A Review of Rhode Island's Early Religions


There can be little question that John Clarke was a polymath. That said, with few exceptions, he was formally educated to undertake most of what he accomplished in his life. Becoming an educated, professional physician in the 17th century required studies not only in medicine and anatomy, but also in law, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and a number of related subjects. Simply put, physicians were well educated.

Through an examination of John Clarke's life accomplishments, we do find that he was probably never educated in two matters that proved to be most important to the character of his life; statesmanship and religion. Statesmanship was that quality that served him well in writing and procuring Rhode Island's Royal Charter of 1663. Petitioning the King of England, a man who distained dissent in any form, a man with particular distain towards most Protestants, with a document that flirted with treason took great courage but even greater statesmanship.

The Charter tended towards treasonous as it provided legislation that for the first time in history gave a political entity legal religious freedom and separation of church and state. Clarke managed to write and procure this formidable document that, while diminishing the power of the dominant Puritan churches and even the king, was not found to be repugnant to the King, Privy Council, or English law. America could use diplomats of this caliber today.

Neither did John Clarke receive formal education in Baptist theology. Yet, he played an important role in establishing the Baptist church in Colonial America. This article examines that vital contribution.

It is commonly believed that the Baptist church began in the Netherlands in 1609, the year that John Clarke was born. While scholars believe that John Clarke studied in Leiden, the Netherlands, there is no record to indicate that he received Baptist instruction or that he was even aware of the nascent Baptist  faith. It is much more likely that Clarke became acquainted with Separatist Calvinists and Armenian Calvinists while in Leiden; many Baptist historians record that the Baptist faith evolved from these Puritan, Calvinist, Separatists who migrated to the Netherlands for its toleration of Protestant religions.

Clarke's beliefs, while Puritan in character, were probably not well formed during his university years or when he arrived in America. This is illustrated by his defense of Anne Hutchinson in her religious trials in the Boston Bay Colony in 1635; shortly after Clarke's arrival in the Boston Bay Colony, Clarke stepped in to support Anne Hutchinson's inalienable right to hold personal beliefs and to worship freely. Hutchinson was an Antinomian minister intent on teaching her own interpretation of the Bible as opposed to following the interpretations of Puritan clerics. Shortly after the trials, Clarke affiliated with the Antinomians. When the Antinomians were banished from the Boston Bay Colony, Clarke accompanied them to Pocasset where he was a signer of the famous Pocasset Compact.

Antinomian, literally meaning "against law" was a system of beliefs that Christians were not bound by moral law. In particular, they were not bound by the law of the Old Testament. While the Antinomian beliefs of Anne Hutchinson and her husband were a far cry from those of the early Christian bishop Marcion (85-160), he believed that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New Testament, the Pocasset Antinomians believed in faith alone; there was no need for religious laws.