Baptist Beginnings in America

Baptist Beginnings in America

Definitely not the home of the free,
but surely the home of the brave

Until now, it was important for us to see the beginnings of Baptists in England. Beginning with this lesson, we will consider the Baptist beginnings in America. The establishment of Baptist thought in America is more complex than that of England. One historian (perhaps too sweeping in his analysis) notes that the Baptists in America were paving their own way.

The Baptist movement in New England was essentially an indigenous, parallel movement to that in England and not an offshoot or extension of it.1

While it is true that Baptists in America were a parallel movement to that in England, they do find the origins of their thought, and in some cases, their churches in England.

Coming to America

Even though America was a “howling wilderness” many considered it a land of promise. The Puritans found that reforming the Church of England may be easiest in a new locale. The Separatists fled to the new land to find freedom.

Establishing a new state church

The Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower to come to America because of Arch Bishop Lauds tyranny. On board the Mayflower were Puritans (with a sprinkling of Separatists). They landed on the shores of America on December 21, 1620. They established a colony along with their state church in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Looking for freedom

The Baptists (and other dissenters) came over from England for the same reasons. They could no longer endure the tyranny of the Church of England. They thought “the Puritans who had shared persecution with them in England would receive them gladly.”2 They thought wrong. The Puritans were not committed to religious freedom as much as they were committed to establishing a pure state church. Hence, the Baptists were generally unwelcome.

Church historian, John Christian states that the “whole of New England was agitated on the subject of immersion.”3 It was not long after their arrival that the General Court (1644) enacted laws to penalize those who would not subscribe to the state church:

“it is ordered and agreed, that if any person or persons, within this jurisdiction, shall either openly condemn or oppose the baptizing of infants, or go about secretly to seduce others from the approbation or use thereof, or shall purposely depart the congregation at the ministration of the ordinance, or shall deny the ordinance of magistracy . . . and shall appear to the court wilfully and obstinately to continue therein after due time and means of conviction, every such person or persons shall be sentenced to banishment.”4

Banishment was a severe penalty for it meant one had to wander the “howling wilderness” with its dangers (Indians, wild animals, severe winters).

Arrival in America

Lest we think that the early Baptists were rabble rousers, we should take into consideration the words of Cotton Mather:

”many of the first settlers of Massachusetts were Baptists, and they were as holy and watchful and faithful and heavenly people as any, perhaps in the world.”5

The areas in which they settled

New England

first-baptist-meeting-house The early Baptist settlers were from various regions in England.

From England came John Clarke who settled in Newport, Rhode Island (1644). Thomas Gould who settled in Boston, Massachusetts (1665). William Screven settled in Kittery, Maine (1673) and later moved to Charleston, South Carolina (ca. 1696)

From Wales came John Myles who settled in Rehoboth (1663) and later moved to Swansea.

Because of the Puritans, growth in New England was slow. “In 1700 there were only ten small churches with not more than three hundred members.”6

The Middle Colonies

The First Baptist Meeting House in Boston, Massachusets

The middle colonies were more favorable to growth than New England. There was a “commingling of religious and cultural groups which made for a greater toleration than would have been possible otherwise.”7 The General Baptists (Arminian) settled in New England, while for the most part Particular Baptists (Calvinists) settled in the Middle Colonies. In the south both groups were represented.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey gave more religious liberty than any other colony. The Baptists from Wales, Ireland, and England settled in the area. The city of Philadelphia became a place of convergence for these groups.

From England, Elias Keach with others settled in Dublin Township near Philadelphia (1688) and made rounds to other cities (Middletown, 1688; Piscataway 1689; Cohansey, 1690; Philadelphia 1698)

The South

Initially, the greatest concentration of Baptists was in the North. Very few congregations were founded in the South until the Great Awakening in 1726.8 Usually those churches planted in the south were established by those who were forced out of New England (e.g. Screven was driven from Maine to South Carolina).

Since Virginia was first settled by the English (ca. 1619), they were unfavorable to the dissenters.

A contingent of General Baptists from England settled in circa 1700. Later, they summoned the Particular Baptists in London to send them preachers. Robert Nordon came in 1714.

A group from Maryland moved into Virginia between 1743–1756. It was this group, “owing in all probability to their contacts with the Philadelphia Association” that brought Calvinism to the South.9

Problem in America

The Baptists left England because of religious persecution in England. They believed they would receive a warm welcome by the Puritans and Congregationalists for they also were persecuted in England. Not so. Once they arrived they met severe opposition. The Puritans were very strict and demanded that others conform to their ways. This was not the freedom that the Baptists expected to find.

One example of the attitude toward the Baptists can be found in the situation at Harvard.

Henry Dunster came to America in 1640. He was made the first president of Harvard. A well respected president, Dunster made Harvard a schola illustra10 which “flourished in the profession of all liberal sciences for many years.”11 Dunster, himself, was regarded as a master of the oriental languages.

He was present at many trials against Baptists. Having witnessed the trial of John Clarke (et al) he became convinced of believer’s baptism. He began to preach the same in his own church at Cambridge. This quickly forced his resignation as President in 1653.

The Overseers of the College were heartless individuals. They threw Dunster and his family out of the president’s home (which he built) in the middle of winter. Later, he was brought to trial for failing to sprinkle his infant daughter. He died five years after he resigned his position at Harvard.

Conflicts among the Baptists

To add to the dilemma, Baptists found themselves in some internal conflicts.

  • Arminianism vs. Calvinism
  • Laying on of hands in baptism for membership
  • Singing in church
  • 7th day Baptists worshiping on Saturdays12

Leaders in America

Four influential men arrived in America. Keach was a Baptist before he came, while three others (Knollys, Clarke, and Williams) developed into Baptists after their arrival.

Knollys arrived in 1638

Hanserd Knollys fled to America and started a church in Piscataway (now Dover) New Hampshire. At this time, Knollys still could not be considered a Baptist. However, his church in New Hampshire was split on the issue of infant baptism. This brought persecution on him by the Congregationalists. He, with others from his church, fled to New Jersey and eventually back to England.

Roger Williams arrived in 1631

roger-williams-shelter Roger Williams was born in London, England circa 1603. He was an intelligent young man that served as a clerk under a famous jurist Sir Edward Coke. He went to Pembroke College, then to Cambridge University. It was during his senior year at Cambridge that he began questioning many of the Anglican beliefs.

He became a Puritan, then a Separatist, and fled to America ten years after the landing of the Mayflower. He had a good reputation for the governor of Massachusetts. John Winthrop said of him:

Williams is “a charming, sweet-tempered, win-ning man, courageous, selfless, God-intoxicated, and stubborn, the very soul of separation.”13

Offered the position of pastor in Boston, Massachusetts. He refused citing their failure to separate from the Church of England.

When he got to Boston, he was given the offer to be the pastor of a very influential church. He considered it an “unseparated church” and “durst not officiate it.” He went to Plymouth to be the assistant Pastor to Ralph Smith. This pastor said of Williams, “A man godly and zealous having many precious parts, but very unsettled in judgment.” Williams left this church because it was not separated enough.

He went to Salem and became the teacher of a church. He voiced opposition to the Puritans. He accused the King of England for being unchristian, was brought to court three times, and finally was banished into “those wild tracts of nature where the wolf, the bear, and the panther roamed in all their voracity.”14 It was during that time that the Indians welcomed him and took him into their wigwams.15

He fled to Providence to help John Clarke establish Rhode Island. Williams went to England himself to get the charter signed. When he came back to America, he wrote many pamphlets on religious liberty.

statue-roger-williams It was only three or four months that he was in Providence that he soon denied that baptism was biblical. He imbibed in mysticism. He became a seeker.

Despite the fact that he drifted down many theological streams, Williams did much to secure religious freedom. He became known as the “Father of Religious Liberty in America.” This designation should not be applied only to Williams for Clarke had much to do with securing liberty as well.

Though Roger Williams did set the groundwork for religious liberty, his church did not expand itself. By 1750, fifty five Baptist churches existed, not one of them deriving from William’s church. Hence, Williams cannot be rightly considered the originator of Baptists in America.16

John Clarke arrived in 1637

Born in England he was both a physician and a theologian. A Puritan, Clarke had remarkable skills in handling the Hebrew and Greek languages.

john-clark-book He crossed the “pond” and stepped on American soil 17 years after the Mayflower landed. When he arrived in America he found that the Puritans were in a dispute so he took a group of people New Hampshire. The winters were so severe that the group fled “south” to an island called Aquidneck. He purchased it from the Indians and called it Rhode Island. He and a group of men established two colonies – Portsmouth and Newport.

Clarke and Williams ministered together in this church. Clarke became the “teaching elder” of the first church in Newport. It became Baptist by 1648.17

God used Clarke to secure religious freedom for the Baptists in Rhode Island. This was just short of a miracle for a few reasons.

  • Charles II did not like those who didn’t conform to the Church of England (Anglican Church)
  • Better yet, to offer freedom to a man who was now across the sea would be dangerous to Charles II.
  • The statement that Clarke wanted to adopt would be very liberal in the eyes of Charles II.

“Your petitioners have it much on their hearts to hold forth a lively experiment that a flourishing civil State may stand . . . with a full liberty in religious concernments.”

Elias Keach arrived in 1688

Elias rode on the coat tails of his famed father, Benjamin Keach. With that fame, Elias became a pastor in England without giving a testimony, nor having been baptized. He became a popular speaker and secure invitations to do so throughout London. The family name was good enough.

When he got off the ship in America, he strode into a church in Pennepeck, Pennsylvania sporting the garb of a clergyman. During his first sermon, we became so convicted that he confessed his imposture.18

He preached with unusual fervor from that day forward. He traveled to many cities and saw many come to Christ. He desired to make all of the new converts a part of his church in Pennepeck. Because of the distance between the cities, they gathered twice a year for a combined church service. This eventually failed and these believers began their own churches.

These churches combined to make the first Baptist association in America, The Philadelphia Baptist Association. It took nearly forty years for this Association to adopt a doctrinal statement for they did not want to offend the General Baptist churches. In 1757 it had a membership of twenty-five churches. By 1762, there were twenty nine churches with 4,018 members.

Associations must not replace or undermine the authority of individual Baptist churches. This principle was recognized early in Baptist history. A man by the name of Benjamin Griffith wrote:

“That an Association is not a superior judiacature, having such superior power over the churches concerned; but that each particular church that a complete power and authority from Jesus Christ, to administer all gospel ordinances . . .”19

McBeth identifies several purposes for which The Philadelphia Baptist Association existed:

  • It served as a “doctrinal monitor.”
  • It was an “advisory council in matters of local concern” and to help “settle disputes” in the churches.20
  • It helped churches find pastors and pastors find churches. It also “was particularly careful to examine the credentials of itinerant preachers and to warn the churches of such impostors.”21
  • It helped with benevolent work. This included an educational fund, sponsoring a Baptist college, fighting for religious liberty.
  • It provided fellowship for Baptists.
  • It provided models for preaching. “Preaching was always a major feature of association meetings, and churches put forward their best preachers.”


Lessons we can learn from the early American Baptists:

sea-monsters 1) It has been well said that “the colonial period . . . is marked by faithful witness to the truth on the one hand, and by bitter persecution on the other.”22 In spite of persecution and fear of being banished into the “howling wilderness” believers persevered. That perseverance issued into the expansion of Baptists in America.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Php 3.7–11)

2) Men of all calibers showed courageous, sacrificial determination to carry out the Great Commission.

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Tit 2.11–14)

3) Doctrinal consistency was important to the early believers. Planting churches and associating with one another centered on similarity in doctrine.

I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. (Jude 3–4)

1 New England Dissent 1630–1833: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State, 1:6 quoted by Gerald Priest.

2 Torbet, History, p. 201.

3 Christian, History, p. 362.

4 Isaac Backus, History of the Baptists in New England. 1:359–60, Cited in John Christian, History, p. 369.

5 Cotton Mather, Magnalia, 2:459. Cited by John Christian, History, p. 359.

6 Vedder, History, 302.

7 Torbet, History, p. 209

8 Ibid. p. 214

9 Ibid. p. 216

10 Literally, “a glorious school.”

11 Prince, Preface to New England Psalm Book. Cited by John Christian, History, p. 365.

12 This group still exists today.

13 quoted by Gerald Priest

14 Armitage, History, p. 642.

15 This was not an unusual kindness for Williams earlier “visited their wigwams, learned their language, and preached to them the good news of the kingdom . . . his sufferings touched the savage heart.” Ibid.

16 John Christian, History, p. 376f.

17 Maybe even four years earlier, but extant records show the date of 1684. See Torbet, History, p. 203.

18 Torbet, History, p. 210.

19 Quoted by McBeth, History, pp. 243–4.

20 Torbet, History, p. 245.

21 Ibid.

22 Vedder, History, p. 287.

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