Tuesday, February 5, 2013

In Praise of Roger Williams

February 5, 1631. That is the date on which the Lyon, a British ship, “anchored safe amid great and dangerous ice floes in Boston harbor.” On board that ship (which had set sail from Bristol, England, on December 1) were Roger Williams and his wife Mary.
The words quoted in the above paragraph are from the new book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (2012). In it the author, noted historian John M. Barry, tells the story of one of the most important people in American history.
Roger Williams was probably born in 1603, the year Queen Elizabeth died and James I was crowned King of England. Roger became a well-educated English clergyman, graduating from Cambridge University in 1627. (As a longtime admirer of Williams, when I visited Cambridge for the first time in 2004 I thought, “Wow! This is where Roger Williams walked 375 years ago.”)
Although ordained by the Church of England, Williams became a Puritan and decided to sail with other Puritans to the “new world.” The massive movement of Puritans to New England had begun the year before. In 1630 John Winthrop (c.1587-1649) led a group of colonists to the New World and later that year became governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a post he held at four different times for a total of around 13 years.
It was Winthrop who first spoke of the new colony being “a city on a hill” that would shine for all the world to see. He and those Puritans who arrived with him believed that they were chosen and blessed by God, and they sought to build a Christian country.
In his first years in New England, Williams served as a minister in Salem and Plymouth, but his disapproval of the Puritan church in Massachusetts led to his banishment from the colony. Williams’s criticism was twofold: he did not think that the civil government had the right to force people to hold prescribed religious beliefs. Further, he thought it was not right for the Englishmen to take lands from the Native Americans without compensating them.
Consequently, in order to escape deportation Williams fled into the wilderness in January 1636, and later that year he (and others who had come to join him) established the settlement that he named Providence, which is now the capital of Rhode Island. (Interestingly, Barry, the author of the book mentioned above, was born in Providence in 1947.) Two years later Williams founded the first Baptist church in the New World.
Several years later, in 1644 Williams wrote his most important book. It was published under the less than inspiring title The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, For Cause of Conscience, Discussed in a Conference between Truth and Peace. Basically, this treatise calls for true freedom of religion and absolute separation of church and state.
In his new book A Thicker Jesus (2012), the noted Baptist ethicist Glen Stassen points out in The Bloudy Tenent, Williams contends that the bloodshed of war “is largely caused by religious persecution. Relief from this bloodshed and from the hypocrisy of people who merely pretend to embrace a faith because they fear persecution, will result from establishing religious liberty” (p. 199). That may have been more nearly true in the 17th century than now, but it is still a point worth considering. 
All of us who believe in, and appreciate having, religious freedom (or freedom from religion) should be continually grateful to Roger Williams (d. 1683) and his significant positive impact upon “the American soul.” 


  1. Very nice, Leroy. Thanks.

    I suppose Roger Williams could not have anticipated that we would turn love of nation into religious fervor and continue warring for our "faiths."

  2. And here we are, nearly 400 years later, and the heirs of Winthrop and the heirs of Williams are still arguing over the very same points. We never have figured out how to square the circle of of the city on the hill with religious liberty. From Salt Lake City to Nashville, cities have been built on that hill, and all around them others are looking for another way. Or, perhaps, the struggle is the synthesis. Just as in days of yore, when prophets wandered in from the wilderness, to afflict the comfortable in Jerusalem and Samaria.