The Baptist Pillar ©      Brandon Bible Baptist Church     1992-Present

"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

Hansard Knollys (1598-1691)

J. Newton Brown, D. D. Philadelphia, January 18, 1859

From Annals of the American Baptist Pulpit, 1860

Dear Sir: The sketch which I am about to furnish you of one of the earliest pioneers of Baptist principles, was originally prepared for the New Hampshire Historical Society, and in its original form appeared in one of the volumes of their collections. I have since found new materials, of which I have availed myself, to make it more perfect, and am not aware of any remaining sources of information which I have not explored.

The name of HANSARD KNOLLYS is eminent among the English Baptists of the seventeenth century. Of late years it has been widely spread, in connection with the issues of the Baptist "Hansard Knollys Society," an historical society in London, which has felt itself honoured by the selection of his name, and which, since 1845, has been nobly engaged in publishing, by subscription, accurate and annotated editions of the first Tracts on Liberty of Conscience, and other rare Baptist works of that early period—works rarer and more precious than the purest pearls of ocean.

The life of Hansard Knollys embraced nearly a whole century,—from 1598 to 1691 and that century is the most interesting and momentous in English Annals. With most of the religious movements of that remarkable age, his biography is in woven. His influence, like that of his great contemporary, Roger Williams, was felt both in England and America. In many points a striking resemblance might be traced were this the place and time. One point of difference among others, is, that while the chief obscurity in the biography of Williams rests on his residence in England, the chief obscurity in that of Knollys rests on the years of his residence in America. My object, in this communication, is to throw light upon this dark period of his history.

Some preliminary statements may be necessary to do this effectually. It is important to know what he was before he came to this country, and happily Crosby has preserved all the facts necessary. (Crosby, I. p. 334-3444) Mr. Knollys was born in Chalkwell, Lincolnshire, 1598. His parents were pious. They “took good care," as Crosby says, "to have him trained up in good literature, and instructed betimes in the principles of religion." While at the University of Cambridge, he was converted, and his Christian character became of the highest order. "Happy would it be for this nation," says Crosby, "if our universities and private academies were filled with such students." After his graduation he was chosen master of the free school at Gainsborough.

In June, 1629, he was ordained as a Deacon, and then as a Presbyter, of the Church of England, and the Bishop of Lincoln gave him the living at Humberstone. His diligence was great. He preached three and four times a day on the Sabbath at Humberstone and Rohm, besides other seasons, as well to the poor as to the rich. About 1632, he began to doubt the lawfulness of conformity to the Church of England, and resigned his living, but continued to preach several years longer, with the consent, or rather connivance, of the good Bishop, though without surplice or prayer book.

In 1636, he was arrested at Boston, in his native county of Lincoln, by a warrant from the odious High Commission Court, and thrown into prison, but his keeper being conscience-stricken, connived at his escape, and he went up to London to find a passage to America. There he was detained so long, with his wife and child, that, when he embarked, as he tells us himself, "he had but just six brass farthings left, and no silver or gold."

A little money of his wife paid their passage. They arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, early in 1638. As he returned to London about Christmas, 1641, his residence in America must have been somewhat less than four years. But he was no common man. He was in the full vigour of life,—from the fortieth to the forty-fourth year of his age. Where did he spend these four years, and how? What influence did he exert? What character did he sustain? Why did he return? Did he leave his mark on the rising institutions of this country, and engrave his name on the foundations of American History? These are the questions I shall attempt briefly to answer.

All the early historians of New England mention Hansard Knollys. Winthrop. Morton, Hubbard, Hutchinson, Mather, Prince, Neal, Backus, Belknap, Eliot, Adams, Winslow, though the last four or five are comparatively modern. Opinion is divided about him. We must sift the facts out of them all, and make due allowance for the diversity of opinion. Some hints may be gleaned from his brief autobiography, and some from the early New Hampshire Court Records, preserved at Exeter, in that State, to which, through the courtesy of a friend, John Kelly, Esq., I have had access.

Mr. Knollys arrived at Boston, a persecuted fugitive, in a state of utter destitution. He had sacrificed everything for conscience sake. His child had died on the passage. His wife's money was all expended. Governor Winthrop calls him a “poor man.” Hubbard, who generally copies Winthrop, has ventured to translate this “a mean fellow.” This shows the prejudices of the time in a minister of the Pilgrims. Knollys himself says, “Being very poor, I was necessitated to work daily with my hoe for the space of almost three weeks. The magistrates were told by the ministers that I was an Antinomian, and desired they would not suffer me to abide in the patent." At that time all Boston was in a ferment on the question of Antinomianism, and hence the readiness to attach suspicion even to Cotton and Vane, much more to all new corners.

This was at the very year that Mrs. Ann Hutchinson, and her brother, the Rev. John Wheelwright, with their friends, were banished on the same charge. Providence interposed to save Mr. Knollys from perishing under this chilling reception from the Puritans—among whom, at the very head of the ministers indeed, was John Cotton, from that very Boston in Lincolnshire, where Knollys was first arrested for preaching the Gospel of the Son of God. God had a work for Mr. Knollys to do in America.

Two gentlemen from Dover, N. H., (then a new settlement called Piscataway, of fifteen years standing,) being at that time in Boston, invited Mr. Knollys to go with them, and preach in Dover. He, accordingly, went, but, on his arrival there, Capt. Burdet, who had usurped the government, forbid him to preach. He meekly submitted to this tyrannical interdict, and resorted to manual labour again for his subsistence. But, on Burdet's removal in September, “the people," says Winthrop, “called Mr. Knollys, and, in a short time, he gathered some of the best minded into a church body, and became their Pastor." (Winthrop, I. p. 326) This was about the time that Roger Williams was baptized at Providence.

Were it certain that Hansard Knollys was a decided Baptist, when he gathered the First Church in Dover, it might be maintained with some reason that he was the first Baptist Minister in America. But there is room now to doubt. True, he is called an “Anabaptist" by Mather and Belknap, but they were not contemporary, and Winthrop, who was contemporary, neither affirms nor denies it at the time. This makes it most probable that he was not a Baptist when he arrived in Dover. Indeed we know not where, when, or by whom he was baptized. In the absence of direct testimony, it may be inferred, from various circumstances that he became a Baptist while in Dover. It is, however, possible, that he embraced Baptist sentiments, and was baptized in London, while waiting for a passage to America.

We have seen, from Winthrop's Journal, that the Church in Dover was founded by Mr. Knollys, soon after September, 1638. This was the first Church in Dover, if not in New Hampshire. It was then a Congregational Church. The First Congregational Church in Exeter, founded by John Wheelwright, claims the priority by a few months, and is probably right in doing so.(Winthrop I., p. 211) This would make Knollys' Church the second in New Hampshire.

Mr. Knollys continued in the peaceful discharge of his duties as a Christian Pastor at Dover for about two years, without interruption. The settlement, during that period, in consequence of Capt. Mason's death, and the giving up of his patent by his widow, was a little independent Republic, of which Mr. Knollys was, beyond doubt, the most enlightened and accomplished citizen, aiding, by his fine powers, in moulding its principles and institutions at the foundation. Up to this period his character appears to be established as that of a pious, learned, laborious minister of the Gospel, willingly suffering poverty, imprisonment, exile, and reproach for Christ's sake, and for conscience sake.

He appears, also, to be a man of peace. He did, indeed, write a letter from Boston, soon after his arrival there, reflecting severely upon the manner in which things were then managed in Church and State, but, for the severity of this letter, he afterwards made an ingenuous and satisfactory confession. Few living men now would blame him for writing sharply to his friends of the oppressive system under which he suffered on his first arrival in Boston. There is yet another charge of this nature, which is not true. Both Governor Hutchinson and Dr. Belknap have, by mistake, imputed to Mr. Knollys the insolent language of Capt. Underhill, as recorded by Winthrop.• This blot does not belong to the character of Hansard Knollys, and should be wiped away from his history.

The arrival of Mr. Thomas Larkham at Dover, in 1640, changed the peaceful current of affairs, and put the peaceable character of Mr. Knollys to the strongest proof. Mr. Larkham had been a minister in Northam, England. He was a man of wealth, and popular talents. He soon formed a party, who determined to remove Knollys. Dr. Belknap says that "Knollys generously gave way to popular prejudice, and suffered Larkham to take his place."

He further says that Larkham, when once in power, "soon discovered his licentious principles, by receiving into the church persons of immoral characters, and assuming, like Burdet, the civil as well as ecclesiastical authority. The better sort of people were displeased, and restored Knollys to his office, who excommunicated Larkham." Of course, this language of Dr. Belknap can only mean that the church under Mr. Knollys excommunicated Mr. Larkham for his disorderly course. Upon this, Larkham and his adherents raised a riot, in April, 1641, and, according to the reliable testimony of Winthrop, "laid violent hands upon Mr. Knollys." This was just before the union of New Hampshire with Massachusetts, which was already negotiating, and was ratified in the course of the following month.

The whole town was thrown into confusion. In these exciting and critical circumstances, either the solicitation of his fellow-citizens, or his own sense of duty, impelled Mr. Knollys to appear in public at the head of a body of citizens, with a flying banner, seeking to restore order. Larkham's company sent down the river to Portsmouth for help, and a body of armed men came up, under Williams, and, without any legal authority, assumed control, sat as a Court, and pronounced sentence against Mr. Knollys, "fining him £100, and ordering him to depart the plantation." (Winthrop, II, p. 27)

It is worthy of consideration here, how far Mr. Knollys' sentiments as a Baptist affected this question. That he was, at this time (April, 1641) a Baptist, is quite clear, not only from the language of Cotton Mather and Dr. Belknap, before referred to, but from the testimony of an unimpeachable witness, who visited Dover within a year of the time,—Mr. Thomas Lechford, an Episcopalian, who has left us some valuable information on the state of affairs throughout New England at that period. The origin of the controversy between Larkham and Knollys is attributed by Lechford chiefly to their different views on baptism and church membership. His own words are these: "They two fell out about baptizing children, receiving of members, &c."

Winthrop says, "there soon grew sharp contention between him (Larkham) and Mr. Knollys, to whom the more religious still adhered; whereupon, they were divided into two churches." (Winthrop, II. 27. Note by Judge Savage) This testimony is important and decisive. It proves that Mr. Knollys had embraced Baptist views, at least so far as infant baptism and the purity of church membership are concerned; that the more pious church members agreed with him; in short, that the First Church in Dover became a Baptist church, and that a second church was thereupon formed by the disaffected members, who, under the lead of Larkham, stirred up the prejudices of the people against Mr. Knollys, and even resorted to violent measures to put him down.

And this testimony is further confirmed by the fact that, when commissioners were sent from Massachusetts, (which then claimed jurisdiction over Dover, both as included in their patent and now agreed to by the Colony) they adjusted the difficulty by releasing Mr. Knollys from the fine and the censure of an illegal and ex parte court, and requiring the church to revoke their sentence of excommunication against Larkham. (Winthrop, I, p. 27)

The whole testimony, thus far, is in Mr. Knollys’ favor. But at this juncture arose the cloud that, in this country, to a great extent, has overshadowed his fair fame. Both Winthrop and Belknap say that "a discovery was made of his failure in point of chastity," and that he himself confessed it before the church, at least to the extent of some improper "dalliance" with two young women that lived in his family, and that on this account he was dismissed by the church and removed from Dover. This charge, against such a man, is a grave one. It has been reported by Hubbard in an exaggerated form; and more recently in a History of the First Church in Dover, published in 1830. I cannot, therefore, do less than examine it in this connection.

How much is meant by the term "dalliance" in the language of the Puritans of that age, we know not. But we do know that there are several circumstances which render the truth of this whole accusation very doubtful. In the first place, it rests altogether upon the testimony of prejudiced historians, who regarded him, to use the language of Dr. Belknap, as "an Anabaptist of the Antinomian cast." Even Winthrop, with all his general candour, was not free from this prejudice, and his knowledge of the case was wholly second-hand, perhaps from the Massachusetts Commissioners, perhaps only from vague and prejudiced reports of some of his enemies, glad of an opportunity to put down the then odious and dreaded Baptists.

But, in the second place, (aided by an antiquarian friend, John Kelly, Esq., of Exeter) I have had access to the Judicial Records of New Hampshire for 1641, and there find the name of Hansard Knollys entered as plaintiff in an action of slander, which, though never prosecuted, in consequence of his return to England, at least implies that he regarded himself as an injured man.(Exeter News Letter, May 1, 1832)

Thirdly, in the "Account of his own Life," published in England, he gives this as the immediate reason of his return "Being sent for to England, by my aged father, I returned with my wife, and one child about three years old."

Fourthly, Cotton Mather, who wrote within about fifty years after the time, when the first reports had been more thoroughly sifted, and having full access to Winthrop's Journal, where the accusation in question is found, expressly excepts Hansard Knollys from the number of "scandalous" ministers, and places him in a class "whose names," he says, “deserve to live in our book for their piety, although their particular opinions were such as to be disserviceable unto the declared and supposed interests of our churches. Of these," he says, “were some godly Anabaptists, as namely, Mr. Hansard Knollys, of Dover, and Mr. Miles, of Swansea."

(John Miles was the founder of a Baptist church in Swansea, in Wales, 1649, and was ejected from his place, by the "Act of Uniformity," in 1662. He came to this country in 1663, accompanied by several of the members of his church, who were, immediately after, organized as the First Baptist Church in Swansea, Mass. Of this church he continued the Pastor until his death, which took place in 1683. Tradition gives him the reputation of having been an eminently useful man.)

But what seems particularly to touch the point in hand, Mather adds, "Both of these have a respectful character in the churches of this wilderness." (Magnalia I. Book III. p. 221) And to crown all, in speaking of the then recent decease of Mr. Knollys in London, Mather says he died "a good man, in a good old age." We know that there are spots on the sun, and that even great and good men have sometimes fallen in an evil hour, but I think that he who duly weighs these facts and testimonies, and compares them with all the antecedent and subsequent life of Hansard Knollys, will be slow to credit any injurious imputation on his character during the time of his residence in America.

This is not the place to follow Mr. Knollys back to England, and trace his eventful life for the next fifty years, through the most agitated period of English History. The theme is most inviting, and, at some other time, might be pursued with the greatest pleasure and profit. We should see in him one of the brightest lights of his age, one of the ablest preachers of the Gospel, one of the most accomplished teachers of youth, one of the oldest pioneers of religious liberty, one of the meekest, yet most heroic, sufferers for the truth, one of the purest and best of men. We have the testimony of Neal, in his History of New England that "he suffered deeply in the cause of Nonconformity, being universally esteemed and beloved by all his brethren." (Neal, Vol. I. p. 216)

We may be permitted to cite from a sermon preached at Pinner's Hall, London, on occasion of his death, (which took place September 19, 1691) the following testimony to the eminent purity of his character, a character which his long and venerable life had elevated above all suspicion. "I do not say," says Mr. Harrison,

“that he was wholly free from sin: sinless perfection is unattainable in a mortal state; but yet he was one who carefully endeavoured to avoid it. He, with the Apostle Paul, did herein exercise himself to have always a conscience void of offence towards God and towards men. He walked with that caution, that his greatest enemies had nothing against him, save only in the matters of his God.

“That holy life which he lived did command reverence even from those who were enemies to the holy doctrine which he preached. He was a preacher out of the pulpit as well as in it; not like those who press the form of godliness on a Lord's day, and as openly deny the power of it the remainder of the week; who pluck down that in their conversations, which they build up in their pulpits…He loved the image of God wherever he saw it. He was not a man of a narrow and private, but of a large and public spirit; the difference of his fellow Christians' opinions from his, did not alienate his affections from them…He embraced them in the arms of his love on earth, with whom he thought he should join in singing the song of the Lamb in Heaven.

“It would be well," continues Mr. Harrison, "if not only private Christians, but also ministers, did imitate him therein, there would not then be that sourness of spirit which is too often (with grief be it spoken) found among them. He was willing to bear with and forebear others, and to pass by those injuries which he received from them." (Crosby, I. p. 340)

Such was Hansard Knollys. Is it wonderful that God blessed him? Short as was his residence in America, the fruit of his labours remains to this day. The church which he planted in Dover, though divided on baptism, did not perish. The Pedobaptist body now flourishes in the large Congregational church of Dover, the fruitful mother of many others, with Baptist sisters side by side. The Baptist body, composed, as Winthrop says, of "the more religious" adhered to Mr. Knollys, and, to avoid the oppressive Church and State jurisdiction of Massachusetts, under which they now came, removed to Long Island in 1641.

After Long Island fell under the power of the English, in 1664, and the Episcopal establishment succeeded that of the Dutch, under Stuyvesant, they, as soon as possible, sold out their property there, and settled on the East side of the Raritan, N. J., opposite New Brunswick, where, under Lord Carteret, they could enjoy religious liberty. To the town which they there planted, they transferred the dear old name of Dover,—Piscataway, (according to the original orthography) in memory of their first home in the wilderness, where they had enjoyed, for three years and more, the ministrations of their first loved Pastor, Hansard Knollys.

The church, when fully organized, and favoured again with pastoral care, under Mr. Drake, in 1689, flourished anew, bearing much and blessed fruit. So deeply did it strike its roots into the new soil, that, to this day, no better kind of Christians grow than in Piscataway; and not only do they fill the town, but, in the towns around it, new churches are continually springing as shoots from the parent tree, planted by Hansard Knollys, in America.

Affectionately yours in the Lord Jesus, J. NEWTON BROWN.

Since the date of this communication, its author has found reason to modify somewhat the views here expressed, as will be seen by the following extract from a letter dated April 28, 1859, which he wrote in reply to an inquiry whether Knollys or Williams was the first Baptist minister in this country:

If the opinion of the Rev. Dr. Belcher, (to which I now incline,) could be proved, that Knollys was actually baptized in London, while awaiting his passage to America, it would settle the question of priority by some months in his favour. The chief probabilities for this opinion are that Baptist views were rapidly gaining ground in London, at the time, among the class with which Knollys would be thrown for sympathy and safety; that Dr. Belknap calls him an Anabaptist at the time of his arrival; that he took Baptist ground in the trouble with Larkham, and ever maintained it afterwards; and that we have no account of his Baptism after his return to this country, nor while he was here.

I have thought, hitherto, that it was a strong negative evidence against this view,—that neither Winthrop nor he himself should mention the fact, as the ground of his rejection by the Boston ministers and magistrates. But it now seems less unaccountable than formerly, first, because the Antinomian controversy, raised by Mrs. Hutchinson, then overruled every other consideration; and second, that the clergy of Boston, in their reply to Mr. Saltonstall’s remonstrance, claim to have "tolerated peaceable Anabaptists" from the beginning (or something to that effect). Of course, if they regarded Mr. Knollys as belonging to the "Antinomian" side in that exciting controversy, they would put their objection to him on that ground emphatically, if not solely. The laws against "Anabaptists” were not enacted until 1664, that is, six years later.

It is, then, more than possible,—it is rather probable, on the whole,—that Mr. Knollys was already a Baptist on his arrival in America, in the spring of 1638; and if so, then he was the first minister in this country.