John Comer was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on August 1, 1704, as the oldest boy of John and Mary Comer. When he was less than two years old, his father sailed to England to visit relatives and died, leaving him in the care of his widowed mother and grandfather Comer.
When 14, he was apprenticed as a glover, but wanted instead to become educated. Dr. Increase Mather was able to secure his release from the apprenticeship when he was 17, and John Comer immediately plunged into study.
He entered Cambridge, where he became a Christian and a member of a Congregational church. A friend of his, Ephraim Crafts, joined the Baptist Church, and John Comer took every opportunity to correct this perceived wrong. After long debate, John Comer was convinced to read Stennett’s work on baptism, which presented ideas that John Comer had never considered from Scripture. He then went to college at New Haven in September, 1722. But while going by sea from Boston to New Haven, he was caught in a storm, and nearly died. This was coupled with the news of a dear friend who died, forced him to take seriously his position in Christ. The words of Scripture hit him with full force at this time:
Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mark 8:38).
Knowing he was not obedient to Christ in being baptized as taught in Scripture, and having faced the reality of death, all of his excuses for not being baptized vanished. He determined to obey God and was baptized on the wintery day of January 31, 1725 by Rev. Elisha Callender, joining membership of the First Baptist Church of Boston.
The First Baptist Church had been defiantly started by two woman and seven men in 1665. They believed it to be wrong to obey the law stating they must gain approval of the government officials and religious leaders of the town before starting a church. They also believed it wrong to obey the law making it illegal to condemn or oppose the baptism of infants. Many of the members were arrested, jailed, publically beaten, fined and refused to defend themselves in court. At first the church met in homes, and usually at the home of a member out on Noddle’s Island, where they could row in boats to the island and meet secretly. Then in 1679, the church members met at a house in the north side of Boston. It was in this building that John Comer joined the group and proved to the membership the sincerely of his faith.
He did not finish his course work at Yale, but began to preach, starting first at the great Baptist Church of Swansea, Massachusetts, where he taught school and did pulpit supply. The Baptists there were comparatively numerous, and public sentiment toward Baptists more friendly.
In consultation with his pastor, he followed his recommendation to go to Newport, the other offer made to him at the same time. The reworded advice of Rev. Callendar to the young pastor was:
- Study well your public sermons, composing them by good method and handsome style.
- Avoid all controversy in the pulpit.
- Do not get caught in the controversy that has existed at Newport.
In November, 1725, he started work as the fifth pastor of the Church at Newport, Rhode Island, at the age of 21. This church had been started by John Clark who was succeeded by Obadiah Holmes.
On May 19, 1726, he was ordained. He reintroduced singing into the worship services, began regular church records, and collected material on the history of the church. Although a salary was voted for him when he came, there were efforts made to use the more Scriptural means of raising money through the giving of offerings each week, as God had prospered the membership. A vote was taken and approved on September 8, 1726 for weekly offerings to begin. The former church split returned and the Church prospered.
He came to believe that it was important to have a “laying on of hands” service for newly baptized believers. This was generally believed by a majority of Baptists. In November, 1728, he preached a sermon on the subject, but it offended two leading men in the congregation, and his ability to minister became handicapped.
In January, 1729, he resigned and filled the pulpit at the Second Baptist Church of Newport for two years. There they agreed with him about the importance of laying on of hands, but they disagreed with him in other areas. As a result he did not become their pastor.
Isaac Backus, who suffered much for the cause of Christ and the Baptist Churches in America, called him an “excellent preacher of the gospel.” He said he was an eminent instrument of reviving doctrinal and practical religion while at Newport.
He next went to Rehoboth where he started a Baptist Church in Oak Swamp. It was officially organized in 1732, and organized from a group from the Swansea church, where John Comer had previously and originally preached and taught. In less than two years it increased to having a membership of 95. While there he carried out missionary work, not only at his home, but also in Sutton, Leicester, Middleborough and other places.
John Comer along with several other notable Baptist pastors successfully worked with the Baptists in Connecticut to help them get the same freedoms of worship granted to the Quakers. His signature was added to the memorial of the occasion in September, 1729.
He caught tuberculosis due to overexertion and zeal in the work of the ministry. He died “joyfully” on May 23, 1734, not yet 30 years old. He had been one of the most eminent preachers of his day, with an unspotted character and respectable talents and popularity.
John Comer believed it was important to preserve the history of Baptists in America, and so did extensive travelling among the colonies to gather facts and information. He also carried out correspondence with people not only in the Colonies, but to those in England and Ireland. So, even though he did not live to see his Baptist history organized and published, his tireless work of gathering materials has been an invaluable contribution to the effort. His diary has survived, and been published, and because of it we have significant facts of Baptist history as well as the early history of Rhode Island.
One of the things that his work has proven is that the first Baptist church in America was not started by Roger Williams in Providence, Rhode Island, but instead by Thomas Olney, in what became Newport, Rhode Island.
His death came at a time of severe persecution of Baptists by the Puritans, and the loss of this great pastor and his talents was keenly felt by many in New England.
Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists (Watertown, Wisconsin: Maranatha Baptist Press; Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1886; 2003), pp. 664, 665, 757.
C.E. Barrows, History of the First Baptist Church in Newport, R.I., (Newport, Rhode Island: J.P. Sanborn & Co., 1876), pp. 28-31.
David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination in America; The Baptist Denomination in America (Watertown, Wisconsin: Maranatha Baptist Press; Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1813; 2003), 96, 495-497, 533.
John Comer, The Diary of John Comer, edited with notes by C. Edwin Barrows; introduction and notes by James W. Willmarth (Philadelphia: American Baptists Publication Society, 1893).
“The First Baptist Church of Boston, Since 1665” (Boston: First Baptist Church, n.d.) www.firstbaptistchurchofboston.org
Henry Melville King, Rev. John Myles and the Founding of the First Baptist Church in Massachusetts (Watertown, Wisconsin: Maranatha Baptist Press; Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 1905; 2003), p. 80.
Roger William Heritage Archives Editors, Baptist Biographies (Watertown, Wisconsin: Maranatha Baptist Press; Roger Williams Heritage Archives, 2003; 2003), “Comer, Rev. John”
Walter B. Shurden, “The Historical Background of Baptist Associations.” Review and Expositor (Louisville, KY: Review and Expositor, 1980), Vol. 77, Nu. 2, p. 168.