I recently finished reading Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul:
Church, State and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry. As a former history teacher, I thought I knew this period of the American story fairly well. As a Baptist, I have long respected Roger Williams and his willingness to work for religious freedom in Rhode Island. I had no idea. What I thought I knew proved to be only the vaguest of outlines; a mere shadow of a truly sublime human drama.
Listen to Puritan leader John Winthrop’s words as the Puritans embarked for the New World, “he tells the people of Israell, you onely have I knowne of all the families of the Earthe, therefore will I punishe you for your Transgressions . . . When God gives a special commission he lookes to have it strictly observed in every article . . . Thus stands the cause betweene God and us. We are entered into Covenant with Him for this worke.” (Barry, 125). It is often said the Puritans believed they were founding a new Israel, a purer version of the old world not to be diluted. But we often forget, in order to attempt such a lofty standing, every citizen had to comply. Any who didn’t endangered the whole endeavor. The church must encompass and organize all of society for holiness. In this view, religious dissenters along with unrepentant sinners not only lead others astray but are treacherous threats inviting the judgement of God upon the state. The Massachusetts magistrates therefore developed a broad reach.
Roger Williams on the other hand believed the church to be made up only of willing believers, a new Eden in the wilderness of sin soaked society.
He says of Massachusetts, “when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world, God hathe ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick . . . and made his Garden a Wildernesse, as at this day.” In modern parlance, when you mix religion and politics you get politics (Barry, 307-8).
For speaking out specifically against the government’s ability to enforce the first four of the Ten Commandments, those dealing with only a person’s relationship to God, Williams found himself banished from the new Israel. He fled the colony, was sheltered by Native Americans for the winter, and founded his new settlement of Providence. Providence of course grew to become Rhode Island and become a haven for toleration and freedom of conscience.
This is a remarkable enough story in and of itself. But I noticed something else.
Throughout the years Williams maintained a relationship with a number of Massachusetts leaders. Some were friendly, others more hostile, but almost always the context involved an argument over the proper role of church and state.
Despite his profound convictions throughout his long and difficult struggle for religious liberty Williams was always wary of what he called “monstrous partiality.” In other words, he knew he could be wrong.
The same cannot be said for some of his opponents. John Cotton, a Puritan leader and prime Williams antagonist wrote, “In fundamentall and principall points of Doctrine or Worship, the Word of God is so clear, that hee cannot be bee convinced in Conscience of the dangerous Errour of his way, after once or twice Admonition, wisely and faithfully dispensed. And then, if anyone persists, it is not out of Conscience, but against his Conscience . . . So that if such a Man after such Admonition shall still persist in the Errour of his way, and be therefore punished: He is not persecuted for cause of Conscience, but for sinning against his own Conscience (Barry, 325).”
Read that again.
According to Cotton, the Bible is so clear that if anyone interprets it differently they are simply rebellious. There’s just no other explanation. It is so easy to understand that there is no conceivable way Cotton could have missed anything.
Williams found this example of “monstrous Partiality” absurd and terrifying (Barry, 325). He blamed it (the attitude, not Cotton) directly for many deaths throughout history and for the current English Civil War. He could not believe someone could be so presumptuous as to believe he had not a single thing concerning religion to learn from anyone else in the world, including other Christians.
Roger Williams was not a person who lacked conviction. He loved Christ passionately and with the same Reformed precision of the Puritans. Furthermore, he held so tightly to his belief in freedom of worship he was willing to be exiled and risk death. However, he also had a unique ability to look outside himself and realize he might be missing something. He never believed he solely possessed all truth.
For me, this was a central lesson from this book. How many times have I treated others with the same contempt? Often. How many conversations have I approached with a genuine attempt to learn? Not many. Indeed, my own partiality can be quite monstrous. This is doubly true for issues of faith. Whether discussing sectarian Christian issues or engaging a others of a different worldview altogether, we must guard against Cotton’s lack of humility. We must remember that though we possess the truth in Christ we do not have a monopoly on it. There is much we can learn from others. There is insight. Perspective. Wisdom. Humility. If we listen.
I am thankful for the example of Roger Williams. I am proud to follow in the theological and political tradition he began, but most of all I pray to gain his empathetic yet profound inner strength.
Is there any more relevant message for a modern day climate in which opponents yell past each other? When we all live in our own digital universes?
We need it.
I need it.
Have a blessed 2013.