Roger Williams’ banishment

In Part VI of our Truth v. Myth series on Roger Williams, he is at last banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We left Williams sentenced to banishment in October 1635; he was supposed to leave within 6 weeks, but the General Court, impressed with his willing acceptance of his fate, extended the deadline to the spring, on condition that Williams stay quiet and not “go about to draw others to his opinions.”

Knowing Williams as we do, we can’t be surprised to find out that he was unable to live up to his side of this bargain. By December reports got back to the Court that Williams had inspired a group of about 20 people to go with him to Narragansett Bay and start their own colony. This was alarming to the MBC because from there “the infection would easily spread into [our own] churches, the people being …much taken with the apprehension of his godliness.” There was only one choice left to the General Court: seize Williams and put him on a ship back to England.

This was indeed a sign of desperation on the part of New England, since Williams was bound to spread the word of his treasonous doings back in England, and bring down the displeasure of king and Parliament onto the MBC.

But it was all for nothing, because when the authorities went to Salem in January to seize him, Williams was gone. How could he have known what was going to happen? Who tipped him off? None other than the most orthodox man in MBC, a man who concurred in the judgement of banishment—John Winthrop. Winthrop does not say anything about this in any of his known papers, but he was the one who warned Williams to leave before he was shipped back to a hostile England. We know this because WIlliams wrote a letter in 1670, long after the events, saying,

“When I was unkindly and unchristianly, as I believe, driven from my house and land and wife and children, (in the midst of a New England winter, now about thirty-five years past), at Salem, that ever honored Governor, Mr. Winthrop, privately wrote to me to steer my course to Narragansett Bay and Indians, for many high and heavenly and public ends, encouraging me, from the freeness of the place from any English claims or patents. I took his prudent motion as a hint and voice from God, and waving all other thoughts and motions, I steered my course from Salem, though in winter snow, which I feel yet, unto these parts.”

Fleeing alone, Williams was not a threat, and the MBC left him alone. Williams wrote later that he had nearly died wandering in the winter snows, until he was found by a Narragansett man who greeted him with “What cheer, netop?” (a nice mixture of Narragansett and English).  Helped by the Narragansetts to find a good place to settle, Williams survived. He eventually brought his wife and children down to his outpost, and they lived very much alone there.

During this time, Williams wrote frequently to Winthrop. It is still touching to see the kindness and broad-mindedness of the governor, who, while abhorring Williams’ views, never lost sight of or respect for the man’s goodness and honesty. Winthrop asked him in October 1636 if he really believed everyone else in the MBC was fallen away, and whether he was not grieved to have made so many people so unhappy. Williams wrote back that he did still believe this, and that he was not grieved, and that Winthrop should follow his example and join him in total isolation: “Abstract yourself with a holy violence from the Dung heap of this Earth.”

Strong language. Here Williams has come full circle in his separatism. Now out of the entire world, only he, his wife, and potentially Winthrop, were holy enough to be acceptable company. Everyone else on the earth was human excrement before God—and before Williams. Winthrop’s argument that there is no escape from the human condition of imperfection, and that imperfection must be addressed lovingly, fell on deaf ears.

There was a small community that joined Williams in Narragansett territory, and they created a small church, but even this dedicated group was not good enough. Williams stopped the practice of infant baptism, since the babies had not proven their sanctity, and began to wonder aloud if any church could be truly holy without God returning through the Apocalypse and cleansing the world. The low point was when he decided that only he and his wife were fit for Communion. The only possible next step would be to find himself completely alone in the world, with not even his wife fit to accompany him.

Next time: Williams as we know, remember, and love him

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