Dr. John Clarke (1609–1676) was the son of Thomas and Rose (Kerrich) Clarke. He was born in Westhorpe, Suffolk, in 1609, the fifth of seven children (according to a listing in the family’s Geneva Bible) and the third of five sons, four of whom ultimately settled in Newport. He was probably married to his first wife, Elizabeth Harris, before he left England. Little is known of his education or formative years, but his knowledge of theology, Hebrew and medicine clearly indicates some formal schooling.
Clarke landed in Boston in November 1637, just after the General Court had taken its last rigorous action against Anne Hutchinson and her Antinomians. He boldly placed himself among the defeated supporters of the “covenant of grace,” and they recognized him at once as a leader. He and other dissenters went immediately to Exeter, New Hampshire, and then to Providence, where he was courteously received by Roger Williams in early 1638. The result of this meeting and a consultation with the Plymouth authorities was a decision by Clarke and his associates to settle at Portsmouth on the island of Aquidneck.
On March 7, 1638, Clarke was one of eighteen who signed a compact at Portsmouth creating a new body politic. Although William Coddington, the first signer, was selected as judge, Clarke, as physician and preacher, was equally a leader, though he was not an Antinomian. Because of internal disputes about the governance of Portsmouth, a year later these two men and a few others moved to the southern end of the island, settling Newport.
Clarke’s original relations with the religious denomination called Baptists are obscure. He may have had contact with Anabaptists in Holland; he may have been among those in Rhode Island who, according to John Winthrop, “turned professed Anabaptists” in 1641. However, from 1644 at the latest, he was pastor of the Baptist church in Newport, and he thereafter became one of Rhode Island’s foremost advocates for religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
The most unpleasant incident in Clarke’s career was his 1651 trip with John Crandall and Obadiah Holmes to Lynn, Massachusetts, where he and his associates were arrested for holding a religious service and taken to Boston for trial. The specific charges against Clarke were unauthorized preaching, disrespect in the assembly of worship, administering the Lord’s Supper to persons under discipline and denying the lawfulness of infant baptism. All three men were sentenced to be fined or whipped. Without Clarke’s knowledge, a friend paid his fine of twenty pounds.
Later that same year, Clarke went with Roger Williams and Clarke’s secretary, William Dyer, to England to void the patent making his former associate William Coddington proprietor of the Aquidneck towns and president of the splinter colony for life. After gaining recision of this grant, Williams soon returned to America, but Clarke remained in England as the colony’s agent. In 1652, he published a tract in London entitled Ill Newes from New England, a pioneering treatise written to explain his emerging Baptist beliefs and to condemn the traumatic persecution he had suffered for conducting religious services during his 1651 missionary visit to Massachusetts Bay.
It is possible that Clarke returned to America for a short time in 1661, but he was in England in 1663 to secure the justly famous royal charter of 1663 from King Charles II with the influential assistance of Connecticut governor John Winthrop Jr., who had secured a similar self-governing corporate charter from the king in 1662. However, Connecticut’s basic law contained no separation clauses—a purposeful omission that resulted in Congregationalism remaining the established church of Connecticut until 1818.
Rhode Island’s liberal document, drafted in part by Clarke, enshrined his own views and those of Roger Williams concerning religious liberty and the separation of church and state. Clarke returned to Newport in 1664, triumphantly bearing Rhode Island’s new basic law. The charter’s famous phrases “lively experiment” and “full liberty in religious concernments” were due as much to the craftsmanship of Clarke as to the directorship of Williams.
While continuing to serve as minister and physician, Dr. Clarke was elected to the General Assembly from 1664 to 1669 and thrice held the office of deputy governor (1669–1672). He retired from political activity in 1672, a year after he married a second wife, Jane Fletcher, who died a little more than a year later following the birth of her child, who also died. Soon thereafter, Clarke married Sarah Davis, who survived him. Dr. Clarke left a will establishing a trust for charitable purposes, including “the relief of the poor or bringing up of children unto learning.” The will resulted in the construction of a Baptist meetinghouse and much controversy in Newport over the distribution of Clarke’s estate.
Recently, this pioneering but neglected apostle of religious liberty has become the subject of two biographies that recognize his equal role with Roger Williams in developing the American tradition of separation between church and state. Recent works by Louis F. Asher and noted colonial historian Sydney V. James now supplement the earlier biography by prolific Rhode Island historian Thomas Williams Bicknell. Despite this belated recognition and the recent formation in Newport of the John Clarke Society, the image of Roger Williams as colony founder, his interaction with leaders in both England and New England and his voluminous writings spanning nine published volumes ensure that he will always overshadow his like-minded Newport colleague Dr. John Clarke.
Patrick T. Conley
For Further Reading:
Patrick T. Conley. Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood. Charlestown, SC: The History Press, 2010.