The Puritan leaders of Massachusetts viewed Obadiah Holmes as a loathsome Baptist, and they ordered him whipped 30 times in public. They probably should have thought twice about doing so.
In Puritan eyes, crimes against their religion were far worse than crimes against property. The Puritans punished blasphemy with the whip, the Bilbo, the brand or the ear crop.
But the savage beating of Obadiah Holmes brought international attention to the very ideas the Puritans wanted to suppress.
As he stood at the whipping post, Obadiah Holmes provoked a Puritan magistrate to a debate over his beliefs. Several centuries later, one of his descendants would ride his debating skill to the presidency of the United States.
Obadiah Holmes was baptized March 18, 1610, in Didsbury, England in the county of Lancashire.
He had a restless soul, a pugnacious spirit, a hot temper and a tendency to find fault.
As a boy, he rebelled against his religious parents.
“I minded nothing but folly, and vanity,” he wrote. Then when his mother died, he blamed himself and changed his ways.
At 21, Obadiah Holmes married Katherine Hyde, and they had nine children. Together they ‘braved the dangers of the sea’ to come to Massachusetts in the Great Puritan Migration. He started a glassmaking business in Salem, but moved to Rehoboth in Plymouth Colony. There he led a small group of Baptists who opposed infant baptism.
The Fateful Trip to Lynn
In the summer of 1651, the three men took a mission trip to an elderly Baptist man in the town of Lynn, just north of Boston. While they held a small religious service in the old man’s home, two constables burst in, arrested them and took them to jail in Boston.
A court found the three men guilty of a half-dozen crimes of heresy. The magistrate fined John Clarke 20 pounds, John Crandall 5 pounds and Obadiah Holmes 30 pounds. Friends of Clarke and Crandall paid their fines. Holmes refused to let them.
On July 31, 1651, a magistrate sentenced Obadiah Holmes to 30 lashes, one for each pound he owed. Holmes proclaimed,
“I bless God I am counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus.”
Obadiah Holmes awaited his whipping for five weeks in a Boston jail. Roger Williams heard about his sentence, and he sent a blistering letter to Gov. John Endecott for persecuting people for their religious beliefs.
On Sept. 5, 1651, a crowd gathered around the whipping post in Boston to watch the flogging. Obadiah Holmes asked to speak, but Magistrate Encrease Nowell refused. Holmes spoke anyway, saying he was about to shed his blood for what he believed. Nowell said it was no time for debate.
“I am to suffer for … the Word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ,” said Obadiah Holmes.
“No, it is for your error and going about to seduce the people,” Nowell said.
The two men continued to debate as the executioner tore off Holmes’ clothes.
Then the executioner tied him to the whipping post and lashed him 30 times with a three-corded whip.
When the whipping ended, a bleeding, panting Obadiah Holmes said,
You have struck me as with roses.
The whipping left his skin so raw and painful he couldn’t lie down, but rested on his knees and elbows for days.
“Those who have seen the scars on Mr. Holmes’ back (which the old man was wont to call the marks of the Lord Jesus), have expressed a wonder that he should live,” wrote Joseph Jenckes, Rhode Island governor.
After Obadiah Holmes recovered enough to travel, he returned to Newport where family and friends welcomed him four miles outside the town. The next year he took over as pastor of the Newport Church, the second Baptist church in America. He held the position for 30 years until his death.
An Ill Wind
News spread fast and far about the savage whipping and the persecution of the Baptists in Massachusetts. In the end it resulted in more, not less, religious freedom.
If the Puritans intended to intimidate heretics by it, they failed. Two years after the whipping of Obadiah Holmes, Harvard President Henry Dunster wouldn’t have his infant son baptized.
John Clarke turned the persecution of Baptists into an international cause celebre. He went to England and wrote a book called Ill Newes in New England. It included a letter from Obadiah Holmes describing his whipping.
Richard Saltonstall, a prominent Puritan founder of Massachusetts then in London, read the book. He sent a letter to the Puritan pastors in the colony and berated them for ‘tyranny and persecutions in New England.’
The whipping of Obadiah Holmes also had the unintended consequence of helping to preserve Rhode Island’s independence.
At the time, the dissenters of Rhode Island felt very much persecuted by Connecticut and Massachusetts. The two colonies wanted to divide Rhode Island and absorb it. Rhode Island needed a royal charter to survive.
John Clarke spent a decade in England as an agent for the colony of Rhode Island. When King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Clarke lobbied him for a charter. He found a sympathetic ear, since Charles had little use for Puritans. They had, after all, beheaded his father.
Clarke drafted the Rhode Island Royal Charter and Charles approved it in July 1663. The charter granted unprecedented religious freedom in Rhode Island and remained in effect for 180 years.
Obadiah Holmes died Oct. 15, 1682, in Newport, R.I.
His great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Abraham Lincoln, was elected the 16th president of the United States.
This story was updated in 2023.