One can only hope that John M. Barry’s scholarly and compelling book, “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul,” will become a literary success. It is fair to say that Williams’ contribution to American culture is largely unknown. Nonetheless, he was an indispensable force in the promotion of ideas whose time had come: Society is better served when there is a freedom of conscience and a separation of church and state.
Barry has exposed the social context of brutal sectarian rivalry between state-sponsored churches and any dissidents who dared to speak openly about a different point of doctrine or ritual. Modern readers are shocked by the magnitude of assassinations, tortures, imprisonments, repression, treachery, deceit and barbarity that was a daily occurrence. This was the world in which Roger Williams matured and King James, followed by his son King Charles, were rulers over the established Church of England.
Both of these leaders were staunch believers in the divine right of kings at a time when Parliament was striving to wrest power from kings. Both kings were of a Catholic persuasion in a nation more attuned to a Protestant theology. As such, these kings were in sympathy with a widespread policy in Europe: cuius regio, eius religio — the prince of a region determines the religion. This volatile mix was aggravated by the unwillingness of kings to accept the encroachment on their power by the reforms expressed in the Magna Carta and the Petition of Rights.
Eventually, increasing numbers of malcontents (Separatists who chose to abandon the established church and Puritans who wished only to reform the church of its Catholic practices) left England for Holland and then moved to America. They settled on land granted by King James located between the 40th and 48th parallels that stretched from the Delaware Bay to the St. Lawrence River. This large tract was called New England but to the weary, shipworn travelers, this land of promise was regarded as the “New Jerusalem” with one settlement named Salem.
In 1629, leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Company picked three respected Puritan clergymen to accompany a new group of like-minded believers to their New England settlements. One of the three was Roger Williams, who knew that Bishop William Laud would soon be on his doorsteps to arrest and imprison him for publicly preaching ideas considered poisonous to the established church. In 1631, at age 27, Williams made shore in the untamed woods of New England.
We quickly get a picture of Williams’ character when he was offered the position of “teacher” — theologian — of a prestigious church in Boston but turned it down. This brash newcomer gave as his reason that “I durst not officiate to an unseparated people.” This was the first of his early statements that carried the core of his fully developed ideas about separation of church and state, and the inalienable right of freedom of conscience. Some try to reduce the power of these ideas by suggesting they come from a humble origin. This cannot alter the fact that these ideas were endorsed by such superb intellects as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. His originality as a thinker is secured by the fact that he called for “a wall of separation” 150 years before Jefferson.
Williams’ open conflict with authority in both America and England escalated in the summer of 1634, when he began a speaking campaign against leaders that mixed acts of government with church duties and practices. He objected to government enforcement of the first four of the Ten Commandments, government compelled church attendance and the approval or disapproval of church doctrines. In 1635, Williams was tried for his dangerous opinions and banished into the unforgiving wilderness where he was saved by the acceptance of friendly Indians. He settled in what became the state of Rhode Island. There, he initiated the first society to permit freedom of thought and separation of church and state. Williams was truly a lone visionary ahead of his time.
Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.
Allan Powell: Roger Williams, a lone visionary
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