Truth v. Myth: Roger Williams

Posted on September 4, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , |

Roger Williams is a rarity: a Puritan minister who is viewed with great sympathy by modern Americans. How did this happen?

In this T v M series, we’ll look at Williams and learn his full story, and surprisingly, the basic outcome will remain unchanged, in that Williams did become a sympathetic and visionary leader we can all admire today. But it was a long road for him, and most Americans would not recognize the early Roger Williams. His struggles involved many important Puritan leaders, the powerful church at Salem, and at one point the attention of the entire Puritan population in New England. Williams was the closest thing to a celebrity—a rule-breaking, emotional celebrity with devoted fans and bitter enemies—that ever existed in early Puritan New England, and he came close to self-destructing before he found his way.

Williams was born to wealthy London parents (his father was a merchant) in 1603. He graduated from Cambridge in 1627 as an Anglican minister but he could not take up a position in an Anglican church because sometime during college, Williams had become a Puritan. This was not completely surprising; Puritanism was active in the universities, where bright and inquiring men were exposed (whether deliberately or by accident) to the newest ideas. Puritanism was also a very intellectual faith, well-suited to scholarly men.   

Since he could not stand in a pulpit, Williams took a position as private chaplain to the family of Puritan lord Sir William Macham. In December 1629, he married Mary Barnard. Williams knew that the first group of Puritans were planning their journey to America, due to launch just four months later in April 1630. In fact, he had been made aware of those plans by the Puritan leaders themselves, showing that Williams was already becoming a well-known and well-esteemed Puritan leader himself. But he did not join them. Why? There are likely several reasons. First, Williams had a good position in the Puritan household of an influential man, and might have hoped to effect change at home in England. Second, he had not yet been persecuted for his faith. Third, and significantly, Williams was already finding Puritanism too compromised; he was becoming a Separatist (someone who wanted to leave the Church of England rather than reform it as the Puritans wanted to do).

By the time Williams left for America with his wife Mary later in 1630, he was an opponent of the Anglican Church and the Puritan program. How was he to fare in Puritan New England?

Next time: Williams makes waves in Salem.

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