IV. Dr. John Clarke; the Portsmouth Compact

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Jerald Finney
Copyright © February 26, 2018

Dr. John Clarke

Another leader instrumental in the formation of the government of the Rhode Island colony was Dr. John Clarke, a physician from England. Dr. Clarke moved to Boston in November of 1637. He proposed to some friends “for peace sake, and to enjoy the freedom of their consciences, to remove out of that jurisdiction.”[1] Their motion was granted & Dr. Clarke and eighteen families went to New Hampshire, which proved too cold for their liking. They left and stopped in Rhode Island, intending to go to Long Island or Delaware Bay. There Dr. Clarke met Roger Williams. The two “immediately became fast friends and associates, working together in a most harmonious manner, both socially and politically, throughout the remainder of Clarke’s life.”[2] With the help of Mr. Williams, they settled in that colony at Aquidneck. “The first settlement on the Island was called Pocasset; after the founding of Newport, it was renamed Portsmouth.”[3]

Isaac Backus found it to be very extraordinary that he could find from any author or record no reflection cast upon Dr. Clarke by any one.[4] Dr. Clarke left as spotless a character as any man [Isaac Backus] knew of, that ever acted in any public station in this country.[5] “The Massachusetts writers have been so watchful and careful, to publish whatever they could find, which might seem to countenance the severities, they used towards dissenters from their way, that [Mr. Backus] expected to find something of that nature against Mr. Clarke.”[6]

Portsmouth Compact

The first government of note in history that was to have complete freedom of conscience and religious liberty also declared that the government was to be under the Lord Jesus Christ. Signed on March 7, 1638, the Portsmouth Compact read:

  • “We whose names are underwritten do swear solemnly, in the presence of Jehovah, to incorporate ourselves into a body politic, and as he shall help us, will submit our persons, lives and estates, unto our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, and to all those most perfect and absolute laws of his, given us in his holy word of truth, to be guided and judged thereby.” [7] [19 signatures followed: Thomas Savage, William Dyre, William Freeborne, Philip Sherman, John Walker, Richard Carder, William Baulstone, Edward Hutchinson, Sen., Henry Bull, Randal Holden, William Coddington, John Clarke, William Hutchinson, John Coggshall, William Aspinwall, Samuel Wilbore, John Porter, Edward Hutchinson, Jun., and John Sanford.].
  • Three passages were marked in support of the compact: Exodus 24.3, 4; II Chronicles 11.3; and II Kings 11.17.

The chief architect of this concise and powerful piece of political history was either William Aspinwall or Dr. John Clarke, probably Dr. Clarke.[8] This compact placed Rhode Island under the one true God, the Lord Jesus Christ and his principles and laws given in the Bible. That Dr. Clarke “sought to help establish a government free of all religious restriction, one which in no way infringed upon the freedom of any religious conscience” is “evident from his remarks to the leaders of the established colonies upon his first arrival in Boston and by his subsequent activities throughout New England.”[9] A Gentile civil government under Jesus Christ with freedom of religion is consistent with Biblical principles.

Isaac Backus commented on this compact:

“This was doubtless in their view a better plan than any of the others had laid, as they were to be governed by the perfect laws of Christ. But the question is, how a civil polity could be so governed, when he never erected any such state under the gospel?”[10]

Mr. Backus asked a good question. Too bad America’s founding fathers did not find and apply the answer. On the same day the Portsmouth Compact was signed, “[n]ineteen men incorporated into a body politic, and chose Mr. Coddington to be their judge or chief magistrate.”[11] The first General Meeting of the Portsmouth government convened on May 13, 1638. “The apportionment of land, a mutual defense of territory, and provision for a ‘Meeting House’ were ordered.” [12] Soon, a civil government was formed which invested power in the freemen, none of whom were to be “accounted delinquents for doctrine,” “provided it be not directly repugnant to or laws established.”[13]


[1] Isaac Backus, A History of New England With Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians called Baptists, Volume 1 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, Previously published by Backus Historical Society, 1871), p. 71. See also John Clarke, Ill News from New-England or A Narative of New-Englands Persecution (Paris, Ark.: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., Reprint: 1st printed in 1652), pp. 22-25.

[2] Louis Franklin Asher, John Clarke (1609-1676): Pioneer in American Medicine, Democratic Ideals, and Champion of Religious Liberty (Paris, Arkansas: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc.), p. 27; John Clarke, Ill News from New-England or A Narative of New-Englands Persecution (Paris, Ark.: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., Reprint: 1st printed in 1652).

[3] Louis Franklin Asher, John Clarke (1609-1676): Pioneer in American Medicine, Democratic Ideals, and Champion of Religious Liberty (Paris, Arkansas: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc.), p. 29; Clarke.

[4] Backus, Volume 1, p. 349.

[5] Ibid., p. 348.

[6] Ibid., p. 349.

[7] Ibid., pp. 77, 427. On p. 427 is the exact copy from Rhode Island records. In the margin are citations to Exodus 34.3, 4; 2 Chr. 11.3, and 2 K. 11, 17.

[8] Asher, p. 23; James R. Beller, America in Crimson Red: The Baptist History of America (Arnold, Missouri: Prairie Fire Press, 2004), p. 24. Mr. Beller states that the author was John Clarke. Mr. Asher asserts that Clarke was probably the writer since the passages referenced in support of the agreement were marked in Dr. Clarke’s Bible.

[9] Asher, p. 27.

[10] Backus, Volume 1, p. 78.

[11] Ibid., p. 72; Asher, p. 27.

[12] Asher, p. 29.

[13] Roger Williams and Edward Bean Underhill, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Discussed and Mr. Cotton’s Letter Examined and Answered (London: Printed for the Society, by J. Haddon, Castle Street, Finsbury, 1848), pp. xxvii-xxviii.

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