Our Baptist Forefathers: John Clarke and Obadiah Holmes


Our Baptist Forefathers: John Clarke and Obadiah Holmes

September 14th, 1958 @ 10:50 AM

Isaiah 51:1-2

Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him.
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

Isaiah 51:1-2

9-14-58     10:50 a.m.



You are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas.  This is the pastor bringing the eleven o’clock morning message entitled The Blood of our Baptist Forefathers, the seed of religious liberty.  Once in a while, sometimes twice a year, sometimes once a year, sometimes every other year, but once in a while I do a study that takes us back to those who laid the foundations of those institutions of those liberties and those freedoms that so enhance the inheritance we have received and do enjoy today.  That is in keeping with the habit of the old Hebrew prophets, who called their people back to the remembrance of their forefathers.  Isaiah 51:1-2, that great prophet cried, saying, "Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.  Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you"; calling them back to a remembrance of those fathers who led the way, those patriarchs who laid the foundations.  No people worthy of a future could forget their past.  We build our future by the experience through the wilderness in which God hath led those who have gone before us.  So this morning is one of those studies.  The larger part of the month of August I spent in New England, mostly in the city and around Boston.  And our story comes from those early Pilgrim Puritan Baptist days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and of the Colony of Rhode Island.

Our story begins in 1609 in a little village in the county of Suffolk, eastern part of England.  There was born a child to whom was given the name of John.  His parents’ names were Clarke.  And this young fellow grew up to be a tall, stalwart Englishman of unusual mental and spiritual endowments.  He was educated in the University of Leiden in Holland.  And as a young man, with his bride Elizabeth, he immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637, landing in Boston.  Boston at that time was seven years old and had a population of inhabitants that numbered possibly a thousand.  Just as he came there, Boston was torn, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony was torn between a violent religious argument: one side and the other, one side pressing hard for the covenant of works and the other side pressing hard for the covenant of grace.  There was in that colony, and had come there with her young merchant husband in 1634, a young wife and mother by the name of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson.  She was reared in a preacher’s home in England, took a keen interest in the theological discussions in her father’s house, became a non-conformist, a Puritan, and so came to America.  She was a gracious hostess, a woman of tremendous intellectual insight, and her home immediately became a center of those people who believed in the covenant of grace.

So violent became that controversy that on a day in March, 1638, the Reverend John Wilson, standing in his high pulpit, pronounced the terrible words of excommunication against Mrs. Hutchinson.  And I quote from the Reverend John Wilson, standing in his pulpit reading these words:


Therefore, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the name of the church, I do not only pronounce you worthy to be cast out, but I do cast you out.  And in the name of Christ do I deliver you up to Satan that you may learn no more to blaspheme, to seduce, and to lie.  And I do account you from this time forth to be a heathen and a publican, and so to be held of all the brethren and sisters of this congregation and of others; therefore I command you, in the name of Christ Jesus, and of the church, as a leper, to withdraw yourself out of the congregation.


Now to finish just a word about her; excommunicated and expelled from the colony, she took her large family and found refuge in the island of Aquidneck, which you know as Rhode Island.  And her husband dying, she with her fourteen children, finally went down in the vicinity of New York; and there was murdered by the hostile Indians, she and her family.

John Clarke landed in Boston as that controversy was raging.  And he heard these terrible words of excommunication.  Years afterward in England, when he was making appeal for the charter of Rhode Island before King Charles II, he wrote a book entitled Ill News from New England; and he wrote of that:


In the year 1637, I left my native land.  And, in the ninth month of the same, through mercy I arrived in Boston.  I was no sooner on shore than there appeared to me differences among them touching the covenants:  some pressing hard for the covenant of works, others as hard for the covenant of grace that was established upon better promises, and for the evidence of the Spirit is that which is more certain, constant, and satisfactory witness.  They were not able in those uttermost parts of the world to live together, whereupon,


Now you see he has identified himself, being a Baptist, with the covenant of grace:

Whereupon I move, as the proffer of Abraham to Lot, to turn aside to the right hand or to the left.  The motion was accepted, and I was requested with some others to seek out a place.


So in 1637, John Clarke is mandated to find a place where there could be a people to worship God as the Lord might lead them:  all free.  John Clarke proposed, quote, "A state where no constraints could ever be put upon the human conscience, no shackles upon the human spirit, no limit to the freedom of human thought."

He first turned northward, but the winters were so severe.  That’d be what you know now as New Hampshire and Maine.  The winters were so severe that he came back and said it was no place to colonize.  So he turned south.  And in turning south, in 1638, he decided to visit Roger Williams.  Roger Williams had come to Boston in 1631 and had become teacher of the church in Salem.  As he taught the church in Salem, his views – later he was a Baptist – those views were so contrary to the views of the church of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that he was excommunicated himself and driven out in the bitter winter of 1636.  He found a refuge among friendly Indians, and he named the place of that refuge Providence.  As you see the courthouse in Providence, Rhode Island, above it the great main capitol entrance – one of the most beautiful courthouses, capital buildings in America – are incised deep into the marble these words:  "To hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernments."  There when those words were written – everybody thinks by Roger Williams – they were written by John Clarke.  John Clarke went to see Roger Williams at the Providence Plantation, and Roger Williams persuaded John Clarke and his little band to buy the island of Aquidneck.  He bought it for forty fathoms in white beads; in our money about $100.  And Roger Williams helped John Clarke, Dr. John Clarke, a physician, a minister, and a lawyer, helped him buy the land from the Indians.  Up there in Boston, they had signed a Portsmouth, what is called the Portsmouth Compact, signed by twenty-three men, dedicated to building a state where men could be free in matters of religion.  So, John Clarke, with these Portsmouth Compact men, buy that island.  They later named it Rhode Island, in keeping with the beautiful isle of Rhodes in the eastern part of the Mediterranean.  Then in the providence of life, the Portsmouth Plantation with Roger Williams and the Rhode Island with John Clarke were put together in one colony.  And I quote from the historian:


The charter of that colony has been universally recognized as the most liberal state paper ever issued by the English crown.  In it absolute religious freedom was for the first time in the history of the world secured and guaranteed.  It was so democratic, both in letter and in spirit, that doubts were entertained in England whether the king had a right to grant it.  Its provisions continued in force until the colony became a state; and then served as the basis for the present state constitution.  The principles it embodied still live; not only in the constitution and laws of Rhode Island, but in the government of every state in the Union and in many other countries as well.  Thomas Jefferson named it as one of the sources from which he derived the principles of the Declaration of Independence.


Now I’m going to show you the difference between the religious liberty granted to those seeking asylum and refuge in that Baptist colony of Rhode Island and the other colonial states who formed the foundation of our nation of America.  Walking around on the Boston Common, the pigeons being fed, the children playing, the fountains flowing, the people seated on those benches, and the birds singing, the trees so green, the lawn so emerald, everything so quiet, so peaceful, you’d hardly ever realize that there in that place people were hanged because they did not agree with the church of the state.  These people who were persecuted were welcomed in the little colony of Rhode Island.  And among those who were welcomed was a refugee from the town of Salem.  In 1639, there landed in Boston, with his young wife Elizabeth, and their young son Jonathan, age three, later a little daughter born into the family, there landed another stalwart young Englishman by the name of Obadiah Holmes.  And from Boston, he moved soon to Salem, where he was given a little tract of land in order that he might build a glass factory.  And the first glass factory in the New World was constructed by this young Englishman, Obadiah Holmes.

He had as his partner in the glass works a man who was a Quaker by the name of Lawrence Southworth.  And as time went on, those two men, as they made beautiful glass, they studied the beautiful Word of God and found the truth of the Lord mirrored in the Holy Scriptures.  And they were, of course, non-conformists.  So they were hailed before the general court of Massachusetts and were condemned for being non-conformists.  They were heavily fined, so heavily that they could not pay the fines.  And the two children of Obadiah Holmes were placed on the block in Salem, Massachusetts, for sale, to be sold into slavery.  And the only thing that delivered the two children – you talk about the South being slave owners, we learned it up there; the cruelty of those people is indescribable in those ancient days – the two children were sold for slaves, just because their father was a non-conformist; he refused to believe the edicts of the state church in Massachusetts.  And the only thing that saved the children from their terrible and awful servitude was this:  the rough captain of the ship refused to take them away from their crying father and mother.  That’s all that saved them.  Tough and rough he couldn’t find it in his heart to drag them out into the slave markets of the vast world beyond the sea.  I’m not talking about Africa, I’m not talking about England, I’m talking about the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Well, the day came and they fled for their lives and found refuge in Rhode Island, our Baptist state.  The young fellow Obadiah Holmes with his family became members of the First Baptist Church in Newport, Rhode Island, where John Clarke was pastor.  And John Clarke baptized Obadiah Holmes.  He was so sensitive to the things of Christ, so given to the things of the Spirit of Jesus that he quickly became a close associate with Dr. John Clarke and became his successor in the pastorate.

Now, in 1651, Dr. John Clarke, the pastor, Obadiah Holmes his associate, and John Crandall made a visit to an old member, blind and aged, who belonged to the Baptist church in Newport, Rhode Island.  There could be no Baptist church organized in Massachusetts; it was against the law.  So this aged member named William Winter belonged to the church at Newport in Rhode Island.  And upon an afternoon, Saturday afternoon in July, the pastor of the church, with Obadiah Holmes and with John Crandall, went to visit that aged man.  When the Lord’s Day came, it was decided that they would have a service there in the little home.  So John Clarke was standing before the little congregation, the assembled friends, in the presence of that aged man, preaching the gospel of the Son of God.  And while he was preaching the gospel, the door was flung open and in stormed in two constables; and they arrested those three men.  And the charges of the colony of Massachusetts against Clarke, Holmes, and Crandall was this, and I read it:


For being taken by a constable at a private meeting in Lin, upon the Lord’s Day; and for such things as shall be alleged against them concerning their seducing and drawing aside of others after their erroneous judgments and practices; and for the suspicion of having their hands in the re-baptizing of one or more among us.


So the three men were taken to Boston and placed in prison.  And, before the general court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were tried.  Dr. John Clarke writes about the trial like this:  "None were able to turn to the law of God or of man by which we were condemned.  At length the governor, John Winthrop, stepped up and told us we had denied infant’s baptism, and being somewhat transported" – I would suppose Dr. John Clarke meant "over zealous," he uses the word "being somewhat transported" – "the governor told me I deserve death, and said he ‘would not have such trash brought into their jurisdiction.  Moreover,’ he said, ‘you go up and down and secretly insinuate into those who are weak, but you cannot maintain it before our ministers.  You may try and dispute with them.’"  When the governor suggested that, John Clarke immediately seized upon it and said he "would be happy to debate with the ministers of Boston, appointed by the court, regarding the revelation of the truth of the Word of God."  And the court was glad to do it.  But the ministers in Boston refused.  There wasn’t a man in the pulpit in the entire city that would dare to stand up and speak with Dr. John Clarke regarding the revelation of the Word of God in the Holy Scriptures.  So the debate, the discussion was never held.

They took Dr. John Clarke to the whipping post, tied him, stripped him, and when they were about to beat him, a wealthy man, educated and learned, standing looking at it, said, and I quote from him, "I cannot bear to see a scholar, a gentleman, and a reverend divine flogged."  So he paid the large fine.  Dr. Clarke remonstrated, but the court received it; and Dr. Clarke returned back to Rhode Island.  But Obadiah Holmes stayed in prison in Boston until September.  And in September, he was taken out of his prison cell, out of his prison cell and flogged.  And these are the words of Obadiah Holmes as he went through that ordeal:


I betook myself to my God, that I might communicate with Him, commit myself to Him, and beg strength from Him.  I was caused to pray earnestly unto the Lord, that He would be pleased to give me a spirit of courage and boldness, a tongue to speak for Him, and strength of body to suffer for His sake; and not to shrink or yield to the strokes, or shed tears, lest the adversaries of the truth should there upon blaspheme and be hardened, and the weak and feeble-hearted discouraged.  And for this I besought the Lord earnestly.  At length, God satisfied my spirit to give up as my soul, my body to Him, and quietly leave the whole disposing of the matter to God.  And when I heard the voice of the prison keeper come for me, even cheerfulness did come upon me.  And taking my Bible in hand, I went along with him to the place of the execution.


The whipping post was behind the old state house at the corner of Devonshire and State streets in Boston.  And when Obadiah Holmes was taken there to be flogged because he was a Baptist, he asked permission to speak to the people.  It was denied him, but while they stripped him and tied him to the post, he made a declaration of his faith in the Lord and his loyalty to the Word of God.  And I continue from him:


And as the man began to lay the strokes upon my back, I said to the people, ‘Though my flesh should fail, and my spirit should fail, yet my God does not fail.’  So it pleased the Lord to come in and so fill my heart and tongue as a vessel full; and with an audible voice, voice, I broke forth praying unto the Lord, not to lay the sin to their charge.  And telling the people that now I’ve found God did not fail me, and that therefore now I should trust Him forever who failed me not.  For in truth, as the strokes fell upon me, I had such a spiritual manifestation of God’s presence as the like thereof I have never had nor felt, nor can with fleshly tongue express.  And the outward pain was so removed from me that I indeed am not able to declare it to you.  It was so easy to me that I could well bear it, yea, and in a manner felt it not; although it was grievous as the spectators said, the man striking with all his strength.  When he had loosed me from the post, having joyfulness in my heart and cheerfulness in my countenance, as the spectators observed, I told the magistrates, ‘You have struck me as with roses; yet I pray God that it not be laid to your charge.’


But although he was given strength to bear it, for weeks and weeks after that, Obadiah Holmes had to sleep and rest on his knees and on his elbows; he could not suffer his body even to touch the bed.  He was a bruised and bleeding mass when the ordeal was over.  And two men who were not Baptists, just looking at it, shook hands with him to express to him their appreciation of so noble a spirit.  Those two men were arrested, and fined, and supposed to be flogged; and friends paid the fine, and the court let them go.  Then Obadiah Holmes closes:


Now thus it pleased the Father of mercies to dispose of the matter, that my bonds and imprisonments have been no hindrance to the gospel; for before my return some submitted to the Lord and were baptized; and divers were put upon the way of inquiry.


Now, all of that happened back there in 1651.  But the Lord God looks upon His people, and it never falls to the ground without it springing up into a new and a resurrected and a glorified life.  There stood there that day looking at that man being flogged the president of Harvard College.  His name was Henry Dunster.  He had been president of Harvard College for twelve years.  As he looked upon it and heard the testimony of that godly man Obadiah Holmes, the heart of Henry Dunster was turned to the searching of the Word of God; and the president of Harvard College became a Baptist.  And when the word was spread abroad that the president of the school had espoused Baptist faith, and Baptist trust, and Baptist persuasion, though it was in the heart of the terrible winter, he was cast out.  He had built that house with his own hands; it was to be the home of the president, but the board of overseers of Harvard College thrust him and his family out in the wintertime, in the dead of the winter.  And when Henry Dunster made appeal for the sake of his family, that he might find some place he could take them before they were cast out, the overseers heeded not his cry, and he was thrust out in the dead of the winter.  A little while after that, just a little while, a baby girl was born to the home.  And because he refused to have the child baptized, he was hailed before the court, was heavily sentenced, and died of a broken heart; the first president of Harvard College.  That was a call and a fruit of this public flogging of Obadiah Holmes behind the capitol building in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

I went down to the corner of Devonshire and State streets and stood there.  The oldest state house, the oldest building, public building in Boston is that one there.  It was erected in 1713; in front of it was the Boston massacre that precipitated the Revolutionary War.  From its balcony, the Declaration of Independence was read in 1776.  But before that, another state house stood on that place; and back of it, at the corner of Devonshire and State was this whipping post.  I stood there and looked at it, the corner of Devonshire and State.  There’s a tall building there, a large bronze plaque, "Estabrook and Company, Investments since 1851."  And below that, a smaller bronze plaque, "Site of the famous Rose and Crown Tavern," destroyed in the great fire of 1711, and by the side of it, the sign of the tavern, a crown and a rose.  And as I stood there on that busy corner, and copied down those plaques, and looked at it, why, the people passing by would stop and look up there to see what I was looking at, and then look at me as though I was not quite brilliant, wondering why I was staring there at the corner of Devonshire and State streets.  But they little realize, as they hurry by, that buried beneath that place and below those bronze plaques, the soil was stained by the blood of men who suffered for no other reason than that they believed the Word of God.

And in the providence of the Lord, these things are turned so mercifully, so unusually, and so wonderfully.  Within a few feet of that sacred place, to us sacred, of the corner of Devonshire and State streets, within a few feet, toward Scollay Square, there is another bronze plaque, and it reads:  "Dwight L. Moody, Christian evangelist, friend of man, in a shoe store on this site was converted to God, April 21, 1855."  And just to the left is the wonderful, evangelical witness of our people in New England, the Tremont Temple Baptist Church.  I just wonder, as I stood there and looked, if maybe God Himself does not still remember for good the tremendous sacrifices and the marvelous political insight and acumen that led those men to build so wonderfully and to sow the seed so nobly of a new day, and a new people, and a new constitution, a new liberty, and a new freedom.  It is almost impossible for us today to realize that, in this New World, it was founded, and the fathers came here, not with any idea or persuasion at all of liberty for all, only freedom and liberty for themselves.  The idea that any man, anywhere, could worship God as he felt led of the Lord, that idea came from that little Pilgrim band of Baptist forefathers, who made it possible for the refugee to seek a church or no church, a God or no God, according to the leading of the spirit of his own heart:  liberty for all.

That story is so largely forgot, hardly mentioned.  Obadiah Holmes followed John Clarke as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Newport.  He was buried on his farm in Middleton about five miles away.  And on his tombstone are these simple, plain words:  "In memory of the Reverend Obadiah Holmes, Baptist minister from Great Britain, October 15, 1682."  One of his children married a Baptist minister’s daughter, Reverend Chad Brown.  And that family so furthered Rhode Island College they named it Brown University in their honor.

A master among men, in thought and word and deed,

He trod the paths of life like one ordained by God to lead.

Oh, go before us still, strong soul, And call us on

Unto that world of higher things, where thou before hast gone.


"Look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged.  Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you" [Isaiah 51:1-2].

May God bless our people as they continue in the train of love and sacrifice and devotion to the Word of God that we have been taught by those who have gone before us.  And may God grant that the contribution of our Baptist people that has made America great and glorious, shall be emulated in Spain, in Peru, in Soviet Russia, in Red China, and among all the nations of the world.  We have a message to bear to the nations:  may God grant us eloquence of tongue and dedication of heart to do it faithfully and well. 

Now we stand and sing our invitation hymn.  And while we sing it, someone to give his heart to the Lord, or to put his life in the church, out of the balcony, from side to side, you come and stand by me.  Give me your hand.  "Pastor, I give my heart to God."  Do it today, while we all stand and sing. 


Dr. W.
A. Criswell




I.          John Clarke

A.  Immigrated to
Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637

B.  Colony torn between
violent religious argument

Excommunication of Mrs. Anne Hutchinson

C.  He
is mandated to find a place where people could worship God as the Lord might
lead them

Visits Roger Williams at Providence Plantation

Persuaded by Williams to purchase island of Aquidneck (Rhode Island)

Came together as one colony dedicated to freedom of religion


II.         Obadiah Holmes

A.  Built glass factory in
Salem with partner Lawrence Southworth, a Quaker

      1.  Both condemned
for being non-conformists

      2.  Fled to Rhode

a. He became close
associate of Dr. John Clarke

B.  Clarke, Holmes, and
John Crandall visit aged member in Massachusetts

      1.  Caught
preaching the gospel and placed in prison

      2.  Governor
suggested debate between Clarke and ministers of Boston

a. None dared to
challenge him

b. Wealthy man pays
fine, Clarke released

3.  Holmes kept in
prison; flogged

a. Henry Dunster


III.        Story so largely forgot

A.  Providence of God in
that place