Obadiah Holmes: The “Whipping Boy” of Baptists in Early America
by Ron F. Hale
Ron serves on staff of a church in his hometown of Jackson, Tenn. During the last 35 years, he has served as church planter, pastor, director of missions, and evangelism director for a state convention.
Whipping boys grew up with sons of kings in England during the 15th and 16th centuries. The notion was that kings were appointed by God; therefore, it seemed only wise that a King should whip his own son. Yet the king was very busy and gone from the castle for days at a time. Tutors of the prince dealt out punishment on the “whipping boy” instead of the prince. Since the “whipping boy” was a lifelong friend and playmate of the prince, the sight of a close friend being beaten was to ensure that the prince would behave and conduct himself according to the rules and wishes of the powers that be.
Baptists were looked down on in early America. Obadiah Holmes became the Baptist “whipping boy” on September 5, 1651 as the Puritan leaders in Boston, Massachusetts arrested him and publicly whipped him within an inch of his life. A bull whip cut through the bare back of Holmes as he took thirty vicious lashes for his Baptist convictions.
Why was Obadiah Holmes arrested and whipped? He went into Massachusetts from neighboring Rhode Island and participated in a worship service in the private home of an aged Baptist man who was blind and known for his strong convictions against state-church rule and infant baptism.
The Rev. John Clarke and another man were arrested along with Holmes. However, they were released after acquaintances paid their fines. Believing in religious liberty, Obadiah Holmes would not allow anyone to pay his fine because he believed himself innocent of all charges.
On the morning of the arrest, constables burst into the private dwelling, breaking up the Baptist meeting. They were there to mete out justice from the Puritan-run, state-church of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. How quickly those who escaped religious persecution in the Old World became persecutors of Baptists in the New World.
Puritan preacher John Cotton denounced Holmes in the gathering of local ministers. Not being able to control his rage, the Rev. John Wilson (pastor of the First Church of Boston) slapped and cursed Holmes, while he was under the protection of the court. Pastor Wilson was also an attending minister during the execution of Mary Dyer in 1660; she was one of the four executed Quakers known as the Boston martyrs. She was hanged for teaching Quakerism in Massachusetts.
Back to the public whipping — Obadiah Holmes preached a sermon to the gawkers and onlookers as he was flogged. Witnesses of this cruelty cried out for mercy in fear of the killing of Holmes; they were fined by the magistrates.
With unbroken spirit, Holmes told the magistrates upon his release from the whipping post, “Ye have beaten me as with roses.” It took weeks for him to heal. Soon, a new warrant for re-arrest was made for Holmes and he escaped a sure death by the covertness of friends sneaking him out of Massachusetts.
Today, Baptists worship freely in America and preach without fear of being lashed and thrashed by government goons or state-run-church enforcers! Few remember Obadiah Holmes and his defiant refusal to plead guilty to the indictment that being a Bible-believing Baptist is a sin.
This brutal whipping disturbed and helped transformed the mind and heart of the founding president of America’s oldest institution of higher learning; more about that in my next article.
History’s mysteries divulge the good, the bad and the ugly.
©Ron F. Hale, Nov. 2, 2012