Thursday, August 28, 2014
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
By: Dwayne Spearman
The life and work of Roger Williams had a tremendous effect on not only ending religious intolerance and persecution in America, but also led to the founding of Rhode Island which served as a model for the future government of the new American Republic.
Many fail to comprehend how the life of this one man so impacted not only the spiritual formation of the New World, but also the political formation of the same. The life and work of Roger Williams was a constant battle against religious intolerance that usually resulted in some form of persecution, and also a struggle for a separation of those powers that perpetrated the intolerance. Those powers were namely the church and the state that were essentially one and the same as that the church was over all things both spiritual and political. Roger Williams had the fortitude to speak against these realities and alienated himself from both.
His proposition was a simple one: civil authorities should have no power or jurisdiction over the church in matters of conscience, and the church should have no power or jurisdiction over the state in civil matters. These convictions led not only to the founding of the first colony in the New World to enjoy true religious freedom, but also served as a model for the future government of the new American Republic.
While the exact date is not certain, Roger Williams was born in Wales around the beginning of the seventeenth century to James Williams and Alice Pemberton. His date of birth has been said to have been as early as 1599 and as late as 1606. By all accounts, they were a middle class family as that his father owned an established tailor shop in London. However, very little is known about either of them since all of the records are feared to have been destroyed in only what is referred to as the “burning of the Registers of St. Sepulcher’s parish.”
William’s family home was near what was called the Newgate Prison which is where many Puritans who had been declared to be heretics were held until they were escorted to the public square to be burned at the stake. There is little doubt that Williams witnessed these executions as a child and they most likely had some impact upon his opposition to religious persecution later in life.
As Williams grew, he came into favor with one Sir Edward Coke who was at one time the chief justice of England. Coke served as his patron and mentor while he attended both Charterhouse and Pembroke Hall where he graduated in 1627. The two became very close as the years passed. It reached the point in which Coke actually referred to Williams as his son. Some have suggested that Coke is the one who taught Williams by example how to be blunt, forthright, eloquent, and indomitable. All of which Williams himself was known for throughout his life.
After graduating from Pembroke, Williams matriculated at Cambridge and began two years of graduate studies in preparation for ministry. After which, he assumed his first ministerial position. It was shortly thereafter that he met and fell in love with Mary Barnard to which he was married December 15, 1629. Their marriage would produce six children and last for what most believe to be at least forty-seven years. It is suggested that Mary died sometime in 1676, while Williams died in either January of 1682 or 1683.
While he began his education as an Anglican, he finished it having been won over to the Puritan cause which eventually led to his Separatists views. It was not something that happened over night, but it did materialize as he became more familiar with men such as John Winthrop, Thomas Hooker, and John Cotton. It was also his relationship with these three men that led him to consider for the first time immigrating to the New World.
The New World
John Winthrop left for Massachusetts in 1630 in what is referred to as the main migration. Williams, now a strict Separatist, took a pastorate at a church in Salem just outside of Boston as that there were not many options for him in England any longer. He set sail late that same year with Mary and were followed by John Cotton three years later.
However, it did not take long after the arrival for Williams to find that he was slightly to the right of both Winthrop and Cotton. This began to dawn on him when he advocated that the colony separate from the Church of England. However, the colony refused to do so for what was to be primarily economic reasons. The colony depended on funds from England, and to make a show of being a bastion of Separatism was felt to be a poor decision that might lead to those funds being cut. However, Williams, using his new pulpit in Salem, openly condemned the Church of England and accused it of being in “league with the anti-Christ.” Thus, almost immediately, there were dividing issues between the men that only grew wider as the days passed.
There were several other issues that came up in rapid succession that quickly strained the relationship between the men. First, shortly after taking the pulpit at Salem, Williams wrote and circulated a pamphlet advocating that the royal Patent that had been issued by the king was null and void because the land upon which the colony sat had not been properly purchased from the native Indians. He further contended that “the king cannot give away what he does not own.”
Second, he argued that the Cross of St. George should be removed from the flag that flew over the colony. His argument was that the state was not part of Christendom, and that to have the cross there was idolatrous and a violation of the second commandment. He furthermore, strongly objected to the term ‘Christendom” as a means of describing Western Europe and believed that the term should not be used for nations, but rather, reserved for God’s elect only. The governor of Salem actually had the cross removed and effectively created another controversy.
Third, Williams was a strong advocate that women should be veiled in church “on account of the angels” that Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 11:10 as his proof text. This was seen by many to be just a little too much even for Williams. It was shortly thereafter that he was called to stand the first time before the magistrates in Boston to give a defense of himself and his views. It was the prelude to the larger breach that would come.
In October of 1635, Williams was called before the magistrates again to renounce his teachings or face possible exile from the colony. The specific teachings that he was asked to renounce included: his teachings that the land rightly belonged to the Indians and that the colonist had no right to it until fair payment was made; that it was not lawful to ask that a wicked person to swear or pray as that those are actions that should be done by “God worshipers” only; that it is not lawful to listen to the ministers of the Parish Assemblies in England, and that separation should occur from those who do; and finally, that the Civil Magistrate’s power should only extend to “bodies, goods, and the outward state of men” and not to spiritual affairs.
It was the fourth teaching of Williams that would later come to be known as the separation of church and state. The teaching came from his view of the Ten Commandments. He referred to the first four of the commandments as the first table which contained man’s duty to God, and he referred to the last six commandments as the second table which outlined man’s duty to his fellow man. He had absolutely no problem at all with Civil Magistrates attempting to regulate the second table, but felt that they should have no jurisdiction when it came to the first table, for that was between the man and God alone.
Williams believed that there was a fundamental difference that existed between the church and the state. He insisted that the magistrate had civil power, but in the church, he was just another layman. On the other hand, the minister had churchly leadership, but in regards to the state, he was simply another citizen.
In the end, Williams refused to recant in regards to any of his teachings, and this led to the decision to banish him from the colony, and the command that he be placed on the next available ship back to England. However, Williams was notified by friends and fled the colony where he survived the winter with the help of the Narragansett Indians.
A Little Background
It must be remembered that the early settlers who came to America were not Americans. They were Europeans, and as such, the idea of religious freedom was not even on their radar. The Europe that they had come from demanded uniformity in regards to worship. Their mindset was that there was no liberty in that area. Both persecutor and persecuted alike believed this because it had been the model from whence they had come. There merely wanted to reconstruct life in the New World using the Old World as a pattern.
In their mindset, there was only room for one truth and not a plurality of truths. To that end, there was only one form of worship to be tolerated and all others were to be put down through force if necessary. Dissent was viewed as false and dangerous. It was during the medieval period that the Roman Catholic Church had firmly established itself as the sole source of all spiritual truth. Therefore, they were the custodians of that truth, and that fact precluded the possibility of toleration.
It was Jerome who once said, “A spark should be extinguished, fermentation removed, a putrid limb amputated, an infected animal segregated.” In was also Augustine who advocated a “righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ was to inflict upon the impious.” Augustine believed that religious persecution was in actuality an act of love in that it was an effort to save men from the “brink of damnation.” In fact, even men like Martin Luther and John Calvin were staunchly against religious freedom. This is the backdrop of the environment in which Roger Williams found himself. It is no wonder that his views were slightly controversial.
Founding of Rhode Island
After his banishment, and maybe even before, Williams came to realize that he was not going to be able to reform existing colonies in New England, and that if his dream was going to become a reality, something entirely new was going to have to be established. Williams not only dreamed of a place where people in the New World could go for religious freedoms, but also a place where those from the Old World could come.
Fortunately, William’s had a great relationship with the Narragansett Bay Indian tribes as a result of his missions work among them while he was at Salem, and once again when they helped him during his initial forced exodus from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was from them that he was able to receive the land to start his own settlement just south of the Bay Colony which he aptly named “Providence” indicating how the Lord had provided for him.
Under his leadership, the new settlement prospered. Of course, his family joined him, but so did friends and other “social delinquents” who had been asked to the leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As a matter of fact, initially, dissenters from the Bay Colony were banished to Rhode Island to be with Williams as a form of punishment.
In the end, the settlement grew and prospered so quickly that the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony came to fear that Williams might actually use his new found power to retaliate against them for the way that they had treated him. This eventually led the governor of the colony to send messengers to Williams inviting him to come back and to be a part of the Bay Colony again. William’s response was to send them a message that simply stated, “I feel safer among the religious savages along the Narragansett than I would among the savage Christians of the Massachusetts Bay Colony!”
To Williams, Providence was more than just a new home. It was an experiment to demonstrate to the world that civil government can work with a complete separation of church and state. Therefore, granting complete freedom of conscience in religious matters, and to prove that a popular democratic form of government would be the “surest basis for the security of human rights.”
In May of 1644, Williams returned to England and was able to obtain a charter for the new colony from the Long Parliament. Eventually, with the help of Anne Hutchinson, the towns of Portsmouth, Newport, and Warwick were established. These combined would eventually come to be known as Rhode Island. In the meantime, the four settlements formed a confederation (or republic) with Williams as the president.
It was then in May of 1647 that the General Assembly of Rhode Island adopted a code of laws that guaranteed the complete separation of church and state that closed with a statement that said, “All men may walk as their conscience persuades them, without molestation – everyone in the name of his God.” It would later be amended in 1663 to also say that
“no person within said colony, at any time hereafter shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of said colony; but that all and any persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concernment.”
Thus, Rhode Island was to become the first colony in America to claim full and complete religious freedom. No man was barred from holding civil office in regards to their religious persuasion. This act of the General Assembly of Rhode Island was nothing like the “Act of Toleration” that had been passed in Maryland which only guaranteed religious freedom to those who “professed to believe in Jesus Christ” and to those who “believed in God’s holy and true Christian religion”.
Therefore, Rhode Island has been referred to by many as the “cradle of liberty” in which democratic principles were first successfully applied. It was the model republic and served as the forerunner to the Declaration of Independence that was to be signed in 1776 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
First Baptist Church
While to say that Williams was the first Baptist in the New World would be a stretch, it could certainly be said that he started the first Baptist church in the New World when he declared that his church in Providence was to be Baptist in 1639. However, to do this officially, Williams himself had to become a Baptist first by being properly baptized. While not able to find an officially ordained Baptist minister to do so, he asked one of his church members to baptize him first, and then he would in turn baptize the rest of them.
However, being a Baptist did not last very long for Williams as that his ideas were becoming increasingly more radical as his views evolved. Two views in particular led to his break with the Baptists. First, he had arrived at the conviction that his baptism was illegitimate because it had not been administered under apostolic authority. He believed that in order for a baptism to be authoritative, it must be administered by someone who was in direct succession from the apostles. However, since there had apparently been a break in apostolic succession, his baptism, and everyone else’s for that matter, were not authoritative. This view would also eventually be carried over into the sacrament of communion as well.
These new convictions would lead him to believe that there will never be a true church again until Christ returns and initiates a new apostolic age. In regards to the lack of true churches, he said, “If my soul could find rest in joining unto any of the churches professing Christ Jesus not extant, I would readily and gladly do it.”
His second controversial view that he had arrived at by this time as a result of his tremendous respect for the American Indians, was that was that the religion of the Indians was just as acceptable in the eyes of God as was Christianity. As such, he came to the conclusion that the Indians did not need to be converted because God had already accepted them just as they were. Of course, this belief created a tremendous stir not only among the Baptists of Rhode Island, but also among the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
In the end, Roger Williams lived a life that had tremendous impact upon not only the spiritual life of the New World, but also the political. He remained steadfast in his battle against what he perceived to be religious intolerance that was the result of a state that was controlled by the church. While not able to reform the Massachusetts Bay Colony in this regard, he was able to start his own colony which would serve for many years to come just how successful a society can be when the church and the states powers are held separate.
These battles cost Williams in that he had to give up so much for the convictions which he held. In the process, he was alienated from friends, family, and even country. However, his convictions and sacrifice have stood the test of time, and he will always be remembered as one of the most important early political and spiritual thinkers in American history. 
Covey, Cyclone. The Gentle Radical: A Biography of Roger Williams. New York, NY: The MacMillan Company, 1966.
Davis, James Calvin. On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.
Ernst, James E. The Political Thought of Roger Williams. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, Inc, 1926.
Garrett, John. Roger Williams: Witness Beyond Christendom. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1970.
Gaustad, Edwin S. and Leigh E. Schmidt. The Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Time to Today. New York: New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002).
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Volume II, The Reformation to Present Day. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010.
Longacre, Charles Smull. Roger Williams, His Life, Work, and Ideals. Takoma Park, Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1939.
McBeth, H. Leon. The Baptist Heritage. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987.
Miller, Perry. Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition. Atheneum, NY: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1953.
Polishook, Irwin H. Roger Williams, John Cotton and Religious Freedom: A Controversy in New and Old England. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1967.
Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. Master Roger Williams,: a Biography. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1957.
Posted by Dwayne Spearman at 5:46 PM