It was November 21 in the year 1581 when 18 year old Henry Jacobs entered St. Mary Hall in Oxford. Not much is known about his childhood or adult life until 1596 when he began to write about separatism and breaking with the Church of England. The important thing to note is that all those in England who began to study the Scriptures and discuss ideas at this time of how God intended His people to worship, govern, and apply the Scriptures came into eventual conflict with King James I who put himself as Head of the Church and State. Whenever power concentrates, religious and civil liberty are restricted and the free flow of ideas that is the lifeblood of a culture is threatened with punishments and persecution.Henry wrote tracts and petitions to Queen Elizabeth, and then King James, criticizing their concentration of power and particularly desiring for the Church of England to make reforms that were more Scriptural. One such petition had the title To Abolish the Anti-Christian Prelacy which criticized the hierarchy of bishops who controlled the local churches on behalf of the King. King James responded, “No Bishop, No King.” In other words, a loss of bishops would mean a loss of his power. No wonder Jacobs was imprisoned. However, upon his release in 1610, he fled to Leiden, Holland and there resided with the Pilgrim Church under the leadership of John Robinson.
After spending time with the Pilgrim Church in Holland, he wrote that he now agreed with Robinson that “a visible church was constituted by free mutual consent of believers joining and covenanting to live as members of a holy society, and that such a church should elect its ministers, elders, deacons, and the congregation should be governed by it’s officers.” It is one thing to separate from the Church of England due to its errors and control, but it is quite another to be clear about what you are separating to. It was Robinson’s influence that gave Henry Jacobs a clear vision in this regard.
Henry and the congregation that joined him in London upon his return paid a dear price for their covenant. Any church meeting held outside the English Church was called a Conventicle and was deemed illegal. They were defined by those in authority as secret meetings to hear unlicensed preaching. He continued about six years, and then went to Virginia and formed a settlement named after him called Jacobopolis. Upon his return to England, he died in 1624. But good ideas rooted in Scripture do not die when the founder does, and so it was that John Lothrop picked up the torch and continued the secret meetings in Southwark where the Pilgrims had held meetings in planning their trip to America.
John Lothrop was about 20 years younger than Jacobs. He was confirmed by the congregation as Pastor over this remnant church in 1625. Like the Pilgrims before them, they had to hold their meetings in secret, and in their case, this meant meeting in the homes of the covenant members. William Laud, Bishop of London, made it his goal to arrest those who met in secret. So it was that Lothrop and his congregation were arrested and brought before the Court in 1632. The Court of High Commissions stated that, “This day were brought to the court out of prison diverse persons which were taken on Sunday last at a conventicle…”
The congregation was told, “You show yourselves to be unthankful to God, to the King and to the Church of England, that when, God be praised, through his Majesties care and ours that you have preaching in every church, and men have liberty to join in prayer and participation in the sacraments and have catechizing to enlighten you, you in an unthankful manner cast off all this yoke, and in private unlawfully assemble yourselves together… you are desperately heretical.” The entire congregation of about 35 or 40 refused to sign the oath to the King and thus were returned to prison. Several, including Lothrop, spent almost two years there. Finally, Lothrop and about 30 departed for America in 1634. They first settled in Scituate and were soon joined by Isaac Robinson from Plymouth, who had arrived in the new world in 1631, the 5th child of John and Bridget. Isaac had probably grown up hearing about Henry Jacobs and this church from his Dad who shepherded the Pilgrim Church.
The Pilgrim separatists are considered pioneers of religious liberty (or the jurisdictional separation of church and state where one does not have to be a member of the church in order to vote for civil officers). They now had another church close to them patterned after their form of government. The Barnstable congregation held their first church service, with the sacraments, near a large rock in 1639. It became known as Sacrament Rock, or Pulpit Rock. When it was split apart to build a jail years later, the fragments were joined together so that Barnstable (named after Barnstaple, England) could have its rock of remembrance similar to what the Pilgrims have on the shores of Plymouth.
Pastors Thomas Walley and Jonathan Russell, Sr. continued the legacy of this covenanted group of believers in Barnstable. By 1685, it was reported that nearly 1,000 native converts had come to Christ! In addition, Jonathan Russell Sr. and Jonathan Rusell Jr., baptized 1,015 people from 1683 to 1759 and added 427 members to the church! A new Meetinghouse was begun in 1717 and completed by 1719. By 1723 they had to expand the building! Like so many New England towns, the town meetings were also held in the church and discussions about taxation, religious freedom and the proper role of church and state were held there as well!
Consider the fruit of this church. Here is the Pilgrim twin congregation, settled in Barnstable, who initially sends out Isaac Robinson in 1660 who founds the town of Falmouth. He then stands up for the rights of Quakers and their religious liberty against those who wish to retain the power of English style church government. Isaac would then move to Martha’s Vineyard in 1670 where he served as selectmen for almost three decades! He returns to his daughter, Fear, in Barnstable and dies at 90 in 1701.
Pastor Jonathan Russel, Jr., like other clergy at the time, catechized youth within his congregation. His close friend, James Otis, Sr. had a son also named James. He was tutored and trained well. His younger sister, Mercy, insisted on being included. The two of them became famous as defenders of both religious and civil liberty. James was known as the “Orator of the Revolution” in the North. His Writs of Assistance speech at the Old State House in 1761 so moved a young John Adams that he wrote, “This day the child Independence was born.” Mercy (who married James Warren of Plymouth) became the contemporary historian of the Revolution whose books were purchased by Thomas Jefferson in 1803. A tiny church, born under persecution, crossed the ocean and planted the town of Barnstable. Developed in the midst of revival, her fruit extended generationally and helped birth the nation! Never forget that the womb of religious and civil liberty begins with a people obedient to the Word of God and willing to let their light shine through service in their community!