Valentine Wightman: Pioneer of Religious Liberty
Inherited Religious Zeal
Reverend Valentine Wightman was born April 16, 1681 in Quidnessett, Washington County, Rhode Island Colony. He was the youngest son of immigrant George Wightman. Valentine's great-grandfather was Edward Wightman, who was the last person to be executed for heresy in England by burning at the stake. Valentine appeared to have inherited some of his great-grandfather Edward Wightman's passion for religious debate and political involvement. When he was only 18, Valentine was involved in a political riot in North Kingstown. By 1702, Valentine was a member of the Free Will Baptist Church of Kingstown. The following year, 21-year-old Valentine married Susannah Holmes of Newport, the granddaughter of Rhode Island's famous Baptist clergyman Rev. Obadiah Holmes and the great-granddaughter of Providence founder Roger Williams.
Founder of Connecticut's Baptist Tradition
In 1705, a group of 12 religious dissenters (six men and six women) in Groton, Connecticut, called Valentine (only 23 years old) to serve as their Pastor. Valentine served as the Minister and in so doing became the first Baptist preacher in the Connecticut Colony and thereby became the founder of Connecticut's Baptist tradition. When Valentine settled in Groton, Connecticut he was deeded 20 acres (which he farmed most of his life) and a house by William Stark. The house he was given stood as the first Baptist Parsonage in Connecticut and was thought for a period of time to be the oldest Baptist Parsonage in America.
Connecticut Lacked Religious Freedom
Valentine's ministry in Groton was difficult at times. The land was undeveloped and was still inhabited by the remnants of the Narragansett and Pequot tribes. An even greater hurdle was the lack of religious freedom in the Connecticut Colony as the Puritan order was still the rule in Connecticut. The church and Valentine Wightman received considerable harassment from the Connecticut authorities. Valentine was ordered to appear in court to answer charges in 1707 and 1708. In addition Valentine and his wife Susannah were warned by the New London magistrate to leave the colony in the fall and winter of 1707. Reverend Wightman refused. He was fined 20 shillings, but refused to pay. The harassment continued until a year after the Connecticut Colony passed a religious tolerance law in 1708. Valentine was a vigorous preacher, who presented religious conviction in plain and logical language. He was a highly sought after preacher who traveled often to preach in other places. In addition to founding other Baptist Churches throughout the state of Connecticut, Valentine Wightman was instrumental in founding the First Baptist Church in New York City as well as helping form other churches throughout the New York colony. In 1725, Valentine published his "Letter on Singing Psalms". The letter was not a success at the time, as singing was not a common part of worship. But Valentine's idea of singing in worship came to fruition with the "Great Awakening", just a few years later, where traveling evangelist would move into poor underdeveloped rural communities and hold lively worship services with singing and congregational participation. All through the "Great Awakening" Valentine kept his mission to form new Baptist churches in established communities.
Buried in Groton
Valentine Wightman died June 7, 1747 and is buried on the land of his original church in Groton, Connecticut.