Obadiah Holmes: Struck by a Rose

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

It may come as shock to know that Baptist were not only jailed but also beaten and oppressed for their faith in the early days of English colonization of America. The Puritans were brutal in their failure to allow anyone else to preach or worship contrary to their beliefs in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Obadiah Holmes was one of the first to suffer under their oppressive hand. It meant much more to be a Baptist back then. They didn’t change their name because it might attract more people. Instead they wore it proudly and suffered for it. Read the shocking small biography of Obadiah Holmes if you don’t believe me. It is an amazing story and helps us to understand that it could happen again if we forget to support the cause of Religious Liberty in this country which Baptists have so nobly espoused.

Obadiah Holmes was born in 1610 near Manchester, England. He grew up in a family where several of his brothers were sent to college at Oxford. He married at age 20 and several years later emigrated from England around 1639 and settling in Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He and two others began a glass making business there but by 1645, perhaps due to religious disagreement, he and his family moved to Rehoboth in the Plymouth Colony which was a more tolerable environment for his opposition to some of the practices he disagreed with in Salem.

Holmes’ diary records that he did not become a Baptist until 1650 probably under the influence of Dr. John Clarke. For the next three decades Holmes was active in the affairs of the Newport Church. He was no stranger to controversy particularly with Quakers, Six Principle advocates, and Sabbatarians.

Holmes was arrested in Boston after going into Massachusetts when he and others visited a friend in 1651 holding evangelistic services there. They were convicted and imprisoned. His two companions were released after a payment of fines. Holmes was detained for several months and publicly whipped with thirty-nine lashes in Boston Common. The authorities looked on him as the leader of the group and were determined to make an example out of him. He turned the spectacle into a testimony of faith and how far one was willing to go for the cause of religious liberty.

This brave solider of the Lord remained in jail from July to September of 1651. He was separated from his wife Catherine (whom he was married to for over 50 years) and nine children: Joseph, John, Hope, Obadiah, Samuel, Martha, Mary, Jonathan, and Lydia. A lesser man would have begged for leniency or to be able to pay the fine and go free with all of his dependents.

The account of Holmes punishment for preaching the gospel in Boston was a tragic event. On September 5, 1651 he was brought before the old State house to be whipped. He could have accepted deliverance, but he denied it with a readiness to suffer for his faith. Edwin Gaustad wrote, “As the strokes began to fall, Holmes prayed once more and in truth, he later wrote, I never ‘had such a spiritual manifestation of God’s presence.’ And though the executioner spat upon his hands, and laid the three-corded whip ‘with all his strength’ thirty times across the prisoner’s bare back, yet ‘in a manner felt it not.’ When the whipping was finished and Holmes was untied from the post, he turned to the magistrates and said, ‘You have struck me as with roses’.”

Despite this spectacle of courage for his faith, Holmes was beaten for his faith paying a dear price for it as a Baptist and his desire for freedom of expression to share his faith in the place where the Pilgrims and Puritans had fled for their religious freedom. The whole incident was a shame and demonstrated the blindness of those carrying out the sentence. He was beaten in such an unmerciful manner that Governor Jenckes wrote, “Mr. Holmes was whipt thirty stripes, and in such an unmerciful manner, that in many days, if not some weeks, he could take no rest but as he lay on his knees and elbows, not being able to suffer any part of his body to touch the bed whereon he lay.”

The beating of Holmes was not without repercussions. John Clarke wrote a book titled Ill Newes from New England, “That while old England is becoming new, New England is become old.” He further wrote, “This tragedy being thus acted in the face of the Country, must needs awaken and rouse up the minds, and spirits of many, cause sad thoughts to arise in their hearts, and to flow forth at their mouths as men offended…” Clarke was infuriated and called for justice and freedom to practice and proclaim a faith that those inflicting punishment may not have agreed with.

The beating of Obadiah Holmes did lead to two positive results. First, it prompted John Clarke to leave the colonies to sail to England. In doing so, he was able to attain the Royal Charter of 1663. The urgency Clarke besought the King with no doubt was prompted by the shameful treatment of Holmes. Second, the First Baptist Church of Boston was established because of the sermons of Henry Dunster (the first president of Harvard University). Dunster was motivated to oppose infant baptism publicly because of the beating of Holmes. Holmes’ beating was a witness to him in demonstrating how far one was willing to go to suffer for their faith. Dunster “came out of the closet” so to speak and cast his lot with the Baptists. This opened up the door for abuses of such a manner in the case of Obadiah Holmes to stop and gradually religious freedom came to Massachusetts.

The injuries inflicted on Holmes give new meaning to how important believer’s baptism is by immersion. Here was a brave warrior for Christ who was willing to endure such brutality and injustice so that the cause of Christ and what He commanded us to do in the Great Commission could be advanced. We see believer’s baptism by immersion in a new light with such a story of suffering for the cause of Christ and the Baptist faith. May we be willing to go and do likewise.