The John Clarke Trust was created in 1676, per the stipulations of John Clarke's will, and is the oldest perpetual charitable trust in the United States of America. John Clarke (1609-1676) was a founding member of the First Baptist Church in Newport, Rhode Island; a prominent local physician; and a key participant in the formation of the Rhode Island's Royal Charter of 1663. His will dictated that three appointed trustees would regulate his estate upon his death, including the Applegate Neck property and a farm later named Charity Farm. The revenue from the land would be donated to charity, with an emphasis on the poor and undereducated children of Aquidneck Island. The first three trustees of the charitable trust were William Weeden, Richard Baily, and Philip Smith, who were also tasked with executing other demands of Clarke's will. These included: the transfer of money to indicated relatives; the donation of a southeast tract of land to his congregation; ongoing financial aid to his wife Sarah; and the setting of any debts or mortgages, including one to Richard Deane.
Upon the death of a trustee, they were replaced by an assignee nominated by the other two trustees. Complications arose concerning the completion of this practice when Edward Smith replaced Henry Tew in 1718 and implied that William Weeden, a relative of the original trustee of the same name, was mismanaging the trust's funds. Smith declared to the Town Council that William Weeden and the third trustee, Thomas Olney, were undercharging Jeremiah Weeden, the current tenant on the farm, for rent due to his familial status with William Weeden. William Weeden was further assisting Jeremiah Weeden by supplying revenue from the estate for the management of the farm instead of directly donating it to charity.
The Town Council attempted to replace the neglectful trustees after the 1719 "Act for Ennabling and Impowering the Town Councils within this Colony to Redress and Punish all Frauds Breaches of Trust and Mismanagement of Persons Entrusted with Estates Given to Charitable Use" was implemented by the General Assembly. The three new assignees, John Wanton, John Rogers, and Philip Peckham, were later removed when the portion of the act that gave the council power to appoint new trustees was repealed in 1721. Instead, William Weeden and Edward Smith were reinstated, along with William Peckham.
After the legal battle, the trust underwent a shift in its charitable endeavors, including fulfilling its intended task of donating money to the poor and to educate children. Other monetary activities included financing the First Baptist Church elder's position, as well as supporting the erection of a charity house in Newport. It also meticulously logged all financial records relating to the farm's revenue and the donations, which were then reviewed by the Newport Town Council. After Middletown's split from Newport in 1743, the task of regulating the funds of the trust was transferred to the Middletown Town Council. The John Clarke Trust collection includes many of these account books.
In 1813, the Rhode Island Supreme Court deemed the Charity Farm taxable after a legal dispute arose in 1812 between Augustus Peckham and Henry Peckham. The trust continued to rent out parcels of the land up until the mid-twentieth century. Over the years, the trust expanded its donations to include the aid of the Rhode Island Baptist Education Society and individual collegiate pursuits. By the 1950s, the John Clarke Trust shifted from private tenants to selling off land, which allowed for more money to be invested and bestowed on philanthropy.
- Asher, Louis Franklin. John Clarke (1609-1676): Pioneer in American Medicine, Democratic Ideals, and Champion of Religious Liberty. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Dorrance Publications Co., 1997.
- Hanley, Alexis. "A Brief History of Charity Farms." Senior internship thesis, Salve Regina University, 2009.
- James, Sydney V. John Clarke and his Legacies: Religion and Law in Colonial Rhode Island 1638-1750. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.