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.

Puritans v. Quakers in the battle for our sympathy

I just finished my Delbanco book and it strikes me that most historians who write about the Puritans just don’t like them, deep down inside, and this colors their history.

Of course, it’s not as if liking a group makes your history better than disliking a group. Ideally, you try to be as objective as possible.

But that objectivity is hard to come by when you’re reading about the Puritans. A schadenfreude creeps in and eventually sets the overall tone fast in a kind of head-shaking ruing of the Puritans and their crazy ways. Almost any book you read about the Massachusetts Bay Colony gives you the feeling that it was an immediate failure, that the moment those people set foot on shore in America they started betraying their own values. Blame is laid at the door of their religion, inevitably; a religion that crazy was just bound to fail.

It’s funny, because MBC was very successful. It established dominance over all New England, Boston was the major American port for decades, and overpopulation was almost immediately a problem. The MBC Puritans finally codified their religion in writing (the New England Way), something that had eluded or been deemed impossible by English Puritans, they settled two strong challenges to their Way (Antinomianism and the Halfway Covenant), created a representative legislature and judiciary, and wrote down a code of civil law (something the English Parliament tried to force the king to do to no avail).

But in most religious histories of the Puritans of the MBC, they are portrayed as psychologically tortured, religiously intolerant, crippled by self-doubt, paralyzed by uncertainty and fear of eternal punishment. You’d never know this was the place that invented flip, the fun rum drink with sizzling cream.

Meanwhile, the other crazy zealots in America, the Quakers, come off as lovely and wonderful, and full of success, when in fact their single colony immediately and completely betrayed its founder’s principles as soon as he died, and the Quaker faith henceforth had nothing to do with the government of Pennsylvania.

Because the later, 18th and especially 19th century Quakers were antislavery pacifists, we like them. We’re in sympathy with them. We ignore that fact that in the 17th century, they were as unpleasant and dictatorial about religion as any Puritan might be. I am greatly indebted to Tom Van Dyke at American Creation for this description of 17th-century Quakers in America:

[Roger] Williams spent much of his final decades in protracted debates with Quaker missionaries and refugees to Rhode Island, and what caused him to be so exasperated with his Quaker opponents was primarily their violation of [the] aspect of civility, the need to conduct public conversation respectfully. …Williams was taken aback by his Quaker opponents’ boisterous behavior and abandonment of common courtesy during the debates. He vehemently objected to their habit of interrupting his arguments, shouting him down, attempting to humiliate him personally with name-calling and ridicule, misrepresenting his convictions, and displaying a noted lack of truthfulness in their own arguments. …[To Williams] this behavior was not, as the Quakers insisted, an acceptable exercise of free conscience. Instead it was a moral violation of the basic requirements of civility, a signal of deep disrespect and a transgression of the procedural rules for public deliberation that Williams held with the highest esteem, so much so that he was willing to entertain the possibility that violators of civility like the Quakers should be subject to legal restrictions.

If you could get Roger Williams so far on your bad side that he was willing to restrict your liberties, you know you’re pretty extreme.

So while of course you can never completely erase your own biases when studying anything, including history, we need to at least be upfront about them. If only Puritan historians would just include a Foreword saying, “Look, I hate these people, but they’re an important part of American history, so we need to study them, but frankly I’m glad they got what they deserved in the long run–oblivion.”

My foreword would be different…  as you can guess!

(For more on the battle between Puritans and Quakers, see The Puritans and Freedom of Religion.)

The Puritans and Freedom of Religion

There’s a kind of sucker punch in many presentations of American history, wherein we are told that the Puritans left England for America because they had suffered religious persecution—and then the Puritans persecuted other religions here! The hypocrisy is apparently meant to shame Americans about their founding.

Let’s explore this situation. Yes, the Puritans did leave England because they had been persecuted for their religion.  For the whole story go to parts 1 and 2 of the Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant Work Ethic. Here, the story in a nutshell is that the Puritans were members of the official state church of England, the Anglican Church, but they felt it needed to be reformed and restructured (purified) to be more Protestant. For their loud and continual protests and complaints against the Anglican Church, the church hierarchy, and even the English monarch and Parliament, the Puritans were disliked and marginalized throughout the late 1500s and early 1600s. When Charles I took the throne and in 1630 made William Laud, a pro-Catholic, anti-Puritan church leader the Archbishop of Canterbury (and thus basically in charge of the Anglican Church), the bulk of England’s Puritan population fled England. Laud harried them out, putting a price on the heads of more outspoken and powerful Puritan ministers, making it a criminal offense to attend Puritan worship services, and generally doing his best to squash all opposition to the Anglican Church.

So in 1630 the Puritans headed to what is now New England. There was already a small outpost of Puritan settlers in Salem (now part of Massachusetts) to welcome the group headed by John Winthrop. But Winthrop’s group soon headed to what is now Boston, and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

So why were the Puritans in New England? Because they had been forced out of England. They were forced out because they wanted to reform human civilization through religion, to wipe out poverty, and to make a heaven on Earth in which everyone was free to discover God’s will for themselves. But these were not generalized goals; that is, the Puritans did not believe that any or every religion, diligently applied, could result in such a paradise. They believed that only their reformed version of Anglican Christianity could put such goals within reach.

They were not completely crazy for thinking so. In the world they knew, the world of European and especially English Christianity, the Puritans were the only group calling for an end to poverty, the only group demanding that all people, even women, be taught how to read (so they could read the Bible, God’s word), and the only group that required its members to work hard to improve the world on a person-by-person basis. Puritans were supposed to live exemplary lives in every respect so that anyone they dealt with—their customers, friends, even strangers they met—would see God through them, and be inspired to seek God themselves.

Thus the Puritans might be excused for thinking their religion was the only one that could save the world. In their limited experience of the world, theirs was the most actively reformist faith. They left England to preserve that faith, so that Puritanism would not be diluted or destroyed. They left England to create a place where Puritanism could thrive, and eventually grow so strong that when England was destroyed by God for its apostasy, the fugitive Puritans would be left to re-establish Christian civilization.

Now we see why the Puritans did not encourage religious diversity or practice religious tolerance in New England. It was not because they were terrible, hateful people. It was because they were on a mission, and they feared God’s wrath upon themselves if they failed in that mission to create a holy nation on Earth. They left England to establish a Puritan state where Puritan Anglicanism—Congregationalism—could be practiced. They did not leave England to establish a state where people were free to practice whatever religion they wanted. It is incorrect to say the Puritans wanted freedom of religion; they did not. They wanted to be able to practice their own religion freely. Those are two very different things, and we should not misrepresent the Puritans by claiming they believed in freedom of religion.

The Puritans in New England broadcast their intentions, making it as clear as they possibly could that people of other faiths were not welcome there. They made no secret of their hostility to outside religious presence. When people of other faiths insisted on entering New England, the Puritans boiled over with anger.

The question we ask ourselves at this point is, why did people of other faiths go to New England when they knew the situation there? Because they were just as zealous and single-minded about their own faiths as the Puritans. We tend to think of the Quakers who were persecuted in New England as gentle innocents who did no wrong. But Quakers in the 17th century were the most radical Protestant sect in England, maybe even in Europe. They entered Puritan towns banging pots and pans, screaming and singing, entering meeting-houses during Puritan worship and yelling to the congregation to hear their words. Sometimes Quakers stripped themselves naked in the center of town to call attention to the need to strip oneself of earthly attachments. They got the derisive nickname “Quakers” because they would go into convulsive fits during their worship services.

The Quakers, then, were a radical and alarming people who went into New England with the express mission to destroy the Puritan way and introduce their own religious beliefs. They were just as feverishly devoted to Quakerism as the Puritans were fanatically devoted to Puritanism. What we have are two radical groups with zero tolerance for other beliefs who were, once the Quakers entered New England, trapped in the same space. Persecution of the Quakers  followed, in Boston as it did in London.

It is only if we think that the 18th-century beliefs about religious tolerance enshrined in our Constitution came directly from the 17th century, then, that we can be dismayed to find no freedom of religion in Puritan New England. Almost no one in 17th-century Europe believed in freedom of religion or freedom of conscience. The Quakers did not, the Puritans did not. Almost all sects believed they alone had the truth of God and that they alone should exist. It took 150 years of religious co-existence in America to get to the point where freedom of religion could be put forward as a basic human right.

Instead of shaking our heads over the religious intolerance of the Puritans, we are better served by understanding the passions, fears, hopes and dreams that competed for the soul of Europe from the grey shores of the New World.

Why the Puritans persecuted Quakers

It seems simple enough: the Puritans believed Quakers were heretics. In fact, anyone who was not an Anglican was a heretic, including Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Antinomians, Quakers, Ranters… in short, anyone who was not Anglican.

Heretics were seen as blasphemers who put barriers in the way of salvation; they were also considered traitors to their country because they did not belong to the official state religion. This was true throughout Europe in the century following the Protestant Reformation: whatever religion the king chose became the official state religion of his country, and all other religions or sects were made illegal. In fact, the Puritans had left England because they had been considered heretics there, and had been persecuted by the government. Technically, they were not heretics because they did not leave the official Church of England (the Anglican Church), but their demands for big changes to that church made them outsiders. It was enough to get the anti-Puritan Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, to launch a campaign of persecution against them.

So when Quakers showed up in Boston in the 1650s, it’s no surprise they were persecuted. Puritan Congregationalism was the official—and only—religion of New England. Like every other state they knew of in Europe, the Puritans enforced a state religion that it was treason to oppose. But it wasn’t just about their religion. The persecution of Quakers was also part of the Puritans’ determination to rule themselves, independent of England.

The Puritans who had remained in England during the Great Migration to America of the 1630s drifted apart from their New England brethren. They were more inclined to allow toleration of other professions of Christian faith. The impossibility of reforming, or purifying, the Anglican Church in England was slowly rejected in favor of the much more doable task of simply confirming England as a Protestant nation by allowing any and all Protestants to worship relatively freely. The English Puritans also supported presbyterianism, a system in which the state governs the church and appoints a hierarchy to oversee all churches.

To the New England Puritans, both toleration and presbyterianism were unacceptable. They had spent painstaking years establishing a system of church government called the New England Way that was based on the independence and power of the individual congregation. The state in Massachusetts did not appoint clergy, nor was there one over-arching body that regulated churches. Each church was a sovereign unit. And only one church was tolerated in Massachusetts: the Puritan, or Congregational church (which was, to them, the purified Anglican church in America).

Worried that the English government would try to force its new rules of toleration and presbyterianism on them, the Puritans of Massachusetts made preparations to fight for their independence. They elected their own governor and General Court (a combined legislature and judiciary). They built many forts to protect their harbor and drilled their militia men regularly. And they continued to persecute Quakers, who, determined to bring their version of the Gospel to New England, continued to trespass into Boston despite the harsh and often cruel punishments they knew they would receive.

Those Quakers were not meek and mild innocents who just wanted to talk. They were as righteous a group of zealots as most Puritans, and when they entered a Massachusetts town they tried to wreak maximum havoc: bursting into church services, yelling in the streets, banging pots and pans together, and even stripping off their clothes (to show their lack of attachment to worldly things). The Puritans reacted with vehement rejection, and submitted Quakers who would not heed the warnings to leave and never return to terrible punishments. Boring holes through their tongues was just one of these.

The Quakers had no one to turn to for help until 1660, when the monarchy in England was restored, and Charles II came to the throne. One of his first acts as king was to send a letter to the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (the most powerful New England colony) ordering the persecutions of Quakers to stop. According to the “King’s Missive,” any Quaker accused of breaking the law in Massachusetts should be sent unharmed to England for trial.

Charles II issued his order for two reasons. First, he was a Catholic sympathizer, and Quakers and Catholics were about the only groups who found absolutely no acceptance in England. If Charles could win tolerance for Quakers, perhaps he could win eventual tolerance for Catholics. Second, he cast a dark eye on Massachusetts’ independence. Disgruntled ex-colonists who left New England to return home told Charles the Puritans were rebels. It didn’t help that two of the judges who had condemned his father, Charles I, to death had fled to New Haven and received a hero’s welcome there.

The new king put Massachusetts in a bind: if they stopped persecuting Quakers, and sent them to England for trial, that lessened the authority of their locally elected General Court. If they gave up the authority to prosecute Quakers, what other bit of their independence would they have to give up next? It was a slippery slope leading to direct English rule. But on the other hand, if they did not stop persecuting Quakers, they would be in violation of the King’s law, traitors, and would be immediately occupied by English soldiers and forced to accept a royal governor (rather than their own elected governor). Massachusetts made its choice: they would stave off English rule as long as possible rather than call down instant English rule on themselves. Slowly the persecution of Quakers came to an end.

They would win many small battles with the king and maintain their independence until 1691, when Massachusetts’ charter was revoked and the powerful colony came at last under direct rule from England. By that time, toleration was the rule even in New England, and Quakers were no longer a dangerous and radical sect but commonplace members of society. But resentment of English rule did not die out amongst New Englanders; less than 100 years later, the descendants of the Puritans would buck off English rule in America for good.

(For more on the Puritans and Quakers, their differences, and their battles, see Puritans v. Quakers in the battle for our sympathies.)