Welcome to Part II of our Truth v Myth series on Roger Williams. Here we look at his early life in New England.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, Puritans were always on the verge of deciding the world was too sinful and withdrawing from it to maintain their own purity and safety. The first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, was wise enough to see that this was both an insult and a danger. An insult because it left the unsaved to their doom, and a danger because once people decide they must withdraw from the world, they go quickly down an endless spiral, rejecting more and more people as unfit, until they are completely isolated and literally alone.
Winthrop, like all good Puritans, knew that the righteous had a responsibility to live in the world and help other people achieve righteousness (if not salvation; only God could give that). He was constantly talking extremists down from the ledge of withdrawal.
Roger Williams was one of those extremists. Winthrop, who had known Williams slightly in England, thought well of the young minister. When Williams was invited to serve as temporary minister in the Boston church while its usual minister went back to England to get his wife, Winthrop approved. But Williams refused the offer to lead this very prestigious church; he was already a Separatist, done with the Church of England that the Puritans were trying to improve. While Williams was universally well-liked, and a very appealing person, he was beginning to harbor dark thoughts about humanity. He felt he had soiled himself by taking communion in the Church of England because it was not a true church. His purpose now in New England was to regain his purity. Even though the church in Boston did not allow anyone to take communion unless they had gone through the rigorous process of demonstrating the saving grace of God in them, Williams still would not worship there. Even though the Bostonians were pure themselves, they had not renounced the impure Church of England. Williams demanded that the congregation “make a public declaration of their repentence for having communion with the churches of England, while they lived there.” It would not, and Williams moved on.
As Edmund Morgan puts it so well, “Here was a Separatist indeed, who would separate not only from erroneous churches but also from everyone who would not denounce erroneous churches as confidently as he did.”
Winthrop put forward the corrective idea that people could reform corrupt bodies like the Church of England rather than abandon them; to leave sinners without the “Care” that they needed was a refusal to do one’s God-ordained duty. Winthrop deplored the “spiritual pride” that led people to abandon those who needed them.
But Williams was unmoved by such arguments. He was beginning to see the world in very black and white terms of good and evil, and the number of those who could be considered evil was ever-growing. Williams was also rejecting temporal law: before leaving Boston, which he did after just a few weeks, he had questioned whether the government of the colony (or any government) had any power to address religious matters. While we take this for granted as the separation of church and state, it was anathema to the Puritans of New England, who had come to America expressly to create a government that supported their religion.
On Williams went to Salem, where he was also received with kindness and happiness. Williams was so likable that he could say things that were terrible to the Puritans and still maintain their goodwill–excusing the young minister for his radicalism quickly became a habit in Salem and elsewhere. He seemed so clearly to be saved, he exuded such goodness and personal piety, that no one wanted to believe he was a divisive and alienating zealot.
Winthrop, however, wrote a letter to Salem asking how they could allow a Separatist to be their minister, and his dose of objectivity led Salem to rescind the offer, and Williams went finally to Plymouth, which was a Separatist colony. He should have lived happily ever after in Plymouth, but he did not.