by William H. Benson
April 8, 2004
By the New Style calendar he was born April 5, 1604, four hundred years ago this week. Scholars since have considered Roger Williams, the Puritan minister in early New England, a champion of freedom and of liberty, a precursor to Jefferson, and a prophet who established a person’s right to worship as she or he pleases.
Those who listened to his ranting, such as Jonathan Winthrop and John Cotton, would find our estimate of him bewildering because to them Williams was odd. He took the Bible with a foolish literalness, a pedantic and boorish man without a sense of perspective, a perfectionist who took his dogmas to the nth degree. They did not see that his ideas were so much subversive as they were a nuisance, with little merit other than their novelty.
The scholar Edmund Morgan said, “His thinking progressed not by opposing accepted ideas, but by pursuing them through their implications to conclusions that his contemporaries could not or would not accept.”
Above all else, Roger Williams wanted to purify the Christian church of any taint of worldliness. Utterly opposed to promiscuous membership, he argued that only the truly regenerated, those who had experienced all the stages of salvation, should be permitted to attend a worship service. If the unregenerated were in attendance, it would blemish the act of worship.
Furthermore, he expected all church members to repent of ever having associated with the Church of England, and if they refused to do so, he felt their worship services were marred.
His restrictive membership requirements left him alone with only his wife Mary with whom he could worship and pray, and then the day came when he refused to say grace at mealtime with her because she had been friendly with some whom Roger felt had compromised their beliefs.
Finally, he arrived at the conclusion that the true Christian church did not exist, that it had ceased to exist after the reign of Constantine in the fourth century. Because of this, he concluded that there were then no true preachers and had not been since the time of the apostles. Today’s clergymen, he argued, were nothing more than self-appointed saints without any authority to preach and teach because the chain from the apostles to them had been broken.
In addition, he violently disagreed with the civil authorities’ interference in any religious matters; and so he opposed a law that would require the unsaved to swear an oath of loyalty in God’s name to the civil powers. To Williams, each part and act of worship was sacred.
He pointed to the flagpole and cried out that it was wrong to have St. George’s cross on the British flag because the government was using religion to justify itself. One man in colonial New England, John Endecott, acted on Williams’s argument, pulled down the flag, and cut out the cross—an act that the governor, Jonathan Winthrop, thought may be construed as treasonous. He knew that Roger Williams and his crazed ideas had to go.
Winthrop had him arrested, put on trial, and found guilty of sowing dissent. His punishment was banishment, but before the sheriff could apprehend him, he fled into the wilderness about Narragansett Bay, to what would become Rhode Island, arriving there in early April of 1636.
He welcomed anybody and any theology. In 1638 a group of Anabaptists arrived, and they convinced him that he needed to be rebaptized as an adult. He agreed and was baptized, something that so utterly astonished Winthrop that he wrote Roger a letter, and asked him, “From what spirit and to what end do you drive?”
But then after four months as a Baptist, Roger found fault with them and drifted away. Some scholars today consider him the father of the Baptist faith in America, but few if any Baptist today would claim him as such, so liberal and radical was he.
But by pursuing his ideas to their final end, he had worked his way to the principle of separating the church from the state—a monumental intellectual achievement, but it was not for the same reason that James Madison had in mind when he wrote the First Amendment. It was that Roger Williams was so determined to purify the Christian church that he ended up alone, solitary, in a sect with just one person, himself, but then later generations looked back and gave him a halo, calling him the American pioneer of religious freedom.