The Blood of Their Witness

Chuck Phelps

Endurance is the theme of Hebrews 12. (See vv. 1, 2, 3, 7, 12, and 20.) In order to encourage the Hebrew believers to “endure,” the author declares, “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood striving against sin” (Heb. 12:4). Because the battle for faithfulness is a battle fought in every era by every believer, the Christian is challenged to remain steadfast (1 Cor. 15:58). All believers are to “run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb.12:1). In an era of opulence and temptation, today’s followers of the Lord need to be inspired to “be strong in the Lord” (Eph. 6:10) and to “stand” (Eph. 6:13)! Just as the author of Hebrews encouraged the believers who were becoming weary in well-doing to consider the exploits, sacrifices, and triumphs of previous generations of faith (Heb. 11), we need regularly to be challenged by the bloody heroism of those who have gone before us.

Tertullian (A.D. 155–230) — Blood: The Seed of the Church

Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus, commonly known in the West as Tertullian, has been called “The Father of the Latin Church” because of his prolific writings. (Thirty-one works are extant.) He converted to Christianity in A.D. 193 after having been greatly moved by the heroism of the Christians of his day. Tertullian broke with the Catholic Church in A.D. 207 and joined the Montanists (a separatist group centered in Africa). Tertullian wrote prolifically and was one of the first to promote religion as an “inalienable human right.” Believing there to be compromise within the ranks of the Montanists, Tertullian formed his own sect, a group called “The Tertullianists.” In his Apologeticum, Tertullian boldly declared, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (ch. 39, 7). Tertullian’s statement is certainly found true by those Baptist believers who take the time to trace their heritage.

Obadiah Holmes (1607?–1682) — Blood-Filled Boots

Though it is often hard for liberty-loving Americans to believe, there were times in our country’s history when religious liberty was only a far-off dream. Such were the times of Obadiah Holmes.

Born in rural Reddish, England, around 1607, Obadiah was the second son and one of either eight or nine children of Robert and Catherine Johnson Holmes. Obadiah grew up on an English farm where he learned glass-making and weaving. Married in 1630, Holmes and his wife, Catherine Hyde, sailed for New England in the summer of 1638. Their six-week journey was filled with storms, but the storms at sea would prove benign when compared to the storms that Obadiah would face in order to secure religious liberty for all Americans. Obadiah and Catherine settled in Salem, Massachusetts, where they were given an acre of land, and Obadiah helped in the founding of what may have been America’s first glass factory.

In March of 1640 the Holmeses became members of the Salem church. Obadiah soon found himself at odds with the rigid practices of the established church. Never one to remain silent, his dissenting ways led him to be often at variance with religious and civil authorities. Such strife made his decision to move to Rehoboth (a new community forty miles south of Boston) an easy one to make. While in Rehoboth, Obadiah found himself debating the Reverend Samuel Newman. Holmes was convinced of the “new baptism,” and along with eight others received the ordinance of believer’s baptism by immersion. This singular act, considered by the officials of Massachusetts and Pastor Newman to be profoundly schismatic, made Holmes a marked man. On the 2nd of October, 1650, he and others with him were indicted by the Grand Jury of New Plymouth for holding meetings on the Lord’s Day. The court ordered Holmes and eight others 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.” Holmes and his Baptist friends could no longer live peaceably in Rehoboth. Holmes sold his house and lands and moved to Newport, Rhode Island.

On July 16, 1651, John Clarke, John Crandall, and Obadiah Holmes journeyed from Newport into Massachusetts. Arriving in Lynn on the 19th, they met with William Witter, a blind and aged fellow Baptist, who had invited the three to come to his house in order to bring “comfort and communion.” The broader purpose of the visit, however, was to bring the Biblical message of immersion and freedom of religion. Converts were baptized and the Lord’s Supper was served privately at Witter’s home.

On Sunday, July 20, 1651, two constables entered Witter’s home, interrupted Clarke’s discourse, and placed the three Rhode Islanders under arrest. In an attempt to punish their crime, the constables marched the three dissenters to the evening services of the established church in Lynn. Entering the church house while services were underway, the arrested men took off their hats, saluted, sat down, and promptly put their hats back on (a declaration of their disapproval of the message and methods of the organized church). The constable snatched their hats from their heads and remanded them for trial.

Four complaints were filed against Holmes and his compatriots: first, they had conducted a private worship service; second, they had disturbed a public meeting; third, they were seducing others by drawing them into their erroneous judgment; and finally, they were neglecting to give sufficient security for their appearance at the next meeting of the county court.

The trial took place one week later before the General Court. Governor Endicott, finding them guilty even before their case was properly heard, allowed the bystanders to assault, strike, and curse Holmes even while he was in the custody of a court officer.

Each of the defendants was ordered to pay a fine or “be well whipped.” Because Holmes already had the blemish of excommunication against him in Rehoboth, his fine was the largest. Though friends willingly went about to raise the money to pay the fines, Holmes refused to receive their generosity, declaring that the receiving of such a gift would violate his conscience. Clarke and Randall were released when their fines were paid by their friends.

On September 5, 1651, Obadiah Holmes was taken from jail, stripped naked to the waist, tied to a post behind the Old State House in Boston, and publicly whipped. Before the lashes were laid on, Holmes was allowed to speak. With the attention of all who gathered and the sympathy of some, Obadiah stated, “I am to seal what I hold with my blood, I am ready to defend the Word. . . . That which I am about to suffer for is the Word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ.”

Thirty strokes with a three-cord whip held in two hands by the executioner were slowly, deliberately, and severely placed upon him. The beating laid Obadiah’s back open to the bone. Yet Holmes did not protest, murmur, or groan. When the whipping was over, he said, “You have struck me with roses.” The witnesses of the beating said that his blood filled and ran over his boots.

There are those who would find such a beating incentive enough to cease and desist from the preaching of their convictions (at least in the environs of the opposition). But Obadiah Holmes returned several times to Massachusetts to preach, baptize believers, and help organize the Baptist brethren. Though arrested again, he was never again beaten.

Adoniram Judson (1788–1850) — Bloody Footsteps

Adoniram Judson’s father pastored Congregational churches in Massachusetts. At his father’s urging, Adoniram attended the newly formed Andover Theological Seminary, where he accepted Christ as Savior in the fall of 1808. During his second year at Andover Judson read The Star of the East, a sermon by Dr. Claudius Buchanan. Both the reading of this missionary message and the influence of his seminary friendships with missionary-minded men such as Samuel Newell, Samuel Nott, Samuel Mills, and James Richards provoked Judson’s heart to consider foreign missions. Judson and Newell along with their young brides, Ann and Harriet, sailed from Salem on a blustery, snow-swept day in February 1812. They were America’s first foreign missionaries. The couples would not disembark from their ship for four months.

While at sea heading for India to meet the well-known British Baptist missionary William Carey, Adoniram Judson did a thorough study of Christian baptism. Judson did not want to meet Carey unprepared. Much to the Congregational missionary’s surprise, the New Testament convinced Judson that baptism should be practiced only by immersion and that only the regenerate should participate in the rite (Adoniram Judson on Christian Baptism [Laurel, Miss.: Audubon Press, 2000]). Judson and his wife were baptized in Calcutta on September 6, 1812. “Thus,” wrote Ann, “. . . we are confirmed Baptists, not because we wanted to be, but because truth compelled us to be.” Sent out as a Congregationalist, Judson became both America’s first foreign missionary and, by influence of his conviction, the first foreign missionary to represent the Baptist Church of America.

While ministering the Word in the Burma, Judson was accused of spying and arrested by the notorious “Spotted Face” guards. Known for their cruelty, the Spotted Face guards were “Children of the Prison.” They were the outcasts of society, branded criminals, bearing a circle or spot tattooed on each cheekbone, and serving as executioners and keepers of the prison. The days of Judson’s incarceration in 1823 were filled with unimaginable cruelty. His ankles were bound in iron. At night his body was heaved into the air feet first with his weight resting only on his shoulders. As the mosquitoes feasted on his elevated feet and the vermin crawled about in the muck forming a pillow for his head, the missionary found himself listening to the executioners as they sharpened their swords and predicted his decapitation. Though Judson’s faithful wife was carrying their child, day after day she visited the prison, bringing necessary nourishment to her starving husband. During the time of his imprisonment, Ann gave birth to a baby girl who was destined to die in infancy.

After eleven months in prison, circumstances led Judson’s captors to believe that a change of venue was in order. The prisoners were marched barefoot over searing hot sand and gravel. The four-mile journey to an undisclosed location cost several of the prisoners their lives. The next day, a cart was provided to carry the prisoners farther. None of them could walk. Faithful Ann, busy with the care of their three-monthold daughter, gave herself to the task of appealing to Burmese authorities and following her husband’s trail of blood. The cruelty of the guards became a testimony of God’s providence: Ann was able to trace her husband’s bloody footprints in the sand in order to discover the place of his continued incarceration.


Courtney Anderson, To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972).

Dr. Charles Phelps is the pastor of Colonial Hills Baptist Church, Indianapolis, Indiana.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2006. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)