The History of the Church of God

(The Sabbath Comes to New England)

Part 10

As we move in our series on the Church of God throughout history into the 17th century, we find that religious freedom in England was hardly more than an aspiration. In spite of the Magna Carta, freedom is as elusive in the year 1660 as it had been 400 years before.

Hope in the New World

In the previous instalment, we saw the death and mutilation of John James strike terror in the hearts of those who were keeping the seventh-day Sabbath in England. At that same time, laws were enacted making it illegal to hold religious gatherings on the seventh day.

For some Sabbatarians there was only one option. They would have to leave England to continue in the truth that had become their hallmark-the seventh-day Sabbath.

But where could they go? Where could they find religious tolerance in the world of the 17th century?

The newly established colonies of America would provide safety at last for freedom-seeking religious groups from the Old World.

In The Seventh Day Baptist Memorial, Volume I, 1852, we read the following: "The Colony of Rhode Island was first settled by Englishmen, in the year 1636. Roger Williams-'the first person in modern Christendom to maintain the doctrine of religious liberty and unlimited toleration' having been, as he says 'unkindly and unchristianly driven from his house,' . . . came over the river to a place called by the Indians Mooshausick, and by him named Providence" (page 22).

A Charter for Freedom

In 1643 Williams sailed to England to obtain a charter for a new colony. On May 19, 1647, "a General Assembly established a body of very good and wholesome laws, agreeable to the English statute book" (ibid.).

In An Account of the Churches in Rhode-Island, dated 1854, Henry Jackson wrote about the uniqueness of Roger Williams and what he did in Rhode Island: "I write of Roger Williams, the first missionary to the natives of our soil and the 'first legislator in the world,' (at least in its latter ages), 'who fully and effectually provided for and established a full, free, and absolute liberty of conscience.' "

The first charter for the colony was a remarkable document. It provided, for the first time, freedom of religion. Thus, Rhode Island became the first colony in America to provide a safe haven for those of differing beliefs. Here is an excerpt from the charter which is on display at the Rhode Island state house:

"No person shall 'hereafter be molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any difference in opinion in matters of religion, who do not disturb the civil peace.' "

As a result of this important document, Rhode Island attracted two of the most persecuted groups: Quakers and Baptists. In the surrounding colonies, they were treated with the intolerance they had sought to escape from in England-floggings, imprisonment and even hanging. The stage was now set for the Sabbatarians to arrive in the New World.

Stephen Mumford

Sometime around 1660 in England there were two new converts to the seventh-day Sabbath, Stephen and Ann Mumford. They lived in the town of Tewkesbury, where they were members of the Baptist Church.

Though the Baptists of the 17th century shared numerous beliefs with the Sabbatarians, a notable difference was the Sabbath. Baptists maintained the more commonly accepted practice of worshiping on the first day of the week.

According to James McGeachy in his paper titled "The Times of Stephen Mumford," published in 1964 by the Seventh-Day Baptist Historical Society, Stephen Mumford had become a member of the Bell Lane Sabbatarian Church until he left for America.

Based on the available evidence, the Mumfords were the first Christian Sabbath-keepers to arrive in America. They landed in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1665.

Stephen Mumford became a successful businessman and, according to the Newport Historical Society, built on Rhode Island one of the most impressive homes of that day. His house still stands in Newport and is today called the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard house.

Newport was a bustling New England village at the time Stephen Mumford arrived with his wife and young son, Stephen.

A Question of Fellowship

There were two established churches in the town at that time: the Quaker Church on Farewell Street and the First Baptist Church, which overlooked Newport harbor.

Having been involved with the Baptist Church most of their lives, the Mumfords began fellowshipping with the Baptists in Newport. But they continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath in their home. Within a few years, nine members of the Baptist Church had begun to observe the Sabbath.

As one might imagine, this upset the Baptist ministers, who preached that Sabbath-keepers "had gone back to Moses." Four of the nine Sabbath-keepers were persuaded to return to Sunday worship.

This created a dilemma for the fledgling group of Sabbath-keepers. They withdrew from fellowship with the Baptist Church. The small group was faced with a difficult decision.

Several letters were written to the Bell Lane Church in England for advice. The Sabbatarians had no problem fellowshipping with those who had never acknowledged the seventh-day Sabbath. But to fellowship with those who had rejected this truth was not acceptable.

Here is an excerpt from a letter addressed to the group from Edward Stennet, a Sabbatarian in England. It is dated March 6, 1670:

"MY DEAR FRIENDS,-As for those that have drawn back from the Sabbath to profaneness, after light and establishment therein, yourselves must not take pleasure in them, but must withdraw yourselves from them as sinful and disorderly persons; and if the church will hold communion with those apostates from the truth, you ought then to desire to be fairly dismissed from the church; which, if the church refuse, you ought to withdraw yourselves, and not be partakers of other men's sins, but keep yourselves pure, with all humility, meekness, and brokenness of heart." (This can be found in The History of the Baptists by Isaac Backus and in The Seventh Day Baptist Memorial, Volume I [pages 27-28]).

Rhode Island
became the first
American colony
to provide a safe
haven for
differing beliefs.

A New Sabbatarian Church

The ministers of the First Baptist Church in Newport understandably went on the offensive against the Sabbath-keepers.

In several fiery sermons, various ministers, including John Clarke, founding member of Rhode Island and a close friend of Roger Williams, attacked the necessity of the Ten Commandments and the Sabbath in particular. The five Sabbath-keepers who had remained in fellowship with the Baptists realized that something had to be done. A hearing in 1671 was called with the leading ministers and the Sabbath-keepers.

This dramatic confrontation is recorded in The Seventh Day Baptist Memorial. All five were given an opportunity to speak, but the first one to speak up was Tracy Hubbard. She is recorded as being the first colonist to convert to the seventh-day Sabbath.

The minutes from these meetings are preserved in the archives of the First Baptist Church in Newport. The blow-by-blow description gives insight into those willing to be ostracized from their peers because of staunch belief in keeping all ten of the commandments.

In December of 1671, seven people entered into a covenant to form a new Church in America. A plaque, in the old Sabbatarian meeting house in Newport honoring this event, says, in part:

"To the memory of Wm. Hiscox, Stephen Mumford, Samuel Hubbard, Roger Baster, Sister Hubbard, Sister Mumford, Sister Rachel Langworthy. Who for greater freedom in the exercise of religious faith in the observance of God's Holy Sabbath-the Seventh Day of the week-reluctantly severed their connection with the parent church, the First Baptist Church of Newport, and entered into a church covenantt, the 23rd day Dec., 1671."

Some Important Doctrines

William Hiscox became the first minister of the new Church. They chose not to adopt an official name, because, to them, that would mean state recognition, which they felt was unnecessary.

William Lewis Burdick in BiCentennial Celebration, written in 1908 for the 200th anniversary of the Hopkinton Church, says: "The Church had neither official name nor articles of faith other than the Bible.... As to name, we find in the first minutes in the first record book extant the Church is referred to as `The Church of Rhode Island and Westerly.' By `Rhode Island' they meant the island, not the whole colony, and by `Westerly' the towns of Westerly, Hopkinton, Charlestown, and Richmond. Some times it was spoken of as the `Church,' at other times the `Congregation,' but it had no official name" (page 31).

There are several references in the old minutes to the name "Church of God." They were most commonly called "The Church of Jesus Christ Keeping the Commandments."

They maintained a strong belief in water baptism for adults and did not baptize children. They accepted the doctrine of the "laying on of hands"-a matter on which the Baptists in Rhode Island were divided.

Henry Clarke in A History of the Sabbatarians or Seventh Day Baptists in America (1811) claims they were strictly non-Trinitarian, rejecting the popular viewpoint of that day: "I conclude they all believe in one God, the Father and Maker of all things, sin excepted, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, or that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and also in the Holy Ghost, as the operative power or spirit of God. But there are few if any, of this denomination, as I conceive, who believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, are three absolute distinct persons, coequal, coessential, and coeternal Gods, and yet but one God; as such an idea would be in the face of scripture, and repugnant to right reason" (page 62).

Other characteristics Clarke lists concerning the beliefs of these people are "water-baptism, by way of immersion, and, generally, in the laying on of hands, as also the resurrection of the dead and the eternal judgment; likewise in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper....

"Some sections of several of those churches, believe in the washing [of] one another's feet, at appointed times" (pages 63-64).

We also find that they refused to use the title "reverend" for their ministers, since they observed that the Scriptures show only God is reverend.

Tamar Davis in her book A General History of the Sabbatarian Churches has this to say about some of the doctrines of this early Church: "The Sabbatarians have repeatedly taken action in their ecclesiastical bodies, against war, intemperance, slavery, secret societies, and the like, and in favour of the great moral reforms and benevolent enterprises of the age" (page 140).

We are indebted to the Newport Historical Society's old church record books, which the society has stored in the vault, for most of our information about these people. The records have the minutes of the Church from its inception. The earliest records still available begin in the year 1692. By that time, the Sabbatarian Church in Newport had 40 members. There were also a few members in western Rhode Island where the Sabbatarians experienced their most impressive growth over the next 100 years.

The Church in Hopkinton, considered a part of the Newport congregation until 1707, grew to become one of the largest in America with almost 1,000 members by 1816.

Sabbath-keepers in New England

were part of early American history.

Stephen Mumford exerted considerable influence over the fledgling congregation of Sabbathkeepers in Rhode Island until his death in 1707. He and his wife, Ann, made a trip to England in 1675 to influence others to come to America. He was successful in securing the services of a Sabbatarian minister to replace the aging William Hiscox.

So now the chain was complete between the Church in England and the one in America with the arrival of William Gibson who became the second pastor of the Rhode Island churches after the death of William Hiscox in 1704.

There is no record of Stephen Mumford's ordination as a minister of the Church, but some records refer to him as a "minister" or a "missionary."

Stephen and Ann Mumford are buried in the Old Colonial Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island. There is no record of their children accepting the religious beliefs that obviously meant so much to them.

But Stephen and Ann's faith and endurance provide an outstanding example for all to follow. In the face of many obstacles they held firm to their convictions.

The life of the early Sabbatarian Church in America was exciting. Much growth occurred during these formative years. Virtually every family in Rhode Island was touched by the Church and some of the most influential colonial men and women came out of the Sabbatarian Church of Newport and Hopkinton.

Sabbath Influence in the Colonies

Landmarks in the western part of the state of Rhode Island still attest to the influence of these dedicated Sabbath-keepers. Such names as "Boom Bridge" and "The Sabbath Path" date back to the days of the Sabbatarians.

Boom Bridge is a narrow bridge that crosses the Pawcatuck River from Connecticut into Rhode Island. Its name comes from the days when the more enterprising Sabbatarians in Connecticut created a shortcut by felling a large oak tree and placing it across the stump like a boom and then swinging individuals across the river to attend Sabbath services.

Needless to say, it is recorded that on several occasions people came to services soaking wet! The Sabbath Path was the safer route from Connecticut into Rhode Island for services. It is no longer visible today, but many of the old deeds still make reference to "the Sabbath Path."

Many may not have realized that Sabbath-keepers in Colonial New England were an important part of the history of early America. In the next instalment, we'll see how they moved westward with pioneering zeal.

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