Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER XIII.

Baptism of Mr. Williams-establishment of the First Baptist Church

in Providence-Mr. Williams soon leaves the church.

Having related the principal facts, which can now be ascertained, concerning the settlement of Providence and Newport, it is proper to say something of ecclesiastical affairs. We must lament, in vain, that so little is known on this subject. We have no account, from Mr. Williams or his friends, of the manner in which the public worship of God was maintained, and the first church formed at Providence. The notices which may be gleaned from writers, who, for various reasons, were not disposed to look on the new colony with a favorable eye, must, obviously, be received with caution,

We might be sure, from the known character of Mr. Williams, and of his companions, that they would meet together for the public worship of God. Mr. Williams was acknowledged, at Plymouth and Salem, to be an able minister, and he would, of course, preach to those who might choose to hear him, at Providence. We learn from Winthrop,* that he was accustomed to hold meetings, both on the Sabbaths, and on week days. It does not appear, that there was, at first, any organization into a distinct church; though, perhaps, those who had been members of the church in Salem, regarded themselves as still a church, and Mr. Williams as their pastor. They were, at first, few in number, and were obliged to provide dwellings and subsistence for themselves and their families. They were not able to erect a house of worship, and tradition states, that in pleasant weather they met in a grove. On other occasions, they probably convened, either at the house of Mr.

*

* Vol. i. p. 283, already quoted.

† Governor Hopkins thinks, that there was a chureh formed on Congregational principles, before Mr. Williams' baptism.-History of Providence, in 2 Mass. His. Col. ix. p. 196. This is not probable, for nothing is said by the writers in Massachusetts, of such a church, and the members of the church in Salem, who removed to Providence, were not excluded from that church, till after their baptism. Hutchinson, vol. i. p. 371,

[ocr errors]

.

Williams, or at some other private habitation; and, undoubtedly, enjoyed, in their humble assemblies, the presence of Him, who is nigh to all who fear Him, and who prefers s above all temples, the upright heart and pure.

It should be remembered, that the colony was a refuge for all who pleased to reside there; and that, as Winthrop states, “at their first coming, Mr. Williams and the rest did make an order, that no man should be molested for his conscience.” The inhabitants were consequently free to worship God as they thought proper. They were not all united in opinion on religious subjects. Mr. Williams may have judged it to be most conducive to the peace and welfare of his little colony, to erect, at first, no distinct church, but to gather the inhabitants into one assembly for worship; until the number should have so increased, as to enable them to form separate churches, and maintain public worship conformably to their own views.

After the lapse of two or three years, the colony had increased, by the accession of emigrants from England, as well as from the other colonies. Some of these are said by Hubbard, (336) to have been inclined to the principles of the Baptists. By what means Mr. Williams' mind was drawn to a consideration of baptism, we do not know. He was accused, before his banishment, of preaching doctrines “tending to anabaptistry ;t a charge which was meant to impute to him principles subversive of civil order, rather than heterodox notions concerning the rite of baptism. It does not appear, that he had then adopted any views on this point, opposed to the practice of the churches in Massachusetts; for if he had then insisted on immersion, and rejected the baptism of infants, these opinions would certainly have been placed prominently among the reasons for his banishment.

That his principles tended to “anabaptistry,” using this word as referring to the principles now held by the Baptists, is doubtless true. His views of the distinction between the Mosaic institutions and the christian church; his reverence for the supreme authority of Jesus Christ; his appeals

* The first church in Boston, several of whose members were wealthy, existed two years before they began to build a meeting. house." Winthrop, vol. i. p. 87.

+ Morton's Memorial, p. 151.

to the Scriptures as the only rule of faith and practice, and to the New Testament as the statute book of the Christian church; his assertion and defence of the independent right, and imperative obligation, of every individual to search the oracles of God, and follow their teachings, without dictation or restraint from other men; his bold and uniform proclamation of the unfettered liberty of conscience, in those concerns which pertain to the intercourse between God and the soul, will doubtless be acknowledged by the Baptists, to have had a strong tendency to lead Mr. Williams to adopt their distinctive views of the Christian ordinances.

Nor will it be considered, by other men, as a very strange vagary of an unstable mind, that a clergyman, educated in the Church of England, should adopt the opinion, that immersion is the only scriptural baptism, when that church had taught him, in her offices, that baptism must be so administered, except in cases of weakness or disease. Nor ought Mr. Williams to be severely censured for denying that infants are proper subjects of this ordinance, when it is recollected, that the first President of Harvard University, (Dunster,) held the same opinion ; and the second President (Chauncy) so far followed in the same course, as to insist, that baptism should be administered, to infants and adults, by immersion only.* Mr. Williams will, at least, be viewed as excusable, by those who agree with a learned Pedobaptist of our own times, that." it is a plain case, there is no express precept respecting infant baptism in our sacred writings.”+ If Mr. Williams could not find infant baptism in the Scriptures, his rejection of it was a natural result of his principles, and may candidly be ascribed to his singlehearted deference to the authority of the Bible; though his reputation for ingenuity may suffer, because he was unable “ to make out the proof in another way."

We are not, therefore, reduced to the necessity of adopting Governor Winthrop's account of Mr. Williams' change of opinion. That account attributes the blame to an artful woman, a sister of the great heresiarch of those

[ocr errors]

* Peirce’s History of Harvard University, pp. 10, 18.

+ Dr. Woods, on Infant Baptism, Lecture 1.–He adds, " the proof, then, that infant baptism is a divine institution, must be made out in another way."

times, Mrs. Hutchinson.* We may, not unreasonably, suppose, that Mr. Williams, on further study of the Scriptures, and finding that several of the colonists had embraced Baptist principles, was himself convinced, that he had not been baptized." He accordingly resolved to obey the Saviour's command, and unite in a church, with such persons as might be willing to join him.

A difficulty now presented itself. They had been educated in the Episcopal church, and were accustomed to regard the clergy with respect, as the only legal administrators of the Christian ordinances. Mr. Williams 'himself seems to have strongly felt this difficulty; and his scruples on this point, probably, had some effect on his subsequent conduct. He had not himself been immersed, and it seemed a reasonable conclusion, that he could not, with propriety, baptize his brethren, till he had received baptism. There was no other minister in New-England, who would have baptized him, if he had made an application, and his banishment from Massachusetts had been suspended.

The most obvious expedient, in their circumstances, was adopted. Mr. Ezekiel Hollimant was selected to baptize Mr. Williams, who then baptized the administrator and ten others. This event occurred in March, 1638–9. Thus was founded the first Baptist church in America, and the

*

Winthrop, vol. i. p. 293. Under date of March, 1638-9, he says: “At Providence, things grew still worse; for a sister of Mrs. Hutchinson, the wife of one Scott, being infected with anabaptistry, and going last year to live at Providence, Mr. Williams was taken (or rather emboldened) by her to make open profession thereof, and accordingly was re-baptized by one Holliman, a poor man, late of Salem. Then Mr. Williams re-baptized him and some ten more. They also denied the baptizing of infants, and would have no magistrates.' † Governor Winthrop (vol. i. p. 293) calls Mr. Holliman “.

a poor man,” which Hubbard, (338) in copying, alters to a mean fellow.” But Mr. Benedict says, that he was a man of “ gifts and piety,” and that he was chosen an assistant to Mr. Williams. Backus says, “after the year 1650, I find him more than once a Deputy from the town of Warwick in the General Court."-Vol. i. p. 106.

# The first twelve members are named by Benedict, (vol. i. p. 473.) Roger Williams, Ezekiel Holliman, William Arnold, William Harris, Stukely Westcott, John Green, Richard Waterman, Thomas James, Robert Cole, William Carpenter, Francis Weston, and Thomas Olney.

second, as it is stated, in the British empire.* The church was soon after increased by the addition of twelve other persons.

The validity of this baptism of Mr. Williams and his companions having been disputed, it may be proper to examine this point.

The spirit of the Scriptures, if not their letter, assigns to the ministers of the Gospel the duty of administering the ordinances of the church. Expediency obviously requires an adherence to this general principle. But the language of the Bible is not so decisive on this point, as to make it certain, that a layman might not, in cases where a minister could not be obtained, administer the ordinances. It is known, that in the earliest ages of the church, while there was a general observance of the principle, that the administration of the ordinances belongs to ministers, laymen were occasionally permitted to baptize. Mosheim says: “At first, all who were engaged in propagating Christianity, administered this rite; nor can it be called in question, that whoever persuaded any person to embrace Christianity, could baptize his own disciple.”+ Tertullian says, “ Lay

* Backus, vol. i. 106, note. 6. There had been many of them [Baptists] intermixed with other societies from their first coming out of Popery; but their first distinct church in our nation was formed out of the Independent Church in London, whereof Mr. Henry Jacob was pastor, from 1616 to 1624, when he went to Virginia, and Mr. John Lathrop was ehosen in his room. But nine years after, several persons in the society, finding that the congregation kept not to their first principles of separation, and being also convinced, that baptism was not to be administered to infants, but such only as professed faith in Christ, desired and obtained liberty, and formed themselves into a distinct church, Sept. 12, 1633, having Mr. John Spisbury for their minister.”—Crosby, vol. i. pp. 148, 149. In the year 1639, another Baptist church was formed in London, but probably not so early as the church at Providence.

+ Mosheim, b. 1, c. 1, p. 2, ch. 4, s. 8. See Campbell's Lectures on Ecclesiastical History, lecture iv. for proof, that laymen, in the early times of the Christian era, often baptized. He quotes Hilary, who, in his Exposition of the Epistle to the Ephesians, 4: 11, 12, says, “ Postquam omnibus locis ecclesiæ sunt constitutæ, et officia ordinata, aliter composita res est, quam cæperat; primum enim omnes docebant, et omnes baptizabant, quibuscunque diebus vel temporibus fuisset occasio.' That is, when churches were every where constituted, and official duties prescribed, things were otherwise regulated, than at first, when all taught, and all baptized, whenever occasion required.

« PreviousContinue »