Roger Williams — The American Luther — Part 3




    It was while Roger Williams was residing at Plymouth among the Pilgrim Fathers that he first became interested in and really formed the acquaintance of the Indians.  This chapter of his life is indeed an interesting and instructive one.  He cultivated their friendship from the most Christian and philanthropic motives.  In one of his letters he says:  “My soul’s desire was to do the natives good.”  He  immediately began to assert and maintain the principle, which afterward assisted in banishing him from Massachusetts, that the soil belonged to the Indians, and that the title thereto could only be acquired from them, and that the king of England had no right to give away land that did not in any just sense belong to him.  He became very intimate with nearly all the leading chiefs, and tells us in a letter which was written many years afterwards:  

“God was pleased give me a painful patient spirit to lodge with them in their filthy smoky holes (even while I lived at Plymouth and Salem) to gain their tongue.”

    In August, 1633, Williams returned to Salem and once more took up his ministerial work for that congregation.  The authorities at Boston were not slow to pick a quarrel with him.  His bold declarations concerning the iniquities of the charter could not be tolerated.  The “sin of the parents,” which he could not sanction, was that therein “Christian kings [so called] were invested with a right, by virtue of their Christianity, to take and give away the lands of other men.”  His position on this matter was absolutely correct and the only one that any true-hearted Christian could take.  He argued that the heathen had rights which neither king nor Christian could disregard.  But the rights of an Indian were a small thing in the eyes of many.

    But the matter of the charter was only one trouble of many.  Every practice of the Puritans opposed itself to the great principle of religious liberty which Williams was continually teaching.  “The magistrates insisted upon the presence of every man at public worship; Williams reprobated the law; the worst statute in the English code was that which did but enforce attendance on the parish church.  To compel men to unite with those of a different creed he regarded as an open violation of their natural rights; to drag to public worship the irreligious and the unbelieving seemed only like requiring hypocrisy.  ‘An unbelieving soul is dead in sin,’ such was his argument; and to force the indifferent from one worship to another ‘was like shifting a dead man into several changes of apparel.’  ‘No man should be bound to worship, or,’ he added, ‘to maintain a worship, against his own consent.’ ‘What!’ exclaimed his antagonists, amazed at his tenets; ‘is not the laborer worthy of his hire?’  ‘Yes,’ replied he, ‘from them that hire him.’”1 But when Williams openly declared that “the civil magistrates may not intermeddle even to stop a church from apostasy and heresy,” every breath was bated, and every hand went up in holy horror.

   19-11 At first the members of the Salem church stood by their minister.  But the antagonists of Williams stopped at nothing.  No intrigue was beneath them.  The men of Salem laid claim to a piece of land in Marblehead Neck.  The case came before the General Court at Boston.  It was clearly proved that they were the rightful owners.  Nevertheless, title was refused them on the ground that they had chosen Mr. Williams to be their pastor.  Of course they were but human, and at last they one and all deserted Mr. Williams, and he was left to stand alone.  They were not to be censured for this.  It was only natural.  Only those whose lives are wedded to principle will stand in such crises.  When once a principle is established there are many who will love it and defend it.  But in the days when it is warring for a place the case is altogether different.  Then only those whose very lives are wrapped up in the advancement of their cherished thought can stand the storm.  Such men are the exception and not the rule.

     Ere long the contest came.  The ember days of autumn hung o’er the land.  Amid the dull and gloomy shadows of October, 1635, Williams received his summons to appear before the General Court at Boston and answers for his crimes.

    No charges were preferred against his personal piety.  None could be brought.  The spotless purity of his unstained, unsullied, and unselfish soul stood out in bold relief against the leaden sky of religious despotism.  In sermon, in prayer,in loving ministry to rich and poor alike, he had labored with unremitting devotion.  Grim sits the court.  Its members pose as the tribunal of God on earth.  The accused scans their faces all in vain to find one spark of Christian affection, one softening ray of tenderness there.

    Forth come the charges: in brief, that Williams had declared that all men were entitled to religious liberty.  That the Indians as well as the English had certain inalienable rights.  That the civil magistrate had not power nor right to punish the consciences of men who believed differently from the majority or the dominant minority.  That his royal highness, the king of England, was not vested with letters patent from the Almighty to steal the land of the “Redskin”, simply because the Redskin happened to be a heathen and the king a “Christian”.  

    Chief Justice Durfee, in his eloquent anniversary discourse, has described this trial and all that was involved in it, in language that is worthy of the event:—

    “The future of Rhode Island, to some extent the future of the world, hangs suspended on the issue.  Will he, like his church, worn out and desperate, blenching before the unknown, lose heart and yield?  Never.  He stands unshaken in that ‘rokie strength’ of his convictions.  He is ready not only to be bound and banished, but to die for them.  ‘So hour after hour he argues unsubdued, till the sun sinks low and the weary court adjourns.  On the morrow (Friday, Oct. 6, 1635), still persisting in his glorious ‘contumacy,’ he is sentenced, the clergy, all save one, advising to be banished or to adopt the apologetic and felicitous euphemism of his great adversary, John Cotton, ‘enlarged,’ out of Massachusetts.” 2

    Roger Williams deals with the Narragansett IndiansBanishment in those early days was no light punishment.  The winters were terribly severe.  Immense forests of gigantic trees spread everywhere.  The snow lay all over the ground, and every tree was clad in a garb of crystal icicles. Indians and wild beasts were the sole inhabitants of these wild wastes.  There were no towns, villages or hamlets for Williams to go to.  What should he do?  On the face of it banishment meant death amid the most awful sufferings.  He begged permission to be allowed to remain till spring.  At first this was granted.  Afterward, however, there was a complaint made that he still persisted in preaching in his own house.  Many people were “taken with an apprehension of his godliness,” and thither came to listen to the words which fell from his lips.  Without giving him one word of notice or warning, the court, which had been at one and the same time his accuser and his judge, reversed its sentence, and resolved to send him to England in a sloop which was then almost ready to sail.

    The reason why the sentence was reversed, and why it was determined to send Williams to England, instead of giving him “enlargement” into the dreary forest wastes, is interesting and instructive.  It appears that while he was preaching in his own house he announced his intention of himself establishing a State which should be indeed a refuge for the oppressed of all lands, and wherein the civil magistrate should have no jurisdiction over the conscience.  The divines of Massachusetts had thought to silence this liberty-loving soul by “enlarging” him into the forest.  But Williams, ever a grand master of circumstances, had determined to seize upon this seeming end to all his plans and projects and turn it into an instrument by means of which to carry them out.  When he fled it would not be to sink into “innocuous desuetude,” but to uprear that fabric of government which the Puritan Father dreaded so much–to found an asylum for the conscience–oppressed of every kindred, and nation, and tongue, and people.  It was to prevent this grand and noble work that the General Court rescinded its former sentence of banishment into the forests and passed one in place of it, the design of which was to send the irrepressible Welshman back to England.  

    But Williams had a mission from God.  He was not easily deterred from his cherished purpose.  He quailed before nothing.  In the dead of night, January, 1636, Roger Williams prepared to flee from the savage Christians of Massachusetts to the Christian savages of Narragansett:—

“‘Mary!’ (she woke) ‘prepare the meet attire,

    My pocket–compass, and my mantle strong;

My flint and steel, to yield a needful fire;

    Food for a week, if that be not too long;

My hatchet, too–its service I require

    To clip my fuel, desert wilds among.

With these I go to found, in forests drear,

    A State where none shall persecution fear.’”3

PercyMaganby Percy T. Magan





1  Bancroft, History of the United States, vol. 1, p. 250.

2  “Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Planting of Providence” (June 24, 1886). Oration by Thomas Durfee.

3  Stanza from “What-cheer; or Roger Williams in Banishment.”

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