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Friday, October 14, 2011

An Unsung Hero of Liberty, Dr. John Clarke

Dr. John Clarke

John Clarke (1609-1676), Pioneer in American Medicine, Democratic Ideals, and Champion of Religious Liberty, by Louis Franklin Asher, reprint 2004.

Publisher: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., Paris, Arkansas

History comes to life when we look through the eyes of the people who lived it. More often than not, those eyes belong to people who were in leadership or held their heads up as victors in some way. But what of the people who fought on the unpopular side? Who were the underdogs or the defeated or chose a path contrary to the norm?

Unless you grew up in Rhode Island, chances are you have never heard of or know little about Dr. John Clarke, both a pastor and a doctor who played a significant role in developing the notion of freedom of religion.

Dr. John Clarke lived in a time of religious upheaval. The Puritans sought to purify the church of the workings of Catholicism, King Charles I was behead because of his religious position, Oliver Cromwell took leadership of England with passionate opposition to Catholicism, and in Massachusetts the Puritans ruled with an iron fist, determined to make this new land more holy than England.

An environment that no doubt influenced Dr. Clarke’s thoughts on government, religion, and liberty.

This book gives an extensive look at this colonial patriot, considering his social, political, and religious role in the development of our beloved American republic. Louis Franklin Asher said, “John Clarke of Rhode Island was the initiator of democratic ideals in New England, he was an explorer in New England medicine, and he played a seminal role in establishing religious freedom in the Rhode Island colony by initiating it and legally upholding its practice.” (p. xi).

From this work, I glean a picture of a kind man who loved the Lord enough to risk everything to please Him, and a man dedicated to serving his people.

Dr. Clarke gave medical attention to Anne Hutchinson, a woman who would later be expelled from Massachusetts for her religious beliefs. He was not, however, an Antinomian, the movement Anne Hutchinson started. He was clearly Baptist and openly opposed to the Puritans.

“As a Baptist, Clarke boldly exposed the intolerant, but widely acclaimed, Puritan church/state structure and publicly denounced their covenantal baptism as unfounded by the Scriptures. He unflinchingly charged the New England clergy as unbaptized and unordained usurpers of the true Christian ministry and maintained that their churches were improperly constituted and governed.” (p. 22).

United Baptist Church, Newport, Rhode Island. Est. 1638, Dr. John Clarke's church

Dr. Clarke did not stay long in Boston before moving with a group to Portsmouth, Rhode Island then to the location now known as Newport. In this place, we see him employ his passion for freedom for the good of the community.

Events and people stirred his concern over the future of this new colony, and provoked him into playing a significant role in creating the first colonial democracy. “As a servant of the people, Dr. Clarke would steer the colony toward a government of unprecedented civil and religious liberty—convinced that any other move would be in the direction of a self-centered autocratic theocracy.” (p.35).

When Charles II ascended the English throne, Dr. Clarke pleaded via petition for the king’s sympathy and support for the colony’s pursuit of freedom. This led to a charter for the colony defending the liberty of conscience:

“…in their humble address, they have freely declared that it is much on their lively hearts (if they may be permitted) to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained, and that among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments…That our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said Colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any difference in opinion in matters of religion…freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments,…” (p. 79).

I was first introduced to Dr. Clarke when I read of the arrest and trial of Obadiah Holmes. Dr. Clarke was also arrested, and he defended himself at the trial, embarrassing the court with his ability and knowledge. Such a man, it seemed to me, was worth studying.

For me, this character of history stirred a passion to not only study early American history, but also to understand how persecuted Christians endured the trials they faced.

Today many perspectives are given on what freedom of religion should be. Many of these perspectives are given without fully understanding the players who worked to give us that freedom. Dr. Clarke is an unsung hero of this freedom.

“From the beginning of Clarke’s settlement in Aquidneck, he advocated a political and religious philosophy, a government by and for the people; further he stood up for a distinctive civil and religious freedom.” (p. 91).

Dear readers, have you heard of Dr. Clarke? How do you think this little-known man shaped the course of history?


  1. Thanks, Lynn, for sharing! I appreciate all this great information.

  2. Hi Lynn-
    I've never heard of Dr. Clarke, but he sounds like a fascinating character, and one who understood the "freedom of religion" that God grants to every soul and heart. He also inspires me in that he was willing to do something about it, even against great opposition.
    Thanks so much for telling us about him.
    Have a wonderful day:)


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