Here in part IV of our Truth v. Myth series on Roger Williams, we look at the period when his religious unorthodoxy led him to commit political treason.
John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, asked Williams on his return to Salem from Plymouth to clarify or confirm for him whether Williams had indeed questioned the settlers’ right to claim land in New England while Williams was in Plymouth. Williams wrote Winthrop back and sent him a copy of an “argument” he had written about it. The argument was dynamite: the colonists had no right to the land because they claimed that right by virtue of a charter from the English King (Charles I), and since that king was not a Separatist, he was an unregenerate sinner who could not claim any authority from God to issue such a charter. The king was also a blasphemer because he called Europe “Christendom” when Europe was populated by sinners who belonged to evil and ungodly churches (i.e., not Separatist), and basically the English king was one of those harbingers of the apocalypse, a fallen and evil king leading his people to ruin and damnation.
This was, to say the least, a problem for the MBC, whose charter did indeed come from the English king, who could immediately revoke it once he heard of these treacherous charges from Williams. People today, thinking only of the later Williams, assume that he questioned the colonists’ right to settle American lands on the basis of Native Americans’ first rights to them, but this was not the case. Williams at this point was not thinking about Native Americans at all. He was as willing as any colonists to claim Native American land, just not under the authority of the English king.
Winthrop summoned Williams to appear at the next meeting of the General Court in Boston to explain himself, but Winthrop was careful. He wanted to avoid two things: Williams being attacked at the meeting, unprepared for the charges against him; and reports of the meeting being published abroad, turning the meeting into a kind of show trial that would get back to England and the king. So Winthrop wrote to John Endecott in Salem and told Endecott what charges would be made against Williams; Winthrop also gave Endecott some strategies to get through to Williams about the gravity of his situation and lead Williams to repent before the Court.
This must have had some effect, because when he did appear in Boston Williams declared his loyalty and seemed penitent, and Winthrop dimissed his case. And there the matter could have rested, but Williams was unable to stay on a moderate path at this point. Six months later, in November 1634, news came that Williams was publicly preaching against the king in Salem, and this time Winthrop could not help him. A new governor was in charge, one who was not charmed by Williams.
Williams’ specific charges against the Puritan settlers were that they were taking land under false pretences by accepting the authority of the sinner-king’s charter, and that they ought to send back the charter and have the king himself write a new one that renounced his power to grant land; and also that if the settlers did not do this, they ought to dissolve the MBC, return to England, and do public penance as liars and evil-doers.
Unsurprisingly, the General Court of March 1635 saw Williams brought once more before the bench. The ministers of the colony had asked Governor Dudley for permission to talk with Williams instead of bringing him to court (something Winthrop would have allowed), but Dudly refused. “We were deceived in him, if we thought he would condescend to learn from any of us,” declared Dudley, and in this case he was most likely right. At this point, Williams would not be truly swayed by anyone. However, the Assistants (the board of magistrates helping to govern the colony) overruled Dudley, the ministers met with Williams, and once again Williams seemed to back down. Incredibly, he had been about to send a letter to the king outlining his beliefs, and was very lucky to have been stopped.
Williams never agitated against the king on the same level, but he was not done alienating himself from his fellow humans. He would only go further in his separatism before he finally came out the other side.