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The First Baptist Church In America
Providence, Rhode Island
By O. E. Ridenour, Bible School Superintendent
First Baptist Church, Russell, Ky.

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      The first Baptist Church of America was not founded by Roger Williams in Providence, R. I., as most historians have written, and the majority of people think. The first Baptist Church in this country was founded by John Clark in Newport, R. I. Both churches have claimed this distinction, and the only way to settle this claim and give the honor to the right Church is to examine the records which now exist; although many records were lost when the members of these churches Were driven southward by the British soldiers during the war.

      The Providence church claims to date from the year 1639. While the church at Newport claims the year 1638.

      Roger Williams seems to have been providentially raised up as "a herald," "a voice," to proclaim the eternal divorcement of Church and State and the absolute freedom of man to worshiP according to his understanding of His Word; thus to prepare the way for the coming of His Kingdom into New England and America.

      Little is known of the early life of young Roger. The place of his birth is not recorded. This much is known, that Roger Williams, son of William Williams, was baptized on the 24th day of July, 1600, in the Parish church of Guinness, Cornwall, England. His family, being members of the Episcopal Church, he, therefore, was made a member of it in unconscious infancy. Early in life he was brought by God's grace to know "Christ as his personal Savior," to realize that his Savior was also his Lord, and entitled, not only to the supreme love of his heart, but to the supreme service - obedience of his life, and to seethat Caesar had no right to come between his soul and his Savior.

      These Puritan ideas doubtless account for the opposition of his father and his leaving home for London. His persecution commenced in his father's house, and followed him until the day of his death. These persecutions caused him to flee to the New World in the hope of finding "Freedom to worship God."

      After a tempestuous voyage of ten weeks he landed with his young wife, Mary, off Nantasket. February 5, 1631.

      He soon received a call to settle over an Episcopal Church in Boston, but declined because, as he wrote to Cotton, he "durst not officiate to an unseparated people"; so thoroughly had he become imbued with that great Baptist's doctrine of religious freedom set forth in their "Confession of Faith", published in London in 1611, viz : "The magistrate is not to meddle with religion or matters of conscience, nor to compel men to this or that form of religion, because Christ is King and Lawgiver of Church and conscience." It was from this pure fountain that Williams drank in the sentiment and principle of soul freedom, which animated and influenced his whole life.

      Owing to the opposition of the magistrates, Mr. Williams soon removed to Salem, Mass., and became connected with the church in that place, which was a separated, independent body,answering to the congregational church of today. On the 12th day of April, 1634, he was regularly ordained as its pastor.

      From this period dates the controversies he had with the court and clergy (of the Episcopal church, which was the state church of Massachusetts Bay at that time), which disputes, and his unyielding opposition to edicts of the magistrates, resulted in his banishment by the court from the colony. There

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are opposing views as to his banishment. The clergy and court aver that it was solely his opposition to the civil government and gross "contempt of court", which is in England and this country today a very grave offense; while his friends say that it was solely for his "religious opinions." That it was for both causes is clearly seen from the charges themselves, which Mr. Williams admits are truly drawn.

      The sentence of the court was for Williams to leave the colony in six weeks. He did not leave and the officers waited on him for twelve weeks! He fled westward during mid-winter. Had he left when he was first notified, he would not have had to suffer so many hardships, because of the extreme cold weather. The Indians were all very friendly, their chiefs being his particular friends, and the woods quite familiar. Five months later he came to where Providence now stands. He gave it this name in gratitude to the goodness that it had so well provided for him. Others came from Massachusetts, and they entered into a compact, "only in civil things," and thus became a "town fellowship," and soon — March 4, 1644 obtained a charter from the commissioners appointed by Parliament for the control of colonial affairs, under which the town became a colony under the title of "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." Thus was founded a small new society in Rhode Island on the principle of entire liberty of conscience, and the uncontrolled power of the majority in secular concerns.

      This compact did not give much liberty of conscience to the colonists. First—It defined the boundaries of the state, and that so blindly as to entail a half century of quarrels. Second — It included Providence, Newport, and Portsmouth, under the name of "The Providence Plantations," in one government, in which the majority should rule. Third — It gave liberty to make and execute laws; provided "that said laws and constitution and punishments be conformable to the laws of England so far as the nature and constitution of the place will admit."

      "But," says Professor Clark, "the laws of England sanctioned imprisonments, hangings and burning for religious opinions, and, under this charter, a majority could enact those in Rhode Island!" We can plainly see that Roger Williams did not secure the full and free enjoyment of religious liberty for his people, or Baptists, or anyone else.

      Williams believed that the "gates of hell" had, indeed, prevailed against the church and Kingdom of God, and that their continuity had been lost, and consequently, all authority derived from a Gospel Church to administer the ordinances had been lost; therefore, if the visible church and its ordinances were to be perpetuated on earth, they must be recommenced by someone under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Believing that the Spirit moved upon him to do this work, he, in the year 1639, influenced a company of his followers (eleven in number) to engage with him in this undertaking. This was the manner of it: One of these, Ezekiel Holliman, immersed Mr. Williams, and he (Mr. Williams) returned the kind office and immersed Mr. Holliman and eleven others — all of these had been excluded from the Salem church, not on any charge of immorality but for their Anabaptistical opinions. This church at Salem was a Pedobaptist Church.

      So far as can be learned, this was all Roger Williams, or the immersed persons, did to effect the setting up or constituting a visible church. Eld. E. Brown, pastor of the First Baptist Church, Providence, in the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary sermon, April 28, 1889, said: "Our fathers founded and the centuuries have handed down to us, a church without a written creed." He could have added, covenant, constitution, or organization! History gives us no intimation that Mr. Williams even statedly preached, or presumed to administer the Lord's Supper, or immerse another person in this group. He soon repudiated his work as unscriptural and null, and deserted the company — we cannot call it a church — "and in four months" Cotton Mather, an eminent Pedobaptist minister and historian, says, "it came to nothing." This is his statement: "One Roger Williams, a preacher, arrived in New England about the year 1630; was first an assistant in the church at Salem and afterwards its pastor. This man — a difference happening between the government and him — cause a great deal of trouble and vexation. At length the magistrates passed the sentence of banishment upon him; upon which he removed with a few of his own sect and settled at a place called Providence. There they proceed not only unto the gathering of a thing like a church, but unto the renouncing of their infant baptism. After this he turned Seeker and Familist, and the church came to nothing."

      All authentic records fix the utter extinction of this company at four months. It was gathered in March, and came to nothing in July. Therefore, Williams' baptism originated and died with him.

      He lived for forty years after this, and it is a well established fact that he never united or communed or affiliated with any Baptist church, either in Newport or Providence. He was not the first, by a large part of a century, to assert by pen or voice the doctrine of religious liberty. He caught his inspiration from the Articles of Faith of the Old Baptist churches in England, and was educated in the doctrine by the writings of Busher and other suffering Baptists in England.

      He never, by any legal document that has been discovered, embodied the doctrine of free and full freedom of conscience for Baptists, or any other denomination. He did not insert one provision for the enjoyment of free and full religious liberty in the character he obtained from England — to secure which the colonists afterwards sent Mr. John Clark. Roger Williams was never a Baptist one hour in his life. No authentic document sustains the claim that he was ever the member of, or communed or affiliated with, any Baptist Church. The claim is ptterly absurd, since in less than four months after he was immersed by Holliman he repudiated the act as null, and turned Seeker and Familist, denying that Christ had a visible church on earth, or that there were "any scriptural church, state or ordinances extant."

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      The first article was almost entirely given to the claims awarded to Roger Williams, and now we will turn to John Clark, the first Baptist preacher of the First Baptist Church of Newport, Rhode Island.

      The Colony of Massachusetts, or The Bay, having its center at Boston, was in 1637 in a hot fermentation, being full of restless spirits, eager for and yet afraid of all novelties in church and state. They were fearful of being in minorities, and equally afraid of organizing their majorities. Church and state had been united in 1631 by laws which made church members alone eligile to citizenship, and consequently the larger part of the colonists were neither church members nor citizens. Satisfied, however, with their new liberties, the people disputed little about politics or government, but much about religion.

      The crystalization of religious opinions almost immediately exhibited in Boston the three great phases of Protestant Christianity: First, the host of people which attaches itself to church organizations and ordinances, entering by infant baptism, so called. Second, the doctrinal phase called Arminianism. Third, the doctrinal phase which bears in a restricted sense the name of Calvinism. A sweeping law of exclusion was as Passed, forbidding strangers to even remain in the territory of the Bay more than three weeks without a governmental permit. This was the first time that there was [a] direct issue raised between parties in respect to "liberty of conscience," although these three words had for many years been on every tongue, and men's peculiar conscience had involved them in many difficulties. At this time, Boston produced no competent leader for the desparing "antinomians." Sir Henry Vane returned to England. Several others, who had been high in office, in more tranquil days, now showed no genius for leadership.

      In this juncture, in November, 1637, John Clark, just turned twenty-eight years of age, arrived in Boston. Immediately he counselled the "antinomians" to unite in a movement to other territory, and his advice was adopted.

      Who was this young man, so promptly accepted as a leader?

      In Westhorpe, Suffolk, which was, in the sixteenth century, the seat of the Duke of Suffolk, but now is an insignificant hamlet, John Clark was born, and here is registered in the parish house as having been baptized October 8, 1609. He was well educated, a learned physician and one of the ablest men of the seventeenth century. He was an advanced student of Greek and Hebrew, and at his death, he had nearly ready for publication a "Biblical Concordance and Lexicon."

      In his own narrative. Clark says:
"I was no sooner on shore, than there appeared to me differences amcng them touching the covenants; and in point of evidencing a man's good estate, some pressed hard for the covenant of works, and for sanctification to be the first and chief evidence: others pressed as hard for the covenant of grace that was established upon better promises, and for the

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evidence of the Spirit. Whereupon I moved the latter for peace sake, to turn aside to the right hand or to the left. The motion was readily accepted, and I was requested, with some others, to seek out a place."

      Clark visited New Hampshire, but returned and advised a more southern location of a colony. In Boston in the first week of March, 1638, the colony was fully organized for emigration. The first instrument in the series is one of the most remarkable documents in political literature, as a terse enactment of law and liberty, recognized as necessarily united in a government subordinated to Christ. It was signed March 7, 1638. and it is as follows:

'We, whose names are underwritten, do here solemnly, in he presence of Jehovah, incorporate ourselves into a Bodie Politich, and as He shall help, will submit our persons, lives and estates unto our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, and to all those perfect and most absolute laws of His, given us in His Holy Word of Truth, to be guided and judged thereby.' Exodus XXIV. 3; II. Chronicles XL 3, 4; II Kings XI. 17.

      The scripture references, attached to this document are necessary to its interpretation.

      Here is, in fact, the first constitution of Rhode Island, and the first in the world, which guaranteed religious liberty. There is scarcely a possibility of doubt that Mr. Clark was the writer of this constitution. William Coddington was, indeed, the first signer as the elected President and Judge of the Colony, but John Clark's name is the second. The evidence of his authorship is conspicuous in the fact that it is an epitome of those writings from his pen which display him as the unique and almost ideal champion of liberty of conscience in the seventeenth century.

      Clark, when in prison, in Boston, for religious acts done by him as a Baptist minister, while visiting in Lynn, challenged the governmental offices, and the preachers of the colony, to a debate on four theses. The next year, in London, he published a book in which he three times stated those propositions, each time with increased elaboration, until the last statement fills forty-four octavo pages. His propositions briefly condensed, declare: First, Christ is King. Second, baptism is dipping, and only haptized believers may join in the order of the church. Third, every believer ought to use his gifts. Fourth, no servant of Christ has authority over other persons in matters of conscience.

      These are good evidences of the authorship of the covenant, but there are better ones in its correspondence, with the words, which, in 1662, Clark addressed to a king:

"A flourishing civil state may best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernment; and true piety, rightly grounded upon Gospel principIes, will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to truer loyalty."

      Early in March, 1638, Clark, with a body of the colonists, set out from Boston southward. Following the natural route they found, at the head of Narragansett Bay, Roger Williams, who had come there, in the summer of 1636, with two men and two youths. These two men, however, had left him, and three others had joined him in 1637. Some of these were accompanied by their wives. These four men had no land by deed from the Indians, but Roger Williams claimed that the natives had promised to him personally the territory now occupied by the city of Providence. The men were all at variance in their religious and irreligious views. One, soon after, left Providence, but was during all his life a bitter enemy of Roger Williams. One was married to the undivorced wife of another man, and did not stay long at Providence. These five men, and their successors, had no law, nor an officer, nor an organization of any kind until 1647.

      Roger Williams gave John Clark no invitation to stay with him. He waived thereon further south, even off the land, to the island of Aquedneck. Coddington obtained, by payment of a large price, a deed from the Indians. Roger Williams accompanied Mr. Coddington in the negotiation, and on the same day obtained for himself the first deed that he ever had from the natives. From Mr. Williams' own letter it is shown that Providence and Newport lands were acquired on the (same? blur) day; but the island lands were bought by a colony, and Providence lands by an individual.

      Among the first acts cf the colony was the erection of a meeting house, but the cardinal principle of religious freedom,viz; absolute separation of church and state was maintained. Governor Winthrop records that Mr. Clark was a preacher on the island in 1638, and elsewhere calls him "their minister." The records of the island tell a story of perpetual harmony and peace.

      In contrast with the history thus recorded we notice the correspondent features of the Providence Colony. Roger Williams kept the lands at Providence and Pawtuckett as his private property until October 8, 1638, six months after the island lands were partitioned.

      In 1639 he confessed that his mind was all unsettled about church organization and ordinances. The world was ringing with the protests and appeals of Anabaptists and of the General Baptists, but the persons of Baptist sentiments were still mostly mmbers of other churches. Baptist Churches were few. The first church of the Particular Baptists was formed after Mr. Williams left England. In 1639 Roger Williams cansed himself to be emmersed (sic) by Ezekiel Holliman, and then himself immersed eleven others. There is no evidence, nor even tradition, that by this act these persons constituted a church. Even the members of the first of Particular Baptists in London — Mr. Spilsbury's — remained in their membership in the Pedobaptist Church till 1633. In 1639 a minister of Mr. Spilsbury's church, Hanserd Knollys (Knowles), was in New England preaching. Mr. Clark was also probably from Mr. Spilsbury's church. But Roger Williams summoned neither of these to baptize him and sought no affiliation with recognized Baptists. Who the persons were whom he immersed is entirely unknown. Mr. Benedict gave a list of names, but they were only names of some land owners, copied out of a deed. Some of these were not professing Christians, and some were never Baptists! Some names of known or supposed Baptists are omitted by Mr. Benedict. The company that was immersed thus was soon after scattered. Mr. Holliman and others went to Warwick, others to Pawtuckett and Newport.

      Even this baptism, and his associates in it, Mr. Williams renounced in three or four months, and repudiated all ministries and church organizations.

      Clark's leadership continued preeminent on the island. So rapid was the growth that the new town of Newport was established in 1639. Mr. Clark and most of the leading men of Portsmouth removed thither.

      Clark was a delegate from Newport in every assembly until he was sent to England in 1631. In 1649, 1650 and part of 1651, he also held the offices of general treasurer, and of "assistant" magistrates, but it is worthy of note that these three years were those in which his active Christian ministry is best known.

      One of the recorded evidences of this is noteworthy. Roger Williams wrote in 1649:

"At Seekonk a great many have lately concurred the point of a new baptism, and the new manner by dipping. And Mr. John Clark hath been there lately, and Mr. Lucas (an elder in Mr. Clark's church), and hath dipped them. I believe their practice comes nearer the first practice of our Great Founder, Christ Jesus, than other practices of religion do, and yet I have not satisfaction, neither in the authority by which it is done, nor in the manner."
      In the summer of 1651, the religious ministry of Dr. Clark was interrupted by great political movements. Mr. Coddington,
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who had gone to England in 1649 to secure a repeal or modification of the patent for the colony, obtained in 1651 a commission for himself as Governor of the island for life. This practically abrogated the charter, which probably was Governor Coddington's chief desire, and opened the way for reorganization. In this crisis Clark was the soul hope of the islanders. One hundred and six citizens presented to him a written request that he would go to England to remedy the existing evils. He consented and sailed in November, 1651. As soon as it was known that Clark was going to England, the towns of Providence and Warwick commissioned Roger Williams to go also and watch over their interests. They sailed together, and Clark's greatest success was due to the capture of Williams, who thence-forward for several years seems to have heartily co-operated with Clark's friends on the Island. The result of this union was that the two envoys obtained, October 2, 1652, from the council of state a revocation of the commission of Mr. Coddlington, and a renewal of the patent. Clark, after this, remained in England, but Roger Williams
"I am like a man in a great fog. It hath been told me that I labored for a licentious and contentious people. At present, I am called a traitor by one party, and, it is said, that I am as good as banished by yourselves, and that both sides wished that I might never have landed, that the fire of contention might have had no stop in burning."
      Mr. Clark in 1654, sent home a statement of his plans, and requested that they should be approved by the state government. His plans were formally approved without an amendment, and he was appointed sole agent of the state to represent it in England.

      At length, July 9, 1663, the royal seal was affixed to the charter of Rhode Island, and it was a document so extraordinary that no words of praise can be extravagant. Let the reader mark an unparalleled fact. This charter was the consituation of Rhode Island, and although formulated amid the convulsons of the seventeenth century, it continued to be the constitution of the State through all the period of growth; through the war of independence; and through the formulating of state constitutions all around it, and of the national constitution — even one hundred and seventy-nine years - till 1842.

      Its preamble quoted from Clark's second address to the king, is thus:

"Our royal will and pleasure is, That no person within the said cclony, at any time hereafter, shall be anywise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, who do not aclually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and all times hereafter, freely and fully, have and enjoy his own and their judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly, and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to civil injury or outward disturbances of others; any law, statute, or clause therein contained, or to be contained usage or custom of this realm, to the contrary hereof, in anywise notwithstanding."
      Clark returned home in 1664. The charter was received with universal joy. The government was immediately organized. The legislature opened its records with this entry: "The Present assembly, now by God's gracious providence enjoying the helpful presence of our much honored and beloved Mr. John Clark, doth declare," etc.

      Clark was a member of the government every year after his return until 1672. In 1696 he was appointed alone to make a digest of the laws, "leaving out what may be superfluous, and adding what may appear unto him necessary." For two years he was deputy governor. Three times he was appointed to go to England under certain contingencies, but did not go.

      Front 1664 till his death, April 20, 1676, Clark held the place of first elder in his church. It was a time of difficulties. In their anxiety to be scriptural, many persons were becoming strenuous about laying on of hands, and kindred points, and a seventh day Sabbath. These disagreements penetrated the First Church in Newport, and soon after Clark's death produced divisions, but his influence helped, in the providences of God, to hold this first of Baptist churches in America faithful to its early principles, and to preserve it a foster mother and teacher of a great denomination.

      The last act of his life was in keeping with the whole. On the day of Ids death he made a will by which a considerable portion of his estate was placed in the hands of trustees as a perpetual fund, of which the rents and profits are to be used "for the relief of the poor, and the bringing up of children unto learning." This, fund, of which a portion was then appraised at five hundred and twenty pounds, is still performing its beneficient work, and in it John Clark lives.

      No posterity of John Clark survived him. It is better so. Let the name belong to no unworthy child. It belongs to the ages, and to the world. Its record belongs in a sense to the best chapters of Baptist history; but far more it belongs to the history of civilization and of Christian statesmanship. Let it be said of him as a man, a Christian, and as a statesman, that in an age when all men blundered, and most men conspicuously sinned, he so lived that Mr. Backus wrote: "I have not met a single reflection cast on him by anyone." And Governor Arnold wrote: "His character and talents appear more exalted the more closely they are examined, and his blameless, self-sacrificing life left him without any enemy." Mr. Bancroft says: "He left a name without a spot."


[From T. P. Simmons, Editor, The Baptist Examiner, February 1, 1932, pp. 7-8; February 15, 1932, pp. 5-7; via digitized version by Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, Chesapeake, Ohio. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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