In 1638, Dr. John Clarke began to hold worship services in the newly formed town of Pocaseet, now called Portsmouth. One year later he helped to establish Newport on the South side of the island where he continued to hold church services. By 1644 John Clarke had guided his congregation to become one of the first two Baptist churches in America.
John Clarke and his followers set out to establish a settlement which would put forth the group’s beliefs in soul liberty, religious freedom, and civil liberty.
Thomas Bicknell has written, “Soul Liberty and worship is man’s castle, which no human being, no court of justice, no magistrate, no law, no civil state, no high potentate can enter with impunity, without human consent.”
As to religious freedom, it was viewed that no man can disturb anyone from worshiping as he pleases as long as he does not disrupt the civil order, or peace, or safety of the state.
Records suggest that Dr. Clarke held regular worship meetings in Portsmouth and it is recorded that on May 13, 1638, ground was set aside to erect a meeting house. There is, however, no record to show that such a building was ever built.
On April 28, 1639, Clarke and the others reached an agreement to move to the southern end of the island and form a new settlement, which became known as Newport. This move was made because of the increased population in Portsmouth, and because the lower reaches of Narragansett Bay offered better opportunities for commerce. The first meeting house for the colony was built in the Green End area in 1644.
As the colony grew, Dr. Clarke played many roles: pastor, surveyor, physician, and civic officer. Under his leadership, the colonists built a foundation for this experiment in freedom which enabled it to stand against the pressures of time. Clarke soon set about laying out streets and surveying and assigning plots of land to those in his party. This new colony was well organized and carefully planned by Clarke and his followers. In 1640 the first public school was set up, and land was set apart for educational purposes, with Robert Lenthal as the first teacher.
In 1639, Dr. Clarke wrote to Sir Harry Vane as the first step to obtaining a charter to the new colony. Roger Williams obtained a charter for the Rhode Island colony on March 14, 1644. This charter, however, failed to include any reference to religious liberty, or to Indian land titles. The people of Rhode Island wanted more.
Early in 1651, William Coddington, while in England, succeeded in having himself appointed Governor of the colony for life. When word of this appointment reached the colony, there was great dissatisfaction. In the fall of this same year, John Clarke and Roger Williams were sent to retain a recall of Coddington’s appointment. Williams returned to the colony the following year, but Clarke remained in England for twelve years until he was able to obtain the Royal Charter of 1663, which addressed his beliefs of liberty for all. While in England, Dr. Clarke supported himself at his own expense. The colony had agreed to provide money for his effort, but there is no record that he was ever fully repaid.
On July 8, 1663, King Charles II granted the Royal Charter which created the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England, America. This new charter included marked concessions by King Charles II. Clarke’s efforts had led to the “establishment of the first government in the world, which gave to all equal, civil, and religious freedom.”
During the twelve years Clarke was in England, Obadiah Holmes was called upon to provide pastoral leadership for the Newport church. Holmes, who had been arrested along with John Clarke and John Crandall for holding an “illegal worship service”. They were arrested, jailed and sentenced to heavy fines or be “well whipped”. Obadiah was mercilessly whipped 30 times on Boston Common in September, 1651. Obadiah Holmes was a strong leader and supported the beliefs and faith of John Clarke.
The Story of Holmes’ persecution is told in detail in Clarke’s book, “Ill News from New England.” He served again as pastor of the church following Clarke’s death on April 20, 1676. Holmes died on October 16, 1682.
In the will of John Clarke, land on Tanner Street (now Dr. Marcus F. Wheatland Blvd.) was left for the use of the church as a burial ground. Dr. Clarke, John Calendar, and Michael Eddy are among those buried there.
In 1708, the first meeting house in Newport was built on land on Tanner Street, on the corner of Calendar Avenue, adjacent to the cemetery. The building on Green End was sold. In 1737, land on Spring Street was donated to the church by Hezekiah Carpenter and Josiah Lyons, and a building was constructed the following year. It was enlarged in 1771.
In 1778, this building was occupied by British troops. The structure was moved to front on Sherman Street in 1846, and was eventually demolished in 1929. In 1846, the present building of the United Baptist Church was built on the Spring Street site. Until 1946, it was known as the First Baptist Church (John Clarke Memorial).
While Dr. Clarke was in England, the first separation from the original congregation occurred; 21 members withdrew from the First Baptist Church and established the Second or Six Principle Baptist Church. The principles were repentance from dead works, faith toward God, baptism, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal life. From 1700 to 1736, James Clarke, nephew of Dr. John Clarke, was the pastor. This group met for forty years in the houses of their followers. Their first meeting house was built on land bought form Nathaniel Coddington on what is now Farewell Street, at the corner of North Baptist Street.
After the Revolutionary War, this meeting house was repaired and continued in use until 1835, when a new Gothic church was built on the same location. The original building was moved across the street and was used for worship until the new church was ready. This new building seated a thousand people and had an organ worth eighteen thousand dollars. The ancient clock from this church, with its solemn message, “Time Rolls On, Eternity Hastens”, ticks in the entry of the United Baptist Church.
In 1847, forty-three members from the Second Baptist Church left the church and formed the Central Baptist Church. These members were unhappy with the powers given to the Six Principles Society in the process of selecting a pastor. The Society consisted entirely of men and not necessarily members of the church. The forty-three members believed strongly in the right of the church members to choose their pastor. Within one week, their membership had grown to over sixty, including all of the officers of the Second Baptist Church. With this move, church members gave up all rights to church property and funds.
The newly formed Central Baptist Church purchased the former Congregational Church on Clarke Street to use as its meeting house. Rev. Ezra Stiles, later president of Yale University, had served as the pastor of the Congregational Church for sixteen years. During the Revolution, this building suffered damage while British troops were quartered there. When the delegates met to ratify the United States Constitution, they found that the Colony House was too small, and so moved to the church on Clarke Street, where final ratification took place.
In 1906, the Second Baptist Church consolidated with the Central Baptist Church. As part of this consolidation, it was agreed that the church’s name would be the Second Baptist Church, and that the house of worship would be the Central Baptist Church on Clarke Street. The Gothic structure on Farewell Street was demolished that same year.