The American Link
The earliest presence of Anabaptists in America is unknown. However, gathered congregations began appearing as early as the 1630s. Further, there is evidence that Baptists were having some influence upon some members of the Puritan Established Church in Massachusetts Colony.
In 1637 Boston was seven years old and boasted a population of more than one-thousand. The Colony had adopted Puritan Congregationalism as the Standing Order. As such, the First Church of Boston was was served by Rev. John Wilson and Rev. John Cotton as pastor and teacher, respectively.
About this time, certain members began to question the rigidity of the doctrine of works taught by the Puritans. Several women members, led by Mrs. Anne Hutchinson began meeting on the first Monday each month to discuss matters of religion. Eventually men began frequenting the meetings. Leading members of the community became regular attenders of the informal discussions. Those in attendance began to question the disparity between the doctrines of Puritan Congregationalism and Bible teachings relating to the doctrine of regeneration and evidences of grace. These monthly discussions soon led to a schism in the church. Those who opposed Congregational teachings identified themselves as followers of the Covenant of Grace. Those who opposed their views, while holding to the Congregational position were described as followers of a Covenant of Works. The Covenant of Works faction also referred to the Covenant of Grace group as Antinomians. It was to this climate of religious controversy that Elder John Clarke arrived in Boston in the fall of 1637.
Dr. Clarke was born of Thomas and Catherine Cook Clarke on October 3, 1609 in Westhorpe, Suffolk County England. He was one of eight children. With the exception of one sister who died in infancy, and a younger brother, William, all of his siblings followed him to America, settling in and around Newport, Rhode Island. He was raised in a moderately wealthy family. Though his parents both died in 1627, they left enough financial support to see to his education. He was educated as a physician, receiving instruction both in England and on the European Continent. He concluded his formal education at the University of Leydon, in Holland in 1635. Records indicate the graduation of “Johannees Clarcq” on July 17, 1635.
When Elder Clarke arrived in Boston, from England, in November 1637 he was already a Baptist. The exact date and circumstance of his conversion to Baptist sentiment is unknown. It is presumed by several historians that he converted to Baptist faith while at university in Holland. Some believe he became a baptist and was ordained as a minister in England, before he traveled to Holland. However, though his early history is at best, obscured, a great deal is known about his theological persuasions from the time of his arrival in America. From the very beginning of his residency in the New World Elder Clarke demonstrated sound and settled Baptist sentiment. There is no evidence he entertained either Congregational or Anglican sentiment after his arrival. Also, unlike Roger Williams, Elder Clarke’s life history provides no hint that he was in the midst of a “theological journey” when he arrived in America. The church he constituted in 1638, he continued to pastor throughout his ministry except for the years he served as Rhode Island’s Ambassador to England.
Dr. Comfort Edwin Barrows, in footnoting the diary of Elder John Comer wrote the following concerning Elder Clarke’s theology. “John Clarke was a broad-minded, level-head, strong man; a man of God. In his doctrinal and practical views he was remarkably in accord with the Regular Baptists of the present time in this country.” (Dr. Barrows mistakenly characterized John Clarke’s theology as that of the Regular Baptists. We shall presently demonstrate that his theology was primitive).
Upon arriving in Boston, Elder Clarke quickly realized the climate of religious oppression in the Massachusetts Colony was not favorable toward Baptists. Soon after his arrival, the Antinomians (so-called by their enemies) were excommunicated from the Established Church. Clarke was suspected of siding with the Covenant of Grace dissenters, though he had not taken any position nor made any statements critical of the Congregationalists. Nevertheless, he was disarmed by the local magistrate. The harsh treatment of dissenters, together with his own shabby welcome in Boston convinced him he should find residence elsewhere.
Evidently, even before leaving Boston, the Covenant of Grace dissenters organized themselves into a gathered body. This group cannot be properly considered a church until sometime later. However, Elder Clarke’s statement in his booklet Ill News from New England indicates their organization together with Clarke’s position of respected advisor. It reads, “In the year 1637 I left my native land, in the ninth month of the same I (through mercy) arrived in Boston. I was no sooner on shore, but there appeared to me differences among them touching the covenants, and in points of evidencing a man’s good estate; some prest hard for the Covenant of Works, and for sanctification to be the first and chief evidence; others prest as hard for the Covenant of Grace that was established upon better promises, and for the evidence of the Spirit, as that which is a more certain, constant and satisfactory witness. I thought it not strange to see men differ about matters of Heaven, for I expect no less upon Earth. But to see that they were not able so to bear with others in their different understandings and consciences, as in these uttermost parts of the world to live peaceably together, whereupon I moved the latter, for as much as the land was before us and wide enough with the profer of Abraham to Lot, and for peace sake, to turn aside to the right hand or to the left. The motion was accepted and I was requested with some others to seek out a place.” Elder Clarke’s statement, that he “moved” (made a motion) and “the motion was accepted,” indicates the Boston Covenant of Grace dissenters had organized themselves enough to practice democratic process.
His words also tell something of his own theology. Clearly, he preferred the Covenant of Grace position over the Covenant of Works position. The distinction he makes between the two is at the heart of the variance between Calvinism and sovereign grace theology. The Congregationalists were Calvinists of the strictest sort. Their Covenant of Works position stressed their belief in a strict doctrine of progressive sanctification, where works alone are depended upon as evidences of grace. This contrasts with the Covenant of Grace position endorsed by Clarke, which allows that the obedience of good works is an evidence of grace, but places greater certainty in the motive for obedience; which is, the love of God shed abroad in the heart of everyone who is born again. Elder Clarke believed good works follows grace, but he relied upon the testimony of the “Spirit bearing witness with our spirit” as a constant and satisfactory witness of new birth. His statement indicates he was a primitive Baptist with respect to this doctrine of grace. He believed in a heart felt religion. Because of this belief, he and the group which followed him to Rhode Island were labeled Antinomians, invoking a description which, beginning in Paul’s day (Romans 3:8) up to the present time, the primitive church has suffered.
Elder Clarke led his small congregation to the Island of Aquidneck, which they subsequently purchased from local native Americans. They established a village which they named Newport. Adquidneck was later named Rhode Island.
The first fully organized Baptist Church was gathered in Newport, Rhode Island in the early months of 1638. This early date is substantiated by several sources. Although Benedict cites 1644 as the earliest date of this church, he is mistaken. Elder Clarke’s tombstone attests to the earlier date of organization. It reads:
To the Memory of Doctor John Clarke, one of the founders of the First Baptist Church of Newport, its first pastor, and munificent benefactor; He was a native of Bedfordshire, England, and a practitioner of physic in London. He, his associates, came to this Island from Mass., in March 1638, O. S. and on the 24 of the same month obtained a deed thereof from the Indians. He shortly after gathered the church aforesaid and became its pastor; in 1651, he with Roger Williams, was sent to England, by the people of Rhode Island colony, to negotiate the business of the Colony with the British Ministry. Mr. Clarke was instrumental in obtaining the charter of 1663 from Charles II, which secured to the people of the State free and full enjoyment of judgment and conscience in matters of religion. He remained in England to watch over the interests of the Colony until 1664. Mr. Clark and Mr. Williams, two fathers of the colony, strenuously and fearlessly maintained that none but Jesus Christ had authority over the affairs of conscience. He died April 20, 1676, in the 66th year of his age, and is here interred.
William Cathcart, in Baptist Encyclopedia pages 240 and 840 wrote; “A church was gathered in 1638, probably early in the year, of which Mr. Clarke became pastor or teaching elder. He is mentioned (in 1638) as “preacher to those of the island” as “their minister” as “elder of the church there” by Mr. Lechford writing in 1640, after having made a tour through New England, that “at the island……there is a church where one Master Clarke is pastor.”
The date of the constitution of Newport Church is significant. It occurred three years before the baptismal service in London which transformed the Spilsbury congregation from Separatists to Baptists. Thus, three years before the group that later became identified as Particular Baptists actually adopted Baptist faith and practice, there was a fully functional, orderly Baptist Church on American soil. The Newport Church was not constituted as a Particular or Regular Baptist Church because Particular Baptist identity did not exist in 1638. In faith and practice, the Newport Church was primitive Baptist, as we shall shortly disclose.
In 1650 Obadiah Holmes, after being excommunicated from the Puritan Congregationalist Church and banished from Plymouth Colony, arrived in Rhode Island at Newport. His exclusion and banishment stemmed from his strong support of believers baptism and baptism by immersion, both Baptist tenets.
Holmes journey to Baptist sentiment and residency in Newport began upon his arriving in America in 1639. Initially, he and his wife Katherine joined the Puritan Congregationalists in Salem. Observing their harsh judgement and treatment of dissenters, in contrast to Christ’s message of love, Holmes became dissatisfied with the practice of the Established Church. Further, upon study of the word of God he came to realize that baptism represented the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Not only so, his study of theology led him into the doctrines of grace; whereby he concluded, “that there is no preparation necessary to obtain Christ…. Nothing can be done by man; there is nothing that he can do to bring down salvation from heaven to earth. For what has to be done has already been done and done by God, not by man.”
In 1643 Holmes moved from Salem to Rehoboth, part of Plymouth Colony. Though the climate there was equally harsh toward Baptist sentiment, he initially received better treatment and was elevated to the status of freeman. While residing in Rehoboth he heard the doctrines of grace preached for the first time. In 1649, Newport Church extended an arm to Rehoboth sending Elder Clarke to minister to the small congregation of Baptists gathered there. Later, this group formally organized into a church. Holmes joined them in 1650. No doubt, feeling a burden to preach the gospel and desiring to learn at the feet of Dr. Clarke, Holmes move to Newport. In 1651 he moved his family and, with his wife Katherine, united with Newport Church. The same year he was ordained to the work of the ministry.
Later in 1651 Elder Holmes took occasion to accompany Elder Clarke and John Crandall to Lynn, Massachusetts to visit a shut-in member of Newport Church. As they bowed in prayer, in the home of Brother Witter, the local sheriff burst in and arrested the three for holding an unlawful worship service. They were brought before a local magistrate where a mock trial was held. All three were found guilty, though they were denied the right of counsel, the right to face their accusers, and no witnesses were presented against them. Elder Clarke was fined twenty pounds, Elder Holmes thirty and Crandall five. Elders Clarke and Holmes were given a choice of paying their fines or being “well whipped.”
The fines and beatings were mild compared to the intense hatred the authorities and local clergy of the Established Church held against the Elders and their doctrine. The governor of Massachusetts, John Endicott, in frustration at the courts inability to cite a single law which the three had broken (the incident occurred during the time of the first Act of Toleration), finally expressed his true sentiments and, no doubt, those of the Established Puritan Church. Elder Clarke later wrote of Endicott’s outburst. “None were able to turn the law of God or man by which we were condemned. At length the Governor stepped up, and told us we had denied infant’s baptism, and, being somewhat transported, told me I had deserved death, and said he would not have such trash brought into their jurisdiction.”
John Crandall paid his fine and returned to Newport. Declaring their innocence, Elders Clarke and Holmes refused to pay their fines, which prolonged their imprisonment. After about three weeks Elder Clarke was released. Various reasons for his release are offered by different historians. In point, however, they all agree that Elder Clarke did not pay his fine. Some suggest that friends paid it. One account notes an unknown gentleman who could not stand to see another gentleman publicly flogged.
Another account suggests that Elder Clarke was released in order to avoid a public debate of believer’s baptism and baptism by immersion. During his trial Elder Clarke challenged Mr. Howell to a debate of these issues. Apparently, there was considerable support among the populace that the debate occur. It is surmised Mr. Howell, knowing he could not successfully defend his position of pedobaptism, arranged Elder Clarke’s release to avoid the debate. Elder Clarke offered to return to Massachusetts to debate Howell, but Govenor Endicutt refused to guarantee he would not again be arrested and imprisoned.
It is known that Elder Clarke had every intention of suffering the pain and humiliation of a public beating rather than consenting to the injustice of the Massachusetts judiciary. One account of the affair states that he stood stripped to the waist and was tied to the whipping post before being suddenly released.
It is probable the real object of the irrational rage of the magistrates and clergy of Massachusetts was Obadiah Holmes. Having been previously excommunicated from the Puritan Established Church and banished from the Colony of Massachusetts, his presence was viewed as an affront to both religious and civic authority. He was to be taught a lesson, as an example to warn others of the severe consequences of excommunication and banishment.
Accordingly, on September 5 he was taken from his cell and brought to the public whipping post to be beaten. The post was located behind the Old State House in Boston, at the corner of State and Devonshire Streets. Once there, Elder Holmes asked Rev. Nowell, of the Puritan Congregational Church, who evidently was in charge of the beating, for permission to speak. Eyewitnesses reported the following exchange.
Nowell: It is not now a time to speak.
Holmes: I beg you. Give me leave to speak a few words. Seeing I am to seal what I hold with my blood, I am ready to defend it by the Word.
Nowell: There is no time for dispute.
Holmes: I desire to give an account of the Faith and Order I hold.
H. Flint: Executioner, Fellow do thine office, for this fellow here would but make a long speech to delude the people.
Holmes: That which I am about to suffer for is the Word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ.
Nowell: No! It is for your error, and going about to seduce people.
Holmes: Not for error! In all the time of my imprisonment, which of all your ministers, in all that time came to convince me of error? And what was the reason the public dispute was not granted?
Nowell: It was Clarke’s fault that he went away and would not dispute.
Flint: (To Executioner) Do your office!
Holmes: (while his clothes are being ripped away from him) I am now come to be baptized in afflictions by your hands, that so I may have further fellowship with my Lord. I am not ashamed of His sufferings for by His stripes am I healed.
Elder Holmes was beaten with thirty lashes. The Executioner spat upon his hands, and with a scourge of three leather straps, he beat Elder Holmes until his back was laid open to the bone, his flesh raw and bleeding. The beating complete, Elder Holmes was untied from the whipping post and led back to his cell. As he was led away he turned to his executioner and said, “Sir, you have struck me as with roses.”
Thirty lashes was a most severe sentence. The normal punishment of whipping for criminals found guilty of the worst crimes, such as rape, robbery and counterfeiting was ten lashes. From such harsh treatment, as was the case with Apostle Paul’s beatings, it must be surmised the true purpose of Elder Holmes persecution was to maim or perhaps kill him. Like Paul, Obadiah Holmes was delivered by the grace of God; and, henceforth bore in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. Elder Holmes was the first Baptist in America who was so punished for conscience sake. With his beating the pattern of persecution, which Baptists fled England to escape, continued in America. He was among the first of many in America who suffered fines, imprisonment, public ridicule, banishment and beatings for conscience sake.
Later, he recalled his condition of spirit and mind both before the beating. He wrote, “I betook myself to my chamber, where I might communicate with my God, commit myself to Him, and beg strength from Him. I was caused to pray earnestly unto the Lord, that He would be pleased to give me a spirit of courage and boldness, a tongue to speak for Him, and strength of body to suffer for His sake, and not to shrink or yield to the strokes, or shed tears, lest the adversaries of the truth should thereupon blaspheme and be hardened, and the weak and feeble-hearted discouraged; and for this I besought the Lord earnestly. At length He satisfied my spirit to give up, as my soul so my body to Him, and quietly leave the whole disposing of the matter to Him. And when I heard the voice of my keeper come for me, and, taking my Testament in hand, I went along with him to the place of execution.” Concerning his pain during the beating, Elder Holmes said, “in a manner I felt it not.”
Many would surmise that the harsh treatment Elder Holmes received in Boston would have ended any thoughts he had of preaching in Massachusetts in the future. However, heeding the call of God alone, this venerable old servant returned several times to preach the gospel and baptize believers. He was arrested again, but never again beaten or fined.
Elder Holmes returned to Newport to recover from his ordeal. He continued there the rest of his life, assisting Elder Clarke and serving as pastor in Clarke’s absence.
In late 1651 Elder Clarke sailed to England to administer the affairs of Rhode Island. He remained as the Colony’s representative to the Crown for twelve years. During this time Elder Holmes served as interim pastor of Newport Church. He was ably assisted by Elder Mark Lucar, who was a charter member of Mr. Spilsbury’s church in London, being baptized with fifty-two others in 1641 at the Particular’s inaugural baptismal service.
The primitive Baptists of Newport maintained a cordial correspondence with the Particular Baptists in London. Numerous examples of their friendly relations are contained in letters written by both Elder Clarke and Elder Holmes. One such letter was written to Mssrs. Spilsbury and Kiffen by Elder Holmes shortly after his beating. In it he mentions Elder Clarke’s impending journey to London, noting they will soon be able to hear Elder Clarke’s account of the ordeal. The introduction of Elder Holmes letter suggests the close fellowship he felt toward the brethren in London. He began the correspondence, “Unto the well beloved brethren John Spilsbury and William Kiffen, and the rest that in London stand fast in the faith, and continue to walk steadfastly in that order of Gospel which was once delivered unto the saints by Jesus Christ; Obadiah Holmes, an unworthy witness that Jesus is Lord, and of late a prisoner for Jesus’ sake at Boston, sendeth greetings.”
In 1676, after the deaths of both Clarke and Lucar, Elder Holmes served as sole pastor of Newport Church. He continued at that post until his own death in 1682.
I have been unable to attain a copy of the original Articles of Faith of Newport Church. Also, though Dr. Clarke’s history and affiliations provide many examples of his belief in the doctrines of election and predestination, I have been unable to find any writings by the good doctor which actually spell out his doctrinal sentiments. However, Elder Holmes, who was co-pastor at Newport Church with Dr. Clarke, left a statement of his beliefs in the form of a personal confession of faith. He wrote the document at the request of his brother in England. It is included in a compilation of several letters and documents which, in sum, are titled The Last Will and Testament of Obadiah Holmes.
From Elder Holmes confession of faith it may be concluded he held firmly to the doctrines of sovereign grace. Not only so, but his theology is best described as primitive, rather than reformed. Elder Holmes was not a Calvinist.
On the subject of election he wrote: “God in His own time chose a people to Himself and gave them His laws and statutes in a special manner, though He had always His chosen ones in every generation.” Concerning the salvation of the elect he wrote: “I believe that God has laid the iniquity of all His elect and called ones upon Him (Christ).”
Concerning perseverance he wrote: “I believe that all those that are in his covenant of grace shall never fall away or perish, but shall have life in the Prince of life: the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Concerning new birth he wrote: “I believe that no man can come to the Son but they that are drawn by the Father to Him, and they that come He will in no wise cast away. I believe none has power to choose salvation or to believe in Christ, for life is the gift only of God.”
Elder Holmes divided the functionality of the gospel into two categories. He wrote it “begets souls to the truth” and “feeds the church.” He explains the instrumentality of the gospel with two separate articles In neither article does he intimate the gospel is in any way linked functionally to regeneration.
The first statement resembles the primitive belief that God must aid preachers with liberty of explanation and hearers with liberty of comprehension for the doctrines of grace to be understood and accepted as truth. “I believe the precious gift of the Spirit’s teaching was procured by Christ’s ascension and given to men, begetting souls to the truth and for the establishment and consolations of those that are turned to the Lord.”
His second statement explains a principle of sufficiency of the scriptures to sustain believers faith in every circumstance. “I believe that as God prepared a begetting ministry even so does He also prepare a feeding ministry in the church, who are a people called out of the world by the word and Spirit of the Lord, assembling themselves together in a holy brotherhood, continuing in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, breaking bread and prayer.”
Evidently, Elder Holmes was a millennialist. Concerning the resurrection of the just he wrote: “I believe the promise of the Father concerning the return of Israel and Judah, and the coming of the Lord to raise up the dead in Christ, and to change them that are alive that they may reign with him a thousand years, according to the Scriptures.”
Excluding his millennial reign theory, Elder Holmes’ confession of faith is orthodox in all other areas. It demonstrates a clear understanding of both eternal salvation and gospel deliverance. It plainly distinguishes new birth as a precursor to acceptance, or rational belief, in Christ. His handling of regeneration, together with his definitions of the functionality of the gospel indicates Elder Holmes was not reformed, despite his earlier exposure to Puritan Congregationalism. One must wonder if the harshness of Puritan Calvinism compelled him to look beyond the reformer’s theology until he found in the scriptures and by Dr. Clarke’s preaching a primitive doctrine, which “begot” his soul to gospel truth, which is the faith once delivered.
A partial chronology of pastorship of Newport Baptist Church, after Elder Holmes death includes:
Richard Dingley 1690 – 1711
William Peckman 1711 – 1734
John Comer 1726 – 1729 (co-pastor)
In 1656 the Second Baptist Church was organized in Newport. Its organization was the result of a disagreement as to the necessity of laying on of hands on newly baptized members. The original church allowed the practice, but did not require it. The latter group, led by William Vaughn, believed laying on of hands was a requirement of the ordinance of baptism. Though the membership of Second Church apparently had a basic disagreement with those of First, as to the means necessary to initiate church fellowship, it did not seem to affect interchurch fellowship. It appears they continued fellowship with one another, sat in each others ordinations and exchanged pulpit duties. There is no doubt this issue resulted in a division of the First Church; however, it appears the split was friendly.
The Baptists were still a very small group in New England as late as 1700. The gospel had not spread much beyond Rhode Island. However, Baptist preachers had ventured into Connecticut where they gained a few converts. A group of Baptist converts in Groton Connecticut began to hold regular meetings. They petitioned Connecticut’s General Court for official tolerance, but received no response from the ruling body. Despite failure to gain official tolerance, they interpreted the General Court’s silence as unofficial consent. They formally organized themselves into a Baptist Church in 1705.
The new church sent for a young preacher from North Kingston, Rhode Island to serve as their pastor. His name was Valentine Wightman. He was a great-grandson of Elder Edward Wightman, of Burton, England, who was the last person burned at the stake in England. Burton Church was a charter member of the Midland Association in 1655.
Edward Wightman, was executed at Lichfield in Staffordshire, near Burton in 1612. Descendants who followed him as ministers of the Gospel included his son John (1598-1662), grandson George (1632-1722), and great-grandson Valentine (1687-1747). Armitage also identifies Timothy, Gano and Daniel Wightman. Timothy was Elder Valentine’s son. Gano is probably John Gano Wightman, also Elder Valentine’s son. Daniel is believed to have been his brother.
Elder Valentine was named after his uncle, who was an indentured servant to a Mr. Richard Smith in Providence, Rhode Island. After working off his indebtedness, the senior Wightman proved himself a highly regarded citizen of Rhode Island as both a jurist and indian interpreter. He was a close acquaintance of Roger Williams. Elder Valentine was also a nephew by marriage to Katherine Williams Wightman, Roger Williams sister. Her husband was Ralph, a brother to George Wightman, Elder Valentine’s father.
Little is known about Valentine Wightman’s ministry. It is known he was a “Six Principle” Baptist. From this, some have tried to build a case that Elder Wightman was Arminian in his theology. He was identified as a Six Principle because he practiced “laying on of hands” on the newly baptized. There were Six Principle Baptists among the Arminian Baptists. However, as we have noted, Jonathan Davis stated in his History of the Welsh Baptists that this practice was introduced in 1654 into the churches of the Midlands and Wales, which held to a sovereign grace primitive faith.
Elder Wightman re-instituted singing hymns as part of the worship service. He wrote a short defense of the practice which was widely distributed. His work in this area is credited for the adoption of singing in many Baptist churches.
Groton church experienced a division over doctrinal issues in 1765, during the pastorship of Timothy Wightman. The defecting group ordained Silas Burris as their preacher. They practiced open communion. The Groton Conference, a mostly Arminian group of Baptist churches, is named after this latter church. The mother church did not join the Conference.
Because of Elder Wightman’s religious heritage, together with what is known about those with whom he had fellowship, and those to whom he passed his theological lineage, it is reasonable to assume Valentine Wightman was a primitive Baptist of the order of the Midland Association and the Old Baptists of Olchon and vicinity. His original membership was with the second Newport Church. This church was not Arminian during the time of his membership, neither was North Kingston where he later held membership. Also, Swanzy Church, constituted by John Miles, was six principle, as was Rehoboth, constituted by Dr. John Clarke. Neither of these churches were Arminian in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In fact, by 1750 the practice of laying on of hands on those newly baptized was a common practice among both primitive and Particular Baptists.
Armitage describes Elder Wightman as calm and discrete. He is said to have had the respect of the Authorized Congregationalist clergy in Groton. He possessed sound learning, great zeal and deep piety, according to Armitage. He was a strict observer of scriptural authority and a powerful preacher. The blessings of these traits allowed him to exercise tender care with his new flock, which increased greatly during the forty-two years of his pastorship.
The above description of Elder Valentine’s demeanor and pastoral care should not be taken as evidence he escaped persecution. He did not. While there is no record he was ever imprisoned or publicly beaten, he did not escape punishment. Shortly after moving to Groton, Elder Wightman was arrested as an illegal alien. Like most New England townships, Groton had a law that prospective citizens must first receive permission from the Selectmen of the township before establishing residency in the town. The stated purpose of the ordinance was to prevent derelicts from becoming a financial burden to the community. However, the law was often used to keep out all sorts of undesirables, including religious dissenters.
Elder Wightman appeared in New London before Richard Christopher, Justice of the Peace. He was fined eleven pounds, plus cost of prosecution. He appealed the fine because the amount exceeded Christopher’s authority to levy fines, but lost the appeal. He refused to pay the fine; and, there is no record it was ever paid. Eventually, Elder Wightman was forced to post a two-hundred pound bond in order to stay in Groton. The bond was paid by William Stark, a member of Groton Church. The prosecution and bond could have been avoided had Elder Wightman been able to receive permission to stay in Groton. But permission was only granted by either the ruling of the town’s Selectmen or by popular vote of its citizens. It is evident from the fact that a bond was posted he was unable to obtain permission either way.
Elder Wightman shared fellowship with Rehoboth Church, which was constituted as an arm of the first Newport Church. He also fellowshipped Elder John Comers, who, for a time, was co-pastor of First Newport Church. In November, 1726, while Elder Comer was still co-pastor at First Newport Church, he made the following entry in his diary. “Monday. This day I preached at New London, Mr. Stephen Gorton’s Ordination sermon, from 2 Cor. 2:16, and assisted in conjunction with Mr. Jno Moss and Mr. Valentine Wightman. There was a large auditory.” This entry indicates Elder Wightman was in a succession of interchurch fellowship which included Elders John Clarke and Obadiah Holmes. Elder Wightman was in direct fellowship with those Baptists in America which first, by date of their organization, and second, by statement of their beliefs, were primitive Baptists.
As has been noted, beginning with Elder John Clarke, the churches and Elders of this succession had frequent and numerous contact with the Particular Baptists in England, and later, with the Regular Baptists in America. However, their friendly relations with the Particulars does not mean these brethren were themselves Particular Baptists. Their succession was primitive. Newport Baptist Church was constituted, fully embracing the principles of believers baptism and baptism by immersion, four years before the first baptismal service was held by the Particular Baptists in London.
The reader may trace this American succession through Dr. Clarke back to the primitive Baptists of England, or perhaps Holland. (When or where Elder Clarke was baptized and ordained is unknown. However, he was already an ordained Baptist Elder when he arrived in America in 1637). His succession includes the Lollards (so called) in England through the Welsh Anabaptists or the Lollards in Europe through the Dutch Anabaptists. In either case, a direct succession exists back to Jesus Christ. Both successions embrace pre-reformation, primitive Baptist, faith and practice.
Elder Valentine Wightman is a link in the succession of the primitive Baptists from the Lollards of the Midlands of England to America. His family’s religious heritage was primitive Baptist. Also, his fellowship with Newport, North Kingston and Rehoboth Churches shows that he supported and taught the same principles of belief as John Clarke, Obadiah Holmes and John Comer who themselves were primitive Baptists. Like both his great-grandfather Edward Wightman, who was executed in 1612 for his primitive Baptist beliefs, and John Clarke, who established the first Baptist church in America, Valentine Wightman is a link in the chain of succession of the primitive Baptists.
Elder Wightman baptized and ordained Elder Wait Palmer, who was pastor of the Baptist Church in Tolland, Connecticut. In 1751 Elder Palmer baptized and ordained Elder Shubal Stearns, who came to the Baptists from the Separatists. He was a “New Light” convert of the “Great Awakening” revival of George Whitfield.