The Beginnings of the Baptists in America



It is well to note the Pilgrims were also Puritans, and Puritans were dissenting Protestants who had left the Church of England. These people were called “Separatists.” They were not seeking doctrinal purity or adherence to the teachings of the New Testament, but rather wanted to “reform” the English church. They were never the friends of Baptists. The Puritans should not be confused with true Bible believing churches, because their beliefs and practices were much like the Church of England. Although they were not as corrupt as the Church of England, they still practiced a strict ritual of church service, a state church, sprinkling, and among other things, infant baptism. They were intolerant of anyone who did not agree to the authority of the Puritan church, which was supported by a governmental church tax of all the people. One may admire their piety, but a true believer in the New Testament would have a great problem with their doctrines, church polity, and especially their persecution of Baptists and driving them from their colonies. The Puritans practiced a grace plus works salvation. One must correctly understand that when they preached piety, they were preaching salvation by works. Everyone in the colony was automatically a member of the state church and was taxed to support it. Failure to pay the tax brought the wrath of the civic and church leaders. People were publicly beaten, placed in stocks, fined, imprisoned, and banished from the colony by the civil authorities under the direction of the Puritan church officials. Puritan churches persecuted the Baptists in America until the U. S. Constitution was made law 1787. The first Baptist church on American soil was a direct result of the Puritan persecution of true New Testament believers.

Roger Williams is credited with founding the first Baptist church on American soil, however as stated earlier the evidence shows that John Clarke began the first Baptist church in America in March of 1638 a year before Roger Williams 1 Williams actually founded the second Baptist church in America. He is an example of those who rejected the scriptural errors of the Anglican Church, and the Puritans who were rooted in America.

John Clarke, was a Non-Conformist, and received his university training among the Pilgrims of Plymouth, England from 1607-1620. Bicknell it was reasonable to assume that member or in fellowship with the Baptist of Holland, as early as 1611.2 He traveled to America in 1637 arriving in Boston. It is believed he left England to escape religious persecution. Immediately, upon arrival he observed the division with the colony and both civil and religious matters. During the course of the next few years Dr. Clarke preached and stood strongly for soul liberty and freedom of religion. He found himself continually at odds with the colony magistrates. He along with John Crandall, Obadiah Holmes came to the town of Lynn, Massachusetts on a pastoral visit. They were visiting the home of a blind man named Witter who have run afoul of the magistrates by speaking out again infant baptism. The colony authorities learned of the visit and issued a warrant to search Witter’s home. While Clarke was preaching the constables arrived and arrested them. After being taken to a tavern and being fed they were ushered to a church service being held the pedobaptists. They warned the constables that they were Baptists and if made to attend the service they would have to testify because they were dissenters. Later they were taken to the Boston jail and charged with hold an unlawful church service and disturbing the service they were forced to attend. They were then tried by the governor of the colony, John Endicott and without accuser, witness, jury, or rule of law were found guilty of holding an illegal worship service. They were fined twenty pounds each or sentenced “to be well whipped.” Clarke and Crandall paid their fines, but Holmes refused and was publicly whipped with thirty lashes.3 These men continued to preach God’s word refusing to compromise or let the Puritan government intimidate them.

Williams graduated from Cambridge University in 1627, and was apparently ordained in the Church of England. He soon embraced “Separatists” ideas and decided to leave England. In 1631, he arrived in Boston. He was much displeased with the Puritan theocracy. He strongly believed in separation of church and state and upheld the principles of soul liberty. “Soul liberty” is a belief that everyone is responsible to God individually. It bases its belief in the New Testament teaching that every believer is a priest to himself, having full access to God without the need to go through a church, church leader or priest. (Hebrews 4:15-16; 10:19-22) Despite his views, he was made the pastor of the church in Salem. Shortly after that, because of his doctrinal preaching, he was forced to leave Salem and went for a short time to Plymouth. He returned to Salem where he was summoned before the court in Boston because of his outspoken beliefs and was banished from the colony. The charge recorded against him was that “he broached and divulged new and dangerous opinions against the authority of the magistrates.” Clearly, he was banished because he believed in religious freedom and believed and taught the New Testament was a believer’s sole source for his faith and practice. His “crime” was that he rejected the unbiblical ideas of the state church such as infant baptism and other false teachings of the Puritans. The Puritans drove him from their colony in the dead of winter.

In 1638, Williams made his way to what is now Providence, Rhode Island, and there bought some land from the Indians. Some of his former congregation in Salem joined him and they set up a colony. Its beginning charter reads as follows:
In July, 1663, John Clarke traveled to England received from Charles II a royal charter for the colony. Clarke was the author and inspirer of this Royal Charter that it read:4
This was the first time in the history of the world that a government was established which granted religious freedom! This charter was the very cornerstone of American religious freedom and it was Baptists who first established religious and civil freedom in America!

It should be noted that at first Williams did not identify himself as a Baptist. However, he continued to read the New Testament and became fully aware that infant baptism, sprinkling for baptism, and allowing unsaved people to be members of the church was not scriptural. Thus, resolving to follow the Lord’s commands in truth, in March, 1639 he formed the Baptist church in Providence, R.I.. He began by baptizing himself which is not biblical baptism. He then baptized ten others who became the members of this church.

Shortly afterward, Williams withdrew from the church and became what he called a “seeker.” History does not record why he would not identify himself as a Baptist although he set up a Baptist church. Please note that this presents no problem for this first Baptist church in America. This church was not founded on a man, but on the Bible. It was not founded on a line of Baptist churches down through history. It was founded because saved men believed the Bible and wanted to follow the New Testament’s teachings and the example of what a true church should be. Even after Williams left, this Baptist church continued to follow the New Testament and was not adversely affected. It was not the man who founded the church that was important, but the New Testament principles on which was established. They called themselves Baptists because that was the best name they could choose to describe what they believed and a name that identified them as Bible believing people. This church had no ties to anyone or any other church, yet this was a Baptist church as much as any Baptist church ever was. They were a New Testament church, not because of a succession of churches or men, but because they formed their assembly on the principles of the New Testament. That made them in the eyes of God as legitimate a church as any Paul founded. The sole authority for any true church is God’s Word and not its human founder, or its heritage. Not once in the New Testament do you find even a hint that a church was legitimate because it was founded by Paul, was established by the church at Jerusalem or Antioch, or called itself by a particular name.

However, no one should think little of the name of Baptist, for it is the name that most has identified those individuals and churches that have uncompromisingly stood on the Word of God. Historically, Baptists are the only group in modern times whose churches were founded on the Scriptures alone and not on the traditions or works of some man. Baptists have always been the champions of the Word of God and preaching of the Gospel. History is clear: there is no other denomination that has so loved and been faithful to God’s Word as have the Baptists. Even the enemies of the Baptists openly recognize their zeal for the Word of God.
After Roger Williams stepped down, Thomas Olney took over as the pastor of the church in Rhode Island. There is no recorded offspring from this church and modern American Baptist churches cannot trace their history directly to it. Other churches founded in New England and in the Middle colonies were the actual mother churches of modern Baptist churches as these churches were responsible for starting other churches.

On May 28, 1665, a Baptist church was founded in Boston, by Thomas Gould, who refused to accept infant baptism. There were nine original members of the church, which included two women. A storm of persecution broke out because these Baptists preached what the Puritans called “damnable errors.” The “damnable errors” was preaching the Gospel, and refuting pedobaptism, soul liberty, and a state church. Most of the members of this Baptist church, at one time or another, were fined or imprisoned or both. Thomas Gould died in 1675 an untimely death, partly because of his having his health broken by Puritans persecutions which included several long imprisonments.

In 1678, shortly after the church erected a new building, the Puritan controlled government nailed its doors shut and forbade anyone under penalty of the law to enter or worship there. This lasted only one Sunday however, and the following Sunday the doors were opened and services held in defiance of the order. The magistrates found their order was becoming unpopular and impossible to enforce, so the church in the future was left unmolested. In 1684, a Baptist church in Maine, seeking greater religious liberty was relocated to Charleston, South Carolina.

The Dutch colony of New York for a time persecuted Baptists within its territories. The first Baptist church in New York was started by William Winchendon, in 1656. He was heavily fined and then imprisoned. Being to poor to pay the fines he was banished from the colony. Later, the Dutch issued new orders and allowed religious liberty.

In 1700, a Baptist minister, William Rhodes began to hold meetings on Long Island and in 1724 organized the first Baptist church there. The most important center of early Baptist churches was around Philadelphia, “the city of brotherly love.” In 1684, Thomas Dungan started a church at Cold Springs, New York which lasted until 1702. In 1688 a Baptist church was organized at Pennepeck, Pennsylvania with twelve members. It helped start the first Baptist church in Philadelphia the following year. It became an independent church in 1746. Offers of religious liberty drew many Baptists to settle in New Jersey. The first church was founded there in 1688, in Middletown and was made up of many who had fled persecution in the other colonies. Many churches were organized in the following years.
In other areas Baptist churches were being formed about this same time. In North Carolina the first Baptist church was started in the northeastern coastal region at Perquimans, in Chowan County in 1727.

In Virginia, Baptists were not welcome. Before America won its independence and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights became law, the Episcopal Church, which was the American branch of the Church of England, was the only legal church in Virginia. There was a fine of 2000 pounds of tobacco for failure to have one’s infant children baptized. One Baptist church, however, did begin after 1714, in Surry County, and another at Burleigh, Virginia. Virginia was especially harsh in religious persecutions and anyone not holding Episcopal ordination was forbidden to preach or hold services. Baptists, along with other citizens, were taxed to support the Episcopal Church. It is well to note that not all Virginians felt this way. Two champions of religious liberty were Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. Thomas Jefferson is believed to have been deeply influenced to press for religious freedom in America, by the plight of several Baptist preachers he knew. For example, in Isle of Wight county in southeastern Virginia, Baptist preachers were taken to Nansamond River, and nearly drowned by Episcopalians to show their contempt for Baptist’s beliefs in immersion and their rejection of infant Baptism. They were then tarred and feathered and run out of the county.

The center of Baptist activity in the colonies was in the Philadelphia area, and Baptists held regular “general meetings” of the churches for devotional and evangelistic purposes there. It can be historically determined that forty-seven Baptist churches were in existence before the Great Awakening. All but seven were above the Mason-Dixon Line. Baptists continued to grow in numbers through the period of the Great Awakening and up to the time of the Revolutionary War. Baptists as a whole were patriots and many Baptist pastors served as chaplains in the Revolutionary Army. Baptist churches and pastors contributed large sums of money to support George Washington and the army. The Great Awakening stirred religious interests in the colonies and a reported great revival took place. The Revolutionary War for some time slowed the growth of Baptist churches. However, after independence was won and the Constitution and Bill of Rights was written which gave all Americans religious freedom, the Baptists again began to grow until today they are the largest denominational group in the United States.
It should be noted that the American Revolution is directly responsible for establishing the first nation on earth to grant religious freedom. The Revolution ended the Protestant civil rule in the colonies, which stopped the persecution of Bible believing Baptists.