Friday, 1 May 2015

Obadiah Holmes (c1610-1682) 52 Ancestors #18 Theme: "Where There's a Will"

Living in a time when it has been estimated that fewer than 1/3 of men made a will, my 10X great grandfather Obadiah Holmes left not only a will with respect to the disposition of his property, but also testaments of his faith, a farewell letter to his wife, testimonies to his children, the church and the world. The will itself is unusual in that he clearly intended its impact to be felt for years into the future. Obadiah would leave his mark on posterity!

Early Life

  • Born between 1607 and 1610 to Robert Holmes and his wife Katherine Johnson, Obadiah was baptized 18 March 1610 in Didsbury, Lancashire, England. 
  • Although 3 of his brothers attended Oxford University, there is no evidence that Obadiah did so; in fact, he later commented that he had been rebellious and  felt he had caused his mother's death by his evil ways. Given the amount of writing he left behind, he was obviously a literate man, at least when he was older.
  • He married Catherine Hyde in the Collegiate Church in Manchester, Lancashire on 20 November 1630. 
  • His mother had died just two months earlier in September 1630 and that year Obadiah is also said to have had a spiritual awakening that was to become his life's mission. 
  • Obadiah and Catherine had an infant son who died in England in June of 1633.
  • Daughter Mary (my 9X great grandmother) was born in England in 1638.

New Life in America

Obadiah and Catherine with infant daughter Mary arrived in Salem, Massachusetts in 1638. He was a glassworker and in December of 1638 was granted one acre of land for a house close to the Salem glass house plus another 10 acres to be granted by the town of Salem. (There were glassworks in the area of Lancashire where Obadiah originated so probably he had been a glassworker in England too.) 

Children continued to arrive, beginning with daughter Martha in 1640 and also Samuel, Obadiah, Lydia, Jonathan, Hopestill and John.

Religious Dissent

But all was not going well. Obadiah's developing Baptist religious beliefs started to land him in hot water. Living in Puritan Massachusetts meant one religion and one religion only; dissent was not permitted.  The Baptists disagreed with infant baptism and believed very strongly that only adults could make the meaningful choice to be baptised. (Even so, several of Obadiah and Catherine's babies were in fact baptised.) By October of 1643 he had taken an option in Rehoboth, some 40 miles south of Boston and moved there in about 1645 after selling his Salem property. He attempted to found a new Baptist church there, but he had not moved far enough to escape the watchful eye of the Puritans. 

By 1651, the family had moved to Newport, Rhode Island. Rhode Island was much more tolerant of religious diversity. However, when he visited Lynn, Massachusetts in July of that year to visit a sick friend (and, admittedly also to preach his beliefs and do some adult re-baptising), he was arrested, quickly tried and sentenced to a heavy fine or whipping. (In addition to being accused of re-baptising, he was also accused of baptising Goodwife Bowditch in the nude, an accusation that he vehemently denied.) One might say that Obadiah was a man of high principle or one might say he was just very stubborn. Some have even called him pugnacious. He flatly refused to allow anyone to help pay his fine and in early September of 1651, the sentence was carried out.

Holmes being defiant prior to being publicly whipped in Boston 1651
From an 1881 engraving by Charles Reinhart
Edwin Gaustad on page 29 of "Baptist Piety: The Last Will and Testament of Obadiah Holmes" describes the whipping:
As the strokes began to fall, Holmes prayed once more and in truth, he later wrote, I never "had such a spiritual manifestation of God's presence." And though the executioner spat upon his hands, and laid the three-corded whip "with all his strength" thirty times across the prisoner's bare back, yet "in a manner [I] felt it not." When the whipping was finished and Holmes was untied from the post, he turned to the magistrates and said, "You have struck me as with roses."
In  truth, he had been whipped so harshly that for weeks he could only sleep on his elbows and knees.

In 1652 he assumed leadership of the Newport church for the 12 year absence of its minister John Clarke in England. These Baptists did not believe in having paid clergy, so he continued to make his living as a farmer and weaver. As a freeman of Newport, he participated in civic duties such as serving on juries and acting as commissioner for the town. He wrote spirited articles on the subject of religion, explaining why his views were theologically correct.

Obadiah's dissenting ways continued. By about 1667, he found himself disagreeing with his own Newport church. He played a large role in the Baptist schism that saw some of their number insisting on marking the Lord's Day on Saturday rather than Sunday. In August of 1672, he likely attended Roger Williams' public dispute with the Quakers. By 1676 he became the sole spokesman for the Newport church and that same year was appointed to advise the Rhode Island General Assembly.

Reflecting on his life in the Testimony that he wrote in about 1675 (quoted from pages 73-82 of "Baptist Piety"), he characterized himself from his childhood through old age thus:
But I, the most rebellious of all, did hearken neither to counsel nor to any instruction. For, from a child, I minded nothing but folly and vanity. And, as the years did grow on, wisdom should have taken place; but the wisdom I had was wise to do evil, but to do well I had no knowledge. 
As days and strength increased, even so did my transgressions. I became hardened to sin, not only to be drawn into it by others, but was so forward as to draw others into evil as my fellows. Being come to the height of wickedness, I did think it best that I could do the most wickedness.
He judged himself harshly, admitting that he had followed Satan for many years. One wonders how bad he had really been or if it was just a case of youthful high jinx and a young man having fun in a family that was much more serious and pious. For a time he thought he had been able to change for the better, but even after coming to New England he says that his spirit "was like a wave tossed up and down." Notwithstanding his years as a staunch church member and minister, he says near the end of his Testimony that "I am come to see plainly that I am nothing and can do nothing, for in me dwells no good thing." He concludes that although his mind served the law of God, his flesh served the law of sin.

The 1675 testimonial writings include 50 full pages with sections devoted to his declaration of faith and messages to his friends, his wife, his children, church brethren and to the world at large. He had a lot to say.

On 9 April 1681, in preparation for his end, he deeded his entire farm to his son Jonathan for the sum of 105 pounds and 10 shillings. (One assumes that Jonathan paid Obadiah this sum although it would have been fairer had father paid son!) As shall be seen, the deed of sale to Jonathan was intended to place Jonathan in position to fulfil Obadiah's final wishes set forth in the will of the same date. Obadiah died 15 October 1682 leaving an estate of about 28 pounds. His grave is in the Holmes Lot in Middletown, Newport County, Rhode Island.

The Will

The will made it clear that Jonathan, as executor, was expected to pay out all the legacies from the takings from the farm over a period of years. In that the legacies amounted to about 5 times the value of the land conveyed to him, Jonathan was clearly taking on a major responsibility for years into the future.

THESE ARE TO SIGNIFY THAT I, OBADIAH HOLMES OF Newport on Rhode Island, being at present through the goodness and mercy of my God of sound memory; and being by daily intimations put in mind of the frailty and uncertainty of this present life, do therefore - for settling my estate in this world which it has pleased the Lord to bestow upon me - make and ordain this my Last Will and Testament in manner following, committing my spirit unto the Lord that gave it to me and my body to the earth from whence it was taken, in hope and expectation that it shall thence be raised at the resurrection of the just.
He left the following bequests to be paid immediately in money:
  • 5 pounds to daughter Mary Brown (my 9th great grandmother)
  • 10 pounds to daughter Martha Odlin
  • 10 pounds to daughter Lydia Bowne
  • 5 pounds to each of two grandchildren, children of his daughter Hopestill Taylor
  • 10 pounds to son John Holmes
  • 10 pounds to son Obadiah Holmes
  • 10 pounds to each of two grandchildren, children of his son Samuel Holmes
Obadiah went on to make additional bequests:
  • 10 pounds to all his grandchildren now living; and 10 shillings in the "like pay to be laid out to each of them - a Bible". (He had 41 grandchildren though how many were living at the time of his death is unclear.)
  • 10 pounds to grandchild Martha Brown. (It's a bit puzzling that he lists this grandchild separately although the amount is the same as for the other grandchildren. Also note above that his daughter Mary received only half of what her siblings received. Mary had married John, the son of the very respectable Chad Brown, minister of the Baptist Church at Provident, RI, so it is difficult to see any particular issues that Obadiah could have had in this regard.)
  • 20 pounds to his wife Catherine for her own use
Jonathan was expected to pay out 20 pounds each year until all of these bequests were completed. There is no record of how many years it took for Jonathan to satisfy all these bequests that his father had so generously made in his will.

Notwithstanding Obadiah's intentional attempts at leaving a legacy, perhaps his greatest posterity was actually through his and Catherine's children and their many thousands of descendants (including Abraham Lincoln and the Brown family associated with the founding of Brown University in Rhode Island).


  • Gaustad, Edwin S., ed., "Baptist Piety: The Last Will and Testimony of Obadiah Holmes", New York: Arno Press 1980
  • Roberts, Gary Boyd, "English Origins of New England Families Volume 1", Baltimore: Genealogy Publishing Co. Inc. 1984
  • "New England Marriages Prior to 1700",Provo, UT, USA, Operations Inc., 2012
  • "Genealogies of Rhode Island Families", Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983
  • "U.S. and Canada Passenger and Immigration Lists Index", 1500's-1900's, Provo, UT, USA, Operations Inc. 2010, Place: Salem, Massachusetts: Year: 1639; Page 148
  • website for Obadiah Holmes accessed 20 April 2015

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to my 4th cousin Jack Brown for pointing out the erroneous reference to Obadiah's daughter Mary having married Chad Brown. Mary actually married Chad's son John Brown. This has now been corrected.