History of Baptists con't (Christian History Issue 126)

   Most early American colonists were at least nominally Christian; almost all practiced infant baptism, viewing the rejection as a dangerous affront to the traditions of family, church, and society. In the Puritan-founded colony of Massachusetts, Roger Williams was one of the first to run afoul of these strictures. 

   Arriving in Massachusetts in 1631 as a separatist pastor, Williams continual dissent took him from Boston to Plymouth to Salem. In Plymouth a ruling elder feared Williams "would run the same course of rigid separation and anabaptistry, which Mr. John Smith, the se-(self) baptist at Amsterdam had done.

   In 1636, Williams fled to southern New Endland and helped establish the town of Prpividence and the colony of Rhode Island, soon filled with Separatists. Meanwhile the mercurial Williams repudiated his infant baptism and in 1638 joined with a small group of followers to establish America's first Baptist church in Providence. One of William's followers, Ezekiel Holliman, baptized him, and then Williams baptized Holliman and the rest of the group. Like John Smyth, though, Williams began to question his new bapptism. From that point forward, he preached to anyone who would listen, but he refused to join a church.

   Persecution of Baptists soon intensified. Provocative behavior by some Bapptists was partially responsible. William Witter was brought before the court of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1643 for saying that infant baptism was "a badge of the whore" and three years later "for saying that they who stayed while a child is baptized, do worship the devil." Massachusetts authorities banned Baptists in 1645, calling them "the incendiaries of commonwealths and the infectors of persons in main matters of religion, and the troublers of churches in all places." The ban covered anyone who questioned infant baptism, proclaimed Christian pacifism, or denied the state's authority to police religious convictions. 

   In 1654, though, the Baptists nabbved their most prominent colonial convert: Harvard president Henry Dunster. His public rejection of infant baptism alarmed Massachusetts authorities, but they had to handle the case delicately; the president of Harvard could not be hastily tried or summarily whipped. 

   A group of Puritan ministers met with Dunster, but he made compelling arguments for believer's baptism. "All instituted gospel worship hath some express word of Scripture," he said, "but paedobaptism hath none." Harvard removed him from the presidency. After his dismissal Dunster largely remained quiet, but he presented a formidable challenge to the Massachusetts establishment, simply because he had once belonged to it. It seemed anyone could be led astray by the Baptists. 

  June 2021  
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