Roger Williams: Justice Seeker & Defender of Religious Liberty
Roger Williams (c. 1603-1684) is best known for founding Rhode Island and for defending religious liberty and what came to be known as church-state separation. Some know that he founded the first Baptist congregation in North America (Providence, R.I.) in 1638, even though he, personally, remained a Baptist only briefly–becoming a Seeker awaiting a new apostalate since all churches of the current era were incorrigibly corrupt. Although a strongly orthodox Calvinist in his personal theology, Williams was a strong defender of individual conscience, including the consciences of Native Americans, Jews, and Quakers. Rhode Island became a haven for persecuted sects and oddballs.
What many people do not realize is the extent to which Williams was a defender of justice for the marginalized. When Roger and Mary (Bernard) Williams were banished from Massachussetts Bay Colony in 1635, the first charge against Williams was that he claimed that the Native Americans owned the land in North America and colonists should purchase it from them instead of appropriating it with approval of the English crown. (Later, Williams did purchase the land for Providence Plantations from the Narragansett Indians, but he also worked to secure a royal charter for Rhode Island.) Further, Williams’ first book, A Key to the Languages of America, was to enable better communication with the Native Peoples so that there would be fewer conflicts. When Roger and Mary were cast out into the Wilderness in the middle of winter, the Narragansetts helped them and made friends. Williams protected them making laws against enslaving Native Americans.
Williams’ defense of religious liberty and church/state separation was, in part, a peacemaking move. He noted how often “persecution for the cause of conscience” led to wars. The state could demand obedience only to the laws for the public good, but God alone was Lord of the conscience and people were answerable to God, not other humans, for their worship (or lack thereof). Govt., Williams’ argued, had no business in religion to support or hinder it, no matter how wrongheaded a religious view might appear. “It matters not whether it be the most papist [Catholic], pagan [Native American], Turkish [Muslim], Quakerish, or heretical opinions whatsoever, it appertaineth not to the earthly power” to attempt regulation. Notice that Williams defended views that he disliked: “papist,” “pagan,” “Turkish,” are terms to put down Catholics, non-Christians, and Muslims–but Williams defended their religious liberty anyway, precisely out of his deep respect for the sovereignty of God.
Contrast this with the Puritans who, proclaiming New England to be a “new Israel,” justified genocidal wars against the Native Americans as “Canaanites” who had to be driven from the land. Williams, though not a pacifist, replied with an approach to biblical interpretation that is vital for Christian peacemaking: namely, that since the coming of Christ, there are no “chosen peoples,” no nations that are God’s. The New Testament analogue to the Israelites is the church, scattered among all nations. Therefore, any attempt to apply biblical “holy war” passages about Israel directly to any moder nation, would be a distortion of Scripture. In the NT era, all peoples are potentially chosen, but only as individuals come to Christ. Coercion or violence in the name of promoting Christian faith is a blasphemy.
For more on Williams, see :
Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, Classics of Religious Liberty 2 by Roger Williams (1603-1683), ed. Richard Groves. With a historical introduction by Edwin S. Gaustad (Mercer University Press, 2002).
Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America (Eerdmans, 1991.)
James P. Byrd, Jr., The Challenges of Roger Williams: Religious Liberty, Violent Persecution, and the Bible (Mercer University Press, 2002).
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