Roger Williams’ America

I just finished reading a terrific book: John Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty.  I’ve always been fascinated by Williams, especially after reading Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, about Massachusetts.  Vowell’s an unconventional historian, of course–her books are half personal history, half actual history, but never uninteresting and at times, lol-funny.  But I’d been thinking I should read an actual historical book about Williams, and Barry’s is the most recent.  And now I want to write a play about him.  I often get that urge, and usually it passes quickly–this time, we’ll see.

Okay, so here’s the basic story: Roger Williams was an apprentice to the greatest legal thinker of Jacobean England, Sir Edward Coke.  He was also a Puritan, and as Coke fell into disfavor with Charles I, Williams, to avoid arrest, came to America, and settled in Massachusetts, in Salem.  He was a marvelous preacher, brilliant and amiable, and also pretty unorthodox.  The Massachusetts Bay authorities tried to discipline him in lots of different ways, and finally banished him back to England–a death penalty, really.  So in the middle of the night, in the punishing cold of the worst winter in memory, Williams escaped.  He was taken in by Indians, and eventually made his way to what’s now Providence, Rhode Island, where he started a new colony.

Williams’ main offense was simply this: he thought it was immoral to combine Church and State.  He thought Massachusetts was wrong to punish people for their privately held religious beliefs.  He thought laws should be based entirely on the Second Table–that is, the last six of the Ten Commandments.  The First Table, which dealt with Man’s relationship with God, should be entirely a matter of religious conscience.   

Here’s one of the things I found remarkable.  Williams was as devout a human being as has ever lived on earth.  In his writings, it’s difficult to find a single paragraph that doesn’t invoke deity.  He made his living as a minister (at least early on–he came to believe that it was morally wrong for ministers to accept a salary.)  But when he wrote the city charter for Providence, there’s not a single mention of God.  No other New England colony did that; every one expressed specific religious purposes for their colony.  Williams believed in complete freedom of religious conscience.  And practiced it.  So Rhode Island became a refuge for religious dissenters of all kinds.  He wouldn’t even allow a church building in Providence.  He felt, if you had a church house, it would be the biggest building in town, and become a place where people would gather, and in time, it might become a place where decisions got made. . . . and politics would become part of the conversation.  

Another example: Williams loathed Quakers.  Massachusetts persecuted Quakers furiously–imprisoned them, tortured them, executed them.  Williams agreed theologically with Massachusetts’ opinion, though not with their actions.  The Quakers taught universal salvation; they rejected predestination.  For Williams, and for Puritans generally, this was anathema.  Williams’ writings attack Quaker beliefs with a most impressive rhetorical ferocity.  Rhode Island was the only colony with religious liberty, which meant the only possible home for American Quakers.  They started moving in.  And Williams responded.

By debating them.  That’s what he did–he challenged three leading Quakers to a public debate.  It became this big public event, and afterwards, the Quakers stayed in Rhode Island, tolerated, their religion respected.  I mean, Williams welcomed Catholics, Jews, atheists, Moslems, even Baptists.  Quakers fit in fine.   

What else?  Williams thought it was immoral to take Indian lands.  He learned the language of the tribes in the region–I mean, conversational fluency–and wrote the first English/Algonquin dictionary.  He made friends with the local chiefs–lifelong, deep, personal friendships.  He preached Christianity to them, they preached their religion to him–everyone got along.  He purchased the land he settled in, and when there was land he wanted that the local tribe didn’t want to sell, well, it was their land.  He banished slavery from Rhode Island.  (That one didn’t take.  The family Brown University is named after made their fortune as slavers.)   

Barry’s book is at its best in describing Williams’ return to England in 1643.  All the English speaking colonies in America had unified politically.  The United Colonies wanted all of the Americas to follow one legal code; the theocratic code of Massachusetts.  They’d had enough of Rhode Island, and all that freedom of conscience nonsense. Plus they wanted Williams’ land. So Williams went back to England to argue for a Parliamentary charter just for Rhode Island.  Massachusetts had every possible advantage in this dispute.  Their delegation was richer, better known, with better contacts.  And 1643 was in the middle of the English Civil War.  Puritans dominated Parliament.  The people Williams was trying to persuade were engaged in enforcing their own theocratic state.  And Williams was asking them to favor a small colony built on the rejection of theocracy.

Williams had a few friends.  One was John Locke, another, John Milton.  He also had his book- A Key to the Language of America. The English were fascinated with Indians, and with the possibility of Christian conversion.  Williams could prove two things–Massachusetts had done nothing to evangelize Native Americans, and he personally had done a lot.  That helped.  But mostly what Rhode Island had was Williams–his earnestness, his passion, his eloquence.  He could argue for a position that Parliament thought nonsense, and persuade people to give his point of view a chance.  Rhode Island was small, and weak.  An experiment, he called it–using the language of another close friend, Francis Bacon.  He won.

He left behind a little present.  While in England, he wrote a book: The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience.  It’s a book of theology–the theology of tolerance.  He attacked as the worst kind of heresy what he called a “monstrous partiality”: the hubris of believing that you’re right, everyone else is wrong, and their wrongness requires persecution.  It was condemned by Parliament, censored, burned.  It was also a best-seller.  Nobody dared say they agreed with it. But many did, and throughout the English-speaking world, it had a tremendous impact. 

My daughter starts at BYU next fall, and she’s taking a required 100 level class in American history.  I looked over her textbook for that class–it’s called A Shining City on the Hill.  That’s Winthrop, of course, John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, with his vision of a millenarian America.  That’s also a religious vision, a vision for America as Israel, as the Zion of the last days, of an American theocracy.  It was also a vision Roger Williams rejected.  And, I’m sorry, but I hold with Williams. 

2 thoughts on “Roger Williams’ America

  1. Anonymous

    Winthrop’s America would’ve been about like Khomneini’s Iran: “Do anything we in authority don’t like and we’ll smoosh you like a bug…all in God’s name, of course.” Unfortunately, we have some modern-day Winthrops who’d love to have that authority, or at least be able to convince enough people that those people over there need smooshed. The actions of Williams, et al, were manditory for America becoming America, and holding with him, et al, manditory for it staying America…Mike, Indiana

    Reply
    1. Eric Sam

      Indeed. Funny thing was, Williams and Winthrop were friends. Winthrop’s son was Williams’ closest friend. That’s one of the things I admire about Williams–he made friends with his opponents.

      Reply

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