Roger Williams, the Gentle Zealot Who Refused America’s ‘City on a Hill’

Americans take separation of church and state for granted, but the legacy of this overlooked reformer proves it wasn’t always so

Roger Williams, the Gentle Zealot Who Refused America’s ‘City on a Hill’
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The Supreme Court is once again re-examining the separation of church and state in federal funding for religious schools in the United States. This comes on the heels of the Court re-examining abortion rights amid a social movement that is based in church doctrine. But for those who think that these developments are uniquely the result of the ongoing white evangelical support for ex-President Donald J. Trump, or that Trump’s presidency has heralded a new trend in American Christianity, history demonstrates otherwise. The passionate debate that is unfolding in the United States over the role of the Christian church in civil society can be traced back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Starting in the 1500s, English Protestants strove to purify the Church of England against any trappings of Roman Catholicism so as to fully reform it. In the following century, some Puritans fled England in search of a place where they could practice their religious beliefs without persecution from the Crown.

Upon his arrival in Boston in 1630, John Winthrop wrote the famous phrase, “A City Upon a Hill.” Rooted in the Gospel of Matthew, the words stemmed from his belief that God’s providential hand extended to every detail of his venture. Winthrop identified biblical prophecies echoed in the founding of the Puritan settlement in the land he called “The New Israel.”

Also a Puritan, the Rev. Roger Williams landed in Boston from England the following year. He soon challenged Winthrop’s tenets as well as his actions as governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. While Winthrop longed to purify the church from its excesses, he descended from the nobility. He yearned to remain in the Crown’s good graces, and more than that, he believed that the power of the state and of the church should be one and the same. In contrast, the commoner Williams fought against the unity of Crown and church, denouncing any requirement that anyone worship against their will as “soul rape” and submitting that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

Williams’ preaching on church-state separation prompted his abrupt departure from Boston. Soon, Boston Commons developed a reputation as a spot for hangings of those deemed heretics who refused to follow the Puritan path, at least as defined by Winthrop.

After making his case in both Plymouth and Salem, Williams found himself forced to flee south in the winter of 1635 to the wilds of what was known then as Rouge Island. In his sermons there, he honed what became the American ideal of freedom of religion as a fundamental right and christened one of the cities “Providence,” interpreting the success of his venture as a sign from God.

Even though he founded the First Baptist Church in America, Williams never elevated this church above all others. Unlike Boston and most other New England towns, where a church building dominates the town square, any church constructed in Rhode Island was set off to the side so as not to dominate the landscape.

In opposing Winthrop, Williams reinvented the principle of separation of church and state. While there are ancient roots to this idea in India and elsewhere, the concept had no precedent in English law or custom. Williams would not have known about it before he arrived at it on his own. He railed against the very notion of a “Christian nation” on the grounds that those who call themselves Christians are bound to Christ by faith and repentance, not by government authority. That principle is now deeply threaded into the fabric of the modern United States as well as many countries around the world.

Williams’ devotion to “soul liberty,” the right for one to follow one’s conscience in their beliefs, extended to practitioners of all religions, including “heretics” who didn’t follow any faith tradition. Also, he took the unusual position for that time of championing a woman’s right to exercise her own liberty of conscience, even against the wishes of her husband.

Determined that all people were worthy of respect, Williams befriended local tribal leaders and learned their language. He bought land from the natives and insisted that they always be compensated fairly for their land, a move that might have bankrupted those planting their country’s flag on whatever land they conquered. The idea did not catch on.

How did Williams manage to advance his views and remain relatively unscathed while others fleeing religious persecution from either the Church of England or the Puritans found themselves imprisoned, tortured or even executed? As Steven Waldman observes in “Sacred Liberty,” “[Williams’] disagreements went further, reminding us that in any period, some remarkable men and women are able to pull themselves out of context and think in shockingly modern ways.” Perhaps Waldman employs “modern” as a technical term, but such attitudes may be part of his own context. Still, speaking truth to power is rarely safe. How did Williams do it?

Williams’ benevolent and magnanimous spirit drew people toward him even after many he called friends expelled him from their company. Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth Colony called him “a man godly and zealous, having many precious parts.” Others described him as possessing “no ordinary parts” with “a never-failing sweetness of temper and unquestioned piety.” Even though Winthrop battled with him in public, their private correspondence reveals a lifelong, genuine friendship.

As Perry Miller observed, “Williams was accused, even by those who loved him, of pride, of imperiousness, of conceit. Yet a student who applies himself to a close study of Williams’ writing, though frequently irritated by his prolixity and pedantry, will soon come to know why even those who persecuted him had also to love him. To such a student Williams becomes most valuable — nay, truly invaluable — not merely because he propounded the idea of religious liberty to unheeding ears in America, but because underneath his arrogance lies a humility which true freedom begets.”

Bernard Bailyn, author of “The Barbarous Years,” concurs. “While Williams — sympathetic to the Indians’ civility, ruthlessly logical, incapable of compromise with his vision of the primitive church — was forever the subject of bitter condemnation, he was always personally respected.”

Given the scant evidence, some historians bicker when stitching together the fragments of Williams’ life and ministry. But there appears to be a consensus that the ongoing success of Rhode Island’s charter was due in large part to his soul and spirit.

Despite all the wrongs Winthrop and others did to him, Williams showed no signs that he craved revenge. For example, when the Pequot War broke out, Williams tried to dissuade the local tribes from warring against the people in the Massachusetts Bay Colony even though they exiled him. He was peaceful, fighting on neither side.

Like other Puritans of his era, Williams honed a rigid moral code based upon biblical teachings that informed how he chose to conduct his life. However, he never felt anyone else should be compelled to follow his faith journey.

In particular, he disagreed vehemently with the Quakers about their beliefs and worship practices, like their tendency to “quake” at their meetings. Yet he extended a compassionate hand to Anne Hutchinson after she was also banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and gave her space to build her own meeting house in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

In defining his role in the public sphere, rather than creating Puritan enclaves designed to separate the saved from the damned or encouraging dialogue to “discuss” the rights of the “outsider,” Williams chose to live with people even though they disagreed with one another. Taking advantage of his skills as a gifted linguist, he embraced all, knowing people are not isolated individuals but part of a shared global humanity.

Over the years, he paid dearly for his blunt and forcible language. Besides his exile, the House of Commons burned his masterpiece, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience,” published in 1644. In the book he details a host of vile acts committed by religious authorities at the behest of the Crown.

That same year Williams’ colleague John Milton published the “Areopagitica,” his plea for religious toleration. The friends were cut from the same intellectual cloth, with Williams teaching Milton Dutch in exchange for Milton tutoring him in other languages. But Milton’s commentary was far more tempered, as he stressed the need for all to live together in harmony without demanding the individual right of soul liberty. If Williams had played his hand a bit more deftly, could he have ended up with the same storied historical legacy as Milton?

Following intermittent battles with poor health that drained him physically, though his mind retained its sharp agility, Williams died in 1683 with his books burned and his reputation tarnished. His legacy took another hit in 1702 when Puritan minister Cotton Mather penned a book that painted Williams as a dangerous revolutionary. Williams’ name did not loom large for the next few generations. Thomas Jefferson used Williams’ words, however, to demand a “wall of separation” between church and state, though historians cannot prove whether Jefferson knew of Williams’ books.

Many Americans are ignorant of his fight for religious liberty. His banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony remained in effect until the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill in 1936 that rescinded his expulsion, thus ending over 300 years of exile.

Bill Leonard, founding dean of Wake Forest University School of Divinity, opined, “[Williams] anticipated American religious pluralism, even in ways that he himself would not have imagined at the time. Williams also had wonderful thoughts on democracy, influencing John Locke and the Founding Fathers, but he wrote mainly on the freedom of religion. He did not specifically address civil rights as we think of them now, such as the ability of those who were not white males of property to vote, equal rights for women and people of color, or the civil status of non-Christians.”

While his adversaries were his fellow Puritans, today he would be battling a wider swath of Christian leaders, including those Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, evangelicals and even select mainline Christians who seek to shoehorn their particular notions of God’s will into laws that the entire populace must then follow. Their motto seems to be “religious liberty for me but not for thee.” Williams would differ, loudly and clearly. Furthermore, even though very few people defended Williams in his lifetime, the latest data from the Pew Research Center indicates that the majority of 21st-century Americans would now agree with Williams’ clarion call to keep the state and church separate.

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