John Clarke (1609-1676) was a highly educated physician, statesman and Baptist Minister. He came to America seeking freedom to practice his faith without being silenced, or under strict rule of the King. In 1651 Dr. Clarke was arrested, jailed and sentenced to 20 lashes on the whipping post for holding a “unlawful service”. He was resonate that no one has the right to govern or convict any person for their religious beliefs. Overcoming personal sacrifices and risk of treason, Dr. Clarke wrote the Royal Charter of 1663 & secured from King Charles II on July 8, 1663 which granted Religious Freedom and Civil Liberties to the Colony of Rhode Island.
John Clarke, 1609 – 1676, was born in Westhorpe, Suffolk County England on October 3, 1609 to a well-to-do family. He was a highly educated Physician, Baptist Minister, Statesman(Law), Patriot and Benefactor who was modest, kind, sympathetic and loved by most. John Clarke is hailed as the true Founder of Newport RI and Founder of the First Baptist Church of Newport. He spoke 4 languages, English, Greek, Latin and Hebrew and founded the first free public school.
Dr. John Clarke held non-conformist progressive ideals for the times. He was passionately driven by his heart-felt belief that no man or government entity has the right to silence, harass or otherwise persecute any person for their religious beliefs. He referred to this as Soul-Liberty or Liberty of Conscience.
In November of 1637, at the age of 28, Dr. John Clarke along with his young wife Elizabeth and some of his siblings set sail for New England (America) with hopes to experience freedoms that were against Law of the King in Old England.
Not long after Dr. Clarke was on shore in America he witnessed the same Religious Intolerance & Persecutions as in Old England. He along with others were met with suspicion, disarmed and banished from “Boston”. In the dead of winter they headed out by foot to find a place where all were welcome regardless of religious beliefs to live in peace together.
Dr. John Clarke helped his friend Roger Williams and William Coddington purchase Aquidneck Island from the Narragansett Indians on March 24, 1638. Dr. John Clarke and others signed the agreement on April 28, 1639, thus marking the establishment of Newport.
In 1638 he founded one of the first Baptist Churches in America. As the towns well loved Physician and Minister, he went on to help colonize Portsmouth and Newport, Rhode Island. Dr. Clarke framed the Portsmouth Compact of 1638 referencing biblical guidelines from his personal bible and was on the committee to obtain patent from England in 1639 and 1642. He acted as the Rhode Island Commissioner in 1648.
On July 20, 1651, Dr. John Clarke was arrested and imprisoned along with church elders Obadiah Holmes and John Crandall for holding an illegal worship service at an elderly blind man’s (William Witter) home in Lynn, Mass. His sentence was a steep fine or 20 lashes on the public whipping post. While Dr. Clarke was being prepared at the whipping post, a stranger passing was startled by what he saw; “I cannot bear to see a scholar, a gentleman and reverend divine flogged.” Against Dr. Clarke’s dispute, the court accepted payment of his fine from this stranger and he was released back to Rhode Island.
Obadiah Holmes heard that his fine was to be paid, yet he refused the kind gesture as he “did nothing wrong in practicing his Christian faith”. He was held in a Boston Jail and on September 5, 1651 Obadiah was whipped mercilessly by a 3 cord rope 30 times on his bare back.
Dr. John Clarke was incensed, as elected Agent for the Colony of Rhode Island he set sail in November of 1651 back to London England to secure a strengthened charter on religious liberties and colony protections.
Dr. Clarke and his companions were sailing towards treacherous times in England. King Charles I was decapitated in 1649 and ruling came largely under Parliament and Oliver Cromwell, known as Lord Protector. While Cromwell wrote a letter in 1655 telling Rhode Island her current patent was safe, there were other hands at play in the midst to revoke the terms.
Supporting himself as a Physician and mortgaging his property in Rhode Island, Dr. John Clarke spent 12 years in London. He remained focused and diligent in his duties as the Colony’s Agent to guard their current Patent and to secure new and wide reaching Religious Freedoms under a self governing autonomous Colony.
Up against many obstacles including risk of treason, Dr. John Clarke stayed on track with civility towards his adversaries which gained him mutual respect. Following a number of petitions (10) that previously failed, on July 8, 1663 Dr. John Clarke presented a new Charter he wrote to King Charles II.
Dr. Clarke’s loyalties to the King, mediation capabilities and statesmanship convinced the King of England to pass with Royal Seal the Charter of 1663 which granted unprecedented Religious Freedom and Civil Liberties to the Colony of Rhode Island.
For the first time in world history, democracy was synonymous with freedom. Further the ground was broken for the United States Constitution and the democratic way of life that would not come until over a century later.
Even more astonishing, Dr. Clarke was able to achieve this unprecedented accomplishment through his humility, kind nature, sincere diplomacy and unwavering respect, having never said an unkind word or insulting action towards his adversaries or persecutors.
In today’s political and social climate, we hope Dr. Clarke’s story will inspire others how through heart driven focus and positive action it is possible to live together in peace and prosperity regardless of differing beliefs and without overreaching government interference.
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