Ephesians 3:21

INTRODUCTION: As Baptists we believe in the perpetuity of the church. Begun by our Lord as He walked along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and called-out the first baptized believers who both adhered to His teachings and executed His commandments, the church has existed in all ages since in churches which have descended from this first church. The Lord’s Churches, as we have seen, have been called by many names. Having come to America from England and Wales—where they were known as Particular Baptists in distinction from General Baptists—these Baptists in America came to be known as Regular Baptists to distinguish them from the Separate Baptists with whom they would unite prior to 1800.

The Baptists in America have a glowing history. One cannot read the various historical accounts of the role of Baptists in the founding of America, the winning of the Revolutionary War, and the securing of personal and religious freedom without being both proud and humbly grateful to be a Baptist. Life in early America, however, was not easy for the Baptists. Hated alike by both the Congregational Church in New England, and the Established or Episcopal in Virginia, the Baptists suffered immensely both physically and financially at their hands. From the scourging of Obadiah Holmes in Massachusetts to the imprisonment of John Waller, Lewis Craig, and James Childs in Virginia for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, Baptists have paid a tremendous price for religious liberty in America. A noted Presbyterian historian, William Wirt Henry wrote almost grudgingly, “It is proper for me to say, however, that the Baptists were constant, unwavering, and very effective in the part they took for the same end [the divorce of church and state in Virginia]. They had felt the heel of the oppressor more keenly than the Presbyterians, as many of their ministers had refused to apply for license to preach under the Toleration Act, and as a consequence were often imprisoned as disturbers of the peace. They found an advocate, however, in Patrick Henry, who appeared for them in court whenever it was in his power” (Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia and the Presbyterian Church and Religious Liberty in Virginia p.291). 

For our present purpose, we will limit our study to but four issues concerning the Baptists in America before 1800, viz. The First Baptist Church and Churches, the First Baptist Association and Associations, The Regular and Separate Baptists, and the Baptists and Religious Liberty.


Paedobaptist and Campbellite historians have claimed that Baptists are without baptism, ordinances, and even a history because it is alleged that one Roger Williams, a Paedobaptist virtually baptized himself and eleven others and organized themselves into the first Baptist Church in America. These historians falsely assumed that all Baptist Churches in America descended from the church Williams founded, and wrongly concluded that all Baptist Churches are without baptism, and hence, not churches.

First, Roger Williams was not a Baptist. No doubt he was a great man and held much in common with the Baptists. But he was no Baptist. Had he been a true Baptist, he would never have sought to re-institute baptism, for he would have shared in common with the Baptists the conviction that they had heaven’s baptism. J. R. Graves says Williams “was never a Baptist one hour in his life. No authentic document sustains the claim that he was ever the member of, or communed or affiliated with any Baptist Church” (The First Baptist Church in America, p.50). Samuel Adlam says, “I can see no evidence that Roger Williams, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, established a Baptist Church in Providence” (The First Church in Providence not the Oldest Baptist Church in America, p. 153). Adlam also contended the Providence church, which many historians say Roger Williams started, was founded in 1652, not 1639.

Second, the first Baptist Church in America was founded by Dr. John Clarke in Newport, R. I. in 1638. Dr. Graves visited Newport in 1854 to meet Dr. Adlam who was the historian of Rhode Island as well as the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Newport, the very church founded by Dr. Clarke. Under the guidance of Dr. Adlam, Dr. Graves found the grave of Dr. John Clarke. On the monument at this neglected grave, Dr. Graves read, “To the Memory of DOCTOR JOHN CLARKE, One of the original purchasers and proprietors of this island and of the founders of the First Baptist Church of Newport, its first pastor and munificent benefactor. . .He, with his associates, came to this island from Mass., in March, 1638. . .He shortly after gathered the church aforesaid and became its pastor. . .” (The First Baptist Church in American, p. 13). For some reason, Dr. Clarke is slighted by most historians, and most of the credit for securing a charter for Rhode Island is erroneously given to Roger Williams. Even Baptist historians claim the date of the founding of the First Baptist Church in Newport was 1644, so that Williams can be recognized as the founder of the First Baptist Church in America. Morgan Edwards contended that John Clark was properly the founder of the Rhode Island Colony (A General History of the Baptist Denomination, David Benedicts, Vol. 1, p. 453, footnote). Dr. Graves relates the conversation he had with David Benedict, the venerable Baptist historian, while he was in Rhode Island researching the origin of the First Baptist Church in America. Dr. Benedict was 90 years old at that time, and as they spoke about the origin of the two churches, Dr. Benedict admitted “growing perplexities had for years confused and unsettled his mind as to the correctness of Mr. James Stanford’s history of the Providence church, compiled without any church record, and a full century after its origin (The First Baptist Church in America, p. 21). The editor of A History of New England with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians called BAPTISTS by Isaac Backus (second edition, with notes by David Weston, published by the Backus Historical Society, 1871) in a footnote in Vol. 1, p. 125 says concerning the date the Newport Church was founded, “Backus represents than an earlier date is possible. Many regard the weight of evidence as in its favor. Some have placed it as far back as 1638, supposing that the church was founded by Clarke and his company upon their arrival on Rhode Island.” The Warren Association acknowledged that 1638 was the correct date for the founding of this church. From the Minutes of the Eighty-second Anniversary of the Warren Baptist Association, Sept. 12-13 (Providence: Printed by H. H.Brown, 1849) pp. 11,13-15, we learn “A committee appointed by the Warren Baptist Association at its annual meeting in 1848, reported at the following annual meeting at Pawtuxet on Sept. 12-13, 1849, the following conclusion: 'From this investigation, your committee are of the opinion that the Church at Newport was formed certainly before the first of May, 1639, and probably, on the 7th of March, 1638'" (John Clarke, Louis Franklin Asher, p. 45, Footnote #3).

But few Baptist Churches descended from these two churches in Rhode Island. Some churches were constituted in their native land and immigrated to America as a body. Joshua Thomas states that the Welch Tract Church was constituted in 1701 in Wales and came to America, staying for a short time in Pennsylvania before settling in Delaware. According to Thomas, several churches in America came from churches in Wales (The American Baptist Heritage in Wales, pp 2, & xv in Introduction).


Although every Baptist Church is autonomous and independent of other Baptist Churches, Baptists have always associated and cooperated in the kingdom of God. Associations can be found in England, Wales, and other countries throughout the ages. The churches of the New Testament associated and cooperated in receiving funds for the poor saints in Jerusalem, (1 Cor. 16:1). It is not surprising, therefore, to find Baptist Churches forming associations early in their history in America. 

The first Baptist Association in America was organized in 1707 in Philadelphia by five churches, and it was appropriately called the Philadelphia Baptist Association. “The Philadelphia Association originated with churches planted by members from Wales.” (Preface in the Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association from 1707 to 1807, p.3). The five founding churches were the Pennepek, the Welsh Tract, the Middleton, the Piscataqua, and the Cohansie churches. The churches of the Philadelphia Baptist Association published a Confession of Faith and Discipline in 1742. This Confession was essentially the Second London Confession of Faith by about forty churches in London, first published in 1677.

Because of the numerical growth of Baptist Churches and the distances between them, several new associations were formed in various states. The Charleston Association in South Carolina was organized in 1751. In North Carolina the Sandy Creek Association was organized in 1760. The Kehukee Association was formed in North Carolina in 1765, and the Ketocton Association began in 1766 in Virginia. The Warren Association was organized in Rhode Island in 1767. Many other associations were formed in the following years. In his Baptist Encyclopedia published in 1881, William Cathcart lists a total of 15 associations which had been organized by the year 1787. By 1800 Regular Baptist Churches numbers about 1,500 with about 100,000 members according Hassel’s History of the Church of God, p. 558. John T. Christians states there were 48 Baptist Associations by the year 1800 (A History of the Baptists, vol. 2, p. 150).


The first Baptists in America, for the most part, were Particular Baptists. They were called Particular Baptists because they believed the atonement which Christ made on the cross was for a particular people, namely, the elect. There was another group of Baptist Churches which were known as General Baptists. The General Baptists believed the atonement was made generally for every man, woman, boy, and girl who has ever lived or will ever live, including those who died in unbelief and are in hell. 

But during the Great Awakening another group of Baptists arose who were called Separates. In New England a great moving of the Spirit accompanied the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield among paedobaptist churches, particularly the Congregational Churches. Many people, including men like Isaac Backus, were saved during this revival. Christian states, “With the origin of this revival the Baptists had nothing to do; but from it they reaped great results.” (A History of the Baptists, Vol. 2, p. 167) Prior to the year 1734, there was extreme spiritual deadness in the state churches. Edwards and Whitefield preached the doctrines of grace, the sovereignty of God being the central them, according to Christian (p. 175). The state churches protested against the Great Awakening, causing many of those who had been saved to withdraw from them and organize Separate or New Light churches. During this time, Jonathan Edwards was ejected from his church at Northhampton (A History of the Baptists, vol. 2, pp. 177, 178.

Once these churches were separated from the state churches, they began to believe the Bible and Baptist principles taught therein. Many of them saw the doctrine of the baptism of believers by immersion and sought out Baptist ministers to baptize them. Christian quotes Baron Stow as saying, “In May 1749, thirteen of the members [of Separate Churches] submitted to this ordinance, administered according to apostolic direction and practice. The ordinance was administered by Rev. Mr. Moulton of Brimfield. About fifty of the members were soon afterward baptized, including with those before mentioned the Pastor, the Deacons and the Ruling Elders (A History of the Baptists, vol. 2, pp. 182, 183).

Through the efforts of men like John Gano, James Miller, and David Thomas and others, who were sent by the Philadelphia Association to visit these Separate Baptist Churches, the Separates and the Regulars finally united in Virginia and became known as United Baptists. They united in their common faith in the doctrines and practices set forth in the Philadelphia Confession of Faith.


Believing in liberty of conscience, the Baptists have ever championed religious liberty. When that liberty could not be enjoyed in a particular land, the ancient Baptists such as the Waldenses would seek refuge in secluded places like the Mountains of Piemont. The vast new land called America provided the Baptists the opportunity they had long sought to worship God and practice their faith openly. They were therefore drawn to America.

Those Baptists who first immigrated to America found the same old prejudices against them that they had faced in Europe. Protestant denominations were state churches in Europe, and they sought to establish the same union of church and state in the new land. Certain eminent Baptists, including John Clarke, John Crandall, and Obadiah Holmes suffered severe persecution in Massachusetts at the hands of the state church for conducting services in a home of an elderly church member. They were arrested, imprisoned, and threatened with fines and whippings. Others paid the fines for Dr. Clarke and Mr. Crandall, but Obadiah Holmes refused the have his fine paid and was whipped so unmercifully he could not lie down for two weeks. It was the spirit of persecution which led Dr. John Clarke together with Roger Williams to seek a charter for a colony in Rhode Island where religious liberty for all would be established. Isaac Backus wrote of Dr. Clarke, “This faith, which was also held by Mr. Williams, moved them to spend their lives for the welfare of mankind, and to establish the first government upon earth, since the rise of antichrist, which gave equal liberty, civil and religious, to all men therein.” (Your Baptist Heritage, p. 83). It is reported that the building next to the First Baptist Church in Newport was a Jewish synagogue. Religious freedom had finally been established in this world.

The Baptists were continually involved in the battle for freedom, including political freedom from Great Britain. When the policies of the mother country and the ill-treatment of the colonists became unbearable, many began to demand independence from their native homeland. From the very first, the Baptists supported independence. Dr. Charles F. James in his excellent Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia on page 52 quotes the Baptist Address placed before the Colonial Convention of 1775 in Virginia in which the Baptists “. . .had determined in some cases it was lawful to go to war and that they ought to make a military resistance against Great Britain in her unjust invasion, tyrannical oppression, and repeated hostilities; that their brethren were left at discretion to enlist without incurring the censure of their religious community. . .” Dr. James further wrote on page 57, “And as it is matter of history that the Baptists had already won the sympathies and friendship of such men as Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, it is not unreasonable to suppose that, in the management of their long and desperate struggle for religious freedom, they were guided to some extent, at least, by the advice of these great men.” William Cathcart said, “Few Tories can be found among the Baptists of the Revolution.” (Baptist Patriots and the American Revolution, p. 70) In this book, Cathcart names several prominent Baptists who fought in the Revolutionary war against the British.

The battle for religious freedom was not won until 1789 when the First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. Patrick Henry favored the establishment of four churches or denominations as state churches in the new government: the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Baptists (Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia, p. 131). Only the Baptists opposed this establishment. Among the delegates who were nominated to the Constitutional Convention from Virginia was Elder John Leland, an influential preacher among the Baptists. Leland was pitted against James Madison. Madison made a special trip to see Leland, and after spending a half of a day assuring Leland and others he favored religious liberty’s being placed into a Bill of Rights, won the support of Leland who withdrew in his favor. It is believed the sentiments and arguments of Patrick Henry would have defeated the ratification of the constitution except for the presence and influence of James Madison. Referring to this incident in a eulogy upon the character of Mr. Madison, the Hon. J. S. Barbour gave John Leland the credit for the ratification of the Constitution by Virginia and the triumph of the new system of government (Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia, p. 155).


May we be as diligent to protect religious freedom as they were to secure it. May we be as valiant for truth as they were to advocate and defend it. May we be as willing to suffer and sacrifice for the cause of Christ and His Church as they were.

May others come realize what they owe the Baptists. Religious liberty is a reality in the United States of America due to the persistent efforts and influence of the Baptists. No other denomination of Christians has the consistent record of championing religious liberty as the Baptists have done.


Adlam. S. The First Church in Providence not the Oldest Baptist Church in America.
(Edited by J. R. Graves). Texarkana AR-TX: Baptist Sunday School Committee, 1939.

Asher, Louis. John Clarke. [n.p.] [n.n.] [ n.d.]

Backus, Isaac. A History of New England with Particular Reference to the Baptists. New York: Arno Press & the New York Times, 1969 (first published in 1871).

Cathcart, William. Baptist Patriots and the American Revolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Guardian Press, 1976 (first published in 1876 as The Baptists and the American Revolution).

---------. The Baptist Encyclopedia. Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881.

Christian, John T. A History of the Baptists. 2 vols. Texarkana, AR-TX: Bogard Press, 1997 (first published in 1926).

Hassal, Cushing Biggs and Sylvester. History of the Church of God from the Creation to A.D. 1885. Middletown, New York: Gilbert Beebe’s Sons Publishers, 1886.

Henry, William Wirt. The Presbyterian Church and Religious Liberty in Virginia. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2007 (first published in 1900).

James, Charles F. Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 2007 (first published in 1900).

Gillette, A. D. Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association from 1707 to 1807. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1851.

Graves, J. R. (ed.). The First Baptist Church in America. Texarkana, AR-TX: Baptist Sunday School Committee, 1939.

Thomas, Joshua. The American Baptist Heritage in Wales. Lafayette, TN: Church History Research and Archives, 1976.

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