Roger Williams Transformed

Part the last of Truth v. Myth on Roger Williams, in which Williams draws back from the abyss of isolation and becomes the man we remember so well today.

After creating such high standards for religious and spiritual practice that there were only two people left in the world for him who were worthy of taking communion—himself and his wife—Williams had some sort of breakthrough. He followed his train of thought to its logical conclusion, which is that no church in the fallen world, no church on Earth, can be pure. It’s just not possible. If the Earth is a sinful and fallen place, it cannot create a gathering of people who are entirely holy. One could not escape the “dung heap” of humanity, as Williams had previously described other people to John Winthrop.

It’s a moment of great danger for Williams. This realization could have led him to complete despair; suicide seems to be the only way out of this terrible situation for the man who cannot accept imperfection. But something pulled him through, whether it was Williams’ basic goodness, his realization of the great love and loyalty his followers had demonstrated in going to Narragansett with him, or perhaps the persuasion of his wife Mary, who so often goes unnamed and unnoticed in her husband’s famous story. Mary had followed Roger from England to America, from Boston to Salem, Salem to Plymouth and back again, and Salem to Narragansett country. Each time she had to help set up a new homestead and a new farm, while raising their many children and bearing many more. It is telling that even as he questioned the purity of everyone on Earth, Roger never once turned against his faithful wife. She must have been a loving and intelligent woman, and perhaps we do have her to thank, at least in part, for Williams’ turnaround.

Because Williams did do a 180 in Narragansett. The basic goodness and love of other people that characterized him broke through and he was able to decide that since he could not escape other, fallen, sinful people, he would join them. “Having a little before refused communion with all, save his own wife,” said Winthrop, Williams’ old friend, “now he would preach to and pray with all comers.”

And so he did. Williams threw open his tiny colony to anyone who wanted to join him and work together as one loving group. Winthrop shook his head once again at his young friend; to Winthrop, this “come one, come all” attitude was just as crazy as Williams’ original “no one is good enough” attitude. Puritans were careful to make sure their churches were attended by people trying to live holy lives. But Williams was welcoming anyone and everyone, even those who did not profess themselves to be trying to achieve holiness. In fact, many of his most loyal followers deserted Williams at this point. They had seen in him a man who would give them perfection, a man who could create a heaven on Earth; now he was throwing that chance away to live with the most sinful of people.

Word of Williams’ policies in Narragansett got around the MBC, and people decided Williams had snapped. He was an extremist, they saw; first seeking pure holiness, now seeking sinfulness. His appeal faded for most Puritans in the colony. But there were always a few people who found their way to what became Rhode Island, where Williams created a society that practiced tolerance for just about all people and beliefs. There were limits. As we have seen, even Williams could not welcome Quakers, and Anne Hutchinson, when banished from Boston, made herself very unwelcome in Providence.

But otherwise, Williams welcomed Native Americans, banishees from other colonies, and anyone seeking freedom to live as they wished so long as they did not harm others. The Roger Williams we know and love was born. His was an epic journey, one that Americans as a people re-enact each generation: moving from intolerance and the demand that everyone be like them to real democracy, liberty, and freedom.

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