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Was Roger Williams a Baptist?
By M. R. Ellis, 1928

A history of the establishment of the Baptist church in the colonies

     It was announced recently that statues in memory of ancient divines are to be placed in the Cathedral of St. John in New York, among them being one of Roger Williams, "Father of the Baptist Church in America." Being familiar with the traditions and history of his time and activities, I took exception to this as a historical error. Since Roger Williams was never a Baptist, and was during his whole life one of the most vigorous antagonists of the church of England, this statue will be, at least, an anomaly. There is no evidence that he was ever associated with any religious organization. Together with his bitter opposition to the established church, his persistent efforts to gain for himself and others individual freedom for religious thought and action, we can readily understand how he avoided all forms and doctrines. It is unfortunate that too many so-called "histories" have been written, and that many of them are quite inaccurate. (Charles Kingsley resigned his professorship in Cambridge, where he was teaching history, "because it is a tissue of falsehood.") But, out of this historical melange, one who tries to visualize the environment and conditions as the early pioneers found them, and to sift the facts from the many stories that have been accepted as "history," can give proper credit to the leaders who deserve it.

     I shall confine myself to the questions of the establishment of the Baptist church in the colonies and the charter upon which our civic liberties were founded. The honor for both belongs to Dr. John Clarke, founder of Newport R. I., in 1639. Roger Williams was contemporary and active, and in no way should one deprive him of his deserved fame, but I would replace the laurel upon the brow of him to whom it rightfully belongs. Let us review the matters as briefly as possible.

     Hating the domination of religious and civic affairs by the church in England, Williams sailed for Boston, seeking freedom from its restriction. There he landed in 1631, where he found the Puritans, or Conformists, exercising a more arbitrary government than he had known in England. Disobedience to this authority was punishable by banishment, physical torture and even death. "Witches" were punished and Quakers hung on Boston common. The "Separatists" had been established at Plymouth about ten years. (Out of this colony has grown the Congregational church.) Salem was practically under Boston domination. During the following five or six years Williams traveled between Boston, Plymouth and Salem, preaching antinomianism, separation of church and state, absolute religious and civic freedom and the right of the Indians to ownership of the land. In Plymouth he affiliated with the "Separatists," but not without friction. In Boston and Salem his affiliations were with the dissenters who objected to the autocracy of the Puritans or Conformists, but there were no Baptist organizations or societies in either of the colonies. His agitation resulted in his arrest, trial for "heresy and blasphemy" and sentence of banishment. His home was in Salem at the time. Some weeks were allowed him before execution of the sentence. He anticipated the constables by a few days, and fled to the wilderness, making his way to Narragansett, where he found lodgement with the tribe of that name. The location is now the seaside resort of Narragansett Pier. He and the Indians became warm friends, and his influence with them and neighboring tribes subsequently saved many of the Rhode Island colonists from massacre. This was in 1637. I have seen illustrations in "histories" of this event, representing Williams, clad like a prince in flowing robes and picturesque hat, stepping on shore from a fancy, modern row-boat, the Indians on shore in full-feathered regalia, arms outstretched to receive him. He did not land from a boat, but made his way, approximately seventy-five miles, on foot through the forest, maintained on his way by the Indians. The "boat" route would have taken him two or three hundred miles on the open ocean outside of Cape Cod. It would have been impossible for one to make this long trip through the wilds of Massachusetts and present himself to the Indians in such faultless attire. Such illustrations and descriptions show the absurdity of much "history." There is no confusion in regard to the history of Williams prior to his departure from England. He was the son of a tailor in London, the possessor of an exceptionally bright mind and an aggressive nature, and secured a good education for his time. Now that we have him safely located in Narragansett, let us go back to Boston.

Doctor Clarke Comes to America
     This same year, 1637, there landed from England, together with two brothers and a few friends, John Clarke, whose family name dates back to feudal times. He was a man educated far beyond the conditions of his time, bearing the titles of D.D. and M.D. It must be remembered that the Baptist church was organized by religious exiles who fled from England to Holland. Doctor Clarke had obtained a liberal education in England and in Holland, where from the University of Leyden he received the degrees of D.D. and M.D., "being familiar with Greek, Latin, Hebrew and medicine," and ordained a Baptist divine. He also sought unrestricted religious and civic freedom. Finding this impossible, as had Williams, he gathered together about three hundred dissenters (among them the famous Anne Hutchinson), and sailed away for unincumbered land. In 1638 this party landed on the north end of Acquidneck island (now Newport), in Narragansett bay. Portsmouth was established. Exploring the island, they moved south and established Newport. In the spring of 1638, a civic compact was signed and a Baptist church organized. Doctor Clarke became its pastor, retaining that position during his life. He was also the moving spirit in municipal and civic affairs and the physical doctor of the colony.

     Meantime, in 1638, Williams, with about twenty followers, moved from his retreat at Narragansett up the coast to a point where Providence is situated. There they kneeled and thanked "Providence" for their liberation. Thus came the name of that prosperous city. A civic compact was drawn up by Williams and signed by thirteen of his followers, five of them using the "X" mark as signature. Evidently they had no high degree of education. Let us consider the environment. An ax was the only available implement, and trees the only building material; the "log house" was the result. Here the religious impulses of the group found free action. They built a church. The required dimensions were not great for the accommodation of twenty people. Among Williams' following was Ezekiel Holliman. (One historian calls him Holyman.) They adopted the Baptist faith, which required baptism. Since none of them had been baptized, it was arranged that Holliman should baptize Williams, and then Williams baptized Holliman and others. (Some historians say this was by immersion; others say it was by effusion.) Upon this baptismal episode, pathetic if not absurd, has grown the tradition of Roger Williams' fame as a Baptist. It is not unlike the cherry tree story of Washington's boyhood, or the apple tree and sword stories associated with the surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox. All are myths, magnified by repetition into historical importance. After four or five months of this experience, discovering his error, Williams abandoned the project and retired to his estate in Narragansett, bought from his Indian friends with wampum and beads, then current exchange with the Indians.

     He there became a "seeker." This was Williams' only appearance in the Baptist arena during his life. Providence struggled along for many years as a mere settlement, while Newport was growing rapidly: "One hundred families joined them during the first year." In his description of contrasting conditions between Newport and Providence, Richman, in his History of Rhode Island (page 32), says, "Now that the island of Aquidneck had become a political entity, the contrast between it and the entity (or non-entity), Providence, was marked in the extreme. By Providence there was symbolized individualism both religious and political, a force centrifugal, disjunctive and even disruptive. By Acquidneck (and especially by the Newport part of it) there was symbolized collectivism, a collectivism thoroughly individualized as to religion, but in politics conjunctive and centripetal."

     Although living remote from it, Williams was the mentor for the few in the Providence settlement, while Doctor Clarke was the guiding spirit on the island of Acquidneck, both in Newport and Portsmouth. Williams was essentially an agitator and reformer. He was in his day much the same type of man as was William Jennings Bryan in ours. Capacity for organization or coordination was absent from his character. He was often criticized by his contemporaries for his "headiness." On the other hand, Doctor Clarke was by nature a diplomat, an organizer of unusual capacity. With his superior education and well-balanced mind he became, as pastor of the organized Baptist church and physician, the guiding spirit in the affairs of the colony. These being the facts, to which of these worthy men belongs the honor of the title, "Father of the Baptist Church in America"?

     Newport at once became a thriving community, while Providence remained an unorganized settlement. The fertile land of the island was apportioned among the people, and agriculture thrived. Ship building was begun, and commerce promoted. Thus the people progressed until 1643 when Williams took it upon himself, unauthorized, to obtain a charter from the crown. Being unable to go to Boston, where his arrest would have been certain, he went to New York and from there sailed for England in a Dutch ship. He obtained a charter from Cromwell's parliament during the reign of Charles I for the "Providence Plantation," which embraced the island with much of the main land, and returned with it in 1644. Some histories give Williams credit for obtaining the first liberal charter. Let us see. This charter maintained allegiances to the crown and ignored the Newport organization, which was vigorously opposed to it but tried to make the best of it. It became a bone of contention and creator of disturbance until about 1651, when the colony sent both Clarke and Williams to England for a "new deal." Williams soon returned, but Clarke remained. In the meantime, Charles I lost his head, and Charles II was on the throne. It took Clarke some years to accomplish his task, but in 1663 he obtained a charter from Charles II which comprehended absolute freedom, both religious and civic; there was no string of any kind attached to it. This charter was for the colony of Rhode Island, embracing what subsequently became the state. It was the constitution for the state of Rhode Island for more than a century, and some of its features were embraced in our federal constitution. It was written entirely by Doctor Clarke, and the English press criticized the king for signing so liberal a document, questioning his right to do so. (The Williams' charter, like his "church" in Providence, was short lived.) Under the Clarke charter the whole state began to grow, as the many dissenters from the autocracy of the Conformists sought the freedom afforded the government under this unrestricted condition. This charter of 1663 was the first ever issued giving absolute and unrestricted freedom in the world.

     Upon his return to Newport in 1663 Doctor Clarke resumed his activities, continuing them until his death in 1676. His portrait, painted by the French artist, DeVille, while he was in England and seeking the charter, is owned by the Redwood library in Newport. His burial place in the central part of the city of Newport is carefully preserved by the men's society of the Dr. John Clarke Memorial Baptist church of that city. Three church buildings have been erected in Newport, including the first by Doctor Clarke. The present one was erected in 1846, and is presided over by Wilbur Nelson, whose efforts to gain proper honor for Doctor Clarke are endless. A proper knowledge of the origin of the Baptist church is of interest to many. A reliable history of the foundation upon which was built our civic and religious freedom should be of interest to the one hundred and twenty millions of people within our borders.


[From a photocopy of The Baptist, March 31, 1928, Vol. 9, No. 6, pp. 408-410. - Scanned by Jim Duvall.]

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