The Reverend John Callender (1706-1748) became the first historian of Rhode Island in 1738 when he wrote a work to commemorate the colony’s centennial. Not surprisingly, he viewed his topic through a religious prism; surprisingly, he thought the arrival of William Coddington, Anne Hutchinson, Dr. John Clarke, and other Aquidneck settlers in 1638 truly launched the colony. This era’s most authoritative historian, Sydney James, observes that “in Callender’s day, common sense could readily find reasons for assigning primacy to these people. Their towns on the island of Aquidneck, Newport, and Portsmouth were still the center of wealth, population, culture, and government in the colony.”
Rhode Island’s first historian was born in Boston, the son of Priscilla Man and John Callender and the grandson of the Reverend Ellis Callender, pastor of that town’s First Baptist Church from 1708 to 1726. Young John entered Harvard College at the age of thirteen with the assistance of income provided by Thomas Hollis, a London Baptist, who had endowed two professorships at the school and also supplied Harvard with scholarship funds. Upon graduating in 1726 with a Master’s degree, Callender joined his grandfather’s congregation and soon obtained a license to preach. In August 1728, he began his ministry by teaching in Swansea at the oldest Baptist church in Massachusetts, an assembly that dated from 1663. There he remained until February 1730. While a resident of that former Plymouth Colony town, Callender met Elizabeth Hardin. The couple soon married and eventually had three sons and three daughters, one of whom, Mary, became a noted preacher in the Society of Friends.
In October 1731, at age twenty-five, Callender was ordained to the regular ministry by his uncle Elisha and became pastor of the Baptist church in Newport, founded by Dr. John Clarke–the second oldest church of that faith in colonial America. He held this prestigious post for nearly seventeen years until his death. During his pastorate, Callender became one of Newport’s religious, civic, and intellectual leaders and a local library and philosophical society member. This organization, the Society for Promoting Virtue and Knowledge by a Free Conversation, became the basis for the Redwood Library. Among his civic posts were schoolmaster, an office to which he was elected by the citizens of Newport in 1746, and service on a legislative committee to revise and print the colony’s laws. This committee produced the Digest of 1745, published by Ann Franklin. Callender’s gentle, ecumenical, and non-confrontational demeanor made him popular and well-liked in Newport and beyond.
Though he wrote several widely circulated sermons, Callender’s major effort was An Historical Discourse on the Civil and Religious Affairs of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England, In America, published by a Boston printer in 1739, a year after its completion. In the Baptist tradition, this one-hundred-thirty-page narrative extolled the concepts of religious liberty and church-state separation upon which the colony was founded. At one point, in his so-called “Century Sermon,” Callender remarked that “the surest way to preserve and enjoy our Charter privileges, is to divide the posts of honor, trust, and profit among all [religious] persuasions indifferently; and, in general, to prefer those gentlemen, of whatever religious opinions. . . that are best qualified to serve the public . . . and to suffer no one religious sect to monopolize the places of power and authority.” At this time, ironically, the Rhode Island body politic was governed by a 1719 statute that barred Roman Catholics and those of the Jewish faith from voting or holding office. That law was repealed for Catholics in 1783 and for Jews in 1798. Callender’s discourse was a veiled rebuke to the prevailing discriminatory system.
His interest in history also led Callender to collect historical documents relating to the Baptist denomination, and his research material was a useful source of information for the Reverend Isaac Backus when the latter wrote his history of the Baptists in New England.
The Reverend Callender was especially noteworthy for his harmonious relationship with Congregationalists in Newport and Boston. He was a close friend and classmate of Samuel Mather, grandson of Increase Mather, who had persecuted the earliest Baptists in Massachusetts. He preached a tolerant, non-strident form of theology referred to by historians of American religion as “Old Light,” a view that identified with inherited institutions and saw preaching as a way to preserve the social order. According to historian William Joyce, “the importance of Callender’s writing lay in its marking a change from conflict between Baptists and Congregationalists to one among groups within both churches.” Education and socioeconomic standing became the factors within each religious group that produced conflicting attitudes toward social and theological issues. Clearly, the educated and urbane Callender approached religion differently from most of his rural Baptist counterparts, who were swept up in the contemporary revival called the Great Awakening.
John Callender died on January 26, 1748, after a long illness and was interred in Newport’s Common Burial Ground. His passing produced several eloquent eulogies, not only by Newporters but by the Boston press as well, where the Gazette described him accurately as a “gentleman of. . .natural accomplishments, and extensive learning; of the greatest integrity and modesty,” and the Boston Evening Post remembered him as a man of “superior good sense and very extensive knowledge who was an entire stranger to cunning and artifice.”
Rev. John Callender was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2010.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.