My hero of American history is a man named Roger Williams (1603-83). It seems that few – too few – Americans know of this man and his contributions to the making of America. Yet, he was the one person who most clearly articulated the principles of freedom of religion and speech, later embodied in our Constitution. In fact, he was the first modern man to state these principles and to actually form a government in which they were practiced.
Though I have long been a lover of Roger Williams and have read a bit about him, I was excited to find and read a new volume with the rather weighty title, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry.
This is a volume I would recommend to anyone who is interested in American history, especially the thinking and actions that preceded our founding. I would also recommend it to any who are concerned about the separation of church and state and its implications for today. And I recommend it to every Christian who is struggling with keeping a balance between his/her faith and the so-called social issues.
A little background is necessary (see AN AMERICAN HERO). Williams was a Puritan preacher, who if the reader recalls his history, was the founder of the colony which later became the present state of Rhode Island (officially Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”), the first government in America to allow freedom of speech and religion, or as Williams termed it “Soul Libertie,” and to outlaw slavery. It was in its time, according to Mr. Barry, “the freest society in the world” (page 352).
The book is more than simply a biography of Roger Williams. It includes lengthy historical backgrounds of church/state relations in England and America in the first half of the 17th century, including the reigns of King James and King Charles (I and II) and the English Civil War. It introduces us to many historical characters who played parts in the struggles in England: Oliver Cromwell, John Milton and Henry Vane among others.
The author attempts to point out the men who influenced the thinking of Roger Williams. Two stand out: Sir Edward Coke, the great jurist and Sir Francis Bacon, the great political and scientific thinker. While Williams was a deep scholar of Scriptures, he was also one who read and thought broadly.
We read of the persecution and suppression of Puritans by the Kings and Archbishop William Laud, and of the Puritans’ establishment of colonies (then known as “plantations”) in the new world, not only to escape these persecutions, but to set up outposts of the Kingdom of God on earth. Of course, the primary one of these was the Massachusetts Bay Plantation, headed by John Winthrop, whose “City upon a Hill” sermon is still quoted (and sometimes misquoted) by American presidents and politicians.
The author, however, brings to our attention what many of those who idealize this particular time and place ignore: life under Puritan rule was in many ways as oppressive as life under the Anglican Church in England. Though the Puritans were persecuted for their non-conformity in England, in America the tables were turned, they became the enforcers of conformity. As in England (and all of Europe and the rest of the world) church and state were hopelessly entangled. Church attendance was required of everyone, even though not all were considered qualified to be church members. The state was the enforcer of the teachings of the church, not only “moral” laws, but even of the doctrines taught.
And so when Roger Williams arrived in Massachusetts in 1631, he soon became a problem. He attacked the alliance of church and state, teaching that civil “magistrates had no authority to enforce the ‘First Table’” – i.e. the first four commandments, those having to do with a person’s relationship with God. He taught against the taking of oaths. He also taught that the land belonged to the Native Americans and could only be acquired through honest trade or negotiation and that the crown had no authority to grant it to whomever they desired.
Worst of all (to the Massachusetts’ Puritans), Williams believed in freedom of conscience! Though he was a Puritan, a solid Calvinist and in total doctrinal agreement with the Massachusetts preachers, he was in total disagreement with their enforcement of these beliefs on all. He taught that one could not be forced to believe! To force a person to externally put on the trappings of true religion was to make him a hypocrite. The author however informs us, “His reasoning was not that of most modern supporters of separation; rather, he sought to protect the church, believing the profanity of the state could only contaminate the church’s purity” (pages 187, 188).
After continued struggles he was finally banished. To make a long story short, the remainder of the book is concerned with the establishment, maintenance and legitimizing of Providence Plantation. Providence and surroundings became a refuge for all sorts of rejects from the Puritan colonies surrounding it. Williams struggled to establish what later became known as a democracy. He attempted to be a mediator and peacemaker during Indian wars and hostilities. He travelled to England to obtain legitimacy for this “experiment.” And all the while his Puritan neighbors were doing their best to assure that the experiment would fail.
The book presents this history as a fast-paced, moving drama. Barry is a good story-teller. The reader can feel the tension as William struggles on many fronts to give birth to and maintain the “plantation.” How he actually gained royal approval is almost miraculous. Certainly it was evidence of the divine “Providence” that was its namesake.
There are many heroes in American history. It is dangerous to place any of them on pedestals, as they all are only human – sinners – and have their failings. Roger Williams is no different and yet he stands out:
· He was a man of genuine faith in Christ.
· He was a man who attempted to make the Scriptures the basis for his life.
· He was a lifelong student of the Scriptures.
· He was a critical thinker, unafraid to follow the truth wherever it led.
· He was unafraid to stand up for his principles, even at great personal cost.
· He labored his whole life to actualize his principles.
The author does not divulge to us his own personal faith position. But it is clear that he is a great admirer of a man so consistent in his faith and practice.