Roger Williams — The American Luther — Part 5


Click on the image above to view this 1831 map of the area where Roger Williams Park now stands.

ROGER WILLIAMS – The American Luther – Part V

    When one stops to think about it, it seems almost incredible that the prelates of Massachusetts should have deemed it their duty to wage such a relentless warfare upon Williams and his followers simply because they desired religious freedom for themselves and for all who might desire to associate with them.  Nevertheless, such is the case.  When the New England Confederacy was formed, Rhode Island was not permitted to join it, because her inhabitants refused to prosecute men for conscience sake.  The court of Massachusetts passed a law that if any inhabitant of the Providence Plantations should come within the Bay’s jurisdiction he should be apprehended, and unless he abjured his opinions as to the power and rights of the magistrates, he should be compelled to go hence.  This act made hard times in Rhode Island.  Williams complained that many thousand pounds would not repay the losses he had sustained by being debarred from Boston, the chief port and mart of New England, and from trading with the English and the natives.  So great was the scarcity of paper from this cause among the settlers of Providence that Governor Hopkins observes, “The first of their writings that are to be appear on small scraps of paper, wrote as thick, and crowded as full as possible.”

    The total unselfishness in which Williams held his principles is clearly evinced by the position which he took when he went to England in 1643.  While he was there a small – quarto pamphlet appeared from the pen of John Cotton which denounced Williams in round terms.  Williams made answer in his usual graphic and lucid style.  He charged Cotton, and through him arraigned the whole theocratic system, with the “body-killing, soul-killing and state-killing doctrine of not permitting, but persecuting all other consciences and wayes of worship but his own in the civill State, and so consequently in the whole world if the power or Empire thereof were in his hand.”  Furthermore, Cotton had made the charge against Williams as a disturber of the civil peace.  This was the plea usuallyurged to justify persecution and the intervention of the civil power to compel religious uniformity.  In answer to this Williams made the following terse and succinct reply:—

“Acknowledging the ordinance of Magistracie to be properly and adequately fitted by God, to preserve the Civil State in civil peace and order; as He hath also appointed a spirituall government and Governours in matters pertaining to His worship and the consciences of men, both which Government, Governours, Laws, Offences, Punishments are essentially distinct, and the confounding of them brings all the world in combustion.”1

    Roger Williams loved these principles more dearly than his own life.  “I shall be ready for the grounds,” he exclaimed, “not only to be bound and banished, but to die also in New England.”  “Persecutors of men’s bodies seldom or never do these men’s souls good.”  He ever held that forcing of conscience is a soul-rape; that Constantine and the good emperors confessed to have done more hurt to the name and crown of Christ than the bloody Neros did; that seducing teachers, either Pagan, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian, may yet be obedient subjects; that the forcing of men to godliness or to the worship of God was the greatest cause of the breach of the civil peace; that persons may with less sin be forced to marry whom they cannot love, than to worship where they cannot believe; and that even the very Indians abhorred to disturb any conscience at worship.  

    When Williams returned from England he brought with him a charter from the king.  This he had in addition to the titles which he held from the Indians.  This clearly proves the great respect which he had for the powers that be.  Under this charter a code of laws was drawn up, the conclusion of which contains the following noble declaration:—

“These are the laws that concern all men, and these are the penalties for the transgression thereof, which, by common consent, are ratified and established throughout the whole colony.  And otherwise than thus, that is herein forbidden, all men may walk as their conscience persuade them, every one in the name of his God.  And let the saints of the Most High walk in this colony without molestation, in the name of Jehovah, their God, forever and ever.”

Williams spent much of his time during the latter years of his life in doing missionary work among the Indians.  This was one of his greatest pleasures, and a work which he continued to the last.  Amid all the cares and strifes of life his heart yearned toward these sons and daughters of the forest.  

    In 1652 he returned once more to England on business for the Rhode Island Colony.  This time he remained two and one-half years.  This period of his life is replete with interest.  A fierce contest was raging in the mother island over the matter of religious liberty.  Parliament was rent with dissension.  Sir Henry Vane, with whom Williams was stopping, presented a paper containing four proposals, from which I quote the last two:—

  1.  Whether for the Civil Powers to assume a judgment in spirituals be not against the liberties given by Christ Jesus to His people.
  2.  Whether it be not the duty of the Magistrate to permit the Jews, whose conversion we look for, to live freely and peaceably amongst us.2

    To these propositions were attached a note signed “R. W.,” the same being written by Roger Williams.  His heart of kindly affection and love was burning for liberty in England, as well as for the same blest boom across the deep, in the New World.  “Oh, that it would please the Father of Spirits to affect the heart of Parliament with such a merciful sense of the soul-bars and yokes which our fathers have laid upon the neck of this nation, and at last to proclaim a true and absolute soul-freedom to all the people of the land impartially; so that no person be forced to pray or pay, otherwise than as his soul believeth or consenteth.”3

    The Jews had suffered all sorts of indignities and persecutions at the hands of the “Christian” English, and at this time were in banishment from the island.  Williams took a prominent part in gaining for them the readmission which they so much desired.  The mind of this great man was of the broadest type; he firmly believed that his principles were eternal, and he saw no reason why they should not be universal.  Of suffering conscience everywhere he was the doughty champion.  He was the founder of a State, the first in the New World, to shelter the homeless and countryless nation under equal laws.  While yet in England, the question was up as to whether the clergy should be supported by compulsory tithes.  This Williams boldly combated, and published a little pamphlet entitled “The Hierling Ministry None of Christ’s.”

   roger williams building his house He missed his poor Indians whilst in England, but his charity never staunched.  There were hundreds of poor in that great city, and they were well worthy of help.  All his spare time was occupied in bringing aid to this class; and with food and fuel he furnished many a home. And during all of this time it must be remembered that he was poor, very poor, himself; that he lived in a most frugal and meager way; and that never during his long life did he know what luxury or indulgence meant.  He might have amassed large sums of money.  He might have become wealthy, as did others who founded colonies.  But he possessed a soul too great and magnanimous ever to permit him to become increased in this world’s goods.  Of him is true the saying of a great teacher, that this life is too short in which both to do good and to amass riches.

    Rhode Island was not only a shelter for the Jews, but for the Quakers as well.  This unfortunate sect was driven from New England with great cruelties.  There were only two places where they could find asylum; one of these was with Roger Williams, and the other with the sultan of the Mohammedans–the Grand Turk.  And it is not very much to the credit of the Puritans of these shores that they should be outdone in the matter of religious liberty by the followers of the “Prophet.”

    War was at this time threatening with the Indians, but because the men of Rhode Island would not persecute the Quakers, their brethren in the other colonies would grant them no assistance against their foes.  Rhode Island was in great danger.  Nevertheless principle was not sacrificed for safety.  “We have no law among us whereby to punish any for only declaring by words, etc., their minds and understanding concerning the things and ways of God, as to salvation and eternal condition.”  This was the answer hurled back by the brave little colony.  “Forced worship,” says Williams, “stinks in the nostrils of God; let us have naught to do with it.”  And God did protect those who were true to Him.  New England would not furnish the people of Rhode Island with ammunition; but a greater power than that of spear and firearm was at hand.  God turned the heart of the Indian, and gave Williams favor in his sight.  “As for you, Brother Williams, you are a good man.  You have been kind to us many years.  Not a hair of your head shall be touched.”

    Williams lived to a ripe old age, and he died as he always lived, true to his principles of soul-liberty.  American history boasts of no grander character, no kindlier soul.  Self was ever sunken out of sight, and the good of his fellow beings of every creed and clime, and of millions yet unborn, was constantly uppermost in his mind.  At times he almost seemed to speak with the foresight of a seer.  Especially was this true on the occasion of a proposal to divide up the common lands of Providence, and distribute them among the then present inhabitants, instead of leaving them for future settlers who might be driven thence in quest of freedom.  “For all experience tells us that public peace and love is better than abundance of corn and cattle.  I have only one motion and petition, which I earnestly pray the town to lay to heart, as ever they look for a blessing from God upon the town, on your families, your corn and cattle, and your children after you; it is this: That after you have got over the black brook of some soul-bondage yourselves, you tear not down the bridge after you, by leaving no small pittance for distressed souls that may come.”  

    Williams sleeps, but not forever.  In the resurrection morn the Lifegiver’s voice will call him forth to immortality.  At the bar of the Heavenly Tribunal he will stand in the rockie strength of his convictions;” and the Judge of all the earth will there proclaim that his principles of soul-liberty are holy, just and true, founded on the everlasting Rock, Christ Jesus.

PercyMaganby Percy T. Magan.



1  Nar. Club Pub., Vol. I, p. 335.

2  See Masson, Vol. vi, pp. 393, 396, note.

3  See Straus, Roger Williams, p.172

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