Most of the readers of this journal are well acquainted with John Clarke and his 1651 Ill Newes from New England

Ill Newes from twenty-first century America: most of the readers of this journal are well acquainted with John Clarke and his 1651 Ill Newes from New England

Walter B. Shurden

Ill Newes, a seventeenth-century religious literary classic that screamed for religious freedom, is important for those of us in contemporary America for many reasons. Read Ill Newes carefully. Then read some of the legislation proposed in Washington, D.C. today, and you may want to write a sequel: Ill Newes from Twenty First Century America. But before contemporizing Ill Newes, let’s be sure that we understand John Clarke and his masterpiece.

No historian can ever minimize the importance of Roger Williams. However, John Clarke, not Roger Williams, was the most important and influential Baptist of seventeenth-century Colonial America. Such an appraisal

is not a novel interpretation. In making that claim, I join William Cathcart, A. H. Newman, W. R. Estep, William Brackney, and other historians who affirm that John Clarke deserves to be called the “Father of American Baptists.”

Clarke founded the second Baptist church in America, the First Baptist Church in Newport (1644), Rhode Island. One of the most passionate advocates of liberty of conscience in America’s history, Clarke stands out as one of the mountain peaks of Baptist history in America. No spiritual isolationist who kept his distance from messy politics, Clarke secured from King Charles II of England a new charter for Rhode Island Colony. The charter guaranteed full religious liberty for the little colony. Later elected to the General Assembly of Rhode Island, Clarke served three terms as deputy governor of the colony.

We primarily remember Clarke, however, for Ill Newes. Read carefully only a small part of Clarke’s long title: Ill Newes from New-England: or A Narrative of New-Englands Persecution. Wherein Is Declared That While old England is becoming new, New-England is become Old. He meant, of course, that at the time that Old England valiantly struggled to awake to the joyous sunshine of freedom of conscience, New England sadly wielded the “sword of steel” to repress conscience.

The myth stubbornly persists in American history that the founders of this country came here to establish religious liberty for all people. Not so! It is true that many of the earliest settlers came here to escape religious persecution. They came to America, however, to establish religious liberty for themselves, not for all citizens. Few people anywhere in the seventeenth century believed in religious liberty as a principle for all people. Universal religious liberty evolved as a hard-earned freedom in America. Anti-establishment forces dismantled the last state church in this country in 1833, two centuries after the founding of the earliest colonies.

The struggle for separation of church and state and the corresponding freedom of conscience have resurfaced in the twenty-first century. The radicalism of John Clarke is rare among modern-day Baptists in America. Today, the issues appear in more civil, more subtle, and more ambiguous ways: faith based charity, prayer in public schools, the posting of the Ten Commandments, vouchers, and other “harmless” strategies of both preachers and politicians. Baptists jump on the bandwagon of culture and believe that if the government is helping “religion in general,” “well? what’s the big deal?” The big deal is that this is Ill Newes from Twenty-First Century America.

For a copy of Clarke’s classic, see Colonial Baptists: Massachusetts and Rhode Island (New York: Arno Press, A New York Times Company, 1980). E-mail or go to The address is 1 Lower Mill Rd, North Stratford, NH 03590.

Walter B. Shurden

Executive Director

The Center for Baptist Studies

Mercer University

COPYRIGHT 2004 Baptist History and Heritage Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group