John Clarke and the Royal Charter
John Clarke was born in England October 3, 1609. He came to America in 1637 and eventually settled in Rhode Island. Two factors motivated John Clarke to return to his native land in 1651 to petition the King for a new charter for the colony of Rhode Island. The beating of Obadiah Holmes in Boston, Massachusetts was one factor. Religious liberty, found only in Rhode Island, had to be protected! The encroachment of other New England colonies upon Rhode Island was the other factor. Rhode Island itself had to be protected! As the sole representative of Rhode Island, John Clarke labored in England for twelve years to secure the new charter. His efforts were crowned with success when, on July 8, 1663, King Charles II granted Rhode Island a charter which enlarged and established their borders. More importantly, the charter, described as the most liberal ever awarded by a royal sovereign, granted the religious liberty so desired by the Baptists. The valuable and sacrificial service rendered by John Clarke is memorialized by the King as Clarke is the first Rhode Islander addressed in the charter.
Charles the Second, by the grace of God, King of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith etc. To all to whom these presents shall come, greeting. Whereas we have been informed, by the humble petition of our trusty and well-beloved subject John Clarke, on the behalf of …
Letters from John Clarke to King Charles II indicate that much of the wording contained in the document is from the pen of Clarke. His most enduring phrase, “A Lively Experiment” is emblazoned on the façade of the Rhode Island State House. A few excerpts from the charter touching religious liberty reveal the influence of Clarke and the Baptists:
…And whereas, in their humble address, they have freely declared, that is it much on their 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 and that true piety rightly grounded upon gospel principles, will give the best and greatest security to sovereignty, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyalty. Now, know ye, that we, being willing to encourage the hopeful undertaking of our said loyal and loving subjects, and to secure them in the free exercise and enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights, appertaining to them, as our loving subjects and to preserve unto them that liberty, in the true Christian faith and worship of God, which they have sought with so much travail, and with peaceable minds, and loyal subjection to our royal progenitors and ourselves, to enjoy; …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 differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matter of religious concernments, …
Within the charter the King expressed his hope that, “There may, in time, by the blessing of God upon their endeavors be laid a sure foundation of happiness to all America.” His hope was prophetic as this charter was a forerunner of the Constitution of the United States. The lively experiment was tried and proven in Rhode Island, and the principles of liberty which were first set forth there are the basis of government for every state in the union.
Though often overlooked, John Clarke has been called the foremost diplomat of his time.
This scene, a depiction of Clarke receiving the Royal Charter of 1663, was commissioned to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his birth. The event took place in the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. Pictured with Clarke is the Earl of Clarendon. Seated at the table is Secretary Thomas Howard, and seated to the right is King Charles II. Standing in the background is William Kiffin, noted Baptist Pastor in England. Kiffin was the friend of Clarke and a generous benefactor to the King. Scene painted by nationally known artist, Ron Adair of Colorado Springs, CO.