The Baptists, like all other faiths outside the Church of England in sixteenth and seventeenth century England, were persecuted. John Smyth was ordained as an Anglican minister in 1594, but not comfortable with all the tenets of the Church of England. In fact, his views were more akin to Francis Johnson, a Cambridge Separatist minister.
Smyth considered most Anglican ministers to be too “papist” and sinners were openly rebuked from his pulpit. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, Smyth had rejected infant baptism altogether. In 1606 he began meeting with a group of Separatists who then asked him to be their minister. Among his congregants was Thomas Helwys, with whom he took flight to Amsterdam later that year because of persecution from King James I.
By 1609 Smyth’s views on baptism had shifted again – baptism should be for believers only with a voluntary confession of faith. This essentially formed the basis of what would become the Baptist faith, and Smyth is considered to have been the founder of the first Baptist congregation.
Roger Williams was an early American Separatist who immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631, having come to the conclusion that the Church of England was both corrupt and false. Upon arrival he was almost immediately offered the position of teacher at the Boston church but he declined. Instead, he had a vision to become a missionary to the Indians and set about to learn their language. Even after learning the language, Williams abandoned the idea – it appears that he was still wrestling with his faith.
He accepted a position as teacher at the Salem congregation in 1634. While he continued to pursue his separatist beliefs, he also objected to the idea that any magistrate or authority should be able to compel church attendance or in any way protect a particular church or religion. His views would later be considered the basis of prohibition of a state church as set forth in the Constitution. He also came to believe that in the interest of purity, women should be veiled during worship services.
In 1636 Roger Williams was banished from the colony and made his way to what would become the Rhode Island colony. To the Puritans, Rhode Island was the “Stinke into which all the Rest of the Colonyes empty their Hereticks.” There had been two groups of Baptists in England – General and Particular. Smyth and Helwys were General Baptists and Williams became a Particular Baptist, more Calvinistic. In 1638 he founded the First Baptist Church of Providence. Although he eventually left the Baptist faith, he still remained deeply religious.
Obadiah Holmes was born in Manchester, England and immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony where he started a glass making business. In 1645 he migrated to Rehoboth in the Plymouth Colony. There religious differences arose and Obadiah became the leader of a faction called “Schismists”. In 1650 he was put on trial in court for his religious beliefs and compelled to leave the colony, settling in Newport, Rhode Island.
Obadiah and two of his friends visited an elderly friend in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1651. While there they were apprehended, tried and sentenced to pay fines for their religious beliefs. Some friends stepped forward to pay their fines, but Holmes refused help paying his fine. In lieu of the fine, he was taken to a whipping post in Boston and lashed 30 times – one source indicates he was beaten so badly that for weeks after he could only sleep while on his knees and elbows.
Interestingly, Henry Dunster, the president of Harvard College, witnessed Obadiah’s whipping and it made an impression on him. In 1653 he publicly confessed to having embraced the Baptist faith. According to one historian, typically the authorities would try to dissuade a “convert”, and if that didn’t work then silence was urged. Instead of forced banishment, Dunster left the colony on his own so he could freely practice his new faith.
Baptists in Boston built a church in 1679 and the Puritans passed a law requiring a license to meet. Baptists believed they needn’t ask permission to do something God had commanded them to do, however. One Sabbath day, the congregants arrived to find their church doors nailed shut. The King of England even reminded the Puritans that the original reason they had gone to New England was to seek freedom of religion.
With the passage of time, however, the overbearing laws were rescinded. In particular, Cotton Mather, a prominent (and strident) Puritan minister later preached the ordination sermon for a Baptist pastor, apologizing for Puritan persecution of Baptists.
Baptists, however, would have to fight persecution for quite some time. Early in the eighteenth century they migrated to Virginia. In 1768 John Waller, Lewis Craig and James Childs were arrested and thrown in jail for refusing to stop preaching, cited for disturbing the peace. At one point Baptists were accused of child abuse for refusing to practice infant baptism. Punishments included:
pelted with apples and stone;
ducked and nearly drowned by 20 men;
commanded to take a dram, or be whipped;
jailed for permitting a man to pray;
arrested as a vagabond and schismatic;
pulled down and hauled about by hair;
dragged off stage, kicked, and cuffed about;
shot with a shot-gun;
severely beaten with a whip;
whipped severely by the Sheriff;
hands slashed while preaching
The Baptist battle for religious liberty continued through the years preceding the Revolutionary War and for years after. Even with the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1791 which guaranteed religious liberty, it wasn’t fulfilled until 1833 when Massachusetts became the final state to guarantee full religious liberty without fear of persecution.
One more interesting bit of history: President Abraham Lincoln was a direct descendant of Obadiah Holmes.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.