Roger Williams Transformed

Posted on September 22, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

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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The first separation of church and state–ever!

Posted on October 9, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , , , , |

…well, at least in the western world. It happened in Rhode Island, in 1663.
This was the year that the colony received its royal patent. In 1643, Roger Williams had received a charter from Parliament, during the interregnum. When Charles II came to the throne, Rhode Island received a new patent from the king. It is a remarkable document. There’s no room to get into all the details here, but pick up Early New England, A Covenanted Society by David Weir for a terrific in-depth discussion.
In the 1663 patent, for the first time the English king/government acknowledged not only that there were religious conflicts in New England, but that differences in religious opinion were unavoidable–and even valid. Here is how the charter describes the people who left Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Connecticut colonies for Rhode Island “…some of those oure subjects not being able to beare, in these remote parties, theire different apprehensions in religious concernements, and inn pursueance of the afforesayd ends, did once againe leave their desireable stationes and habitationes, and with excessive labour and travell, hazard and charge, did transplant themselves into the middest of the Indian natives…”
Here, for the first time, the crown acknowledges that the religious beliefs of its people are truly heartfelt, and real. These are not seditious traitorous rabble-rousers, but people who leave their desirable stations in life and their homes for the excessive labor and hazard of the wilderness. The king will justify and honor those beliefs and actions with this patent.
With religious diversity up-front as the founding cause of the Rhode Islanders, the charter goes on to allow the people of Rhode Island to travel safely into other colonies where their views are unwelcome, and, most importantly, the freedom to set up a society that rejects the state religion of England itself. “[A] most flourishing civil state may stand and best bee maintained among our English subjects, with a full libertie in religious concernements; and true pietye rightly grounded upon gospell principles will give the best and greatest securiety to sovereignetye, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyaltye.”
This is truly remarkable. It is indeed the first time in the west that a government “[legally] separated the civil magistracy from civil religion and an established state church. We should note that civil religion is not the same thing as the established state church. The state church is an institution with records, buildings, financial dealings, and personnel; civil religion is something more amorphous, and can be described as a cluster of ideas that can be sustained by the state church (or by the state itself) and that form the often submerged foundations of societal life” [Weir 53].
In granting its charter, the crown recognizes that in Rhode Island, civil religion was the antithesis of the English state religion, and was not even uniform itself–many religions were tolerated in Rhode Island, and each contributed to the cluster of ideas that created the civil religion there. The crown also sees that maybe people who are allowed to live according to their deepest religious beliefs will be the most loyal citizens, as they will be grateful to the king for granting them that freedom.
The big news here is that it is no longer treason to challenge the Anglican church. Religious freedom is not heresy (so long, of course, as one’s religion is still Christian), or political treason, or anything but a private, personal matter.
What’s unusual is that this great religious freedom was granted to America at the same time the crown was clamping down hard on religious freedom in England itself. The laws of the Clarendon Code maintained uniformity and orthodoxy. The Corporation Act of 1661 required all town officials to be Anglicans. The 1662 Act of Uniformity required the clergy in England to use only the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Conventicle Act of 1664 forbid groups of five or more people holding dissenting religious views to gather together. And the Five Mile Act of 1665 made it illegal for a dissenting minister to live within five miles of a town unless he had taken the Oath of Allegiance, which was unlikely. These measures sent more English Puritans to America.
So why did the crown decide to grant religious freedoms in America that it was actively stamping out in England? Perhaps the answer lies in the distance between them. We know that Charles II, leaning more and more towards Catholicism, and later converting on his deathbed, hoped to create more religious tolerance in England. But Parliament, wary of another religious convulsion, took away the king’s power to make religious law altogether, and embarked on its coercion of uniformity. Events in the small and still financially unimportant colonies in New England were not as pressing to Parliament, trying to keep things under control at home after the Restoration.
But a precedent was set in New England by the Rhode Island royal charter. Massachusetts Bay colonists would never accept people of different religious beliefs to live amongst them, but they did trade with Rhode Islanders, hold markets together, and allow them to travel through and stay overnight in MBC. Gradually MBC, with its natural, un-coerced uniformity, came to be seen as the anomaly–even by its own people! And generations of Americans grew up not only expecting religious diversity to be tolerated, but, crucially, expecting civil religion, not state religion, to be the order of the day.
Therefore it was no stretch 100 years later to set up a government in which religion was important but uncodified by law. Americans were used to this kind of separation of church and state, and comfortable with the primacy of civil religion over state religion. Belatedly, in the late 20th century, attempts were made to open up the public to the idea of state religion, but it will likely be an uphill battle to convince Americans to accept this 17th-century idea.
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Roger Williams: saint of Rhode Island or lunatic of Massachusetts?

Posted on June 9, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

There’s a great article on Roger Williams at American Creation, a new blog devoted to studying religion in early America. (Disclaimer: I contribute articles on the Puritans for this blog from time to time.)

Williams was a complicated character. He caused the Puritans of Massachusetts nothing but trouble, yet he was so charismatic and charming they could not bring themselves to punish him for years.

The article at American Creation tells most of the story. I’ll just add that Williams not only challenged the bases of Puritan theology, but also claimed that the royal charter that created Massachusetts Bay Colony was null and void because it was granted by King Charles, a sinner and false king, who had no earthly authority.

Williams would have had the Puritans go back to London, rip up their charter, try to convert Charles, and get a new, valid charter. For Puritans trying hard not to arouse an already hostile king’s anger, this was too much.

Williams was supposed to be sent back to England in chains as a traitor, but John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, intervened. Williams claimed that Winthrop told him what was being planned, and urged him to escape secretly. Winthrop had every reason to detest Williams, but he did not. He saw Williams’ sincerity and youthful innocence, and perhaps had faith Williams would eventually settle down. They remained close throughout Winthrop’s life.

Williams took off for what is now Rhode Island, and many years later got his own royal charter. By that time (1663), he had undergone a radical change from a man who had excluded everyone but his wife from the list of the saved to a man who welcomed everyone as equal.

This is the Williams who is well-known and loved. The story of how he got from A to B is a fascinating one.

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