In letters of gold, in earth’s temple of fame, the name of Roger Williams is written. Yet this alone is only a doubtful honor, for oftentimes have men and women revered those whose spirits have not been of that deep untainted purity and lofty moral integrity which alone should command our admiration.
Many a one has been accounted great rather for what he did than for what he was. But on the wonderful leaves of the ledger of life are chronicled only the names of those who, in loyalty to God, in unselfish devotion to divine principle and to the welfare of fallen humanity, have stood unshaken midst the storms of earth.
’Tis not for these poor eyes of ours, be-dimmed by the mists of sin, to pierce the veil which hides the great unseen and peer into the depths beyond. We see through a glass darkly now. Yet our bosoms swell with a sacred joy when we read of the grand lives of the great and good of days gone by; we can not help but believe that their “names are written in heaven.”
No kindlier soul than Roger Williams ever lived. Young in life he became wedded to principles which were then universally tabooed. Possessed of a well-stored and active mind; he was not a man to hide his light beneath a bushel. A stranger to fear, his life was one long scene of strife and turmoil. Misunderstood, maligned and persecuted, he has out-shone many another reformer, in that never for a moment does he seem to have forgotten the divine injunction of the blessed Master:
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
And the very ones who persecuted the noble Williams were the ones whom he interposed to save from the dread tomahawk of the cruel red man.
Roger Williams was a great preacher, and he was a great statesman. His simple honesty and sincerity won the hearts of the savage redskins, and he became the peacemaker between them and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay. He was also an author, and through his writings, he, being dead, still speaketh. They may lack veneer and polish, but the principles which he enunciated are sound. They were not principles which Williams had created, for man can not create principles, they are eternal. They come forth from the bosom of the Father, and are revealed to the pure in heart.
And the founder of Rhode Island was pure in heart. Ambition never tainted his nature. His inspirations in life were drawn, not from the clouds, but from the purest of all sources – God and the sufferings of men. He cared absolutely nothing for honors or rewards. He never strove for glory or position. Malice ne’er sat in his soul. Revenge and enmity never embittered his heart.
Roger Williams was not the first to discover the principles of religious liberty. Wickliffe, Luther, and others had taught them long before. But he was the first to proclaim liberty of conscience in the New World, and for this he was forced to leave the colony of Massachusetts Bay. But triumphantly, tho as an exile, he carried his precious truth to the shores of Narragansett, and there he established for it a sanctuary – the State of Rhode Island.
To Williams belongs the honor of being the first to bring forth and build up a political edifice having “soul-liberty” as one of its basal, fundamental, and organic principles. The world looked on and sneered. It was everywhere prophesied that his “experiment” would end in an unsightly explosion of anarchy or burn to an ash in the fierce fires of a medley of fanaticism.
The silent artillery of time has laid both Roger Williams and his mockers in the cold cradle of the grave; but the verdict of history, which is seldom unjust, is rendered in favor of the sturdy Welshman, who—
“Gave soul-liberty her guardian State.”
Liberty of conscience, first introduced into legislation by Williams, has spread all over the Union, from the storm-clad Atlantic to the peace-mantled Pacific. His institutions “have superseded the aristocratic commencements of Carolina and New York, the high church party in Virginia, the theocracy in Massachusetts, and the monarchy throughout America; they have given laws to one-quarter of the globe, and, dreaded for their moral influence, they stand in the background of every democratic struggle in Europe.”1
Amid the gray mountains of Wales the subject of our story was born; and the tall peaks of Snowdon stood as sentinels watching over the frail infant who one day was destined to exercise such a powerful influence upon the world. If climate and country wield a power as potent as the parental over the mind of a child, the crags and precipices of his native land undoubtedly contributed their share to the lofty and massive character of Williams.
Of the early life of this remarkable man, little is known. Upon not very certain evidence, it is stated that his nativity occurred somewhere about the year 1607. 2
While Roger was yet a boy, the famous Sir Edward Coke, the greatest British jurist of his time, took a lively interest in the lad. We learn from Mrs. Sadleir, Sir Edward’s daughter, in a note, attached by her to a letter which Roger had written her:—
This Roger Williams, when he was a youth, would, in a shorthand, take sermons and speeches in the Star Chamber, and present them to my dear father. He seeing so hopeful a youth, took such a liking to him that he sent him into Sutton’s Hospital, and he was the second that was placed there. 3
Sutton’s Hospital is the older name of the great Charter House School 4, so famous even at the present day.
Four years after the Pilgrim Fathers disembarked at Plymouth Rock, viz., in 162o, Williams entered Cambridge University as a student of Pembroke College. Here are still to be seen the entries which he made in his own peculiar handwriting. He showed great proficiency in his studies, and we know him to have been versed in five languages besides his own-French, Dutch, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He continued at Pembroke College until he graduated and took his degree.
That Roger Williams associated with men and women of gentle birth is evident. Two letters5 are still extant addressed by him to Lady Barrington, daughter of Sir Henry Cromwell, and aunt to the Protector. The latter bears date of May 2, 1629. At the time they were written he was chaplain to Sir William Masham, of Otes, in Essex. These letters speak of his affection for Lady Barrington’s niece, and give evidence of a proposal of marriage. In them he tells of his financial status and prospects, and how that by reason of a “tender conscience” he has not made the advancement in honor and preferment which he otherwise might. From what he here states it is clear that the Gospel ministry was his choice as a calling in life.
After leaving College he appears to have commenced the study of law under the guidance of his generous patron Sir Edward Coke. But God had a greater mission for this humble child than that of advocate or judge, –of bar or bench. When near the close of his life he tells us:—
“From my childhood, now about threescore years, the Father of lights and mercies touched my soul with a love for Himself, to His Only-begotten, the true Lord Jesus, and to His Holy Scriptures.”
At the time of which I write, the bigoted and intolerant Archbishop Laud stood at the head of affairs in the Church of England. The spirituality of that body was at a low ebb. The soul thirst of Williams could not be slaked by the murky waters of such a marsh of spiritual malaria. The sacred longings of his heart were drawn out after something purer, holier and better. The holiest passions of his soul were toward his God. He longed for a religion which would really satisfy, and which would not require sword and spear to support it.
This is what led Williams while yet young to ally himself to the straitest sect of the Puritans.
His religion was of no effeminate or plastic type. There is a grandeur and massiveness about it which at once attracts us. Through the dark forests of medieval doctrine he must blaze the path of liberty of conscience, not alone for himself, but for millions yet unborn. His task was to lay the very foundation stones for that system of separation of church and State which we hold so dear. Beyond the broad seas it was to be his lot to bear aloft the banner which the Master unfurled in Judea, and on which is emblazoned the sacred scripture, which, like a scarlet stream from Calvary, has ever flowed as a mighty barrier between the minority “of tender conscience” and the majority straining in the leashes to persecute:– “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
The road which Roger trod was rough; but he smoothed the path for tens of thousands yet to live. Long years have rolled away, and the humble author of our liberties is but little thought of now. Morning by morning and night by night, from thousands of quiet hearthstones and unnumbered family altars, husbands, wives, and tender children, peacefully and unmolested, lift up their voices in the prayers of near a thousand different faiths without the faintest fear of persecution dire. Had it not been for Roger Williams, had it not been for the great battle he fought and won, these might have sat with bated breath, dreading the sound of every footfall, least it should prove to be an emissary of the established creed, coming to drag them off to dungeon drear. And the streaming standard of soul-liberty which first floated upon the breezes of Providence will be the battle-flag of God’s own true church to the very last,–till from the great bell tower of time shall toll the hour of eternity.
1 Gervinus, Introduction to the History of the Nineteenth Century, H. G. Bohn, London, 1853, p. 65.
2 The date of his birth cannot be determined with absolute certainty. Some of the later authorities even contend that Williams was not of Welsh descent at all; but that he was English, and London born. There is, however, to my mind but little, if any, more substantial data for this theory than for the older one. I therefore have preferred to adhere to the idea of Welsh origin. This little treatise is only “a sketch.” Therefore it is not necessary for me to enter into a critical study and discussion of these intricate and abstruse points so difficult of satisfactory solution, and also of so little interest to the general reader.
3 MS, letters of Roger Williams to Mrs. Sadler, in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. Publication of the Narragansett Club, Vol. VI, p. 252.
4 Charterhouse, originally The Hospital of King James and Thomas Sutton in Charterhouse is a collegiate independent–boarding school (also referred to as a public school) situated at Godalming in the English county of Surrey. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charterhouse_School
5 Reprinted in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, July, 1889, with a letter from Mrs. Lowndes and a note by the editor.