Roger Williams as the Embodiment of True Religious Freedom

If people never share what they’ve learned, then education is pointless.

A lot of my aversion towards the mixture of Christianity and American politics stems from how our nation never really had a good reputation in that realm to begin with. What I mean by that is how we somehow picture our government as upholding religious freedom, and I would say today it’s pretty much true that it does. While it’s not perfect, it’s definitely better than it used to be. But even so, a lot of people seem to believe we’re getting further away from the religious liberty of the past. And whenever that phrase is uttered, it often refers to the Puritans or the early Pilgrims as being the souls responsible for commencing such religious luxuries we now enjoy.

But nothing could be further from the truth, and it is the very reason I admire Roger Williams so much and hope to read more of his writing in the future. I think the Church today could learn a lot from him. You may remember him from American history courses in junior high and high school—the founder of Providence, which is obviously now the capital of the state of Rhode Island. This topic of religious liberty in America interested me greatly while studying pre-Civil War American literature at Harding University under Dr. Terry Engel, and I couldn’t help but notice the amazing disparities between pieces of literature written by William Bradford, John Winthrop, and Roger Williams. Bradford, as you will remember, was the first governor of Plymouth colony, and Winthrop is famous for issuing the proclamation, hope, and goal of the New World being “a city on a hill,” a new Jerusalem, if you will.

And so, this is a paper I wrote for Dr. Engel’s class. It is, by no means, incredibly deep in its research, for it is, after all, an undergraduate paper written two years ago. But it is a deconstructionist’s paper, in a way, even though I wouldn’t have thought so at the time I wrote it. But such a topic and its aim is near and dear to my heart: restoration. Digging out the truth of a situation; exposing lies, misconceptions, and assumptions when necessary; giving credit where credit is due; and then, upon discovering the root good of that initial idea, exalting it. These are all things that deserve our time and attention.

I’ve included my paper with only minor changes. It’s in MLA style, so I apologize for that in case you’re an APA or Chicago fan. I’ve included the sources just so you know I’m not making anything up on my own.

Segue to paper:

Children are taught wonderful things about America’s ancestry. Their books are full of stories of Pilgrims and Puritans sailing across the Atlantic, establishing civilization, and cultivating this homeland from infancy to greatness. Citizens of the United States are overwhelmingly indebted to these pioneers, and often religious freedom is included in the list of “Things We Owe the Pilgrims and Puritans.” But this is, in fact, a fallacy. True spiritual liberty was ultimately posited and supported by a mere handful and none more fervently than Roger Williams. The truly American ideal of religious freedom is seen to be erroneously attributed to the early Pilgrims and Puritans; Roger Williams is one of the few examples of what Americans today would consider true religious liberty.

Pilgrims will serve as a reference to William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation and the group of settlers that established Plymouth Colony after sailing to America on the Mayflower. Puritans will largely refer to John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity and the inhabitants of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A distinction is necessary, for both groups are polar opposites of each other in terms of their stances on religiosity in the New World. Even in light of their differences, though, they both arrived at the same end: religious persecution.

Religious freedom and the Pilgrims have always been linked. The liberty to worship as one pleases is regularly seen as the driving force behind their embarkation to America from Holland. This is the first misconception. In his history, Bradford presents four key reasons for the Pilgrims’ emigration: difficulty of life in Holland, onset of old age, the toll of heavy labor on their children, and the desire to spread the Kingdom of God in more distant regions of the world (107-108). It is important to note that “all of the reasons given by [Bradford] for emigrating are solely economic, save the last one” (Powell 71), but even it does not present the desire for religious freedom as a reason for coming to America because it was something they already enjoyed.

The Pilgrims had religious freedom in Holland. Economic difficulties were what followed in Leyden. Roland Usher points out that only skilled jobs were around, controlled by unions that looked after the welfare of current workers. Any economic success would require the Pilgrims’ full submergence into Dutch culture—citizenship, religion, and language—a step they were not willing to take (Usher 35-39). In addition to this, their church was hardly growing, its numbers only doubling in the ten years they had been there (Usher 38). Dutch religious liberty came at a price: back-breaking labor was drawing their attention away from church growth. The Pilgrims were confident that finding an economic solution would help solve this (Usher 38). There was no better place for a fresh economic start than the New World. Once arriving, though, the Pilgrims’ actions confirm that religious freedom was not first and foremost in their mind. Tolerance of other people’s religious views was nonexistent.

The treatment of Christmas in 1621 is an excellent example of this. What is regarded as the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in October of that year, a day that was full of feasting and recreation. However, when new colonists attempted to do likewise on December 25, Bradford “confiscated their sports equipment” telling them “there should be no ‘gaming or reveling in the streets’” (qtd. in Hasson 39). Christmas was seen as a “papist innovation,” and since the Pilgrims did not observe it, neither should anyone else (Hasson 39). Religious intolerance only worsened with the introduction of Quakers to Plymouth Colony.

Multiple actions were taken against this sect. Fines were imposed, leaving Quakers in an impoverished state; their very livestock and, consequently, subsistence was often taken from them (Howell 207). Physical scourging was doled out; three Quaker women were “stripped naked to the waist, tied to a cart’s tail, and driven through several towns in the bitter cold of winter. At every town on the way, each woman was given ten lashes on the bare body, sometimes until the blood ran” (Howell 209). Imprisonment and expulsion from the colony were also commonplace. Related to exclusion, the issue of church and state is also noteworthy.

In terms of the two institutions, separation between them did not exist. Houses of worship were maintained by the state, and attendance was mandatory. The churches, however, controlled who was given membership. Through this, the religious faction determined the makeup of the political body, for only church members could vote or hold office. At one point in Plymouth’s history, less than eight percent of churchgoers were able to vote or hold a public office due to this rare extension of membership (Hasson 39). As the decades progressed, the church in Plymouth became more and more stagnant.

Determining how important religion was to the Pilgrims is difficult considering that they did not bring a minister with them, nor construct a church until nearly thirty years after arriving on the Mayflower (Howell 176-177). Howell seems interested in the physical construction of a church, which obviously does not mean church services were non-existent in those thirty years. But even so, by this point moral decay had already set in amongst the colonists. The church had little influence anymore and such practices as the sale and trade of wives (Howell 186) and bestiality (Bradford 136-137) are recorded. The latter seems to have led Bradford to seek advice of Pilgrim Fathers as to what appropriate action should be taken. It is interesting and altogether alarming how the men Bradford consulted had no background in law; they were merely church ministers and ended up suggesting the Mosaic Laws would be an appropriate response to numerous crimes (Howell 189-190). In light of this decision, death became a typical sentence for punishment. The irreligious were now being governed by religious rule in Plymouth Colony. If only better things could be said of the Puritans.

While the Pilgrims religious stance can be a nebulous subject, there is no questioning where the Puritans stood. If the Pilgrims saw economic success as bringing religious prosperity, the Puritans were the exact opposite: triumph in the New World would only come with a solid religious foundation. Such was the message of John Winthrop.

He was not shy about getting his point across. In A Model of Christian Charity he states that God expects “every article” to be observed and that He “will expect a strict performance of the articles contained” in the covenant (157). To avoid absolute disaster, Winthrop felt they must “follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God” (157). Why was this so important? Glorification as a colony was the goal.

Winthrop said the colonists must view their colony like a city set on a hill for all to see (158). The Puritans wanted others to notice them, so as to “so edify and shame the British Protestants that they would repent in sackcloth and ashes and become Puritan themselves, whereupon the Bay Colonists would return to England in triumph” (Hasson 39). Winthrop’s pride is on full display when he says future colonies will strive to be just like them (158). The Puritan lifestyle was the perfect way to show other nations how following God was the key to prosperity. Gaustad notes, “The weighty task of government, then, was to see that the covenant was not broken, that in both behavior and belief the Puritan settlers did nothing to offend God” (10). With a vision like that, heresy could not be tolerated in a Puritan colony, and their ensuing reaction to the Quaker movement, then, makes sense, as atrocious as it was.

If the Pilgrims were brutal in their treatment of the Quakers, then the Puritans were downright barbaric. They took preemptive measures against them by creating laws that prohibited their presence in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Quakers came regardless, and a series of more stringent laws followed. First, a Quaker would be severely flogged if he or she returned to the colony after being banished. A second felony merited cutting off the Quaker’s right ear; the third misdemeanor brought about slicing off the left. The fourth offense would earn them a “tongue bored through with a hot iron” (qtd. in Hasson 40). Even this failed to sway some Quakers, and they were given the choice of banishment or death. One woman, Mary Dyer, returned in defiance and was hung on Boston Commons. These executions continued until the King of England (the very man many Puritans would have seen as responsible for their persecution) ordered them to cease (Hasson 40). How could such atrocities transpire?

The Puritans were not seeking religious freedom; they were seeking freedom of a specific religion. Non-Puritans could not always be expected to comply simply from instruction; sometimes removal, persecution, or extermination would be the answer (Gaustad 11). Their intentions were never to create a haven for people of all religious preferences. Such a task was undertaken by Roger Williams.

Williams’ writings and life testify to the importance he placed on religious liberty. Upon arriving in the New World, he spent some time living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but before too long the atrocities around him were too much to bear in silence. He spoke out against the persecution taking place, only to be banished from the colony himself. He would go on to establish Providence, a haven for those wanting to flee the persecution at the hands of the Puritans, and it later grew to be the colony known as Rhode Island. What about Williams’ life was so controversial as to cause the Puritans to expel him from their presence?

Unlike the Pilgrims and Puritans around him, Williams saw an inherent facet of equality in every individual: the conscience. Martha Nussbaum describes Williams’ views of the conscience in detail. He held it to be the foundation of ethical reasoning, something that made up the very basis of human identity (26). For him, ultimate truth was not what merited respect, but rather the ability to search for and find truth, a facet that Williams believed all religions possessed. The conscience was very much fragile and alive, and ergo, could be irreparably ruined. Nussbaum goes on to say that because of this, Williams likens persecution to “soul rape” since such maltreatment strikes a person at their very core. Being coerced into proclaiming spiritual maxims you do not believe was something Williams saw as incredibly “deforming and weakening” (24-26). The people around him, though, did not share the same disdain for religious persecution.

Williams spent much of his life defending his views against those who would disagree with him, specifically John Cotton, a church pastor in Massachusetts. Cotton believed that persecution was necessary in order to maintain peace and stability in the community, saying it was God’s will to have the heretics of society removed from the presence of the righteous. Even if they lived together in peaceful harmony, he still viewed them as temptations to sin (Nussbaum 24). Williams believed the opposite. Consider the sentence with which he opens his famous work, The Bloody Tenant of Persecution: “It is the will and command of God that . . . a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, bee [sic] granted to all men in all Nations and Countries” (qtd. in Nussbaum 26). Williams viewed peoples’ free will as a gift from God, even if that meant they would choose paths separate from the Lord. Cotton also called into question the idea that people can live together in harmony without a common religious tenet being present. Williams’ response was one of a belief in the inherent goodness of man, and he noted that people with differing religious views can live together in peace (Nussbaum 29). His own interactions with Native Americans support this statement.

Williams treated them with a tremendous amount of humanity. Soon after being banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he lived with the Narangansett Indians, establishing friendships that would last a lifetime. In fact, he was one of the few at the time who defended Indian rights, lambasting colonists for occupying and claiming land that was not rightfully theirs, sarcastically remarking, “Christian kings (so calld [sic]) are invested with Right by virtue of their christianitie [sic] to take and give away the Lands and Countries of other men” (qtd. in Nussbaum 25). Later on, one of the main stipulations of the Charter of Rhode Island stated that no one had the right to occupy or take over the land of the Indians. This unique charter also contains Williams’ view on separation of church and state.

Williams believed that governments which forced people to worship according to the Christian faith were detestable and in opposition to the teachings of Christ (“Liberty” 27). Yet the Charter of Rhode Island contains laws aiming to preserve religious freedom. Is this not a double standard? Consider, though, that the charter preserves “the expression of opinion in religious matters” and says that all “acts of worship should enjoy protection” (Nussbaum 26). This law does anything but display favoritism.

Williams still believed that moral laws for a colony could be established without basing them on religious grounds. Such a concept is contained in one of his most famous metaphors, from “A Letter to the Town of Providence,” in which he compares a colony to a ship at sea:

Papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm, that . . . none of [them] be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled [sic] from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any. I further add, that . . . the commander of this ship ought to . . . command that justice, peace, and sobriety be kept and practiced. If any refuse . . . the commander . . . may judge . . . and punish such transgressors, according to their deserts and merits. (186)

If a ship would be maintained with such fairness and equality, why not an entire colony? Is it any wonder that emigrants to America came to Rhode Island in droves? One option was to go to colonies run by Christians who persecuted in the name of Christ. On the other hand, Providence offered sanctuary, run by a man who would not tolerate “bloody, irreligious and inhumane oppressions and destructions [that take place] under the mask or veil of the name of Christ” (Williams, Bloody 185).

Religious freedom and a love and respect for humanity all seem like wonderful ideals that we readily attribute to the Pilgrims, when in actuality we find that very few held such a remarkable standard as Roger Williams did. If there were any doubts about John Winthrop, when referring to Rhode Island he said, “At Providence . . . the devil is not idle” (qtd. in “Liberty” 27-28). Williams just as bitingly explained how he felt about the Puritans: “I feel safer down here among the Christian savages”—that is, his Indian friends—“along Narrangansett Bay than I do among the savage Christians of Massachusetts Bay Colony” (qtd. in Nussbaum 25).

Works Cited

Bradford, William. “Of Plymouth Plantation.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 1820. Ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007. 105-138.

Gaustad, Edwin S. “Quest for Pure Christianity.” Christian History 13.1 (1994): 8-14. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Nov. 2008.

Hasson, Kevin J. “The Myth.” American Spectator 41.1 (2008): 36-45. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Nov. 2008.

“Liberty for the Soul.” American History 42.1 (2007): 24-29. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Nov. 2008.

Nussbaum, Martha C. “The First Founder.” New Republic 239.4 (2008): 24-31. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Nov. 2008.

Powell, Walter A. The Pilgrims and Their Religious, Intellectual and Civic Life. Delaware: Mergantile Printing Co., 1923.

Usher, Roland G. The Pilgrims and Their History. Massachusetts: Corner House Publishers, 1977.

Williams, Roger. “From The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, for Cause of conscience, in a Conference between Truth and Peace.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 1820. Ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007. 184-186.

—. “A Letter to the Town of Providence.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 1820. Ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007. 186-187.

Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Beginnings to 1820. Ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007. 147-158.


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