Early American Baptist History | Part Three

September 25, 2014

Dr. Dan Nelson | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Camarillo, CA

A controversy exists as to what was the first Baptist Church in America. It has ensued because Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island did not stay a Baptist after the colony was settled. The fact that a Baptist church still exists in Providence which attributes its origins to Williams leads the majority of historians to believe although Williams did not remain a Baptist, he did found the Providence church when he was affiliated with Baptists and the church remained Baptist that he began.

Some have believed John Clarke deserves to be called the first real Baptist leader in Rhode Island although Williams founded it. While Williams was a Baptist only for a few months, Clarke remained faithful for nearly forty years. Williams concluded that no visible church was valid until Christ sent a new apostle to restore it; therefore, he never affiliated with any other church. Many also believed the church Clarke founded at Newport deserves to be called the first pure and permanent Baptist Church in America although history proves otherwise, since Roger Williams resigned the church in Providence before Clarke even started the church at Newport.

The simple fact is that Clarke and Williams were good friends in their joint venture to start a colony that granted complete religious freedom to all and safeguarded any type of civil intrusion by the government in the church’s affairs. The colony worked and served as a beacon for the rest of the new colonies resulting in freedom of religion clause in the first amendment of our constitution. Actually Clarke just continued where Williams took off in the matter of church leadership.

Clarke was a medical doctor, Baptist minister and looked upon as a co-founder of the colony of Rhode Island /Providence Plantations, author of its influential charter, and a leading advocate of religious freedom in the Americas. Clarke was born at Westhorpe in the country of Suffolk, England on October 8, 1609. He was one of eight children, six of whom moved to America and settled in New England. The source of Clarke’s education remains unknown (though some say the University of Leiden), but before arriving in America he had studied theology, languages, and medicine. He was a well-rounded man in multiple fields.

Clarke and seven others left to found Newport, Rhode Island. Clarke first served as pastor of the church in Newport which was a Puritan/Separatist congregation, but he had a religious and political falling out with William Coddington (another leader of the colony). The church split with Clarke taking part of the congregation and eventually emerging with a Baptist church.

Clarke first immigrated to Massachusetts Bay in 1637 and then went south to Rhode Island. Clarke immediately sided with Anne Hutchinson and several dissenters including Roger Williams. Clarke was eventually one of those forced into exile by Massachusetts Bay. Clarke learned from Roger Williams that Aquidneck Island (Rhode Island) was available, and he, William Coddington, and other settlers purchased it from the Narragansetts. They left Massachusetts and established Portsmouth in 1638. Clarke is one of the signers of the Portsmouth Compact granting religious freedom to all and restricting civil government from any role in religion.

Clarke became a leader in religious freedom for the colonies. He stated, “It is not the will of the Lord than any one should have dominion over another man’s conscience.” He is described as Baptist drum leader for religious freedom in seventeenth century America. Clarke’s most valuable contribution was securing a permanent charter for the Rhode Island colony. Clarke traveled with Williams to London in 1651 to secure the charter. Williams returned to Rhode Island in 1654 and Clarke stayed in Rhode Island representing the colony.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660 the colony’s charter was voided. This did not deter Clarke however. He stayed and was persistent against great odds obtaining a new charter on July 8, 1663 by Charles II. The charter was directive in a solid guarantee of religious freedom stating, “that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested, harassed, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences of opinion in matters of religion.” The charter’s words are carved on Rhode Island’s State House: “to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand best be maintained …with full liberty in religious concernments.” The charter remained the foundation of Rhode Island’s government till 1842.

Clarke labored side by side with Williams for the cause of religious freedom. Clarke served as pastor of the Newport church for many years till his death. His practice of medicine became a means of financial support. He also served in the general assembly for five years after returning from England with the charter in 1664 and served three terms as deputy governor. He died in Newport in 1676.

The disagreement over the first Baptist church and leader is inconsequential compared to the cause that Roger Williams and John Clarke advanced. Despite great odds Clarke persevered taking setbacks and challenges in the advance of this unique colony in American history. Clarke’s persistence in securing a permanent charter for the colony was an important factor in the colony’s survival.

Clarke’s tenure as Pastor of the Newport church is to be commended also. He advanced the Baptist cause through his long years of service as pastor of the church at Newport. He continued to serve despite the extended time he spent in England seeking to secure the Charter of the colony. The state of our countries government relations to religion was codified in the first amendment of our constitution. The setup of freedom for churches to not be discriminated against has several sources. A main source is the Rhode Island colony and the way its government was established. Its model of religious freedom served as a model for how religion and government can co-exist. John Clarke played a major role in this advancement and guarantee of freedom in our national government.