Christ came, died and was resurrected and his followers formed a maranatha (Until He comes) centered church, persecuted by a non-Christian government.
Constantine, a Roman Emperor near death, became Christian and a Christian successor Theodosius I made Christianity a state religion in 381AD. Eusebius in his Church History recorded the Christian jubilation: “The whole human race was freed from the oppression of the tyrants. We especially, who had fixed our hopes upon the Christ of God, had gladness unspeakable.”[i]
The Christian church thus entered a model that did 3 things:
1. Enabled Christianity to survive and spread, per Great Commission
2. Enabled church officials to impose worship like activity onto unbelievers, against scripture (Isaiah 66, Hebrews 11:6)
3. Mixed up the role of civil government and relationship with the Lord, such that civil leaders forced ways of worship onto entire communities. There were penalties including taxes or fines, imprisonment, persecution, and death for merely talking about unapproved ways of worship.[ii]
This situation continued unabated for the next 1000 years.[iii] God called a hermit, Saint Benedict, to set a key example for Christian life in 528 AD with his Rule of St. Benedict, which became protected via isolation from Civil and Church Hierarchical politics and authority.[iv] Increasingly however the Christian church—including the Bishops going by the title Benedictine— assumed a role like that of the Pharisees –filled with legalism and intermediaries to God. A first demand for change came in 1457 when the Moravians[v] break away to form a Christ centered church. They are persecuted heavily, nearly out of existence. In 1534 when the Anglican Church and Catholic Church split[vi]. Kings ruled the Anglican church and the King/Queen decreed which church the people must follow. Both Catholic and Anglican versions of the Church kept the corrupted church and government combined model. The Puritans within the Anglican Church wanted further reform, but did not break the model. They came to the new world but immediately set up a church in the old model. Reforms did not include a change in the mix-up of government and church roles. Criticism of church –even to ask age-old theological questions that represent the tensions of an infinite God related to a finite people — were a threat to Puritan rulers and the thinkers were either beheaded in England (that is once they didn’t burn them at stake anymore) or banished to the pagan wilderness on the New England side of the ocean.[vii]
God used the printing press to catalyze change. In the early 1600’s small bands of people gathered privately and under threat of imprisonment and death to attempt to experience the individual relationship with the Lord that they were now able to read about in the Bible. Lawyer Thomas Helwys and his wife were imprisoned for believing that the church could not be true unless men and women could speak their consciences as Jesus did, and worship as they saw fit based on Biblical teaching and individual acceptance of a relation to the Lord, as opposed to merely the decrees of politicians or Church authorities or inclusion in a family that baptized infants. Before he was imprisoned he fled to Holland where he was the second person “immersed” for baptism as a believer by John Smyth. He returned home to London because his wife was in prison and he could not in good conscience live free while teaching others to persevere—he sent the King a letter with his proposals and was arrested and left to rot. Thomas eventually died for his beliefs in 1616 at Newgate prison. [viii]
While in Newgate Thomas Helwys was imprisoned with a writer named HH or Thomas himself wrote under a pseudonym, we don’t know. The writing included a key treatise arguing a scriptural basis against the practice of persecution for thinking and sharing thoughts while being civilly obedient and peaceful. The writing was smuggled out of the prison on milk bottle tops and ended up in two separate publications, 20 years apart and apparently independent in that neither refers to he other. The first publication was as several chapters of a longer AnaBaptist confession of faith, including a right to individual relationship with God and against persecution for religious thought. John Robinson[ix] in Holland felt compelled to reply to this writing[x], ripping it apart in favor of a Christian church / Government City on a Hill model. The second publication was also in England though written in America, as the first part of The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution by Roger Williams. The next section of The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution is written by Roger Williams, and expands on the concepts. Roger then proceeds in the final sections to type out a new model for church and state in a chapter-by-chapter rebuttal to the Puritan model espoused by Robinson and as well as by Richard Mather. [xi]
In 1644 Roger published the book The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution under a pseudonym during his first trip back to England. The first printing was ordered burned. This had the effect of making the second printing very widely read. [xii]
Roger Williams came to America as a Puritan minister in 1630, and was banished by the Puritan church in America in October 1635 for promoting with civil disobedience 4 tenants of his conscience.[xiii] He was banished against his will, and was in shock that the Puritan church he’d worked with others to create had chosen to mimic exactly the persecution style of the Catholic inquisition and Anglican Kings. Two of the reasons became fundamental to the tenants of a model for church that we now inherit: 1) he could not approve forcing unbelievers into acts of worship, as these are a stench to God, 2) the civil powers had authority only over keeping a civil peace and not over religion or determining if cause of conscience was correct or incorrect. The former became believer’s baptism in ritual form, and the later became separation of church and state[xiv], or the civil toleration of multiple forms of religious conscience.
The second two reasons he dropped as his model for church and state became more fully formed. They were 1) that land granted by patent was not legally owned by the English, that it had to be purchased from the Indians, and 2) that the Puritan church should separate from the Anglican church completely. Roger Williams never dropped his esteem for the Indians as humans but did drop his objection to having a patent.[xv] He found the Indians not to be governed by the same morals. Due to their different cultural values they did not recognize permanent land ownership at all. As a result they would sell the same land to multiple parties. Roger had to fight for patents to Rhode Island twice, although he was always careful to pay the Indians for the land in addition to having an official patent. The last reason he simply recanted in order to be restored to the Puritan church near the end of life.[xvi]
While he was banished, in March of 1639, Roger was publicly immersed and helped to found and minister to the first Baptist church in America, the second in the world (the first being in Leydon where John Smyth was). Because of his strong desire to be re-unified with Puritan church for concerns about succession, and because of his role in evangelizing the Indians, he soon left the church in Providence behind under the care of Reverend Chad Brown. [xvii] The two remained close, Roger did his preaching in the Indian language and to his family separately and the evangelistic Baptist church itself thrived on the principles of believer’s baptism, religious liberty, and individual relationship to the Lord. The second church was formed in Newport within 6 weeks, and 247 years later, in 1886, there were 18, 412 Baptist churches with 1,577,042 total members.[xviii] Roger Williams was also the first to believe that the laying on of hands was a practice as sacred as baptism because of its prominence in Hebrews 6:2 along with repentance, faith, baptism, resurrection, and judgment. [xix]
However, Roger William’s greatest contribution to the church was not as a minister but rather in his capacity as a civil authority. As a founder and Governor of Rhode Island he created an environment of religious toleration in which the Baptist church (and others) could flourish. He lived developing in detail a new model of church and state. Unlike Milton, it was not just theory but practice. Unlike Jeremy Taylor, as Roger Williams became powerful himself he did not punish those with different consciences or turn away from his principle for toleration of consciences by the state.[xx] Roger’s views were not adopted widely until after his death. Only in retrospect can we see why the suffering Roger experienced in banishment from the church he wanted to minister to was a part of God’s larger plan: God’s plan to build on Roger’s teaching was through his theological thought about the model of the church and as a governor to put that model in practice, as opposed to as a minister.
In 1665 the Dutch were driven from the New York and New Jersey region and the English government wished to settle the areas with English-people to hold the territory. Settling from Rhode Island in Middletown, NJ were Baptists and they form the First Baptist Church. Included in the first 10 original lot owners are the Rev. Obadiah Holmes [xxi](of civil disobedience fame for having been lashed by the Puritans for attending a private meeting where John Clarke preached very explicitly about repentance as a condition of salvation, meaning infants could not be saved, and for wearing a hat in church), John Smith[xxii] (who had part-Indian offspring and who may or may not have been related to the John Smith of Pocahontas fame, and a blacksmith George Mount .[xxiii] Obediah Holmes did not live on his lot, but his children did. George Mount did not live directly in Middletown on his lot but chose to live on the North branch of the Shrewsbury. The church in Middletown migrated in 1853 to the Riceville now Navesink area as the center of the population had moved toward the shore, and the remnant in Middletown became Old First Church. [xxiv]
In 1881 a 7-day camp-meeting was held in what is now Atlantic Highlands, sponsored by the Baptists and Methodists. [xxv]In December 1882 the Riceville congregation established a branch chapel at the Corner of Avenue D and Highlands.[xxvi]
The Atlantic Highlands branch of the Riceville church continued to flourish and in 1889 a full church was planted at the corner of Highland and 3rd, the current location.
Central Baptist Church is thus the great-granddaughter church of the initial Providence, Rhode Island church and a direct descendent of Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams.
[i] Eusebius, Church History, Book X, Chapter 2 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.xvi.ii.html
[ii] Williams, Roger, Edited by Samuel L Caldwell, Editor’s Volume 3 of The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, p. 194-195 footnote re penal laws which included fines or other punishments for not attending church, paying required taxes to support ministers etc.
[iii] Bauch, Pilgrim Church, Chapter 5, “Church and State” re. “1000 year union of church and state.”
[iv] de Waal, Esther , Seeking God The Way of St. Benedict, Chapter 1, the notion of St. Benedict building an ark for Christianity through his rule.
[vi] Bauch, Pilgrim Church, Chapter 16, p. 253, Radical and Established, “church w/o Pope, Catholicism w/o Rome….1539 Henry had issued the Act of VI Articles…”
[vii] Williams, Roger, Edited by Samuel L Caldwell, Volume 3 of The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, p. 374 footnote 1 for punishments in old England, p. 386 footnote 1 for punishments in New England.
[viii] DVD re Thomas Helwys, 2010, BMS.
[ix] Pitts, Bill, “Baptist History and Heritage:, 2009, discusses Helwys vs Robinson views. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Arguing+regenerate+church+membership%3A+Baptist+identity+during+its…-a0199461798
[x] Williams, Roger, Edited by Samuel L Caldwell, Editor’s Preface to Volume 3 of The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Footnote 2 on page v, lists as reference “Tracts on Liberty of Conscience” 89, 187. Crosby, “History of Baptists”, i:99, 276. Ivimey, do. I: 125. The title of Robinson’s work is “A Defence of the Doctrine propounded by the Sunod at Dort, against John Murton and his Associates, with the Refutation of their Answer to a writing touching baptism. By John Robinson. Printed in the year 1624, See Young, “Chron. Of Pilgrims”, p. 454.
[xi] Williams, Roger, The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Vol. 3, Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, edited by Samuel Calwell
[xii] Williams, Roger, Edited by Samuel L Caldwell, Editor’s Preface to Volume 3 of The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, page XIII, quotes Roger Williams as saying in 1671 “Tis true my first book The Bloudy Tenent was burned by the Presbyterian Party.” The second printing occurred within the year.
[xiii] Williams, Roger, Volume 7 of The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, “Roger Williams: An Essay in Interpretation”, by Perry Miller.
[xiv] Kaufmann, Michael. W., Institutional Individualism; Conversion, Exile, and Nostalgia in Puritan New England, 1998, p. 70 re “Williams seeking to create a place where a witness can speak the abosolute truth”
[xv] Winslow, Ola Elizabeth, Master Roger Williams,1957, p. 265, patent received for RI after a decade of work to receive it.
[xvi] Winslow, Ola Elizabeth, Master Roger Williams,1957, p. 284.
[xvii] Williams, Roger, with Biographical Introduction by Reuben Aldridge Guild, The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, p.37 of the Biographical Introduction.
[xviii] Guild, Reuben Aldridge, Biographical Introduction to the Writings of Roger Williams, footnote on p. 35 of Vol 1 of The Complete Writings of Roger Williams is a quote from an American Baptist Almanac, sometime after 1853.
[xix]Williams, Roger, The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Volume 7, p.162. Williams argue for baptism of believers (only) and laying on of hands as Christian foundations.
[xx] Williams, Roger, Edited by Samuel L Caldwell, Editor’s Preface to Volume 3 of The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, p. xii discusses Roger William’s contemporaries that also promoted toleration.
[xxi] Obediah Holmes story is found in two places: Williams, Roger, Edited by Samuel L Caldwell, p. 52 of Volume 4 of The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, footnote 1, and in Winslow, Ola Elizabeth, Master Roger Williams,1957, p. 231-232.
[xxii] Winslow, Ola Elizabeth, Master Roger Williams,1957, p. 26. John Smith the father at Roger William’s childhood church, a generation older than Roger; John Smith of Providence and Middletown in Williams, Roger, The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Volume 6, Edited by John Russell Bartlet, p. 90, footnote.
[xxiii]Web, Robert, “Churches With Links to the British Isles and to the European Continent”, The Primitive Baptist Library http://www.carthage.lib.il.us/community/churches/primbap/OldWorld.html
[xxv] The agenda and speakers for this event are recorded in “From Indian Trail to Electric Rail”, page 199 and following.
[xxvi] “From Indian Trail to Electric Rail”, page 216