I’ve just finished the book Roger Williams by historian Edwin S. Gaustad. Loaned to me by a friend from church, this brief book is an overview of the life and writings of the man who founded the colony of Rhode Island in the early 17th century. I recommend it to anyone who, like me, is frustrated by the frequent drumbeat among conservative Americans, as to the intent by America’s founders to create a Christian nation. Though it’s true that some were, Williams (along with William Penn some seventy years later) offers a fascinating counterpoint.
Simply put, Roger Williams was one of the guys that the Massachusetts Bay Colony folks persecuted for not toeing the spiritual line. A devout follower of Jesus, Williams believed firmly in liberty of conscience, and was therefore as offended by the theocratic tendencies of the Massachusetts leaders, as he was by those of the European despots they had fled. Among his particularly interesting positions:
- Williams held that the English Crown’s grant of land patents was immoral, as the land was already owned by the natives who lived there. If the colonists wanted land, they should buy it from the Indians, not seek it from the King. “In doing this, Williams questioned the very foundation of the colony’s government and legitimacy. Williams was especially troubled by the use of the Christian religion to do a very un-Christian deed: namely, depriving the Indians of their own property without due compensation or negotiation. . .Christian kings somehow believe that they are invested with right, by virtue of their Christianity, ‘to take and give away the Lands and Countries of other men.‘” (p. 9)
- Williams also believed that requiring the phrase “so help me God” in an oath in court, was wrong in the case of anyone who was not himself a believer in God. In fact, he argued that to so require was to force the unbeliever, not only to violate his own conscience, but to break the third commandment (against taking the Lord’s name in vain) in the process.
For his unorthodox beliefs, Roger Williams was banished from the colony of Massachusetts, and forced to leave to parts unknown in the middle of winter in 1636. He wandered for a while in the wilderness, was offered hospitality by the Narragansett Indians, and finally established residence in what would become the town of Providence, Rhode Island (on land he purchased from the Indians). The colony which grew from these humble beginnings, required as part of its original laws and charters, absolute freedom of conscience in matters of religion. No anarchist, Williams made clear that citizens were still subject to civil governance, but that in matters of the state, the church would have no voice, and vice versa.
Interestingly, his convictions regarding freedom of conscience led Williams to found the first Baptist church in America in 1638. Though he himself left the church after a few months (concluding that the true church would only be re-established when Jesus returned to earth and appointed new apostles), he remained firm in his conviction that membership in both church and faith was a choice to be made by deliberate action of the individual–not a result of birth, christening, or residence (he actually wrote a tract “Christenings Make Not Christians” in 1645–though vitriolically anti-Catholic, it’s worth a read considering it challenges the Christianity of good Protestant Englishmen).
There’s much more, and I encourage you to get and read the book. . .and next time your friends trot out the writings of Patrick Henry to prove that America started out a Christian theocracy, remember the persecution and struggles of Roger Williams.