Roger Williams makes trouble in Salem—again

Part V of the Truth v. Myth series on Roger Williams finds him once again before the General Court, this time in April 1635. His unique brand of Separatism was causing him to deny more and more people the benefit of a doubt in a few ways: when the colony decided all inhabitants who were not freemen should take an oath to support the colony and its government, Williams complained (to all who would hear him) that since oaths were taken before God,  if unregenerate (unsaved) men took the oath along with the godly, those godly men would as a result “have communion” with the wicked and therefore be taking God’s name in vain. He also stated that a godly man should not stoop to pray with the ungodly, even if that meant his own wife and children.

Williams was able to persuade the church-goers of Salem in these cases, again because of his charisma and because he himself seemed to be so undoubtedly good. Such a godly man could not be wrong. When the minister at Salem died, Williams was chosen by the congregation to take his place.

Not long after, in July 1635, he was summoned again to the General Court, but this time it was different. As a legally chosen minister of the colony, Williams could not be forced to change his views. In Puritan New England, the independence of the individual congregation was paramount—their faith was called Congregationalism. No one—not the government, not other ministers—had control over a church, or the right to interfere with its decisions. Only a church’s congregation could rebuke or remove its minister. The General Court could not force Williams to leave the pulpit in Salem.

The Court could, however, take the advice of other ministers, and in this case a group of them concluded that Williams was leading Salem to heresy and ought to be removed. To implement this advice, the Court told Salem that it would not grant its petition to claim land in nearby Marblehead if Williams was not dismissed. Salem’s church immediately wrote furious letters to the other churches in the colony, asking for their help in withstanding this clear breach of congregational independence.

This could have become a serious crisis for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. If the churches had united to challenge the government, the whole basis of the colony—a political unit supporting a religious society that agreed to be governed by civil law—would have collapsed. Churches would most certainly have been divided over the issue, some feeling that defying the civil authorities was justified, others feeling it was not. It’s important to remember that at this moment, MBC was fighting with the English government to keep its charter (the legal document allowing it to govern itself independently), and expecting a flotilla of English warships in the harbor at any moment. Everything seemed to be at stake.

So the ministers obfuscated. The ministers who had delivered the opinion against Williams to the court received the letters from Salem and simply pocketed them, not telling their congregations about them.

Williams figured this out and in his anger he finally went too far even for Salem. He claimed publicly that the churches of Massachusetts, by helping the government to oppress the Salem church, were no longer pure. If Salem did not separate from the other churches, Williams would leave its pulpit.

Salem could not do it. To withdraw itself from the help, fellowship, and support not only of the government of the colony but of all other churches and towns in the MBC was too much. The people of Salem did not want to separate from the rest of the world and go it completely alone, having spiritual and earthly communion with no one but themselves. They refused.

Williams was called for the last time to the Court in October 1635, where he gladly accepted the charges of denying the court’s authority and writing seditious letters calling for rebellion against the government. He was sentenced to banishment, and told to leave the colony within six weeks.

Williams resigned as minister when he returned to Salem, and because he did not try to whip up support against his banishment, and in fact seemed to accept it happily, the Court changed its ruling to say he could wait to leave until the next spring, rather than set out in late fall. The one condition was that Williams stop spreading his seditious opinions. That, of course, was impossible.

Next time: Williams makes a narrow escape

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