Dr. John Clarke – From Ill News to Good News [Biographical Sketch]

Dr. John Clarke
A Lively Experiment

The image is a painting of John Clarke getting the charter from Charles II for what was to be called a lively experiment. The artwork and others like can be found at – Baptist Prints

This cameo is just that, a cameo. This short blog will in no way give this man, his labors and his influence the fuller treatment he deserves. My goal is simply to present enough info to pique interest in this man’s life and labors perhaps lead others to do more comprehensive research. Personally I have found that in studying out these monumental movers and shakers in our nation’s infancy there comes a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices they made for Liberty of Conscience. Today’s write up is on Dr. John Clarke

John Clarke was born on October 8th, 1609 in Suffolk, England. While the details concerning his upbringing are scant,  records regarding his university life showed he did receive his education in England and medical training in Leiden, Holland. We can safely assume he received quality training that was indicative of the times. Dr. Clarke was known to be a great statesmen (twelve years petitioning Charles II is all that needs to be said regarding this), lawyer, preacher and doctor. As far as his theology is concerned Beller in his magnum opus – America in Crimson Red – states that Clarke was “mildly Calvinistic” pg. 504  He had a solid command of Hebrew and Greek and was an able preacher and arbitrator for the cause of liberty.

From a political and religious standpoint he was of the persuasion, even at an early age, that men ought to have liberty of conscience. While a Puritan of the Puritans Dr. Clarke did advocate for church reform. Seeing very little change in this area and the religious oppression in England it wasn’t long after that he and his wife made the voyage to New England. They arrived in Boston in 1637.

Much to his chagrin he left one controversy only to arrive in Boston to face another – The Antinomian Controversy! The debate about Free Grace and Covenant of works – foedus operum – was in full swing with no end in sight. Reformed Reader points out that, Dr. Clarke “expected to find differences of opinion on these Western shores, but he was surprised to find, as he tells us, that men “were not able to bear each with other in their different understandings and consciences as in these utmost parts of the world to live peaceably together.”

As a backdrop before moving on, it is important to note that the Mass Bay Colony, under rigid Congregationalist rule, allowed no wiggle room for opposing viewpoints particularly in the area infant baptism and independent worship ( these were known as conventicles). Of course many lovers of religious freedom chose to follow the dictates of their conscience and suffered greatly for it. Persecution, exile, imprisonment and the whipping post was what many of them could expect to face.

It was oppressively intolerant! For example in 1644 an act was passed banishing Baptists from the Mass Bay Colony. To quote Baptist historian Cramp, pg 463 “it was easier to banish than to convince them.” Here is a portion of the act: “Forasmuch as experience hath plentifully and often proved that, since the first rising of the Anabaptists, about one hundred years since, they have been the incendiaries of commonwealths, and the infectors of person in main matters of religion, and the troublers of churches in all places where they have been, and that they have held the baptizing of infants unlawful…” and it goes on to say that the punishment for those who believe this and other supposed errors and heresies was that upon being found guilty they “shall be sentenced to banishment.” Cramp pg 463-464

The intolerance Clarke faced in the Mass Bay colony was too much and after talking with Roger Williams he and a small company of believers made their way to the Isle of the Rhodes and formed another (There were four great settlements up to this point Plymouth 1620, Mass Bay 1630, Hartford 1635, and Providence 1636 1) settlement. John Clark and twenty two other men drafted (it is believed Clark wrote the bulk of it) and signed the Portsmouth Compact. John Clark established the first Baptist church in Newport Rhode Island. 2 See Link with Beller’s response –  Which Church was First Clarke or Williams

In 1651 John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes and John Crandall travelled from Newport to Lynn MA to visit a member who was sick and unable to travel. While holding service in this home they were all arrested and put in jail. Someone anonymously had paid the fine for the men, and with the exception of Obadiah Holmes they were released shortly thereafter. Obadiah Holmes, because of conviction, refused to have his fine paid and as a result was unmercifully whipped. The whipping was so severe that it is said that he could neither lie on his back or his stomach for weeks. I will have more to say about Mr. Holmes in a future post.

On the heels of this event in 1651 Dr. Clarke and Mr. Williams went to England bring their grievances and petition before Charles II. In 1654 Roger Williams returned home and Dr. Clarke remained. While there Dr. Clarke wrote a treatise on the persecution in New England titled (Click on link), Ill News from New England chronicling the persecution and the need for a Charter for the Colony. This was in 1652. After twelve years of laboring in England and exercising excellent diplomacy Dr. Clark was able to secure from Charles II a charter both for religious liberty and for establishing the commonwealth of Rhode Island. This is referred to as A Lively Experiment. This was called so because establishing a church  that was independent of the state rules and oversight was something completely foreign at this time. Even today you will find these words on Rhode Island’s statehouse, “To Hold Forth a Lively Experiment that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernments.”

John Clarke came back in 1664 with the charter in hand and religious liberty at last, he continued his medical practice, civil and pastoral, duties until his death in 1676.

Rhode Island became a safe haven for many whose religious differed from that of the Mass Bay Colony, including the Quakers and wanted to get away from the persecution. Because Rhode Island would accept those exiled from MA Cotton Matther called Rhode Island the Sewer of New England, others called it Rogues Island.

I will close with a quote from Doug Hammet Our Baptist Heritage who stated that, “America’s History cannot be separated from its religious ties…America’s greatness is largely due to the fact that she had a root in Godliness and Biblical truth.”


While not a comprehensive list, these resources I have found to be a great help in my search for understanding and knowledge of our great Baptist Heritage. As my library continues to grow in this area and so too will my learning.

James Beller ~ America in Crimson Red the Baptist History in America
J.M. Cramp D.D. ~ Baptist History
Doug Hammet ~ Our Baptist Heritage
John T Christian ~ A History of the Baptists

Internet Sources
Reformed Reader
Baptist History Home Page