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Protestant Persecution of Baptists in Early America
A Historical Account of the Brutal Punishment Inflicted Upon Elder Obadiah Holmes and Other Baptist Brethren
Part I: Three Strangers
One Saturday, in the month of July 1651, three strangers, who had journeyed far, and were weary, hungry, and thirsty arrived at Boston.
“Well pleased am I,” said one, whose name was John Clarke, “that Christian people dwell here, although in some points they differ from us.”
“Yes,” replied one of his companions, who wore a brown coat with long and broad skirts, and great pockets opening on the outside, “yes, this is one of the cities of Zion, and yonder I see their sanctuary,” at the same time pointing to the meeting house.
“No doubt, then, Brother Holmes, the people will remember the words of the Saviour about a cup of cold water given to a disciple, for I feel as if a draught at this time would be exceedingly refreshing.”
“I sympathize with you in that feeling, Brother Crandall,” said the first speaker, “and I never saw the force of that passage of Solomon as I do now—‘As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.’ It seems to me I never longed for a good drink as I do at this moment.”
“With me,” said Obadiah Holmes, “it is not so much thirst as hunger.”
“Well, well, cheer up, brethren, for these Christian friends are doubtless given to hospitality, and will readily relieve our wants; and if not, we can go to the tavern, and pay for meals and a lodging, though we abound not in filthy lucre.”
They now reached a house standing by itself on the outskirts of the town. As they approached it, they noticed that a woman closed the door, as if to signify that their approach was unwelcome.
“Perhaps,” said John Crandall, “she thinks we are thieves, or pirates, and that she would not he safe in our company.”
“A word of explanation will remove her error.”
They soon reached the house and knocked at the door; but no one opened it. They knocked again, louder than at first.
“Ye had better go along,” said the shrill, cracked voice of an old woman on the inside.
“We are wayfaring strangers,” said Mr. Clarke, “faint and hungry who wish merely to rest for a few moments, and obtain some refreshments.”
“Ye must go then to the magistrates,” replied the shrill feminine voice, “for I have no license.”
“License! License! What does she mean by that?”
“We are not acquainted with your magistrates,” said Clarke, speaking through the door.
“And we hope we may never be officially,” added Crandall, in an undertone, which could be heard only by his companions, who smiled at the remark. “And we know not what you mean by a license,” continued Clarke.
The shrill cracked voice now came from the window. It proved to be that of the short, crooked-back, loquacious Mrs. Strangger. Putting her head out of the window, she said:
“Why, la, didn’t you know that the Gineral Court had passed a law that nobody should entertain strangers without a partickler license from two magistrates? Gracious, I thought everybody knew that, for it has made talk enough. Why, no longer ago than yesterday, one of our godly elders refused to receive a trader, although he had every reason to believe him a good man—jist because he had no license, and said the laws must be obeyed.”
“Well, can thee not furnish us a little bread and water?”
“If ye can make it appear that that is not entertaining strangers I can,” replied the prudent little lady.
“Do ye not remember what is said about entertaining strangers unawares?”
“I would do it with pleasure, if I only had a license. Our magistrates are so afraid of entertaining Anabaptists, Familists, and other heretics, unawares, that they have passed this law for our protection.”
The three strangers looked at each other with a singular but significant expression of countenance.
“Go ye, and get a permit from the magistrates, and I will give ye the best my poor house affords.”
Mrs. Strangger would gladly have admitted them for the pleasure of having someone hear her talk, and for the opportunity which their visit would have afforded of picking up some new items which she could have converted into materials for gossip; but she knew that she was already a suspected person, and she feared to increase these suspicions. Seeing, just at this moment, one of the colonists in the distance, coming along the road towards them, she said to the strangers, in a hurried manner, and in tones indicative of fear:
“If ye would not get a poor, lone woman into trouble, ye had better go ’long. Here are witnesses at hand, and it might go hard with me if I let ye in my house.”
They felt the force of this appeal, and moved on. “Strange place this,” said Crandall, “where a stranger can not have given him a crust of bread, nor a cup of water without the permission of two magistrates.”
“If the magistrates happen to be absent when strangers arrive, I suppose they must fast and sleep out doors until the magistrates return, and, in their great kindness, license someone to perform the first acts of hospitality.”
“In our case,” said Clarke, “it is probably that no license would be given. If that timid old woman assigned the true reason of this law, it was designed as an embargo upon such as we. No one could get a license to entertain us without telling who and what we were; and to reveal that would he fatal to the application. The one would be forbidden to harbor us.”
“Our prospects are not the most flattering; but here comes a person who may perhaps help us.”
Part II: A Singular Invitation
The individual referred to at the close of the last chapter was no other than the brother at the mill, whom the old lady had seen in the distance and who had now reached the travelers. They accosted him, told him that they were strangers, and asked him where they could receive hospitality. “As to that, our rulers are very jealous lest hospitality should be extended to unsuitable persons, and therefore require the license of the magistrates to authorize the virtue; but if ye will go with me, I will show you where there is a house which no one will prevent you from entering, and where there is food which no one will forbid your eating. If ye understand, follow me.”
There was something so original, hearty, and frank in this invitation that they accepted it. They did understand, and were resolved not to compromise the stranger for his kindness. During the walk to the house, the conversation assumed such a chatter that the parties found that they were in sympathy with each other in their religious views. The walk was not long. When they reached the threshold, the brother said: “This is my house. I will neither invite ye in nor forbid ye to enter; ye may do as ye please. But as yet ye have commenced following me, ye will probably continue.”
They understood, and followed him in.
When the dinner was ready, he said, at the same time preventing, with difficulty, the smiles from playing upon his countenance: “Here is food. I will neither ask ye to taste it nor prohibit ye from eating it. Ye may do as ye please; but hungry men, with a meal before them, are never at a loss.”
They understood again, and were soon at work discussing, with a relish which keen hunger alone can give, the plain, but healthful diet before them. It is scarcely necessary to intimate to the reader that the object of this caution on the part of Eaton was to throw the whole responsibility of their proceeding upon the three men themselves, so that he might avoid the liability of a conviction under this arbitrary law.
During the conversation that ensued, the trio of travelers understood that the colony was agitated upon the subject of baptism; the ministers and rulers were exceedingly fearful of Baptist sentiments, and were vigilant in discovering, and severe in treating all of that sect.
Leaving this hospitable family, they continued their journey toward Lynn, where they arrived in the latter part of the afternoon.
At a distance of two or three miles from the main village stood a small house, partly built of logs, in which resided an old man by the name of William Witter. He was a member of the Baptist Church which had been gathered at Newport. In consequence of his age, he was unable to meet with his brethren at Newport, and therefore had requested his church to send some of its members to visit him. His request was complied with, and John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, and Crandall were appointed to that service. Clarke and Holmes were both Baptist ministers. Clarke was the pastor of the church. Subsequently, Holmes became his successor in that office.
Whether these representatives of the Newport church attracted attention and awakened suspicion by inquiring where Witter lived, or whether this brother had given notice that he was expecting some of his church to see him, it is difficult now to tell; but certain it is, the magistrates were alarmed, and ordered the constable to be on the alert for the apprehension of any suspicious persons. The travelers found Witter’s house, and received a cordial greeting. The old man was overjoyed to see them. He little thought of the protracted and painful trials which this fraternal visit would occasion. Both parties had so much to say that conversation was continued until late in the night.
Part III: The Results Of A Meeting
The next day being the Lord’s Day, and the meeting house being at so great a distance, it was proposed that they should have worship where they were, and that Mr. Clarke should preach. Father Witter would thus have an opportunity of listening to his own pastor, whom he had not been privileged to hear for a long time.
Accordingly, in this rough-built, solitary private house, social religious services were observed. After the offering of praise and prayer, Mr. Clarke announced his text. Believing, from his own experience, and from the indications of the times, that a period of unusual temptation and trial was about to befall the people of God, he had selected, as an appropriate passage from which to discourse, Revelation 3:10: “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.”
During the delivery of his introduction, four or five strangers unexpectedly came in, and quietly took seats with the little domestic congregation. Having finished his introduction, Mr. Clarke said: “In opening this interesting passage of Holy Writ for your serious mediation, I shall in the first place show what is meant by the hour of temptation; secondly, what we are to understand by the word of His patience, with the character of those who keep it; and, thirdly, the soul-cheering encouragement which is furnished by the promise, that those who keep this word shall themselves be kept in the hour of temptation and trial.”
He proceeded in his discourse with increasing earnestness, the little audience, in the meanwhile, giving the closest attention. Father Witter, sitting in an old, high-back arm-chair, in one corner of the room, was listening with tearful eyes and open mouth, as though he had not heard the true doctrine for many months. It was to him a great luxury to hear his own pastor, in his own house, treat so appropriate and comforting a subject as the one he had announced.
Alas! the sweetness of the occasion was soon converted into gall. These unknown, harmless strangers, observing Lord’s Day worship in a remote part of the town, for the especial comfort of one of their aged brethren, had (as we have intimated) attracted the attention of the magistrate, and were destined to furnish, in their painful experience, an illustration of the truth of the text. During the progress of the discourse, two constables entered the room.
“What does this mean?” said the first. “Why hold this unlawful assembly? Is not the meeting house good enough, nor the doctrines preached there pure enough for ye, that ye must hold a gathering of your own, to the scandal and injury of the place?”
Mr. Clarke paused in his discourse. The little audience turned their eyes with surprise and grief upon the disturber. “Ye have no business here,” said the second. “Ye must disperse, or take the consequences; and they’ll not be pleasant, I tell ye.”
“We do not intend, friends,” said Mr. Clarke, calmly, “to break any good and wholesome laws of the land.”
“No parleying,” replied the first. “Come, shut up your book, and go with us; we have come to apprehend you.”
“Apprehend us!” replied Clarke, with astonishment; “we wish to know by whose authority. We should like to see your warrant.”
“We come with authority from the magistrates; and as to our warrant, I will read it.”
He then drew forth a document, and read as follows:
“By virtue hereof, you are required to go to the house of William Witter and so to search from house to house for erroneous persons, being strangers, and them to apprehend, and in safe custody to keep, tomorrow morning by eight o’clock, to bring before me.
During the reading of this precious paper, the hand of the constable trembled, as though he were conscious he was engaged in a bad cause. After he had finished, Mr. Clarke said: “It is not our intention to resist the authority by which you have come to apprehend us, but yet I perceive you are not so strictly tied but if you please you may suffer us to mark an end of what we have begun; so may you be witnesses either to or against the faith and order which we hold.”
“We can do no such thing.”
“You may,” repeated Clarke, “in spite of the warrant, or anything therein contained.”
After as much uncivil disturbance and clamor as the pursuivants of the English bishops, under Archbishop Claude, indulged in when they arrested the Puritans, and broke up their conventicles in England, the two constables apprehended the two ministers, Clarke and Holmes, with their brother Crandall, and led them away. There being no jail or other place of confinement in Lynn, the three prisoners were taken to the alehouse. It was a deeply affecting scene to old Father Witter to see his beloved pastor and brethren taken from his own house, prisoners for no other offense than worshipping God according to the constraint of their own consciences. A recollection of the fact that they had visited him (and had thus been caught in the snare) by his own invitation, added to his sorrow. As the three prisoners left the house, the pastor said to the venerable man: “The hour of temptation and trial has come, but let us keep the word of His patience, and He will sustain us in the time of trouble.”
At the tavern, whilst at dinner, one of the constables said:
“Gentlemen, if you be free, I will carry you to the meeting.”
To which they replied: “Friend, had we been free thereunto, we had prevented all this. Nevertheless, we are in thy hand, and if thou wilt carry us to meeting, thither will we go.”
“Then I will carry you to the meeting.”
To which the prisoners replied: “If thou forcest us into your assembly, then shall we be constrained to declare ourselves that we cannot hold communion with them.”
“That is nothing,” said the constable. “I have not power to command you to speak when you come there, or to be silent.”
Seeing the determination of the officers to take them to the meeting of those whose principles and practices they disapproved, Mr. Clarke repeated the course of conduct which they should feel themselves compelled to pursue. “Since we have heard the word of salvation by Jesus Christ, we have been taught, as those that first trusted in Christ, to be obedient unto him, both by word and deed; wherefore, if we be forced to your meeting, we shall declare our dissent from you, both by word and gesture.”
From this frank disclosure, the magistrates knew what to expect. They saw that if they took these strangers to meeting, it must be by compulsion. The prisoners would not go willingly to a meeting of those from whose principles of state-and-church government they so widely differed; they saw, moreover, that if they compelled them to go, a disturbance would be the consequence. The prisoners forewarned them that they should feel constrained, from a sense of duty, to express publicly their dissent, and the constables knew that this would at once kindle a conflagration. For a moment they hesitated; but after consultation with the tavern-keeper, they decided to take them.
The three men, whose own worship had been broken up, were now taken, without their own consent, to the meeting of the standing order. The congregation was at prayer when they arrived. As they stepped over the threshold, they raised their hats and civilly saluted them. A seat was then assigned them, which they occupied. After they had taken their seat, they put up their hats. Mr. Clarke opened his book, and commenced reading to himself. Mr. Bridges, who had made out the warrant for their apprehension, seeing them sitting with their heads covered, became excited, and ordered the constable to remove their hats from their heads, who at once obeyed, but not in the most amiable manner.
After the prayers, singing. and preaching were over, to which the prisoners listened without offering the least interruption, Mr. Clarke rose, and, in a respectful manner, said:
“I desire, as a stranger, to propose a few things to this congregation, hoping, in the proposal thereof, I shall commend myself to your consciences, to be guided by that wisdom that is from above which, being pure, is also peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated.” He paused, expecting, as he subsequently said, that if the Prince of Peace had been among them, he would have received from them a peaceable answer. But the pastor, probably fearing that some difficult questions might be asked, and a troublesome theological controversy ensue, replied:
“We will have no objections against the sermon.”
“I am not about to present objections to the sermon,” answered Mr. Clarke, “but as, by my gesture at my coming into your assembly, I declared my dissent from you, so, lest that should prove offensive unto some whom I would not offend, I would now, by word of mouth, declare the grounds, which are these: First—from the consideration we are strangers, each to other, and so strangers to each other’s inward standing with respect to God, and so can not conjoin, and act in faith, and what is not of faith is sin; and in the second place, I could not judge that you are gathered together and walk according to the visible order of our Lord—”
“Have done!” cried Mr. Bridges, with the authority of a magistrate. “You have spoken that for which you must answer. I command silence.”
After the meeting, the trio of prisoners were taken back to the tavern, where they were as vigilantly watched during the night as though they had been guilty of robbery.
The next morning they were taken by the constables before Mr. Bridges, who made out their mittimus, and sent them to the prison at Boston there to remain until the next county court.
This mittimus charged them with “being at a private meeting in Lynn on the Lord’s day, exercising among themselves—offensively disturbing the peace of the congregation at the time of their coming into the public meeting in the time of prayer in the afternoon, with saying and manifesting that the church in Lynn was not constituted according to the order of our Lord, with suspicion of having their hands in rebaptizing one or more among them, and with refusing to put in sufficient security to appear at the county court.”
In addition to these charges, it was alleged against Mr. Clarke, that he met again the next day after his contempt, as they called it, of their public worship, at the house of Witter, and in contempt of authority, being then in the custody of the law, did there administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to one excommunicated person, to another under admonition, and to a third that was an inhabitant of Lynn, and not in fellowship with any church; and yet, upon answer in open court, did affirm that he never rebaptized any.
They were all three found guilty. Mr. Clarke, the pastor, was fined twenty pounds, equivalent to about eighty dollars, or to be well whipped. He desired to know by what law of God or man he was condemned. The governor, who did not deem it beneath his dignity to be present on this important occasion, stepped up, and, with much earnestness, said to Mr. Clarke: “You have denied infant baptism. You deserve death. I will not have such trash brought into my jurisdiction. You go up and down, and secretly insinuate unto those that are weak; but you cannot maintain it before our ministers. You may try and dispute with them.” To this violent harangue of the chief magistrate of the colony, Mr. Clarke would have replied at length, but the governor commanded the jailer to take the prisoners away. They were accordingly all three remanded to prison.
Part IV: A Challenge
During his confinement that night, Mr. Clarke thought much of the insinuations which had been thrown out against him by the governor the day before, and especially of the challenge which had been given him to discuss the question of baptism. It seemed to him as if the great Head of the church had placed him in that position that there he might be a defender of the truth. He looked upon it as a most favorable opportunity to remove the various aspersions which had been unjustly cast upon the Baptists, and show that in doctrine and practice, they were true Christian men. By speaking in behalf of his brethren, it appeared to him that he might possibly be the instrument of removing the unjust disabilities to which they were subject, but especially that he might, by presenting the arguments for their peculiar belief, and their objections to infant sprinkling, be the means of opening the eyes of others, and convincing them of the truth.
Yet when he thought of his own inability to do full justice to the subject, and of the disadvantages under which he would labor in having the ministry of the standing order and the government arrayed against him, his heart sank within him. “But will not the Saviour be with me? Have I not faith to believe that, according to His own promise, it will be given me in that same hour what I ought to speak?”
The taunting permit of the governor, “You may try and dispute with the ministers,” was constantly ringing in his ears. He offered earnest prayer for direction and assistance, and finally resolved that, by the grace of God, he would accept the governor’s challenge. He did not, as a Christian minister, dare to refuse.
Accordingly, the next morning, he addressed a document to the court which had condemned him, accepting the governor’s proffer of a public discussion of the points at issue between the Congregationalists and the Baptists, and asking the appointment of a time and place for the occasion.
This threw the court into a peculiar position. A prisoner, who had been condemned and sentenced mainly for his religious views and practices, but to whom the governor had thrown down the gauntlet for a discussion, had accepted the challenge. For the court to refuse its sanction would be a tacit rebuke of the governor, and a silent admission of the weakness, or their fear of weakness, of their cause.
After much ado, therefore, Mr. Clarke was informed by one of the magistrates that the disputation was granted, and the time fixed for it was the next week. When this became known to the ministers of the colony, it created great excitement among them. They disapproved the arrangement. They had no wish to enter upon the discussion; they desired to have it abandoned. They therefore saw the government, and earnestly besought them to avoid it; but it seemed too late. They had gone too far to make an honorable retreat.
But finding the ministers so averse to a disputation, the magistrates had Mr. Clarke brought into their chamber, and there endeavored to change the issues between him and them. They inquired whether he would dispute upon the things contained in his sentence, and maintain his practice; “for,” said they, “the court sentenced you not for your judgment and conscience, but for matter of fact and practice.” But Mr. Clarke was not to be misled by any partial or erroneous statements of the matter; neither was he willing that such statements should go unrebutted. He therefore manfully replied to these magistrates:
“You say the court condemned me for matter of fact and practice; be it so. I say that the matter of fact and practice was but the manifestation of my judgment and conscience, and I maintain that that man is void of judgment and conscience who hath not a fact and practice which correspond therewith.” He then continued: “If the faith and order which I profess is according to the Word of God, then the faith and order which you profess must fall to the ground; but if your views of truth and duty are Scriptural, mine must be erroneous. We cannot both be right.” To these statements the magistrates apparently assented.
Although Mr. Clark had been informed that the disputation had been granted, and the time appointed, yet it was all informal and unofficial. He desired to obtain an official permit, or order, for the discussion, under the secretary’s hand. He would then, he felt, be protected; otherwise, the debate might be referred to as evidence of his being a disturber of the State, and a troubler of Israel. He therefore availed himself of the opportunity which was furnished by this private interview with the magistrates, to say to them that if they would be pleased to grant the motion for the public disputation under the secretary’s hand, he would draw up three or four propositions, embracing the points which he presented in his defence before court, and would defend them against any one whom they might choose to dispute with him, until, by arguments derived from the Word of God, he should be removed from them.
“In case your speaker convinces me that I am in error,” said Mr. Clarke, following up the subject, so as to reach some definite practical point, “then the disputation is at an end; but if not, then I desire the like liberty, by the Word of God, to oppose the faith and order which he and you profess, thereby to try whether I am not become an instrument in the hand of God to remove you from the same.”
To this the magistrates replied: “The motion certainly is fair, and your terms like unto a practiced disputant; but, as the matter in dispute is exceeding weighty, and as we desire that in the controversy all may be said that can be, we propose, therefore, to postpone it to a latter day.”
Poor Clarke was therefore taken back to prison, to wait for the arrival of this “latter day.”
Part V: Fundamental Propositions
During this period of delay for the accommodation of the Congregational clergy, Clarke, though kept a prisoner, was not idle. He applied himself to the proposed service of drawing up the propositions which he had pledged himself to the magistrates to defend. These propositions, or theses, were four in number.
asserted that Jesus Christ, the anointed One, was the great Head of His church; that as the anointed Priest, He alone had made atonement for sin—as the anointed Prophet, His teachings were authoritative; that as the anointed King, He had gone to His Father for His glorious kingdom, and would ere long return again; and that it is His PREROGATIVE ALONE to make laws and ordinances for the observance of the church, which NO ONE HAS ANY RIGHT TO ALTER.
asserted that baptism, or immersion in water, is one of the commandments of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that the only proper person to receive this ordinance is the penitent believer in Christ.
maintained that it was both the privilege and duty of every such believer to improve the talents which God had given him, and in the congregation may either ask for information to himself, or may speak for the edification, exhortation, and comfort of the whole; and out of the congregation, at all times, upon all occasions, and in all places, he ought to walk as a child of light, justifying wisdom with his ways, and reproving folly with the unfruitful works thereof, provided all this be shown out of a good conversation, as James speaks, “with meekness of wisdom.”
was in the following language:
"I testify that no such believer or servant of Christ Jesus hath liberty, much less authority, from his Lord, to smite his fellow-servant, nor yet with outward force, or arm of flesh, to constrain his conscience—no, nor yet his outward man for conscience sake, or worship of his God, where injury is not offered to the person, name, or estate of others, every man being such as shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and must give account of himself to God, and therefore ought to be fully persuaded in his own mind for what he undertakes, because he that doubteth is damned if he eat, and so also if he act, because he doth not eat or act in faith; and what is not of faith is sin."
These points Clarke resolved, in the strength of Christ, to defend with all his ability.
The next day, as the first rays of the morning sun were gilding the hill tops, and drinking the early dew, one of the magistrates of Boston visited the prison. Having aroused the jailer, he asked to be admitted to an interview with Clarke. After being introduced to the cell of the imprisoned Baptist, he inquired if the conclusions which he intended to advocate were drawn up. Mr. Clarke informed him that they were. He asked for a copy of them. Mr. Clarke demurred. No official sanction had yet been given to the anticipated controversy, and he was unwilling that his conclusions or propositions should be known until that point had been gained. The magistrate urged him with much importunity to part with a copy of them; but he refused until the promise was given him that the motion for the disputation should be granted officially, under the secretary’s hand. He then complied with the urgent request of his early visitor. Whilst Mr. Clarke was expecting this official permit, and was preparing for the public discussion by the diligent study of the Bible, he was greatly surprised by being informed by the jailer that the order for his release from prison had come.
Some friends had, without his consent, and contrary to his judgment, paid his fine, and secured his discharge.
As it was generally known that a public disputation was at hand, in which the points of difference between the Congregationalists and Baptists were to be discussed, as rumor said, between Mr. Clarke on one side and Mr. Cotton on the other, great expectations had been raised as to the result. Clarke, being fully convinced that if this disputation did not come off, the responsibility of the failure would be attributed to him, and inferences be drawn unfavorable to his side, as if his brethren feared the results of the discussion, and therefore paid his fine, so that he might return to Newport, and thus not be on hand for the controversy, immediately prepared an address, in which he stated that if the honored magistrates or general court of the colony would grant his former request, under the secretary’s hand, for the disputation, he would cheerfully embrace it, and would come from Newport to defend the opinions he had professed. Having in this manner evinced a willingness to meet his opponents at any time they might appoint, he threw the whole responsibility of the failure, in case there should be any, upon them. By so doing, he maintained his own manliness, and gave public evidence that neither he nor his friends had any fear of exposing their principles to the closest scrutiny.
Part VI: A Great Change—A Dilemma
During the progress of the exercises at Cambridge on the next day, a man was wandering along the shore on the Boston side of Charles River. He was anxious to cross, but unfortunately all the spare boats that belonged to the citizens of the little town were on the Cambridge side, having been used in conveying visitors to the college. Finally an Indian, who had been out fishing in the harbor all the morning, came, on his way home, sufficiently near the shore to be hailed. The man called to him, and by signs engaged him to paddle him across the stream in his birchen canoe.
Having arrived on the other side, the passenger hastened to the college, and placed in the hand of one of the magistrates a letter; it was the offer of Clarke to come from Newport, and engage in the much-talked-of discussion. It was not a welcome document. The advocates of infant sprinkling did not wish to meet Mr. Clarke in an oral argument. They knew that that rite was safe so long as it was protected by the sword of state; but they could not foresee what results would grow out of a public disputation.
Still, as the governor had been the first to propose such a disputation, and the magistrates had assured Mr. Clarke it would be granted, they were in a dilemma what course to pursue so as to avoid the discussion without a compromise of character, or without a tacit implication of the weakness of their own side. The ministers and magistrates conversed upon the subject after the reception of Clarke’s letter at Cambridge with great interest. The object of the consultation was to devise some way to extricate themselves from their position without yielding any advantage to the Baptists.
Finally, the minister of Boston, Mr. Cotton, who was more strongly opposed to the public controversy than some of the others, drew up a reply to send back, in which he stated that Mr. Clarke had misunderstood the governor, who had not enjoined or counselled a public disputation, but had simply expressed the opinion that if Mr. Clarke would confer with the ministers upon the subject of infant baptism, they would satisfy him of the propriety of the practice, and he would be able to maintain his own views before them; that this was intended for Clarke’s information privately, but by no means as a challenge to dispute publicly upon the subject. “Nevertheless,” continued this ingenious divine, “if you are forward to dispute, and that you will move it yourself to the court of magistrates about Boston, we shall take order to appoint one who will be ready to answer your motion, you keeping close to the questions to be propounded by yourself, and a moderator shall be appointed also to attend upon that service; and, wereas, you desire you might be free in your dispute, keeping close to the points to be disputed on, without incurring damage by the civil justice, observing what hath before been written, it is granted. The day may be agreed if you yield the premises.”
This was signed by the governor, Mr. Endicott; the deputy governor, Mr. Dudley, and three others. Mr. Clarke regarded it as a singular document, and understood its practical bearing. He viewed it as an attempt to change the entire ground of procedure, and shelter the governor from the charge of having proposed the discussion. In the expression of a willingness to grant the discussion, provided Clarke would move it himself to the court or magistrates about Boston, he discovered an attempt to throw the whole responsibility of the disputation upon himself, and to make it appear to result from his “forwardness to dispute.”
Two other remarkable features connected with this affair, which increased the cautiousness of Clarke’s movements, were: First, that while this letter of Cotton’s was signed by five colonial dignitaries, it was not an order of court—it was not an official document. It was signed by them in their private capacity, and had not the signature of the secretary. Mr. Clarke, therefore, did not regard it as a reliable state paper.
The other remarkable circumstance was, that this attempt to throw the whole responsibility of originating the discussion of infant baptism upon Clarke was made, when they knew that there was a law of the colony which ordered that “if any person or persons shall openly condemn or oppose the baptizing of infants, 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.”
Clarke knew that their unofficial document would afford him no legal protection, and that in case the disputation went on in the manner that they proposed, it would be an easy thing for someone to enter a complaint against him, and secure his conviction. He therefore wrote the following frank and manly epistle, and forwarded it to them:
To the honored Governor of the Massachusetts and the rest of that Honorable Society, those present.
“I received a writing, subscribed with five of your hands, by way of answer to a twice-repeated motion of mine before you, which was grounded, as I conceive, sufficiently upon the governor’s words in open court, which writing of yours doth no way answer my expectation, nor yet that motion which I made; and, whereas (waiving that grounded motion), you are pleased to intimate that if I were forward to dispute, and would move it myself to the court or magistrates around Boston, you would appoint one to answer my motion, etc., be pleased to understand that, although I am not backward to maintain the faith and order of my Lord, the King of saints, for which I have been sentenced, yet am I not in such a way so forward to dispute, or move therein, lest inconvenience should thereby arise. I shall rather once more repeat any former motion, which if it shall please the honored general court to accept, and under their secretary’s hand shall grant a free dispute, without molestation or interruption, I shall be well satisfied therewith; that what is past I shall forget, and upon your motion shall attend it; thus desiring the Father of mercies not to lay that evil to your charge, I remain your well-wisher,
To this fair and honorable proposal of Mr. Clarke, the governor and magistrates to whom it was addressed thought it the wisest policy to return no answer. The matter was accordingly dropped by their silent retreat. Thus ended the unfortunate challenge of the governor and the persecution of the pastor of the Newport Baptist Church.
Part VII: Inward Life
It is time that we inquire into the fate of Mr. Clarke’s companions. Mr. Crandall, who was sentenced to a fine of five pounds for being one of the company, was released upon promising that he would appear at their next court. But they did not let him know when the next court would sit until it was over; and as he was not present according to his promise, they obliged the keeper to pay his fine.
With poor Holmes, it fared far worse than with either of the others. He had been sentenced to pay a fine of thirty pounds, by the first day of the next court, or else to be well whipped, and to remain in prison until he provided sureties for the fine. Sureties he would not furnish, because he was determined not to pay the fine. Consequently, he was kept in prison. At the time of his trial before the court of assistants, when the above cruel sentence was passed against him, he replied:
“I bless God that I am counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus;” at which one of the ministers (Mr. John Wilson) so far forgot the sacredness of his office, and the sanctity of the place, as to raise his hand, and strike him in open court, at the same time saying: “The curse of God go with thee.”
During the continuance of the imprisonment of Clarke and Crandall, Holmes enjoyed their company. This was a source of unspeakable comfort. The conversation, the sympathy, and the prayers of his fellow-prisoners assisted to banish the despondency and gloom which would otherwise have oppressed him. But after their deliverance, and when he was left alone, he was greatly distressed in spirit. In his own account of it, he said: “After I was deprived of my two loving friends, the adversary stepped in, took hold of my spirit, and troubled me for the space of an hour, and then the Lord came in and sweetly relieved me, causing me to look to Himself; so was I staid and refreshed in the thoughts of my God.
As friends had paid the fines of the other two prisoners, and had secured their release, it seemed a hard case that he should be left to feel the scourge. Brethren who sympathized with him, resolved that he should not. Strongfaith Bates, Stephen, the brother of the mill, and a few others, raised, by a contribution among themselves, enough to pay his fine. But Holmes would not permit it. In reply to their kind offer, he said:
“I dare not accept of deliverance in such a way. And though I greatly thank you for your kindness, and would acknowledge, with gratitude, even a cup of cold water, yet I desire not that you should yield to the unrighteous demands of my persecutors. Having committed no crime, I will not permit my friends to pay a single farthing for me.”
The first day of court was drawing near, when, if the fine were not paid, the substitute would be exacted in stripes, and groans, and blood.
Though Holmes was strongly convinced of the truth of Baptist sentiments, for which he was imprisoned, and was conscientiously opposed to the payment of the fine, or to the doing of anything else voluntarily, as a penal requisition, yet he was nowise ambitious of the honors of the whipping post. He shrunk with dread from the sufferings of the scourge. He knew that, when the court of assistants sentence one to be “well whipped,” it meant something, and would be executed to the very letter. Yet the night preceding the infliction of the sentence he passed in sweet, refreshing sleep. In the morning, notwithstanding, they knew that they would provoke the wrath of “the powers that be,” Strongfaith and Stephen, with several other friends, called at the prison to comfort and encourage the criminal! After appropriate religious conversation and prayer that God would give strength to suffer, and especially that He would open the eyes of the persecutors to see and love the truth, Strongfaith took from a basket, in which he had stowed a variety of comforts for the poor prisoner, a bottle of old Madeira wine. Pouring out some in a glass, he offered it to Holmes.
“No, brother. I thank you for your kindness but I shall take no strong drink until my punishment is over, lest, if I have more strength, courage, and boldness than ordinarily could be expected, the world should say that I was drunk, or that I was carried through by the strength and comfort of what I had taken. No, let me so suffer that, if I am sustained, God shall have the glory.”
Still, the prisoner was by no means certain that he would not shrink, faint, or show signs of physical cowardice though he thus spoke. Instead, however, of strengthening himself with wine and other luxuries, which had been brought, he left his friends to be entertained with each other, whilst he withdrew into another room, to hold common on with his Lord. So soon as he had retired by himself, he was overwhelmed with the deepest gloom. He was tempted to question his own sincerity and the purity of his motives. A something within, which he attributed to Satanic agency, said: “Remember thyself, thy birth, thy breeding, thy friends, thy wife, children, name, credit. Thou art dishonoring all these by thy public scourging. Is this necessary when others are ready to save thee from suffering, and thy friends from disgrace?”
His heart sank within him. The idea of dishonoring any who were dear to him was more painful than the anticipated punishment; but presently the thought occurred to him, or, as he afterwards expressed it: “There came in sweetly, from the Lord, as sudden an answer: ‘Tis for my Lord; I must not deny Him before the sons of men (for that were to set men above Him), but rather lose all; yea, wife, children, and mine own life also.’” This, however, did not afford him permanent peace; for soon a series of questions rush into his mind, creating confusion of thought, and reviving his disquietude of feeling. “Is it for the Lord that you are about to suffer? Have you His glory alone in view? Is it not rather for your own, or some others’ sake? Is it not obstinacy or pride? Is it not resentment or bigotry? Is not selfishness at the bottom?”
These unwelcome, and, as they seemed to him involuntary queries, increased his distress; but after a jealous and careful scrutiny of his motives, he was convinced, as he said, that: “It was not for any man’s case or sake in this world, that so I had professed and practiced, but for my Lord’s case and sake, and for Him alone; whereupon my spirit was much refresht.”
He was also greatly comforted by the following passages of Scripture, which were sweetly suggested to his mind: “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?”
“Although I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me;”
“And he that continued to the end shall be saved.”
But anon, the thoughts of the terrible scourge occurred to him, and he feared that the severity of the dreadful punishment would be too much for his sensitive flesh. The disgrace of the punishment he regarded not. That belonged to others, and not to himself. Like his Lord and Master, he despised the shame. But the anticipated pain of the heavy blows made him shrink. He knew his weakness and sensitiveness, and feared that he would be overcome. Again he betook himself to the throne of grace. He prayed earnestly that the Lord would be pleased to give him 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 from the strokes, nor shed tears, lest the adversaries of the truth should blaspheme and be hardened, and the weak and feeble-hearted be discouraged. His prayer was followed with fresh consolation and strength. It produced a state of truthful submission to God, causing him to yield himself, soul and body, into the hands of his Saviour, and leave the whole disposing of the affair with Him.
Part VIII: An Affecting Scene
When the time arrived for the condemned Baptist preacher to be led forth to punishment, and the voice of the jailer was heard in prison, Holmes listened to it with a degree of cheerfulness. Taking his Testament in his hand he went forth with him to the place of execution. As he approached the whipping post, around which were gathered a crowd of spectators, he calmly saluted them. Two of the magistrates were present to see that the whipper did his duty—Mr. Increase Nowel, who had signed the sentence, and Mr. Flint. After waiting some minutes in expectation of the governor’s coming, Nowel commanded the executioner to do his office.
“Permit me,” said Holmes, as the executioner seized him, “to say a few words.”
“Now is no time to speak,” replied Nowel. But Holmes was unwilling to suffer in silence. He desired to declare to the multitude the grounds of his belief, and the reasons of his punishment. He, therefore, lifted up his voice and said:
“Men, brothers, fathers and countrymen, I beseech you give me leave to speak a few words, and the rather because here are many spectators to see me punished, and I am to seal with my blood, if God give me strength, that which I hold and practice in reference to the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus. That which I have to say, in brief, is this: Although I am no disputant, yet, seeing I am to seal with my blood what I hold, I am ready to defend by the word, and to dispute that point with any that shall come forth to withstand it.”
Magistrate Nowel told him, “Now is no time to dispute.”
“Then,” continued Holmes, “I desire to give an account of the faith and order I hold.” This he uttered three times. But Magistrate Flint cried out to the executioner, “Fellow, do thine office, for this fellow would but make a long speech to delude the people.”
In compliance with this authoritative mandate the executioner roughly seized Holmes, and began to strip off his clothes. The sentence was to be inflicted upon the prisoner, not upon his garments. But Holmes was determined to speak if possible. Whilst, therefore, the whipper was removing his clothes, and preparing him for the lash, he said to the people: “That which I am to suffer for is the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
“No,” replied Magistrate Nowel, “it is for your error, and going about to seduce the people.”
“Not for my error,” said Holmes, “for in all the time of my imprisonment, wherein I was left alone (my brethren being gone), which of all your ministers in all that time came to convince me of an error? and when, upon the governor’s words, a motion was made for a public dispute, and upon fair terms and desired by hundreds, what was the reason it was not granted?”
This was a close and significant question. As all the multitude knew that a public disputation had been anticipated, but had not yet taken place, the inquiry of Holmes seemed to demand an answer. Newel therefore replied: “It was the fault of him who went away and would not dispute,” referring to Clarke; but this, as we have already shown, was not the case.
Flint became impatient at this colloquy and repeated his order to the executioner. “Fellow, do thine office.”
Holmes, however, would not remain silent. Whilst being disrobed, he said: “I would not give my body into your hands to be thus bruised on any account whatever; yet now I would not give the hundredth part of a wampumpeague to free it out of your hands.”
“Unbutton here,” said the executioner, as he gave his jacket a jerk. “No,” said Holmes; “I make as much conscience of unbuttoning one button as I do of paying the sentence of thirty pounds. I will do nothing towards executing such an unjust law.”
Faithful to his word, he would not voluntarily assist the executioner in the least in removing his garments from his back.
He was as helpless as if he were asleep, and the executioner had to handle him as though he were a statue. Still he continued addressing the people.
“The Lord,” he said, “having manifested His love towards me, in giving me repentance towards God and faith in Christ, and so to be baptized in water by a messenger of Jesus, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, wherein I have fellowship with Him in His death, burial and resurrection, I am now come to be baptized in afflictions by your hands, that so I may have further fellowship with my Lord, and am not ashamed of His sufferings, for by His stripes am I healed.”
The executioner having removed so much of his garments as would hinder the effect of the scourge, and having fastened him to the post, seized a three-corded whip, raised his hands, and laid on the blows in an unmerciful manner. Stroke followed stroke as rapidly as was consistent with effective execution, each blow leaving its crimson furrow, or its long blue wale in the sufferer’s quivering flesh. The only pause which occurred during the infliction of this barbarous punishment was when the executioner ceased a moment in order to spit in his hands, so as to take a firmer hold of the handle of the whip, and render the strokes more severe. This he did three times. During the infliction of his painful scourging, Holmes said to the people:
“Though my flesh and my spirit fail, yet God will not fail.” The poor sufferer did not fail. He found that his strength was equal to his day. Though the lash was doing its bloody work upon his sensitive flesh, yet his spirit was sustained by heavenly consolations. In his own account of his experience during this dreadful scourge, Holmes subsequently said: “It pleased the Lord to come in and fill my heart and tongue as a vessel full, and with an audible voice I brake forth, praying the Lord not to lay this sin to their charge, and telling the people that now I found He did not fail me, and therefore now I should trust Him forever who had failed me not; for in truth, as the strokes fell upon me, I had such a spiritual manifestation of God’s presence as I never had before, and the outward pain was so removed from 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 me with all his strength, spitting in his hand three times, with a three-corded whip giving me therewith thirty strokes.”
After the requisite number of blows had been given, equaling the number of pounds that he was fined (from which we learn that, according to the Puritan standard of penal measure, one blow of a three-corded whip, well laid on, was an equivalent to one pound sterling), the cords which fastened him to the whipping post were untied, and he was set at liberty. With joyfulness in his heart and cheerfulness in his countenance, he turned to the magistrates Flint and Newel, and said:
“You have struck me as with roses.” But not wishing them to imagine that he regarded the punishment as literally light, nor that he was sustained by his own strength, be added:
“Although the Lord hath made it easy to me, yet I pray God it may not be laid to your charge.”
The crowd now gathered around him, some from mere curiosity, others inwardly rejoicing that the heretic had been scourged, whilst a third class were filled with mingled emotions of sympathy with his sorrows, and indignation at his wrongs.
Amongst those whose feelings of sympathy and indignation were aroused at the barbarous treatment of Holmes, were two individuals who were so rejoiced that the sufferer had been sustained under his cruelties, and that he left the ignominious post with so much composure, and even with pleasantness of countenance, that they shook hands with him; and one, whose name was John Spur, a freeman of the colony, said, “Blessed be God for thee, my brother,” and walked along with him to the prison. The other, who simply shook hands with him, was another freeman, Mr. John Hazel. Many others testified their friendship for him, and glorified God on his account. To some, however, who were present, these expressions of sympathy were extremely displeasing. They looked upon it as a connivance at the crime, and a contempt of the government. As informers, they immediately made complaint of what they had witnessed, and a number of warrants were issued for the apprehension of these sympathizing offenders.
When Holmes reached the prison, his body was found to be in a terrible condition—his body, not simply his back, for the lashes of the whip were so long that they lapped over his back, and left their gory marks upon his side.
Eaton, who had been a spectator of all the proceedings, ran home immediately after the whipping, obtained some rags and oil, and hastened to the prison where, like the good Samaritan, he dressed the wounded man’s sores. When it was known that Holmes had received such kindness, the inquiry became general —who was the surgeon? And the report was soon circulated that he was to be arrested.
So severe was the chastisement of the prisoner that for many days he could not endure the pain occasioned by the wounded parts of his body touching the bed. All the rest that he experienced was such as he obtained by supporting himself upon his knees and elbows!
The day after the whipping, whilst Spur and Hazel were attending to their business, they were surprised by a constable calling upon them and telling them that they were prisoners. As his authority, he showed them the following document:
“To the keeper of his deputy:
“By virtue hereof, you are to take into your safe keeping the body of John Spur, for a heinous offence by him committed; hereof fail not. Dated the 5th of the 7th month, 1651. Take also into your safe keeping John Hazel.
"By the court, Increase Nowel.”
They were accordingly both taken to prison, the heinous offence consisting of the act of shaking hands and speaking with Holmes after his punishment, and consequently, after he had satisfied the law, and was no longer an involuntary prisoner.
They were afterwards taken to the court, and examined. They had no trial, neither were they allowed to meet their complainants face to face, but were condemned upon the evidence furnished by the depositions of two individuals, the stronger of the two documents being as follows:
“I ......... Cole, being in the market-place when Obadiah Holmes came from the whipping post, John Spur came and met him pleasantly, laughing in his face, saying, ‘Blessed be God for thee, brother;’ and so did go with him, laughing upon him, towards the prison, which was very grievous to me to see him harden the man in his sin, and showing much contempt of authority by that carriage, as if he had been unjustly punished, and had suffered as a righteous man under a tyrannical government. Deposed before the court the 5th of the 7th month. “Increase Nowel.”
They were sentenced to receive ten lashes each, or pay a fine of forty shillings. The latter they could not conscientiously do. A Mr. Bendal, who was a friend to Hazel, offered to pay his, but he refused, saying—
"I thank you for this offer of love; but I believe it will be no acceptable service for any man to pay a penny for me in this case.” Yet, notwithstanding his refusal, the court accepted the proffer, and gave him his discharge. Hazel was upwards of sixty years of age, and died soon after his release.
Spur was kept in prison nearly a week, expecting every day to be taken to the market square, tied to the whipping post, and receive his ten lashes; but, without his permission, some sympathizing friend paid his fine, and secured his deliverance.
These persecutions were the means of attracting the attention of many to the doctrines of the sufferers. Sympathy elicited inquiry, and inquiry produced conviction. The sentiments of the Baptists spread. Many were convinced of the Scripturalness of their views of baptism, and desired to be buried with Christ in that beautiful and significant ordinance. Their desire could not be refused. The ordinance was administered repeatedly, though with the greatest privacy, for fear of prisons, fines, and scourging.