One of the reasons people left their homes in Europe in the early 1600's was to escape religious persecution. In 1620, the Mayflower sailed to the New World and established Plymouth, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, their desire to worship as they desired blinded them from granting the same freedom to others. This same scenario seemed to be repeated throughout the early New World and Colonial America.
Many religions fled to the New World, as did Baptist.
Many falsely report that the first Baptist church in America was started by Roger Williams in Rhode Island. This is NOT the case. Let us examine the man Roger Williams.
He came to America in 1631, settling in Massachusetts. He was a libertarian and was forced to separate from the Puritans. He did found the colony of Providence, Rhode Island, and was a notable figure in our nation's history. We are concerned in this writing as to Baptist history, and unfortunately, Roger Williams was not a Baptist. While Roger Williams did believe in immersion, he did not see the need for proper baptism and felt one could baptize themselves (SE-Baptism). He did start a church in Rhode Island in 1639, but it was not the first Baptist church in America. In 1897, the historical committee of the First Baptist Church of Providence voted to change their starting date to 1638 in order to be the first baptist church in America. Unfortunately for them, they cannot change the date on the church bell that still resides there that reads 1639.
The first Baptist church in America was at Newport, Rhode Island, established in 1638 by Dr. John Clarke. Clarke was a Baptist from London, England. Clarke was forbidden to preach in Boston, and took a small group of believers to Newport in 1638 and established the first Baptist church in America.
This author will not go into detail, but suggests the reader research and read the rich Baptist history in the American early colonies. Scores of books and biographies could be written about the great Baptist men in those days. Men like John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes, Isaac Backus, Thomas Dungan, Samuel Harris, Daniel Marshall, Shubael Stearns, John Waller, John Gano, and the like. To these men and the multitudes unnamed, we Baptist and all of America owe a great debt. For over 100 years, Baptist were persecuted, whipped, imprisoned, and even martyred for preaching Truth on early America's land. It was Baptist who continually cried out for liberty-the freedom to worship God as their conscience demanded. The Catholics, Episcopals, Quakers and such wanted a state to enforce that all worshipped as they did, but it was Baptist that cried for liberty and separation of church and state (what that term truly means). Their cry for religious freedom would also lead towards a cry for political freedom.
It was the heavy Baptist populated Rhode Island that was the first colony to renounce allegiance to King George III. It was Baptist who were one of the first groups to recognize the Continental Congress as a legitimate body of government. The Baptist of both early America and England supported the War for Independence.
It was a Baptist pastor in Charleston, South Carolina that was so influential in speaking out against the British. He was banned from Charleston, but his influence continued. The British general, Lord Cornwallis said of him:
I fear the prayers of that godly youth more than the armies of Sumter and Marion.
Baptist played a huge role in the War for Independence. They furthered the cause in crying out for liberty both civil and religious. Baptists have never been 'gunslingers,' (only resorting to taking up arms when necessary), but some did join the continental army and many Baptist pastors served as chaplains. George Washington said of these men:
Baptist Chaplains were among the most prominent and useful in the army.
Many of our nations 'Founding Fathers' have Baptist ties and influence. Consider the following:
Patrick Henry This man was a great friend to Baptist. In 1770, three Baptist preachers were arrested in Fredericksburg, VA for preaching the Gospel. It was Patrick Henry that rode 60 miles to volunteer to be their lawyer. By the time Henry was done speaking, the judge declared, "Sheriff, discharge these men." Religious liberty was growing! For the rest of his years, Henry was a friend of Baptist only needing to be notified of their peril, and soon he rode to defend them.
James Madison This man was greatly influenced by the Baptist. It was the Baptist that helped get him elected to House of Representatives where he would campaign for the Bill of Rights. Known as the "Father of the Bill of Rights," it is no coincident that Right number one reads
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.Why is that the first amendment? ONLY THE BAPTIST were crying out for such liberty at that time, and we see their influence reflected immediately. What joy must have been amongst Baptists to read those words of guarantee! Madison often declared that the Baptists had been in all his time ,"the fast and firm friends of liberty."
Thomas Jefferson This man was not a Baptist and held to Unitarian beliefs. His life's actions have been much in question, yet the Baptists looked to him as a friend. Why? Thomas Jefferson lived near to a Baptist Church. Many times he would visit that church. Once, after a business meeting of the Baptist church, the pastor asked Jefferson what he thought of the democratic form of government displayed. Jefferson responded,
It interests me much. I consider it the only form of true democracy now existing in the world, and have concluded it would be the best form for the government of these American colonies.Jefferson was hated by the New England clergy, who spread much gossip about him leaving us today to wonder where he really stood. This we know, he stood for religious freedom, soul liberty, which made him a friend of the Baptists; and possibly, much of our democratic government was influenced by his time observing the Baptists.
George Washington President Washington was also influenced by the Baptists. Washington, in a letter in 1789, wrote:
Baptists have always defended the principles of religious liberty, they have never violated them...The little Baptist state of Rhode Island was the experiment first attempted of leaving religion wholly to herself, unprotected and unsustained by the civil arm. The principles which were here first planted have taken root...and borne abundant fruit.
This Giant in American history is recognized by most for kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge speaking to our God. The records at First Baptist Church of New York City give the account of George Washington's baptism. After the war, but while still in camp at Newburg, on the Hudson River, George Washington approached the Baptist pastor John Gano. Gano, pastor at the First Baptist Church in New York, was serving as chaplain in the army. The account goes on to read that General Washington, having listened to Gano and searching the Scriptures, requested baptism as taught in the Scriptures. There in the Hudson River, with 42 witnesses, Gen. Washington surrendered to Scriptural baptism. It was George Washington that wrote to the Baptists in Virginia:
The religious society of which you are members, have been throughout America, uniformly and almost unanimously, the firm friends to civil liberty, and the persevering promoters of our glorious revolution, I cannot hesitate to believe, that they will be faithful supporters of a free, yet efficient, General Government. Under this pleasing expectation, I rejoice to assure them, that they may rely upon my best wishes and endeavors to advance their prosperity.