John Allen (minister)

Baptist minister John Allen (ca. 1741/2 – sometime in the 1780s), although not well-connected with colonial patriots in British North America, had an enormous impact on re-igniting the tensions within the Empire in 1772 when he mentioned the Gaspée Affair and the Royal Commission of Inquiry seven times[1] in his Thanksgiving Day sermon at Second Baptist Church in Boston. This sermon, An Oration, Upon the Beauties of Liberty, Or the Essential Rights of the Americans, was reprinted seven times in four different cities, making it the sixth most-popular pre-independence pamphlet in British America.[2]

Old World Troubles

In 1764, at age 23, John Allen was ordained and installed as the pastor of the Particular Baptist Church in Petticoat Lane, near Spitalfields, London.[3] Like most Baptist ministers, Allen had to earn his livelihood through secular work. He opened a linen-drapers shop in Shoreditch. When his business failed, Allen's debt grew, and he spent some time incarcerated at the King's Bench Prison. When the Petticoat Lane congregation dismissed him he briefly found a new pastorate at Broadstairs, near Newcastle. But in 1767 he was dismissed by the Broadstairs congregation, and in 1768 he returned to London as a schoolteacher.[4] By January 1769 he was again in financial trouble, and he was tried at the Old Bailey for forging a £50 note.[5] Although he was acquitted, this trial destroyed his reputation, and its stigma followed him to Boston.[6]

New World Success

In 1770, Allen published The Spirit of Liberty.[7] Already showing his radical political views and his sympathies for the developing American cause, this pamphlet argued for the return of John Wilkes to Parliament and defended the rights of the individual.[8] Most chroniclers believe that he left London for New York in 1771 though Allen did not re-appear in the historical record until 1772. At that time John Davis, the pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Boston had left his post due to failing health, so the congregation was searching for a new teaching elder.[9] Davis knew of Allen and made it clear before he died that he wanted Allen to preach at Second Baptist.[10] The church committee knew something of Allen's reputation in England and so was reluctant to invite him to speak.[11] After some debate, they asked him to give the annual Thanksgiving Day Address.[12] Elder Allen remained as a "visiting pastor" for just nine months, November 1772 until July 1773,[13] Second Baptist never extended a permanent call to him.[14]

Early Death

As stated above, Allen was not well-connected with other colonial patriots and we do not hear from him again. Some argue that he continued to publish pamphlets into the 1780s; most sources placed his death at age 33 in 1774. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography dated his death between 1783-88.[15] Bumsted and Clark argued that it could be as late as 1789.[16]

Further Study

  • [Primary and Secondary Sources for the Gaspee Affair]


  1. Allen used the phrase "court of admiralty" seven times; five of these references clearly referred to the Royal Commission of Inquiry in Rhode Island
  2. Unfortunately, this does not tell us anything about the size or volume of a particular printing. See Thomas R. Adams, American Independence: The Growth of an Idea (Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1965), 69-70. This table was taken from G. Jack Gravlee and James R. Irvine, eds. Pamphlets and the American Revolution: Rhetoric, Politics, Literature, and the Popular Press (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1976), viii.
  3. Prior to this he had served as a preacher and writer. He may have preached in Salisbury and wrote The Spiritual Magazine: or the Christian’s Grand Treasure. See Edward C. Starr, ed., A Baptist Bibliography: Being a register of printed material by and about Baptists; including works written against the Baptists Section A (Philadelphia, PA: The Judson Press, 1947), 63.
  4. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography dated his death between 1783-88. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) electronic source citation doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/380. The exact nature of the behavior that accounted for his dismissal by the Broadstairs congregation remains unknown.
  5. Allen found the note in the street. A simple handwriting sample cleared him of the charge of forgery. But the fact that he tried to cash it in did not reflect well on his character.
  6. Kneeland and Davis, the publishers of Oration in Boston, tried to help salvage the reputation of their very successful pamphleteer by publishing the entire 20 page transcript of his trial in 1773. See Early American Imprints. First Series; no 13047.
  7. Allen was a high Calvinist with supralapsarian leanings. He was considered to be slightly unorthodox in some of his views; the Canons of Dordt (1618-19) adopted the infralapsarian order. While praising John Wesley as a gentleman, scholar, and historian, Allen questioned his Christian faith in The Spirit of Liberty. Allen showed little regard for the rising Arminianism of his day.
  8. "John Wilkes’s career was crucial to the colonists’ understanding of what was happening to them; his fate, the colonists came to believe, was intimately involved with their own." Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967), 110-112. Bailyn cited Pauline Maier, "John Wilkes and American Disillusionment with Britain," William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Series 20 (1963): 373-395 for a detailed discussion. Footnote 16. Rodger described Wilkes as "an established charlatan." N. A. M. Rodger, The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, 1718-1792 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 216.
  9. Church historian Albert Henry Newman stated that Davis was driven out of Boston by harsh treatment in the press for his active role in the Baptist Association’s resistance to ecclesiastical taxes and certificates. Albert Henry Newman, A History of the Baptist Churches in the United States (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915), 352. He left for Philadelphia in August 1772 in failing health and died the following February at age 36. It appears that Allen was preaching at Second Baptist before Davis died in Philadelphia. Reta A. Gilbert cited Bumsted and Clark as her only source for the fact that Davis died at his post in Boston. Bumsted and Clark, "New England’s Tom Paine," p. 564. Davis was among a group of Baptist leaders who were planning to appeal to the British Crown for relief from unjust taxation, not from Parliament, but from the Massachusetts authorities. Isaac Backus, A History of New England with Particular Reference to the Baptists (New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1969), 176. Boston’s patriots did not want Baptists bringing their grievances about Massachusetts’s ecclesiastical taxation before the Crown in 1773. The intervention of George III on behalf of Ashfield, Massachusetts’s Baptists is in Frederick G. Howes, History of the Town of Ashfield (Ashfield, MA: 191-?), 63-86. They could not be taxed "for the maintenance of another society which they do not belong unto." P. 86.
  10. Allen praised Davis’s work on behalf of imprisoned Baptists in New England in The American Alarm
  11. The Sons of Liberty were more interested in Allen than the Baptists. Some suspected Allen had sympathy for the much-despised Sandemanian sect because of comments he made in The Spirit of Liberty. For more on the Sandemanians see Williston Walker, "The Sandemanians of New England," Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the year 1901 Vol. I (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902), 133-162.
  12. G. Jack Gravlee and James R. Irvine, Pamphlets and the American Revolution: Rhetoric, Politics, Literature, and the Popular Press (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1976), ii.
  13. William G. McLoughlin, New England Dissent, 1630-1833: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State Vol I (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971), 584.
  14. William G. McLoughlin, Soul Liberty: The Baptists’ Struggle in New England, 1630-1833 (Hanover and London: Brown University Press and University Press of New England, 1991), 147.
  15. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) electronic source citation doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/380.
  16. John M. Bumsted and Charles E. Clark, "New England’s Tom Paine: John Allen and the Spirit of Liberty," William and Mary Quarterly 21 4 (October 1964): 569.
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