Humility, Truth and the Legacy of Roger Williams’ Fight for Religious Freedom


I recently finished reading Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul:

Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island 1636, ...
Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island 1636, Chief Officer 1644-1647, President 1654-1657

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.



6 thoughts on “Humility, Truth and the Legacy of Roger Williams’ Fight for Religious Freedom

  1. A post such as this goes to the heart of why the bible and Christianity are merely nonsense.
    That there is so much disagreement within the ranks of Christianity clearly demonstrates the fallibility of the notion of an omnipotent deity that imparted His word to mortal man. And initially via an octogenarian who was required to chisel out a set of commandments atop a bloody mountain.
    Just writing that out it sounds ridiculous!
    If this word was crucial to our salvation, then why has it always been so misunderstood?
    Why has it been dissected over the millennia to the point there are around 30-40,000 different sects – and the number is growing?
    Why has it spawned another monotheist religion Islam.
    If Jesus was who Christians claim he was why did the Jews dismiss him? (do not answer because they were naughty or offer some other trite response)

    God speaks to multitudes of people – apparently -and yet he hasn’t got it right yet, has he?
    Makes you think, doesn’t it? And if it doesn’t, maybe you should start?

    1. It proves that people are people. We are unable to wholly separate truth from our own agendas.

      I disagree the bible spawned Islam. Muhammed and his followers did. As for the Jews, many did accept Jesus. The church was made of almost entirely of Jews and centered on Jerusalem for the first 40-50 years of its existence.

      Yes, I understand there are multitudes of religions and religious expressions. However, the God of the bible has consistently revealed himself to a consistent community for thousands of years. Yes, there are many interpretations, but there is also a surprising amount of unity on essential truths (as I mentioned previously). It is my belief that God’s revelation is the most logical explanation for this continued unity and consistent existence throughout history. Can I prove it? Of course not. Is that what I want to believe? Sure. However, there is also a historical basis to rest on. Is that historical basis infallible? No, but it is there. Others will come to a different conclusion. .That’s fine. I respect that. But don’t act like people of faith are completely irrational and unthinking. Many Christians and other people of faith think deeply and wrestle honestly. Some don’t, but many do.

      1. ït proves that people are people. We are unable to wholly separate truth from our own agendas.”
        This I concur 100%, which demonstrates why the notion of an omnipotent deity that breathed the words of the bible is ridiculous as a deity that had all the power would ensure he correctly conveyed the Word in a totally unambiguous fashion from the word go.
        That he didn’t is indicative of how gullible religious followers are.

        “But don’t act like people of faith are completely irrational and unthinking.”
        Not irrational? Then please explain why there are nigh on 40,000 different christian sects, many versions of the bible, why there is so much disagreement on how the bible should be read, why idiotic Creationists demand to be taken seriously,
        why there is disagreement as to the nature of the Resurrection and the Virgin birth.
        I could go on… but is there a point to do so?
        If you could give meaningful answers to the above questions you might be on the way to a sainthood or whatever the protestant equivalent is.

        “Many Christians and other people of faith think deeply and wrestle honestly. Some don’t, but many do.”

        The ones that approach the issue honestly eventually become atheists.

  2. Ben, thanks for sharing this post. Roger Williams is a real example of the type of people we need in this generation. If it wasn’t for him and people like him this world would be a much different place.

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