Mr. Hubbard, who in his history generally copies Winthrop, had the meanness to translate this, “a mean fellow?” Such was the power of prejudice in a minister of the Pilgrims. Mr. Knollys himself, though bitterly disappointed in the treatment he received from his Puritan brethren in Boston, tells us with great simplicity the facts of his condition. “Being very poor, I was necessitated to work daily with my hoe, for the space of almost three weeks. The magistrates were told by the ministers that I was an Antinomian, and desired that they would not suffer me to abide in the patent.” The Boston ministers, at that time, had their own definition of Antinomianism, and John Clarke, John Wheelwright, Mrs. Anne Hutchinson, with their friends, were banished under the same charge, as well as Mr. Knollys. But God had a work for Mr. Knollys to do in America. Two gentlemen from Dover, then the chief settlement in New Hampshire, of fifteen years' standing, being founded in 1625, at the head of the Piscataqua river, or, according to the original orthography, Piscataway, invited the banished minister to go home with them, and there preach the gospel of the Son of God. He gladly accepted their proposal. But on arriving at Dover, he was forbidden to preach by the usurping Governor, George Burdett, and had to resort to other means to procure a subsistence. In September, Burdett was removed, and then “the people,” says Winthrop, “called Mr. Knollys; and in a short time he gathered some of the best-minded into a church body, and became their pastor.”2 This was about the time, perhaps a few months before, Roger Williams was baptized at Providence, Rhode Island. Were it certain that Hanserd Knollys was a decided Baptist at this time, it might be maintained with some reason that he was the first Baptist minister in America. But it is not certain. He is called “an Anabaptist” by Mather and Belknap; but they give no proof of it, and Winthrop, who knew him better, and writes at the moment, does not mention it, as he would have been apt to do if it were a fact. This makes it probable that when he gathered the First Church in Dover, Mr. Knollys was not yet a Baptist. I have found no certain account when, where, or by whom he was baptized; but there is some evidence to prove that he became a Baptist while pastor of the church in Dover. [That church was the third gathered in the State of New Hampshire. The church formed early in 1638, by John Wheelwright, at Exeter, was the first in the State,3 and that in Hampton, gathered also the same year by Stephen Bachelor, the second.]

We have now seen that Hanserd Knollys was the founder of an American Congregational Church - the third in New Hampshire - in the fall of the year 1638. At Dover he continued in the active discharge of his pastoral duties for about two years without interruption - aiding by his fine powers in moulding the principles and institutions of the infant colony, then a little independent Republic, of which he was beyond doubt the most enlightened and accomplished citizen. Up to this period his character seems to be established as that of a laborious Christian scholar, teacher and minister of the gospel - we might perhaps truly say, a venerable confessor, and sufferer for righteousness' sake. He also appears to be a man of peace. He did indeed write a letter to his friends while in Boston, reflecting somewhat severely on the manner in which things were managed there in Church and State. Few men now living would blame him for this. But he himself afterwards, according to Winthrop, made an ingenuous and satisfactory confession of his severity. There is yet another charge of this nature against him by some historians, which is not true. But Governor Hutchinson and Dr. Belknap, through a singular carelessness, have imputed to Mr. Knollys the insolent language of Captain Underhill to the magistrates of Boston, as recorded by Winthrop.4 This blot does not belong to the character of Hanserd Knollys, and should be wiped away from his history.

The arrival of Mr. Thomas Larkham at Dover, in 1640, changed the peaceful current of affairs, and put the character of Mr. Knollys to a severe proof. Mr. Larkham had been a minister in Northam, England. He was a man of wealth and popular talents. He soon formed a party, who determined to remove Mr. Knollys. The cause of this movement will appear hereafter. Dr. Belknap says, that “Knollys generously gave way to popular prejudice, and suffered Larkham to take his place; who soon discovered his licentious principles, by receiving into the church persons of immoral characters, and, like Burdett, assuming the civil as well as ecclesiastical authority.” For a time the town took the name of Northam in honor of him. The better sort of people, continues Dr. Belknap, “were displeased, and restored Knollys, who excommunicated Larkham.” Of course this language only means that the church under Knollys excommunicated Larkham, and it would seem not without reason. Upon this Larkham and his adherents raised a riot early in April, 1641, and according to Governor Winthrop, “laid violent hands upon Mr. Knollys.” This was before the union of New Hampshire with Massachusetts. The whole town was thrown into confusion. In these critical and exciting circumstances, either the solicitation of fellow-citizens, or his own sense of duty, impelled Mr. Knollys to appear in public at the head of a body of citizens, with a Bible for a banner, seeking to restore order. Larkham's lawless company sent down the river to Portsmouth for help; and a body of armed men under Governor Williams of P. came up without any legal jurisdiction, assumed control, sat as a court upon the case, and pronounced sentence against Mr. Knollys, fining him L100, and ordering him to depart the plantation.5

It is of some interest to inquire here whether Mr. Knollys’ religious sentiments affected this question. That at this time he inclined to Baptist views, seems highly probable; not merely from the language of Cotton Mather and Dr. Belknap before referred to, but from a more immediate witness, Mr. Lechford, an Episcopal gentleman, who visited Dover within a short time after this affair, and who has left us some valuable information.6 He attributes the origin of the controversy between Larkham and Knollys, to a diversity of views on baptism, and the qualifications for church membership. His words are: “They two fell out about baptizing children, receiving of members, etc.”;7 From Winthrop we learn the radical character of this disagreement, and its decisive results. Winthrop says: “There soon grew sharp contention between him (Larkham) and Mr. Knollys, to whom the more religious still adhered; whereupon they were divided into two churches.”8 This correspondence of testimony is important. It appears, when combined, to prove the following facts: first, that Mr. Knollys had embraced Baptist views, at least so far as infant baptism is concerned, and also the purity of church-membership; secondly, that the more pious part of the church members agreed with him ; and finally, that a second church was formed by the followers of Larkham, while the First Church under Mr. Knollys became a Baptist Church - the second in America. What became of this church we shall inquire hereafter. At present we must follow Mr. Knollys, after the attempt by violent means to put him down, and drive him from the colony.

At this time Massachusetts claimed jurisdiction over Dover, as included in her patent, and also by virtue of a voluntary union formed April 14, 1641. Commissioners were therefore sent from Boston to adjust the difficulties that had arisen in Dover. After a full hearing of the case, they acquitted Mr. Knollys from the censure of the illegal exparte court, and released him from the fine imposed upon him; although they required the church under him to restore Mr. Larkham and his friends. It seems that this State interference with the discipline of the church, only widened the breach it was intended to heal. It at least decided the future course of Mr. Knollys and his friends.

All the testimony thus far is in favor of Mr. Knollys. But at this juncture arose a cloud, that in this country has, to some extent, overshadowed his fair fame. Winthrop, in his journal, says that a discovery was made of his failure in point of chastity; that he himself confessed before the church, some improper “dalliance” with two young women that lived in his family; and that on this account he was dismissed by the church, and removed from Dover.9 This charge, against such a man, is a grave one. It is repeated by Hubbard in an aggravated form, and more recently by Dr. Belknap and others, as late as 1831. It must, therefore, be examined in this paper.

How much is meant by the term “dalliance” in the language of the strict Puritans of that age, we know not. But we do know that a minister of Christ should be above reproach and suspicion, and that there are several circumstances which render the truth of this whole accusation very doubtful, not to say incredible. In the first place, it rests altogether upon the testimony of prejudiced parties, who regarded him, in the language of Dr. Belknap, as “an Anabaptist of the Antinomian sort.” Even Winthrop, with all his general candor, is not free from this prejudice, and his knowledge of the case was wholly second-hand - perhaps from the Massachusetts Commissioners, perhaps only from the vague and one-sided reports of Mr. Knollys’ enemies, glad of an opportunity to put down the dreaded Baptists, against whom, only three years later, a most barbarous law was enacted in Boston, and not only enacted, but enforced to blood, in two instances at least, at the public whipping-post. But in the second place, I have had access to the Judicial Records of New Hampshire for the year 1641, and there found the name of Hanserd Knollys entered as plaintiff in an action of slander; which, though never prosecuted in consequence of his return to England, at least implies that he regarded himself as an injured man. Thirdly, in the “Account of his own Life,” written in 1672, he gives this as the immediate cause of his return from America. “Being sent for back to England by my aged father, I returned with my wife, and one child about three years old.” Fourthly, Cotton Mather, cotemporary with Knollys for near forty years, and who wrote his Magnolia at Boston, about the time that Knollys died, with free access to Winthrop's journal, where the story first appears, and after the first reports had been more thoroughly sifted, expressly excepts Hanserd Knollys from the class of “scandalous” ministers. Among the illustrious men of New England, he describes a class, “whose names,” he says, “deserve to live in our book for their piety, although their particular opinions are such as to be disserviceable unto the declared and supposed interests of our churches. Of these were some godly Anabaptists, as namely, Mr. Hanserd Knollys, of Dover, and Mr. Miles, of Swansey. “Both of these,” he adds, “have a respectful character in the churches of this wilderness.” And to crown all, Mather, referring to the recent decease of Mr. Knollys in London, says, he died “a good man, in a good old age.”10 These various testimonies are not easily reconciled with the supposition that Mr. Knollys had forfeited his good character in Dover. We know that the sun has his spots, and that even great and good men have sometimes fallen, in an evil hour; but he who duly weighs the evidence now before us, and compares it with all the antecedent and subsequent life of Hanserd Knollys, will be slow to credit any injurious imputation on his character during the time of his residence in America.

This is not the place to follow Mr. Knollys back to England, and trace his eventful career for the next half century, through the most agitated period of English history. The theme is most inviting, and at some future time may be pursued with pleasure and profit. We shall see in him one of the brightest lights of his age, one of the ablest preachers of the gospel, one of the most accomplished teachers of youth, one of the boldest pioneers of religious liberty, one of the meekest, yet most heroic sufferers for the truth, one of the purest and best of men. We have the testimony of Neal in his History of New England, that “he suffered deeply in the cause of Nonconformity, being universally esteemed and beloved by all his brethren,” 11 among whom he died, with holy joy, September 19, 1691, at the advanced age of ninety-three.

From a sermon preached on occasion of his death, by Rev. Mr. Harrison, at London, we may be permitted to make an extract, which establishes the eminent purity and loveliness of his character - a character which fifty years of manifold trial, after his return from America, had elevated above all suspicion.

“I do not say,” says Mr. Harrison, “that he was wholly free from sin: sinless perfection is unattainable in a mortal state; but yet he was one who carefully endeavored to avoid it. He with the Apostle Paul, did herein exercise himself to have always a conscience void of offence, toward God and toward man. He walked with that caution that his greatest enemies had nothing against him, save only in the maters of his God. That holy lite which he live did command reverence, even from those who were enemies to the holy doctrine which he preached He was a preacher out of the pulpit, as well as in it: not like those who possess the form of godliness on a Lord's day, and as openly deny the power of it the remainder of the week, who pluck down that in their conversations, which they build up in their pulpits.” As to his charity, “he loved the image of God wherever he saw it. He was not a man of a narrow and private, but of a large and public spirit . The difference of his fellow Christians' opinions from his, did not alienate his affections from them. . . . He embraced those in the arms of his love on earth, with whom he thought he should join in singing the song of the Lamb in heaven. It would be well,” continues Mr. Harrison, “if not only private Christians, but also ministers did imitate him therein; there would not then be that sourness of spirit, which is too often, with grief be it spoken, found among them. . . . He was willing to bear with, and for bear others; to stop and condescend to others, and to pass by those injuries which he received from them.” 12 Such was Hanserd Knollys. Is it wonderful that God blessed him? Short as was his residence in America, his labors brought forth fruit, and the fruit remains to this day. The church which he planted in Dover, though divided, did not perish. The Pedobaptist [?] branch now flourishes in the large Congregational Church of Dover, the fruitful mother of many others, with Baptist sisters side by side. The Baptist branch, composed, as Winthrop says, of the “more religious,” adhered to Mr. Knollys; and to avoid the oppressive Church and State jurisdiction of Massachusetts, removed to Long Island in 1641. After Long Island fell under the power of the English in 1664, and the persecuting tyranny of the Episcopal establishment succeeded that of the Dutch under Stuyvesant, they, as soon as possible, sold out their property there, and settled in the vicinity of New Brunswick, New Jersey, on the east side of the Raritan river, where they enjoyed religious liberty under Lord Carteret. To the town which they here planted they transferred the dear old name of Dover, that is, Piscataway, (according to the original orthography,) in memory of their first home in the wilderness, where they had enjoyed for three years and more the ministration of their first, loved pastor, Hanserd Knollys. The church, when fully reorganized, and favored again with pastoral care, under Mr. Drake, in 1689, flourished anew, bearing much and blessed fruit. So deeply did it strike its roots into the new soil, that to this day no kind of Christians but Baptists grows in Piscataway; and not only do they fill the town, but in the towns around it new churches are continually springing up as shoots from the parent tree, first planted by the hands, and watered by the tears and prayers of Hanserd Knollys in America.


1 Thomas Crosby, History of the English Baptists, i. 334–344.
2 Winthrop, i. 326.
3 Winthrop, i. 281.
4 Winthrop, i. 292.
5 Winthrop, i. 27.
6 Jackson.
7 Winthrop, i. 27, note.
8 Winthrop.
9 Winthrop, i. 27.
10 Magnolia. i. 221.
11 Winthrop, i. 27.
12 Jackson.
13 Winthrop, i. 27, note.
14 Winthrop.
15 Winthrop, i. 27
16 Magnolia, i. 221.
17 History of New England, i. 216.
18 Crosby, i. 340.

[The Southern Baptist Review Journal, edited by J. R. Graves, James M. Pendleton, A. C. Dayton, 1858, pp.465-473 In Notes the symbols are changed to numbers. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

      The following is found in History of the Baptist Churches in the North of England, From 1648 to 1845, By David Douglas, 1846, p. 19: "Mr. Hanserd Knollys was born in 1598: he was originally a minister of the establishment, but became a Baptist in 1636. He was forced to flee at different times to Europe and America. He supported himself by teaching; lived to a great age in very troublesome times; died full of joy, in 1691, aged 93, and was buried in Bunhill Fields, London."

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