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The Treatment of Baptists
in Seventeenth Century New England

By Herbert Lee Osgood, 1904
      To the Puritan mind, whether in England or in New England, the name Anabaptist was synonymous with anarchy in its most revolting forms. It suggested the excesses of John of Leyden and his followers at Munster in the sixteenth century, which culminated in a system of polygamy, sanction for which was found in alleged divine revelations. Extravagant enthusiasm, however, and not insistence on the rebaptism of adults, was the characteristic of the radical reformers in Germany who first bore the name Anabaptist. The later Baptists of England and America had nothing in common with the early fanatics of Germany, though they were forced throughout the struggles of the period to bear the stigma of their names. The Baptists were Calvinists in theology and independents in church polity, differing from the Puritans of Massachusetts and the adjacent colonies only in their denial of the validity of infant baptism and their insistence upon religious toleration. The name of Roger Williams was identified with the early history of the sect, and, though working within the limits of Calvinistic theology, it helped to disseminate and make effective his doctrine of soul liberty. In church polity they adhered to the simple democratic ideal of the group of autonomous local congregations united under some voluntary compact. Union with the civil power and coercion of the local body by secular authority they avoided. Their strict allegiance to the letter of Scripture also led them to reject the doctrine and practice of infant baptism, a feature of church polity by which the New England Puritan set great store.

      It thus appears that the views which the Baptists really held, if publicly preached, were such as to make them sufficiently obnoxious to the magistrates and elders of Massachusetts,

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even if none of the stigma of Anabaptism had attached to their name. But the Baptists who were known to the New Englander congregated chiefly in Rhode Island. At Newport, in 1640 or 1644, the first Baptist church in America was organized.1 To the mind of an adherent of the dominant Puritan sect the Narragansett Plantations seemed a faint reflection of Munster, not that any thought the sexual excesses of the German enthusiasts were repeated there, but that it was the home of all strange and extreme opinions which by any chance found their way into New England. The Massachusetts Puritan of the first generation never lost his feeling of supercilious contempt for the colony which was founded by men whom he had cast out. He was always quick to note manifestations of anarchy or disturbance among them, and slow to mark their social progress. It was the "back door" through which many of the sectaries who troubled Massachusetts found their entrance. 2 Not only did Williams and some of his followers become Baptists, but some of the Antinomian exiles as well. Winthrop,3 referring perhaps to the organization of the first Baptist church at Newport, wrote, "They also gathered a church in a very disordered way; for they took some excommunicated persons, and others who were members of the church of Boston and not dismissed."

      After Massachusetts had been in existence as a colony for about a decade, Baptist opinions began to appear here and there among its inhabitants. In 1642 Lady Deborah Moody of Lynn and two others were presented before the quarter court at Salem for holding that "the baptizing of infants is noe ordinance of God."4 Lady Moody was also admonished by the church at Salem; but persisting in her belief, to avoid further trouble, she removed to New Netherland, where, with those who accompanied her, she founded the town of Gravesend, Long Island. Early in 1644, and again in 1645, the case of William Witter, also of Lynn, was before the court
1 Backus, Hist. of the Baptists, ed. of 1871, I, 125.
2 Mass. Col. Recs. IV. 385.
3 Journal, I. 357.
4 Lewis and Newhall, History of Lynn, 204, 231; Winthrop, II. 148.

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at Salem. He was charged with holding Baptist opinions and speaking disrespectfully of authority. Though he was at length summoned before the assistants at Boston, final action seems not to have been taken in his case. In November, 1651, however, he was again presented at the Salem court "for neglecting discourses and being rebaptized."

      In July, 1644, a poor and worthless man, named Painter,1 who refused to suffer his wife to have their child baptized, was whipped. No law had then been enacted for the punishment of such an offence, and Winthrop states that it was inflicted, "not for his opinion, but for his reproaching the Lord's ordinance, and for his bold and evil behaviour both at home and in the Court."

      But, owing to the increase within the colony of Baptist opinions,2 the magistrates and elders were already considering a measure for their restraint. This was passed in November, 1644.3 In the preamble of this act not only is the rising sect charged with being successors of the Ana.baptists of Minister, but they are made to deny the lawfulness of magistracy and of making war, both of these being opinions which they never held. The act provided that, if any within the colony should openly condemn or oppose the baptizing of infants, or secretly attempt to seduce others from the use of that ordinance, or obstinately deny the ordinance of magistracy or the right of the magistrate to make war or to punish outward breaches of the first table of the law, on conviction such persons should be banished.

      In 1651 the Massachusetts authorities, acting partly under this law and in part under the general laws for the maintenance of the established faith, 4 punished three of the foremost Baptists in the colonies. They were Mr. John Clarke, founder of the Baptist church at Newport; Obadiah Holmes, who had formed a Baptist society at Rehoboth in Plymouth colony, and John Crandall, who had previously been a deputy to the general assembly from Newport. They were in no sense fanatics, though they were persistent in the assertion of their
1 Winthrop, II. 213.
2 Ibid. 212.
3 Mass. Col. Recs. II. 85.
4 Clarke's Ill Newes from New England; Mass. Hist. Coll. II; Backus, History of the Baptists, I. 173 et seq.

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views. Holmes had previously been a resident of Salem. Clarke had arrived in Massachusetts from England in the midst of the Antinomian excitement, and because of the dissensions had gone elsewhere, finally settling upon Rhode Island. He was from the first a leading man of the colony, and somewhat later than the date of which we are speaking was to render it the most important services in England. His writings, as well as his career, show him to have been an energetic, clear-headed, and practical man.

      These men, visiting Massachusetts on business, were entertained over Sunday at the house of William Witter, in Lynn. In the forenoon of the Sabbath Clarke discoursed on the subject of temptation to the family and a few friends who came to the house. In the midst of his talk two constables appeared, and, upon an order from a Salem magistrate, arrested Clarke and his two companions. In the afternoon they were taken to church, although Clarke declared in advance that when there he should testify freely in opposition to the accepted faith. When he and his friends entered the church, they at first uncovered by way of greeting, but immediately put on their hats again, and Clarke began reading. The constable then snatched the hats from their heads. After the sermon was over Clarke began to speak, but before he had proceeded far he was silenced, and at the close of the service all three were taken back to the place of detention, which was the village inn. The next day, however, Clarke found an opportunity to administer the sacrament at Witter's house. A week later the three offenders were brought to trial before the magistrates at Boston.

      Endicott was now governor, and for a decade to come was to enjoy a leadership in Massachusetts affairs from which the superiority of Winthrop, among other causes, had hitherto excluded him. He was a much harsher and more violent man than Winthrop, and evidences of this fact were abundant both in his earlier and later career. He presided at the court when Clarke and his friends were brought before it. The usual heated colloquy was held between the judge and the accused. "The governor," says Clarke, "upbraided us with the name of Anabaptist; To whom I answered, I disown the name. I am neither an Anabaptist, nor a Pedobaptist, nor a Catabaptist! He told me in haste I was all." After a further colloquy in much the same spirit, a trial in which, according to Clarke's statement, neither accuser, witness, nor jury was produced, Clarke was sentenced to pay a fine of L20, Holmes of L30, Crandall of L5, or to be "well whipped." Clarke demanded to be shown the law under which the sentence was pronounced; and well he might, for the only penalty mentioned in the law against Anabaptists was banishment. The governor then, says the narrator, "stepped up and told us we had denied infant baptism, and, being somewhat transported, broke forth and told me I had deserved death, and said he would not have such trash brought into their jurisdiction." The accused were then sent back to prison. As Endicott, notwithstanding his passion, had given a hint that a public discussion might be held, Clarke tried to get permission to debate the points of his belief with some of the ministers, but failed. While this matter was under discussion, some friends paid Clarke's fine, and he returned to Rhode Island. Crandall chose the same course. But Holmes resolved to testify to the truth of his belief under the lash, and has left a remarkable account of the extent to which his religious enthusiasm assuaged the pain, and enabled him to bear with ease what would otherwise have been a sharp infliction. Two of the spectators ventured to express admiration for Holmes's courage, but they were at once arrested and fined.

      Clarke at once went to England, where he published an account of his experience, and that of his friends, in Massachusetts, with an address to parliament and the council of state. But the cause of Massachusetts was strongly supported in England by Hopkins1 and Winslow, the latter of whom now stood high in the councils of the government. Owing, however, to the attitude of Cromwell toward Anabaptists and others with whom they were popularly associated, there was not at this period any prospect that the English government would interfere to check the strenuous measures of Massachusetts. The Baptists, however, persisted. Henry
1 Hutchinson Collection, I. 303.

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Dunster, the second president of Harvard College, accepted, their views, and, because of his avowal of them, was compelled to resign his position. Soon after the Restoration a Baptist society was organized in Boston and public services began. Against this the authorities struggled for a number of years, but at last they were compelled to acquiesce, and the existence of the society was thereafter silently tolerated.

[Herbert Levi Osgood, The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century: The Chartered Colonies ... , 1904, pp. 264-268. Document from Google Books On-line; the title is supplied. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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