John Colby, Preacher of the Gospel
By Jeff Brooke-Stewart
Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you and fill up in the flesh what was still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions
for the sake of the body, which is the church. I have become its servant. To this end I labor, struggling with all His energy which so powerfully works in me.
So wrote the Apostle Paul to the Colossians concerning the hardships and sufferings he experienced while preaching the Gospel of
Christ. Those words might equally be applied to a young nineteenth century evangelist by the name of John Colby.
The church history section in the 1973 copy of the pictorial history and directory of the First Free Will Baptist Church of Smithfield Rhode
Island, commonly known as the Greenville Baptist Church, begins with these words:
The story goes back to the
establishment by Rev. John Colby of the Free Baptist Church in Burrillville in 1812. When Rev. Colby died in 1817, Clarissa Danforth came to be pastor of that church. She was near enough
to Greenville to be the leader of a revival that was established in Greenville and continued for 16 months. Early in 1820, Rev Joseph White came from Maine to associate with Miss Danforth
in her work and on May 16, 1820, founded the Greenville Church which was the second Free Will Baptist Church in the State.
Nine miles from Smithfield, in 1821, a group of local Gloucester residents formed themselves as proprietors and paid for the construction of a
meetinghouse in Chepachet, Rhode Island. The following year, in May of 1822 the Free Will Baptist Church in Chepachet was formed, and
began to gather in the new meetinghouse—which they continue to do to this day. Records show that during 1812 John Colby was on various
occasions the houseguest, among others, of Samuel Steere and of Job Armstrong. Samuel Steere was a founding member of the Chepachet
Meetinghouse Proprietors, and Job Armstrong was the first clerk of both the Proprietors and of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church.
Burrillville, Smithfield and Chepachet—clearly, the establishment and growth of the early 19th century church in northern Rhode Island was
strongly influenced by this man John Colby. So who was this influential man? And how did he come to be so active in this region? His story is
well worth telling! In this account, I frequently refer to Colby's autobiography # and in doing, have retained his grammar and spelling.
John Colby's story begins in the town of Sandwich, New Hampshire. There, on December 9th 1787, Elizabeth Colby, the wife of Thomas Colby,
deacon in the local church, gave birth to a son, John. Growing up in this rural New England community, John went through all of the common
experiences of those times, including the tragic consequences of childhood diseases, the value of strong friendships and the culture of hard
work and self sufficiency. The Colbys were a strong and close Christian family, and from a very early age young John showed a certain
characteristic that would shape his life—the realization that God was a very real presence in his life, and that God was calling him to some specific task.
In John's own words; "When I was but a child, and while in the midst of those vanities peculiar to that age, the Lord reproved me by His
Spirit and manifested to my mind that I was born to die." John came to understand this not so much as a threat, but as a fact that should be
shared with as many people as possible. And so as a young boy, John began a search for the knowledge of God that he would eventually
share with rural New England farmers, with merchants of New York, pioneer settlers along the Ohio frontier and the people in Northern Rhode Island.
John was by nature a very inquisitive child, and by the age of eight, he was asking quite deep questions concerning death and eternal life
and the destiny of Christians, and just what it is that constitutes Christianity in the first place. John asked an elder brother what makes one
a Christian, and in his own words "He told me that father and mother were Christians; and that he and I were sinners. But, said he 'I mean to
be a Christian before I die.' I answered, 'So do I.' " That quick off the cuff response by John, was based on the understanding that if an
older brother could put off such an important decision then so could young John. But it haunted him, and later John wrote about that
exchange "Now I see how children in the morning of life, neglect seeking the Lord by example of those who are older."
It is very clear that the answers John received to his childhood spiritual questions were just not satisfactory, and to his credit he kept up the
search. A year or so after the exchange with his brother, John had a profound experience;
It pleased God one night in
a dream, to convince me that I had a soul, which would exist after my body was dead. In the dead of night, while deep sleep was upon me, I dreamed, and lo! A man entered the door of the
apartment where I lay, with a loaded musket in his hand; and while I lay looking at the man, to my great surprise he took aim and fired! The explosion was loud as thunder; and the fatal
charge pierced my breast. An awful scene immediately presented. My body began to decay and fade like the flower of the grass until it returned to its mother earth and fell into silent
repose. The soul revived in proportion to the recession of the body, and appeared to be both perplexed and distressed, and in great consternation flew around the walls of the clay
tenement, fluttering at each avenue and crying for help, as if loth to leave its wounded abode; until the lungs ceased to heave, the pulse to beat and blood to flow. The soul was then
forced out. The scene then appeared eternal and as I was about to take my flight to unknown worlds and leave every earthly thing behind me, I immediately awoke and beheld it was a dream!
Although John wrapped the memory of that dream in words and phrases from scripture and contemporary song, there is no doubt that the
dream was a powerful wakeup call. John became convicted of the need to understand Christian destiny and to then share this with others.
But not yet! John's response to God was; "Lord, I am too young — I am but a child—spare me till such and such a time — then I will attend
to thy call." To be fair, John was indeed still quite young. But as we shall see, John adopted a pattern of delaying a positive response to the call and this would continue for some years.
John attended meetings, and for certain gave rapt attention to the sermon messages. The scripture readings and reflections drove the
feeling of conviction ever deeper, and coming from meeting one day, a year or so after the dream, he felt a deep sense of sin and guilt at his
lack of action and cried out "Here I am Lord, do with me as thou wilt." But once again—not yet! John immediately sensed that he was not up
to carrying the cross and he wrote "Like Felix, I prayed, 'go thy way for this time, and when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.' " Thank God that he did not grant John this prayer.
In fact, rather than cede to John's appeal, God persevered and the conviction continued to grow as childhood turned into the teen years.
John felt the conviction at church meetings, in and about the town, and out in the fields. It became almost unbearable for John, and yet over
and over again, he put off action. As God continued to call, John continued to delay with responses to God like 'not today' and 'tomorrow
shall be the day'. He notes that he eventually came to see the devil at work in all of this. It is also likely that he simply had doubts about his ability to step out and talk to others convincingly about his faith.
At the age of 14 there came another dramatic moment, this time at the bedside of his dying grandmother. Sitting with his grandmother, John
recalled that; "With her soul patiently waiting for her change, and desiring to meet death and to exchange a world of sorrow and pain for a
world of joy and pleasure, she turned her dying eyes upon me and said, 'John you have been a good boy to me, and now all I require of you is
to love the Lord.' These words reached my soul, and the requirement I never forgot." John was shaken by his grandmother's resolve as she
faced death and as she anticipated the coming realization of the promise of eternal life, and once again he determined to take up the
call—but not yet. The old doubts about his abilities again came to him and he advised God that he was not as yet ready to be his disciple.
A year later the family moved to Billymead in Vermont (this town is now known as Sutton) and once settled there, John mixed in with the
other youths of the village. One evening at a village dance, and as the group made merry, conviction stirred John as he considered whether
his conduct was pleasing to God. Whether pleasing or not, promises were made to God that evening, and promises were again broken. John
still felt that he was not ready. The internal struggle continued and came to a head on the occasion of his 18th birthday. Three months
earlier, when something of a revival was working in the town, John's sister had been baptized. John was surprised by his sister's act, and he began to see the need for personal action on his part.
Before following the call to speak to others about life, he realized that he first had to make his own choice, his own decision. He writes; "I
obtained this hope, and with thirteen others I followed our Lord and Saviour into the water and was buried with Him in baptism. This was on
the eighth day of December A.D. 1805. The day following was my birthday, that is to say, the ninth day of December. On that day I joined
the church of Christ in Billymead and endeavored to take the armour of God and to face the field; and declared perpetual war with every darling sin."
John continued to have doubts about his ability, but this time he followed through. He began to give public testimony for God. It is clear that
it is from this day on, John not only felt the missionary call from God, but also the determination to carry it out. He occupied himself with
Bible study and meditation and with preaching the Gospel at his local church. He writes that he felt the call to remain at home and perform
this work locally. Whether or not this was a call, or whether it was the old procrastination can be argued. What is certain is that in December
1808 at the age of 21, just as the Apostle Paul received the Macedonian call to cross over into Macedonia, so John received the Ohio call!
John describes it this way; "I felt the impression renewed to arise and go to the state of Ohio and to cry out against it; and it seemed as if
the Lord said, 'their wickedness is come up before me.' But like Jonah, I fled from presence of the Lord; not to Tarshish but to Peacham!" By
now we should not be surprised by John's behavior. In the face of God's calling, just as Jonah had fled to Tarshish, so John fled to the academy in Peacham, where he spent the winter.
During the following summer John was back at home, and although the Ohio call persisted, he again delayed and worked on the completion of
a gristmill. But on June 4 1809 there came another call and this time it was not to be denied. John began to prepare for the missionary
journey. He preached on the first day of each week in Billymead or in one of the neighboring towns and continued at the gristmill. With his
earning he purchased a horse and saddle and bridle and all the necessities for a long journey.
The preparation became protracted, and John felt comfortable with the local preaching. For a month or so it appeared that John might be
delaying the call yet again. But this came to a head with a riveting occurrence. He was still in Billymead one Sunday, preaching on a passage
from Titus, when he suddenly ran out of words. Every preacher's worst moment, and standing in the pulpit he found himself unable to speak.
Was this the Lord answering an earlier foolish prayer to delay sending him? John writes; "Was the Lord about to answer my prayer and chain
up my mouth? It seemed that the enemy surrounded me with all his forces; my mind was immediately thrown into confusion and almost into
distraction. I ceased speaking without telling my audience the occasion of it. No one can tell, neither can I express, how I then felt."
John returned home, saddled the horse and rode into the woods to think this over. In the quietness of the deep woods John made his
decision. One more service in Billymead had been committed to, and so one more sermon was delivered (without incident) and on November
14th John set out for Ohio. There now followed an incredible almost eight month adventure to the very western edge of Ohio and back. Just
to read John's account is exhausting as he rode across country preaching and ministering on whatever occasion arose, day after day. The experience was to leave his health shattered.
The ministry began the day he left Billymead. Rather than make his way quickly west, John took his time to preach and minister at every stop
along the way, beginning in the town of Lyndon. In terrible weather conditions he continued on to Hartford Vt. and then to Windsor. Here he
met up with another itinerant preacher who is identified as "Brother P". It had apparently been their intention to journey together but
according to John, something in Brother P's preaching was upsetting, and so they eventually split company. From Windsor, John rode alone to
Weathersfield and then to Springfield where his final preparation step was taken. Here, the elders in the church in Springfield advised John
that it would be better for his ministry journey if he were ordained. The ordination took place on November 30, 1809.
From Springfield John journeyed west, day by day in foul weather and in good weather, conducting services, marrying, baptizing and burying
good folk, always preaching the good news of salvation. Sometime in mid December he crossed into New York passing through Hoosic and on
to Albany. In this town John felt the burden of his calling. He wrote; "The next day as I passed through the streets, an awful solemnity fell
upon my mind and such a weight for the people. I beheld people of all classes and ages from three score and ten down to little children
running to and fro in the streets, all apparently drowned in the cares of the present world and insensible to the impending storm which is to
be rained upon the wicked. I left Albany in haste, yet not without praying to God to have mercy on the people." This would not be the only occasion when John felt this weight.
Over the next few weeks John would cross the Susquehanna River many times, meeting with acceptance and success and with hostility and
refusal. On January 2nd 1810 the crossing into Pennsylvania was made. The exhausting pace continued day after day, preaching and leading
services with and without meeting with acceptance. John describes the start of his second week in Pennsylvania like this; "Monday, I went
up to the head of Lake Common and put up with a widow Roberts, and that night attended a meeting at her house. The next day I went on
through Lake Common (which is the name of a river or creek), which I forded forty-four times in going thirty miles. I tarried Tuesday night in
Newbury at one Smith's. The next day I went down through Jaysburgh, a little village near Susquehanna West Branch. Here I attended a
meeting among a set of luke-warm Baptists and had not a very good time. The following evening I went about a mile and attended a meeting
at Loyal Stock." Baptist, Quaker, or Methodist meetinghouses, barns, private homes or out in the field, John would preach wherever the opportunity came.
Late in March, John crossed into Ohio at Yellow Creek in Jefferson County. Continuing on towards the west via Zanesville, by April 12 he was
in Cincinnati. Here John decided that the call was to take him beyond Ohio, and on April 16 he crossed into Indiana territory. The journey was
now taking a hard toll on John's health. The pace of preaching, along with the uncertainty of friendly or hostile responses, combined with
weather conditions that left John alternately soaked to the skin or dry and cold, began to wear upon him. In the Indiana territory, John
became very ill. He stopped at Yellow Springs and drank the sulphur-laden water and became violently sick. In spite of this, there was no
hesitation and the journey continued. John would spend a total of two months back and fro across Ohio and the Indiana territory.
In these few paragraphs, it is impossible to convey the pace and amount of work that John performed. At times he met with success and
true hospitality and at other times with ridicule and downright violence. More than once he was fired upon. But his faith and determination
pushed him on. Clearly, a determined evangelist had replaced the doubtful young boy and the hesitant teenager from Vermont.
One example of his style can usefully be quoted in full. Leaving Ohio, John traveled back into Pennsylvania and in the region of Lake Erie he
describes this experience; "I was advised not to go to this place, there being no religious society in the town. They likewise told me that the
people there would not hear me; and I was credibly informed that the people had previously fallen into a phrenzy, burnt the Bible and
sprinkled the ashes with whiskey! I however made an appointment, and the people had seasonable notice. At the hour the meeting was to
begin, I walked through the main street, nearly half a mile, with my hat off, singing the judgement hymn, hoping thereby to excite their
attention. I then went to the place appointed; and after waiting an hour and a half, I began service. My audience consisted of three men,
three women and four hildren. There were also a few more who came in before I had quite done. The Lord have mercy on the people of Erie, if there is any mercy for them."
The Lord's words to the disciples to shake off the dust of any town that would not receive them rang in John's ears and he continued on
through the region of Niagara and the towns of Utica and Saratoga Springs. Finally, it was back into Vermont and home to Billymead. John
arrived back home on June 6th 1810. Since November 12, John had covered between three and four thousand miles on horseback. John gave
thanks for "God's indulgent hand" as he reflected that he had been "through tracts of wilderness where some have been destroyed by wild
beasts, lost or perished through hunger, some robbed or murdered or thrown into rivers, some frozen, some accidentally drowned and some taken prisoner by Indians."
Never a particularly strong young man, John's health had irreparably suffered from the adventure. But putting health aside, back home in
Vermont, he immediately embarked on local missions continuing to travel day by day in the region preaching wherever anyone would listen.
The pattern was familiar—preaching, baptizing, marrying and burying as called upon. This occupied John into the winter of 1811. Reading this section of John's diary is even more exhausting than the western journey!
In January 1811, after draining himself with the work throughout Vermont and New Hampshire, John looked south and in particular felt a
calling towards Rhode Island. Immediately however, he became ever more active in his home state and in New Hampshire, with great
demands on his time. Now John was not procrastinating, but simply had other calls to answer first. On more than one occasion John was so
sick and weak that he could barely rise from his bed—and yet always he managed, sometimes at the last moment, to find the energy to
deliver the word. God had called him and God was providing for him. During this period, John recorded in his diary of one occasion, "Sabbath
day morning, we went to the meeting and found a very large congregation met to hear the word; and not withstanding my bodily weakness, the Lord gave me strength to preach."
It was to be May 26th, 1812 before John rode into Providence. That evening he immediately attended service and although he is not specific,
this was quite likely at the First Baptist Church in Providence. So immediate was the acceptance of John, that he records that the next day
he preached at both the day and evening services. For the next three and a half months, John kept us his grueling pace between Providence, Boston and Vermont, back and fro wherever called.
Interior of Old Town House (1st
Floor), in Burrillville, RI, where Colby preached to the church he helped organize.
On September 10th 1812, John preached for the very first time in Northern Rhode Island, at the home of Captain William Rhodes in Burrillville.
John records that "This was the first time I had preached in that place and it was a solemn meeting, and a number were convinced of their
need for a Saviour." On September 14 John made a second visit to Burrillville and preached at the meetinghouse. He was back in town on the
20th and in his own words; "I preached in the meeting-house, to a large and solemn assembly. There was a profound silence, a general
attention, great solemnity, and many tears. In the evening I preached at Esq. Steer's and found the Lord to be a present help. A number
entered into a solemn covenant before the Lord, that through the grace of God, they would seek salvation for their souls. The day following,
I preached in Gloucester; like wise in the evening in the same township, at a village called Chepachet, where I trust we had a profitable meeting."
This Esq. Steer was a local lawyer—Samuel Steere, who a few years later would become one of the founding proprietors of the Chepachet
Meeting House. Clearly John Colby made a lasting impression upon the town folk. Also it is clear that they made an impression upon him,
because for the next five years John would constantly revisit the region. On October 2 he was back in Gloucester where he spent the
evening in "exhortation and prayer." The next day he was in Burrillville, and on the next he had a morning appointment to preach in the
schoolhouse. No one came to hear, and so on finding the place "all in a clutter" he took a broom and cleaned it up! Let no one say that John
Colby was not both practical and quick with his service. Later that day he preached in Chepachet in the afternoon and again in the evening.
Interior of Old Town
House (the Cherubim and Gallery), in Burrillville, RI.
On October 8th John made his first visit to Scituate Rhode Island, and then back to Gloucester for a week or so preaching in the homes of a
Mr. Barnes, Esq. Steer, Capt. Rhodes and a Mr. King as well as at the schoolhouse and the Burrillville meetinghouse. Again it was exhausting
for him, and on October 30th, John noted; "I was exceedingly spent, and knelt and prayed 'Lord, I am here in a strange land, far from all my
relations and natural friends; my labor since I came to this place has exceeded my strength, and I am now reduced to a very low state of
health. I cannot continue but a little while unless something favourable should take place for the recovery of my health. And now Lord, I
come to ask thee this one favor, this one petition at thy hand; that thou wouldst convert a number of these young men who may serve as
bearers to carry my body to the grave if I should die this evening.' The Lord heard and immediately answered my petition. Four young men,
namely, Duty Paine, Martin Salisbury, Christopher Saunders and Joshua Darlin were immediately converted to God." John did not die that evening, but neither did his health markedly improve.
John continued in the Gloucester region throughout November, barely making it through one Chepachet service without collapsing. The
preaching continued in the locations mentioned earlier and now also in the homes of Augustus Steere, Joseph Abbey, Jeremiah Mowry, Asa
Burlingame, George Brown, Solomon Smith, Martin and Duty Salisbury, Esq. Wood's, Andrew Ballard and Esq. Cook's. It is not hard to imagine
these men remarking on the need for another meetinghouse in the area! A measure of the degree of the attachment that these men felt for
John Colby can be seen in the fact that Augustus Steere would later name his forth child John Colby Steere.
John's 26th birthday on Dec 9, was taken up with preaching services and a baptism. It is not recorded where the baptism was held, but four
people went into the cold December waters of a pond to confess their acceptance of Christ.
It is clear from reading John's diary, that he was not only accepted by town and village folk, but also by the established church community.
For example, on December 19th John dined at the home of Dr. Gano, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Providence along with Elders Lewis
and Benedict. He then preached a service with Dr. Gano. It is quite likely that the Elder Benedict mentioned by John, is David Benedict, son
-in-law of Rev. Gano and the head of the school opened by Samuel Slater for the teaching of the mill children.
After a two-week mission to Hartford Connecticut, John was back in Burrillville on December 31st and as 1813 came in, he was leading
services and baptizing. We should keep in mind that these winter baptisms meant first breaking the ice! Here is John's description of the
baptism of Martin Salisbury and his wife; "There was a path shoveled through the snow to the water, wide enough for the people to walk two
and two; and a hole was cut in the ice for their burial with Christ in baptism" Into the frigid water to celebrate the warmth of Christ!
February 1813 is an important month in this narrative. It is clear that in the latter months of 1812, under the leading of John Colby, some folk
in the town of Burrillville had acted to establish a new church. By February 1813, the new church was well organized. John records that on
February 11th 1813, although suffering with pains in the lung and the stomach, and generally feeling very weak, he attended a meeting that
had been planned in Burrillville. This was a business meeting of the new church. John records; "The church met for business and after much
conversation on various subjects, respecting the edifying of the body of Christ [the church] found an unanimous agreement among the
brethren, and love and harmony prevailing and increasing; and the Lord was daily adding to the church. We then chose Andrew Ballard and Duty Salisbury to the office of deacons"
The title 'pastor' is not found in the pages of John Colby's diary for this period, but it is clear that this was his role in Burrillville. Day after day
he was engaged in counseling, prayer meetings, leading in worship, funerals and baptisms. All of this, he performed in spite of increasing ill
health. On one occasion John was in so much pain and so weak that he had to be carried to and from a funeral.
By March 1st 1813, John had baptized forty-two persons in Burrillville. In addition many more people admitted to accepting Christ for the first
time and others had returned to the faith. These folk were gathering together as a church. He was now referred to as Elder Colby and there is no doubt that he was dearly loved in the community.
Eventually, John was forced to recognize how weak and how ill he was, and he reluctantly resolved to return home to Billymead for a period
of rest. By March 28th he was back in Billymead, but we should not be surprised to learn that the period of rest consisted of preaching,
visiting the sick and conducting funerals—three in the first week. John enjoyed this time with family and old friends, but he missed the faithful
in Burrillville and by May 15th he was back in that town. He was overjoyed to find the church strong and growing since some had forecast that, 'as soon as Colby left town, the church would fall apart.'
1814 found Colby traveling and preaching extensively in Providence, Scituate and Smithfield Rhode Island, and back up through Vermont
again. In August 1814, John came to the conclusion that his ministry in the region was complete for now, and that the State of Maine was calling. This would turn out to be an important turn for Northern Rhode Island.
By August 17 he was preaching in Portland, Maine. For the next two weeks he traveled throughout the State and the islands with his normal
schedule. But John missed his beloved friends in Gloucester, and by September 22 he was back in Burrillville. Again he was overjoyed to find
not only the Burrillville church going well but also new congregations in Smithfield and Scituate. The grueling pace was resumed for the next
eight months, and during this period John took up lodgings with, and struck up a friendship, with Job Armstrong. Job would a few years later
become a founding member of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church. It was at Job Armstrong's that John received a letter on May 1, 1815 advising him of the death of his beloved sister Polly.
Before returning to Billymead, John had some planned services to attend. One of these was to preach to the new gathering in Smithfield,
another was to conduct the baptism of Capt. Samuel Steere of Gloucester along with two others. Of this occasion John wrote, "I hope they
[will] become pillars in the temple of God." Again John's hope was realized, as Samuel Steere would later become a deacon of the Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church.
With these commitments honored, John turned back to Vermont to seek out some rest and to attempt to recover some of his health. This
was not to be, as once back in Billymead, John's health took another turn for the worse; "I began to spit blood, and raised larger quantities
than ever before, which I considered a bad omen. I continued bleeding from the lungs for several days, till my strength was exhausted."
In spite of this, John was back in Rhode Island by September 23. He made his way to Smithfield and put up at the Tuckers while a great
tempest blew through the region. This was the Great Gale of 1815. It destroyed much of Providence and out in Smithfield it destroyed
Tucker's barn and John's chaise. A friendship with this family had formed, and a member of this family, Stephen Tucker would later become the first clerk of the First Free Will Baptist Church in Smithfield.
After spending three weeks in Burrillville, John returned to Maine on October 14. His lungs were still bleeding and he recalled, "My physicians
had charged me not to preach until I had recovered my health. But this charge I have not been able to keep long at a time." The poor
physicians may have known what was best for John's constitution, but they clearly had little or no understanding of John's determination to
preach the gospel. Back in Maine, John was immediately off by boat and by road preaching the word. But Burrillville called again, and by December 23rd he was leading the service at the Burrillville meetinghouse.
At about this time, in his diary, John differentiates very clearly between three separate congregations in Burrillville, Gloucester and Smithfield.
For example covering these last days of 1815 and the new year of 1816, he records that; "Sabbath day 24th, I preached at Burrillville
meeting house, I found the church well engaged (more so, I think, than I ever knew them before,) and well united. Bless the Lord! The next
Sabbath day, 31st I preached at Gloucester. Monday, being new years day, I preached at Burrillville meetinghouse from the words, 'This year
thou shalt die.' January 7th 1816, Sabbath day, I preached at Smithfield Academy and baptized Esther Smith, a worthy and pious sister; we had a glorious time."
On February 4th, John noted, "preached at the Burrillville meetinghouse; baptized six; had a solemn meeting; took my leave of the brethren
for the present." The next day he preached in Providence and on the 6th departed for Boston. John was now in extremely poor health, and
yet in spite of his weak condition he decided to visit the Canadian province of New Brunswick because, as he wrote, "I have felt an almost
continual cry from the people." Preparing for the sea voyage, in Portland Maine John recorded that he met an Elder White who was preparing to make a second tour to Rhode Island.
Obviously concerned for his friends in Northern Rhode Island, John noted of that day, "I gave him my horse and carriage, and he went on to
preach with the brethren and people there during my absence." This is an important link to the churches in Northern Rhode Island, as Elder
White would later become the first pastor of the Smithfield Free Will Baptist Church in 1820.
Based in Eastport NB, John went about his normal demanding schedules, spending day after day ministering to the people there. By May 9th,
John was absolutely exhausted and departed for Portsmouth NH and then by stage to Rhode Island. Quite simply he longed to be reunited
with his old friends, and his diary shows that feeling was mutual. "Friday I went to Smithfield. Saturday, May 24th I had now but nine miles
to travel to reach Burrillville, at which place our quarterly meeting was to commence at ten of the clock of the day. On my arrival I found the
brethren and people collected; the most of them had done looking for me, knowing that but a few days before, I was engaged in the
reformation at Eastport, between three and four hundred miles distant. Some of the people said a little before I arrived there, that one
circumstance encouraged them to hope that I should yet come, and that was, that I never failed of coming when I had an appointment there"
Here, back in Burrillville, John teamed up with Elder White who had been ministering to the people in John's absence, as had been previously
agreed. After a few days in Smithfield and in Providence where John met with the Governor who had recently been baptized by immersion,
this short visit to Rhode Island was complete. A very difficult journey took John home to Billymead on June 15th. "I arrived at my father's on
Saturday, June 15th, much fatigued with a poor disordered body, but I trust with a thankful heart."
The family and friends were overjoyed to see John, who had been away almost ten months on this journey, having covered about three
thousand miles by road and sea during that time. Some days of home-food and care did little to improve John's health but we are surely not
surprised that on June 23rd he was embarked upon a five hundred mile journey back to Eastport. After some months in Eastport, John was
encouraged by a letter from Elder Joseph White reporting that all was well in Burrillville and that White "has had the pleasure of baptizing Judge Steer, who went with great firmness and composure"
This Judge (Samuel) Steere was for many years, the local Justice of the Peace and the Democratic representative to the RI General Assembly
. Records of the Steere Family Association show that following his baptism by Elder White, Judge Steere became a key member of the church.
In fact these records give us a glimpse into the community life that Colby had so strongly influenced, as they note that; "He [Judge Steere]
is remembered as being an excellent singer, and generally took the lead of the congregation going down to the water when baptismal
ceremonies were performed. With his portly person—weighing one hundred and seventy pounds—and his white broad-brimmed hat and solemn
dignified air, he made an imposing figure at the head of the procession, singing from his red psalm-book."
In Eastport, John was once again overcome with weakness, unable to eat, and continually coughing and spitting blood, he was forced to
leave Eastport and arrived back in Portland Maine on December 2nd. In Portland, John began to see some merit in traveling south to the
Carolinas in search of weather more inclined to help his health. But first there was a need in Burrillville. He took the stage to Boston and
Providence and arrived in Burrillville on December 30th—utterly exhausted. For 25 days, John was nursed in the homes of Simeon Smith,
Deacon Salisbury and Capt. Rhodes and then duly booked on a packet to Charleston, but on the day of departure January 25, 1817, he found
the bay at Providence to be frozen and locked. No vessels could leave. After much delay he found his way to New London and finally, on
March 11th set sail for New York. Nine days were spent in that city, where John came down with bleeding ulcers to add to his misery.
Eventually he decided that South Carolina was not to be for him—he returned to New London and took the stage to Smithfield. After resting
with the Tuckers, he went to Burrillville, and then accompanied by Stephen Tucker, he once again set out for home in Billymead.
Now, so very ill and weak, John had little choice but to rest. He records that he began to feel better, but on acknowledging that he had
spent years becoming ill, he accepted that the recovery would also be a long one. Towards the end of June, John received a tonic in the
form of a visit by a new preacher in the neighborhood by the name of Clarissa Danforth. Miss Danforth was a powerful preacher who had been
holding meetings throughout Vermont and New Hampshire and who had brought great attention. It was reported that, "there never has been
a preacher through these parts, that called out such a multitude as went out to hear her. Nor was that the only good effect which was
experienced from her preaching, for there was a glorious revival of the work of the Lord in almost every town where she preached" Clarissa
came to visit John, and to inform him that it was during one of his meetings years ago, during his journey west, that as she listened to him,
she had come under the conviction to begin this ministry. John does not record his subsequent conversations with Clarissa, but what we
know is that by the end of that year (1817) she had made the journey to Burrillville and had become pastor of the church there. There can
be little doubt that John described the work that had been done in Northern Rhode Island and had convinced Clarissa to see that it should continue.
John remained at his family home until September 10th. At that time having recovered a little of his strength, John once again picked up upon
the plan to travel south. The diary simply lists the places he visited from September 10 through October 30th when he arrived in Baltimore. In
the midst of this is recorded, " [September] 30th to Providence to Dr. Ganoe's; October 1st to Burrillville; 3rd to Smithfield" We can only
wonder about the meetings in those towns with those he loved so much, and speculate whether he met up with Clarissa Danforth and Joseph White there? Surely he must have done so.
John's diary ends abruptly with these words "October 30th left Baltimore in the morning, took the steam boat 'Virginia', and arrived at Norfolk
in Virginia the next morning, 200 miles; continued in Norfolk from the 31st of October to the..."
And so it ends. Apparently John had written this last entry, and then paused until the departure date would have been known.
The departure date was November 28th but the destination was not Charleston but rather to his heavenly home.
John Colby had been taken very ill and had made his way to the people of the local Baptist church when he arrived in Norfolk. They cared for
him until he died, a month later in the house of William M. Fauquier, Deacon of the Baptist Church in Norfolk. John had died at the young age
of 29 years. Fauquier arranged for a burial and composed an obituary for the local paper. This new friend also wrote to John's father to
advise him of his son's death. This letter also advised that John asked for all of his books and clothes to be conveyed to Dr. Gano in Providence.
John's father must have asked some questions about his son's last days, because there followed a second letter from deacon Fauquier which
states that Elder Colby arrived at his house "on Friday, much fatigued; but on the next Sunday, there being no minister, he went to meeting
and delivered two good discourses, and attended meeting two Sunday's after." John Colby was faithful in his work to the very end.
John's father arranged for a handsome white marble tombstone to be erected at the grave in Norfolk.
Here is the text of John's obituary:
Departed this life,
yesterday morning, (November 28th) at the residence of Mr. Wm. Fauquier, in this borough, after a painful and lingering sickness, which he bore with Christian fortitude and resignation,
the Rev. John Colby, a Baptist minister from the state of Vermont. A few weeks since, Mr. Colby reached this place from the north, being on his way to Charleston, S.C. where he hoped to
recover the health and strength which he had spent in the service of his Lord and Master. But it was decreed otherwise; his sufferings are at an end, for he has fallen asleep in the arms
of Jesus, and his immortal spirit has winged its flight to that bright world of bliss, where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary pilgrim is forever at rest. For the
satisfaction of his relatives and friends at a distance, and as an act of justice to the worthy family, in whose house Mr. Colby breathed his last, we deem it proper to state, that he
received every respect and attention, which his offices and his suffering required.
Norfolk, Va. Paper.
So, there we have the life of a remarkable young man, who overcame severe self-doubts and continual ill health, and who made such an
impact on the spiritual lives of people from New England to the Indiana territories and to the Eastern Canadian provinces. But it is perhaps in
the rural communities of Northern Rhode Island that John Colby had a major influence. We can now put together and summarize some
connections between John Colby and a number of churches that are still ministering today.
We can begin in the greater Gloucester RI area in the late 1700s, where a number of the faithful were meeting together and sharing their
faith and worshipping God. They were various denominations, including a group holding to Baptist beliefs and generally to the free will belief
that salvation was open to all, and that God gave all people the free will to accept this through Christ. There were also a large number of
Quakers and Calvinist leaning Baptists. These various groups probably kept either somewhat apart, or they met together, depending upon
how strong their feelings were one way or another. The Free Will Baptists were meeting in each other's homes or wherever they could come
together. These Baptists generally gathered under the name of the Church of Christ in Gloucester.
Into this community, in 1812 came John Colby. Colby, while sternly putting down the ways of the world, was quite tolerant to the differences
among the faithful. He wrote of himself, "I have no party or sect to build up, and none to pull down, any farther than to preach Jesus Christ.
For myself, I feel determined to preach the gospel to every creature, as far as I am able; for I have always felt, and still feel, determined to
preach wherever I can find a congregation to hear the word—among the Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Church of England,
Roman Catholic &c. &c." This approach would have made his message acceptable to many, but most especially to the Free Will Baptists.
One particular group of Baptists was well organized, and by the early eighteen hundreds they were meeting in the Burrillville town
meetinghouse on a regular basis. They welcomed John Colby and he began to preach to them on a regular basis. Towards the end of 1812,
this group became established as the Free Baptist Church in Burrillville and Elder Colby was their pastor. By May 1813, they were holding
regular business meetings and generally organizing themselves—including the call of certain members to the role of Deacon. This was the very
first Free Will Baptist church in Rhode Island. At least two Baptist churches continue to this day in Burrillville as a result of this work.
Throughout 1813–14, John Colby continued an extraordinary schedule while ministering to the Burrillville church, traveling into New Hampshire
and Maine, and preaching throughout Northern Rhode Island. In this latter role, Colby developed a strong circle of friends and
supporters—particularly in Smithfield and in Chepachet. By the end of 1814, he was regularly lodging with Job Armstrong and Samuel Steere in
the Chepachet area. These men would later be influential in establishing a church in Chepachet.
By May of 1815, John was spending more time in the Smithfield area, lodging from time to time with the Tucker family, who would later
become influential in establishing a church in Smithfield. In September of that year, when the Great Gail of 1815 swept across Rhode Island
making much destruction, John was in the home of the Tucker family. Their barn and John Colby's chaise were destroyed in the storm. By the
close of 1815, John was speaking of three clearly defined congregations in Burrillville, Chepachet and Smithfield, with Burrillville by far the most organized.
In February 1816, while continuing his Rhode Island ministries and preaching in Vermont and New Hampshire, John could not resist a call he
felt to go to the Canadian Maritimes, and so he undertook an arduous journey to New Brunswick. By this time, the strain of this incredible
schedule, added to the recurring illness brought on from years on the road, began to take a serious toll on his health. This prompted John to
look for help for the people of Northern Rhode Island during his absence—he turned to Elder Joseph White from Maine, who had already taken
one evangelical journey to Rhode Island. Meeting White in Maine as he prepared for the voyage to New Brunswick, John Colby gave his horse
and chaise to White and asked him to watch over events in Burrillville. And there is another vital link in our development.
In May 1816, John Colby was back in Gloucester and Smithfield Rhode Island working together with Joseph White, while by July of that year it
appears that White was taking the lead in Gloucester and Smithfield.
Come early 1817, John Colby was persuaded to seek a climate more beneficial to his health, namely South Carolina. After a false start, John
returned to his family home in Vermont to regain some strength. There, in June of that year he met a woman evangelist by the name of
Clarissa Danforth, and with this meeting came the final link in our account. Miss Danforth was gaining a good reputation as a preacher and
she came to John to explain that it was his preaching some years earlier that had prompted her to take up this call. They surely established a
strong bond, and although not recorded, John must have encouraged Miss Danforth to join Elder White in Rhode Island. Within a few months she was ministering in Gloucester and Smithfield.
In the fall of 1817, John was able to undertake the journey to South Carolina. He reached as far as Norfolk, Virginia before succumbing to his
illness—he died in that city on November 28th 1817.
By the end of 1817, Clarissa Danforth was called to replace John, and was installed as pastor of the Burrillville church. In addition she
continued the on-going preaching ministry in the area, Elder White having returned to Maine.
In the fall of 1818, Clarissa Danforth, began a major revival in the Gloucester and Smithfield area that would continue for sixteen months.
Early in 1820, Elder White returned from Maine and joined Clarissa in the revival work. There was a powerful response to this by the local
people, and on May 16th 1820 the people in Smithfield formed the First Free Will Baptist Church of Smithfield, and called Elder White as their
first pastor. Stephen Tucker, one of the Tucker family that had befriended and supported John Colby so much, became the first secretary of that church.
This was the second Free Will Baptist church in Rhode Island. Initially meeting in homes, the church participated with other town people in
April 1821 to build a meetinghouse in the town of Smithfield. This was duly completed in February 1822, and in the early years the Free Will
Baptists shared the building with the Methodists and the Six Principle Baptists. By 1850 the Free Will Baptists took the exclusive use of the
building. This church continues to this day, still meeting in the 1821 meetinghouse.
In 1820, also as a result of the revival, people in Chepachet Rhode Island felt the call to establish a new church, and they began to meet in
homes in and around the village. In 1821, a group with a core of 35 subscribers (the proprietors) undertook the construction of a
meetinghouse and this was completed in that year. On May 7th 1822, these Baptists organized themselves as the Chepachet Free Will
Baptist Church and began meeting in the new meetinghouse. They called Reuben Allen as their first pastor. Allen was a close friend of Joseph
White and when White left Smithfield in 1827, Reuben Allen became co-pastor for both churches for a year. The Chepachet church continues to meet in the old meetinghouse to this day.
The latter day congregations of Burrillville, Smithfield and Chepachet certainly owe a great deal to John Colby and his associates. We thank
God for John Colby's work.
Colby, John, The Life, Experience and Travels of John Colby, Preacher of the Gospel. Written by Himself. Lowell, MA: N. Thurston & A.
Root, Rev. James Pierce, Steere Genealogy, Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1890.
Stevens, Lloyd P., A History of the First Free Will Baptist Church of Smithfield in Greenville Rhode Island, a Pictorial History Directory, 1973.