Baptist Pioneers in America

The first Baptists in America were people fleeing religious persecution, seeking freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all persons.  Most did not find it in colonial New England.

Roger Williams (1603-1683)

Roger Williams left England during the persecutions led by Archbishop William Laud.  When he arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631, he was offered the pastorate of the Congregational church in Boston.  He decline the position because his "conscience was persuaded against the national church."  He was soon banished from the colony for voicing the conviction that the authorities "cannot without a spiritual rape force the consciences of all to one worship."

Banished in the winter of 1636, Roger Williams found a tribe of Native Americans more hospitable than the Puritans of New England.  He purchased Rhode Island from the natives, started a town called Providence, and formed the first Baptist church in America in 1638/39.  Then Williams and another Baptist, John Clarke, worked for fourteen years to secure a charter for the Colony of Rhode Island that would guarantee religious liberty for all the colony's inhabitants.  It was the first charter in the world that secured "a free, full, and absolute liberty of conscience."

John Clarke (1609-1676)  

John Clarke (1609-1676) was the most influential Baptist in the early colonial period.  He started a town at Newport, Rhode Island and by 1644 had founded a Baptist church there.  In the summer of 1651, Clarke, John Crandall, and Obadiah Holmes -- all members of the Baptist Church at Newport-- were arrested and imprisoned for holding an unauthorized worship service in the home of a blind Baptist named William Witter who lived at Lynn, Massachusetts outside Boston.  They were sentenced to be fined or whipped.  Fines for Clarke and Crandall were paid by friends.  Holmes refused to let friends pay his fine and was publicly whipped on the streets of Boston on September 6, 1651.

Henry Dunster (1612-1659)  

In 1653, Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard University, refused to have his fourth child baptized as an infant and proclaimed that only believers should be baptized.  He was forced to resign from his position and banished from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

John Myles (1621-1683)  

In 1663, John Myles moved an entire Baptist congregation from Wales to escape the religious persecutions authorized by the 1662 Act of Uniformity.  They first settled in Massachusetts, but by 1667 the authorities forced the congregation to move to the frontier in Rhode Island.

William Screven (1629-1713)  

In July 1682, the Baptist church at Boston ordained an English emigrant named William Screven and sent him back to his new home in Kittery, Maine to minister.  Facing persecution from the established church, Screven and his congregation relocated in Charleston, South Carolina in 1696.  It was the first Baptist church established in a Southern colony.

Esther White



An elderly widow who lived in Raynham and belonged to the Baptist church in Middleborough, Massachusetts.  She refused to pay a tax to support the minister of the established Congregational church in Raynham on the grounds that she was a dissenter from that church and had become a Baptist.  The town of Raynham refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of her church and put her in jail.    After visiting her is prison, her pastor, Isaac Backus, said "She told me that the first night she was in there she lay on the naked floor and she said she never imagined that the floor was so easy to lie upon before" and that "she was easy to stay there as long God saw best she should."  Though she could have paid the tax and been released at any time, she remained in jail for thirteen months.   City leaders finally became so embarrassed that they released her from the charge.

Ebenezer Smith, Chileab Smith & the Ashfield Baptist Church



Baptists founded a church in Ashfield, Massachusetts (then known as Huntstown) in 1761.  1763 the town's Congregationalists hired a minister, built a meeting house, and taxed the Baptists to help pay for it.  Pastor Ebenezer Smith and his congregation refused to pay the religious tax.  The town then seized the Baptists' land -- some of the best in the town, complete with cemetary, apple orchard and houses.  The land was auctioned for a pittance of its value to their Congregationalist neighbors.    A total of 398 acres was seized, including ten acres from Ebenezer Smith and twenty acres from his father, Chileab Smith.

General Association of Six Principle Baptist Churches



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