Religion in the 17th and 18th centuries was the very lifeblood of Massachusetts society. On the eve of the American Revolution, the unique position of the minister guaranteed that Lexington’s Reverend Jonas Clarke would play a significant role in the unfolding political drama. In fact, Reverend Clarke quickly emerged as the political leader and the voice of Lexington’s opposition to British policy.
Through his skilled diagnosis of the issues, Jonas Clarke ensured Lexington’s unity against England. He gradually drew the townspeople into a national debate and accustomed them to the idea and practice of acting on a broad political stage that extended beyond mere town affairs. Each time Parliament passed a series of new acts affecting the colonies, Jonas Clarke wrote long, closely reasoned responses that were quickly adopted and endorsed by the citizens of Lexington at their town meetings.
|Microfilm Copy of Jonas Clarke Journal|
Initially, Clarke’s arguments to his people relied heavily upon the rights of Englishmen set forth in the Magna Carte and the Massachusetts Provincial Charter of 1690. In 1763, Clarke wrote “We shall have and enjoy all Liberties and Immunities of Free and Natural Subjects within any of his Majesties Dominions . . . as if we were every one of us born in his Majesties Realm in England.” As the years passed and grievances mounted, Clarke began to lay the groundwork for an assertion of rights independent of those granted by the Crown. As the Massachusetts assembly defied British ultimatums, some provincials, including Clarke, held that Crown and parliamentary powers were not without limit. Drawing on Enlightenment philosophy, he contended that “in a state of nature, every man has a right to liberty, property and life: And no one . . . can, reasonably, deprive him of either. Society is formed for the preservation and defense of the common rights of mankind, to that end, that the blessings of life may be secured to all. The liberties and privileges, the property and possessions of society, ought always to be held sacred; and no one is at liberty to invade, violate, or even incroach upon them, upon any pretence whatsoever.”
However, Clarke also linked English rights and liberties to theology. Clarke saw the colonists of Massachusetts Bay Colony as Chosen People who were tasked with the responsibility of reestablishing Israel’s purity of worship and moral authority. Thus, the people of Massachusetts were required to defend their Chosen Land. As Clarke declared in 1768 “the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people [was in fact] the cause of GOD… Militiamen who engage in the cause of [God’s] people, and set themselves for their defense, are therefore to consider themselves as guardians and trustees for GOD, having the rights, property, liberties, and lives of their fellow-men (a sacred trust!),committed to their charge.”
Through his tireless efforts, Clarke not only created a political climate in Lexington that was well ahead of most Massachusetts towns, he also influenced the public opinions of many other clergymen and statesmen within the colony as well. Clarke often journeyed outside of Lexington to neighboring communities and Boston to give guest sermons, attend political rallies, offer lectures and observe business matters. Clarke became so popular he was frequently asked to serve as a guest speaker at clergy ordinations.
As the Lexington militia anxiously awaited the approach of the regulars in the early morning of April 19, 1775, the Reverend Clarke was confident he had adequately prepared his people for the coming conflict. As Clarke had forewarned a little over a year earlier in January, 1774, “Our worthy ancestors after many struggles with their enemies, in the face of every danger, and at the expense of much treasure & bloode, secured to themselves & transmitted to us their posterity a fair and rich inheritance, not only of a pleasant & fertile lande but also of invaluable rights & privileges both as men & christians. . . . We looke upon ourselves as bounde by the most sacred ties to the utmost of our power to maintain, and defende ourselves, in our charter Rights and privileges, and as a sacred trust committed to us to transmit them, inviolate, to succeeding generations.”