Obadiah was baptized March 18, 1609/10 in Didsbury Chapel, Lancashire, England. His birthplace lay in the rural area of Reddish, five miles southeast of the center of Manchester. It is said that he attended Oxford, but it is not certain if he graduated. Since Obadiah later became a glassmaker and a weaver, it may well be that "bookish" interest was minimal in his early years.
He was, he noted in his Testimony, "the most rebellious child" of all, who hearkened neither "to counsel nor any instruction, for from a child I minded nothing but folly and vanity..." Some four or five years before his mother's death in 1630, Obadiah had reveled in his waywardness and skepticism, thinking "it best when I could do the most wickedness." But then he "began to bethink what counsel my dear parents had given me, many a call, many a time with tears and prayers; my rebellion to my honored parents then looked me in the open face." His mother's illness and death proved a turning point. "It struck me that my disobedient acts caused her death, which forced me to confess the same to her - my evil ways." In his mature years, Obadiah expressed regret that he had been somewhat wild and had given his "loving Mother" serious concern about himself and his ways when he was passing from boyhood to manhood. He relates that he had been neglectful and strayed from his religious duties and responsibilities for a period of five years. If this was the case, he certainly atoned for it later in his life.
Two months after his mother's death, he took Katherine Hyde as his wife. They were married in Manchester's Collegiate College Church on November 20, 1630. An infant son, born in June 1633, died soon after and was buried in the village cemetery in Stockport. The decade of the 1630s so disheartened England's Puritans that they left their homeland in shipload after shipload to create a newer and purer England far away. These were the years of the Great Migration and Obadiah Holmes also "adventured the danger of the seas to come to New England." Holmes and his wife probably sailed from Preston (just north of Liverpool), down the River Ribble, across the Irish Sea, and into the open Atlantic. They had an extremely stormy voyage that prevented them from entering Boston harbor until six weeks had passed. Soon after landing at Boston, most likely in the summer or early fall of 1638, they made their way up the coast and settled at Salem, Massachusetts. Obadiah is said to have brought the first pendulum clock to America. This timepiece, one of the first of the kind ever constructed, is still doing duty in the cabinet of the Long Island and Historical Society, Brooklyn, having been presented to them by John Holmes Baker, Esq., a descendant.
On January 21, 1639, Obadiah received one acre of land for a house and a promise of ten more acres "to be laid out by the town." Obadiah was admitted to membership in the First Church of Salem on March 24, 1639. The young Salem settlement encouraged Obadiah and his co-workers in the development of what may have been the first glass factory in North America. They made the common window glass. Obadiah performed other duties befitting a good citizen; he surveyed and set boundaries for the land of another citizen in February, 1643; he accepted appointment by the town in September 1644 to cut and gather firewood for the church elders; and he often served on juries during his years of residence at Salem.
Before October of 1643, Obadiah had taken an option in the newly created community of Rehoboth 40 miles south of Boston. He sold his holdings in Salem by 1645, removing himself and his family to Rehoboth the same year. There he was elevated to the status of freeman in 1648. Both Obadiah and Catherine participated in this church's public worship, presided over by Samuel Newman. Newman and Holmes soon found themselves at odds with each other. In October, 1649 Holmes took Newman to court, suing him for £100 for slander because the latter had said that Holmes had taken a false oath in court. Obadiah won the case.
Obadiah soon found himself disliking the rigidity of the established church. Then came the horror (for the Puritans) known as Anabaptism. The Baptist zeal in Rhode Island was immeasurably heightened by a direct infusion of English Baptists from abroad. They were convinced that immersion or "dipping" was the only proper form of baptism. This innovation brought conflict and irritation to the Puritans, but brought peace and serenity, at last, to Obadiah Holmes. At last Holmes saw, or better, "God at last brought me to consider," that there is only one ground, one hope, one promise for salvation: "His own love to poor lost man." There it was, so obvious, yet so furtive, so winsome yet so repeatedly rejected. Now he could speak of "that ever-rested one, my own heart..." Baptized with the "new baptism" along with 8 others, Obadiah took the irrevocable step toward separation from New England's official way. It took three years for the membership of the Rehoboth church to become divided on doctrinal and legal lines and become aligned behind the minister and Obadiah as the respective leaders. Obadiah's conversion to the distinctive views of the Baptists was developed here. He became the leader of the Schismatists.
In June 1650, a four-barreled petition leveled against Obadiah Holmes and others came before Plymouth's General Court. "The Adversary," said Holmes, "cast a flood against us." The Plymouth Court gathered evidence and heard the charges. The burden of the petition was that the dissident group (Holmes and 8 others) had set up a separate and irregular church meeting in opposition to the orderly, approved, and established congregation led by Rev. Samuel Newman. All such schismatical activity, the petitioners urged, should cease forthwith. On the 2nd day of October 1650, Obadiah, with others of Rehoboth, were indicted by the Grand Jury at New Plymouth for holding meetings on the Lord's day from house to house, "contrary to the order of the court". The court responded mildly enough, by ordering the group (in Holmes' words) "to desist, and neither to ordain officers, nor to baptize, nor to break bread together, nor yet to meet upon the first day of the week..." Rev. Newman, however, excommunicated Obadiah. Obadiah and his followers would not find peace in Plymouth nor in Massachusetts Bay, so once more he sold his house and lands and moved to Newport, Rhode Island, hoping that he had left behind for good the meddling civil magistrates, the condescending clergy, the intrusive and insolent laws. Before their removal, they were all baptized and became out and out Baptists, with Obadiah becoming their leader and pastor.
On July 16, 1651, Dr. John Clarke, John Crandall and Obadiah Holmes journeyed from Newport into Massachusetts, coming to the town of Lynn on the 19th of that month. The purpose of the visit was to bring spiritual comfort and communion to one William Witter, a blind and aged fellow Baptist who had invited the three to come to his house. The broader purpose was, of course, an evangelical one: to tell of the new baptism and its import to all who would hear. And indeed the word was proclaimed, converts were baptized, the elements of the Lord's Supper were served—all of this done privately in William Witter's home.
On Sunday, July 20, they were holding religious services. While Dr. Clarke was reading passages of scripture, two constables, with a warrant for the 3 visitors, broke in on the scene. "With their clamouous tongues" they interrupted Clarke's discourse, "telling us that they were come with authority from the Magistrates to apprehend us." Clarke asked to see the authority for so rude an intrusion, "whereupon they plucked forth their warrant, and one of them with a trembling hand read it to us." The offense charged against them was conducting religious services in non-conformity with the statutes. The 3 Rhode Islanders were placed under arrest and taken to the local "Ale-house or Ordinary", Anchor Tavern, to be fed and to await their scheduled appearance before the local magistrate, Robert Bridges, early the next morning. One of the constables suggested to the 3 prisoners that if they were free, then all might go together to the Lynn church for evening services. Clarke replied (humor presumably intended) that if they were free, none of this awkwardness would have happened. Yet, he said, we are at your disposal and if you want us to go to church we will go to church. Off they went, but on the way Clarke informed the constable that if forced to attend "your meeting, we shall declare our dissent from you both by word and gesture." Believing this to be a problem for sacred officers, not civil ones, the constable held his peace. Upon entering the church, where services were already underway, the three visitors took off their hats, "civilly saluted", sat down, and put their hats back on again. This action was more than rude; the replacing of hats was an open declaration of disapproval of whatever was being said or done. The constable quickly snatched three hats from three irreverent heads and afterwards, the three were returned to the tavern where they were "watched over that night as thieves and robbers."
In the morning, after a brief appearance before Robert Bridges in Lynn, the itinerant evangelists were sent to Boston for trial. Two days later they were taken down to Boston, committed to the common jail and the trail before the General Court began one week later. The mittimus, or court order for commitment to prison, indicated essentially four complaints against the "strangers". They had offended by (a) conducting a private worship service at the same time as the town's public worship; (b) "offensively disturbing" the public meeting in Lynn; (c) more seriously, "seducing and drawing aside others after their erroneous judgment and practices"; and (d) "neglecting or refusing to give in sufficient security for their appearance" at the next meeting of the county court. After a week or so in Boston's prison, the day of the trial came. The trial itself was so swiftly consummated that the accused hardly knew it was done. It was the assumption of Governor Endicott and his assistants of the guilt of the accused and cut off any defense when Holmes and Clarke tried to speak. The members of the court shot questions at them, or made statements to them, which showed their guilt prejudged. "We were examined in the morning, wrote Clarke, and sentenced in the afternoon—sentenced "without producing either accuser, witness, jury, law of God or man..."
The violence of some of the bystanders, in the presence of the court, and without its rebuke, went so far that Holmes was assaulted, struck, and cursed by Rev. John Wilson. This happened while Holmes was in the custody of an officer, in the presence of the court, and within the protection of the law. In the sentencing, particular emphasis was placed upon the "seducing of others" and notably upon the "re-baptizing" of others. But, insisted the three accused, they were not "re-baptizers", since the baptism which they administered was the only real baptism, infant baptism being no valid ordinance at all. This brand of apologetics only threw the Court into a paroxysm of fury. A single infection could become a plague; the Bay authorities were out to sterilize and neutralize it now, if at all possible.
The same charges were leveled against all three men, all of whom fell under the proscription of the 1645 law against Anabaptists. The penalty which that law provided was banishment. But what sort of punishment is it to "banish" persons who already live in another jurisdiction? Obviously, some other manner of rebuke had to be meted out, whether the law made provision for it or not. Clarke, clearly the spokesman and leader of the group, was fined £20; Crandall, as a tag-along and largely silent companion, was fined only £5. But Obadiah Holmes, already under the cloud of excommunication from the church in Rehoboth, received the largest fine of £30. All the fines provided for a hard alternative: to be paid in full or else the culprit was to be "well whipped". Until the fines were paid or satisfaction otherwise received, all three were to remain in jail.
They were not without friends and sympathizers, however. The friends of Clarke and Crandall speedily raised the amounts of their fines and paid them. The fine of Holmes was higher and required a little more time to raise the amount, but his friends were ready to pay it when he learned what they were proposing to do. He promptly forbade the payment of the fine, making it a matter of his conscience and scruples. The court's explicit alternative awaited him—to be "well-whipped".
On September 5, 1651, the jailer arrived to find a prisoner utterly calm and composed. Obadiah was taken from the jail, outside to the market place, where Magistrate Increase Nowell told the "executioner" to proceed with his task. Obadiah was stripped naked down to the waist after he refused to disrobe himself, saying "that for all Boston I would not give my bodie into their hands to be bruised upon another account, yet upon this I would not give the hundredth part of a Wampon Peaque to free it out of their hands, and that I made as much conscience of unbuttoning one button, as I did of paying the £30 in reference thereunto." He was then tied to the post and publicly whipped.
There were thirty strokes, with a three-cord whip, held by the executioner, not in one hand, but in both hands. The strokes did not follow each other quickly or lightly. They were laid on slowly and with all the strength of the officer wielding the instrument of torture. As the strokes began to fall, Holmes prayed once more and in truth, he later wrote, I never "had such a spiritual manifestation of God's presence." Throughout, there was not a groan or murmur from the victim." Though he received 30 strokes, Obadiah recalled later that "in a manner I felt it not." The first sound from his lips were the words to the magistrates, who stood about as witnesses, "You have struck me as with roses." From out of the crowd of spectators, two came forward to offer their sympathy to Obadiah—John Spur and John Hazel. Both men were promptly arrested and jailed.
Obadiah was advised to make his escape by night, and says: "I departed, and the next day after while I was on my journey, the constables came to search at the house where I lodged, so I escaped their hands and was by the good hand of my Heavenly Father, brought home again to my near relatives, my wife and eight children. The brethren of our town and Providence having taken pains to meet me four miles in the woods where we rejoiced together in the Lord."
Obadiah returned to Newport and in 1652 succeeded Dr. John Clarke. He became the second minister of the First Baptist Church in America. The church at Newport was his permanent charge for more than thirty years until his death. In 1656 he was made a Freeman. He served as a Commissioner from 1656-58. During 1675, Obadiah wrote an account of his life addressed to his children. He alludes to his honored parents as having brought up three sons at the University of Oxford. He had a brother Robert, it seems. On April 4, 1676, it was voted, "that in these troublesome times and straits in this colony, this Assembly desiring to have the advice and concurrence of the most judicious inhabitants if it may be had for the good of the whole, do desire at their next sitting Mr. Benedict Arnold, Mr. Obadiah Holmes, etc."
Obadiah's will, shown below, was dated April 9, 1681 and was proved December 4, 1682. Obadiah died October 15, 1682 in Newport and was buried in his own field, where a tomb was erected to his memory (in what is now the town of Middletown). His wife did not long survive him.
These are to signify that I, Obadiah Holmes of Newport on Rhode Island, being at present through the goodness and mercy of my God of sound memory; and, being by daily intimations put in mind of the frailty and uncertainty of this present life, do therefore - for settling my estate in this world which it has pleased the Lord to bestow upon me - make and ordain this my Last Will and Testament in manner following, committing my spirit unto the Lord that gave it to me and my body to the earth from whence it was taken, in hope and expectation that it shall thence be raised at the resurrection of the just.
Imprimis, I will that all my just debts which I owe unto any person be paid by my Executor, hereafter named, in convenient time after my decease.
Item. I give and bequeath unto my daughter, Mary Brown, five pounds in money or equivalent to money.
Item. I give and bequeath unto my daughter, Martha Odlin, ten pounds in the like pay.
Item. I give and bequeath unto my daughter, Lydia Bowne, ten pounds.
Item. I give and bequeath unto my two grandchildren, the children of my daughter, Hopestill Taylor, five pounds each; and if either of them decease, the survivor to have ten pounds.
Item. I give and bequeath unto my son, John Holmes, ten pounds.
Item. I give and bequeath unto my son, Obadiah Holmes, ten pounds.
Item. I give and bequeath unto my grandchildren, the children of my son Samuel Holmes, ten pounds to be paid unto them in equal portions.
All these portions by me bequeathed, my will is, shall be paid by my Executor in money or equivalent to money.
Item. I give and bequeath unto all my grandchildren now living ten pounds; and ten shillings in the like pay to be laid out to each of them—a bible.
Item. I give and bequeath unto my grandchild, Martha Brown, ten pounds in the like pay.
All [of] which aforesaid legacies are to be paid by my Executor, hereafter named in manner here expressed: that is to say, the first payment to [be] paid within one year after the decease of my wife, Catherine Holmes, and twenty pounds a year until all the legacies be paid, and each to be paid according to the degree of age.
My will is and I do hereby appoint my son Jonathan Holmes my sole Executor, unto whom I have sold my land, housing, and stock for the performance of the same legacies above. And my will is that my Executor shall pay unto his mother, Catherine Holmes, if she survives and lives, the sum of twenty pounds in money or money pay for her to dispose of as she shall see cause.
Lastly, I do desire my loving friends, Mr. James Barker, Sr., Mr. Joseph Clarke, and Mr. Philip Smith, all of Newport, to be my overseers to see this my will truly performed. In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and seal, this ninth day of April, 1681.
Obadiah Hullme [Holmes][Seal]
sealed and delivered in the presence of
Edward Thurston, Sr., and Weston Clark appeared before the Council [of Newport], December 4, 1682, and did upon their engagements [pledges] declare and own that they saw Obadiah Holmes, deceased, sign seal and deliver the above written will as his act and deed; and, at the time of his sealing hereof, he was in his perfect memory, according to the best of our understandings. Taken before the Council, as attested. Weston Clarke, Town Clerk.
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See lineage of Holmes Family
Read the Biography of Obadiah's grandfather, Robert Holmes
Read the Biography of Obadiah's father, Robert Holmes
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