ROGER WILLIAMS – THE AMERICAN LUTHER — Part IV
“I will found a community,” said Roger Williams, “where all men may walk as their consciences persuade them, every one in the name of his God.” But the task was one of herculean proportions. “For fourteen weeks,” he tells us, “I was sorely tossed, in a bitter season, not knowing what bread or bed did mean.” His wanderings have been beautifully depicted in verse by Judge Job, and I can not refrain giving a few on the stanzas here:—
“High branched the pines, and far the colonnade
Of tapering trunks stood glimmering through the glen;
Then joyed our father in this lonely glad,
So far from haunts of persecuting men,
That he might break of honesty the bread,
And blessing crave in his own way again–
Of the piled brush a seat and board he made,
Spread his plain fare, and piously he prayed.
“‘ Father of mercies! Thou the wanderer’s guide,
In this dire storm along the howling waste,
Thanks for the shelter Thou dost here provide, Thanks for the mercies of the day that’s past;
Thanks for the frugal fare Thou hast supplied;
And, O, may still Thy tender mercies last;
And may Thy light on every falsehood shine,
Till man’s freed spirit owns no law but Thine!
“‘Grant that Thy humble instrument still shun
His persecutors in their eager quest;
Grant the asylum yet to be begun,
To persecution’s exiles yield a rest;
Let ages after age take the boon, And in soul-liberty for e’er be blest–
Grant the asylum yet to be begun,
And then, O Lord, receive me as Thine own!’
“Our father ceased, and with keen relish he
Refreshed his weary frame in that lone dell;
“Ah! little can his posterity
Conceive the pleasures of that lonely meal;
For naught he knew of pampered luxury,
And toil and fast had done their office well,
And not the dainties brought o’er India’s sea
Or wrung from sweat of modern slavery,
“Are now so sweet as was his simple fare.
His banquet past, he would have sought repose;
But at the kindling blaze, heard wide and far,
The howlings drear of forest monsters rose;
And, lured around him by the vivid glare,
Came darkling with light foot among the snows
Whole packs wolves from their far mountain lair,
And the fierce cat, which scarce the blaze might scare.
“Growling they come, and in dark groups they stand,
Show the white fang, and the brightening eye;
Till, urged by famine’s rage, the shaggy band
Seemed e’en the flame’s bright terrors to defy–
Then ‘mid the group he hurled the blazing brand;
Swift they disperse, and raise the scattered cry;
But rallying soon, back the siege they came,
And scarce their rage paused at the mounting flame.
“Yet Williams deemed that persecution took
A form in them less odious than in men;
He on their dreary solitude had broke–
Aye, and had trespassed on their native glen;
His human shape they scantily too might brook,
For it had been an enemy to them;
But bigot man did into conscience look,
And for the secret thought his brother struck.”
At first Williams settled within the limits of the Plymouth Colony, and although the Pilgrim Fathers were never nearly as bigoted as the men of Massachusetts, he was not even allowed to stay there. Accordingly, with five others, he embarked in a canoe, and sailed down the Seekonk River, still in quest of another spot where he might found a colony where only soul weapons might be used in soul matters. Tradition tells that as the frail little bark approached the eastern bank of that river, at a point known as “Slate Rock,” the little company was greeted by a band of Indians – with the friendly salutation, “What cheer, Netop? What cheer?”1
After landing and exchanging salutations with the Indians, they re-embarked and passed around the headlands to a spot near the mouth of the Mooshausick. Here they landed, and upon the slope of the hill which rises from the river they commenced the first settlement of Rhode Island. In gratitude to “God’s merciful providence to him in his distress,” Williams gave to this hallowed spot the name of Providence.
Bright jewels of the mine?
The wealth of seas? the spoils of war?
They sought a faith’s pure shrine!
“Aye, call it holy ground,
the soll where first they trod.
They have left unstained what there they found,—
Freedom to worship God!”
Once free and untrammeled, Williams proceeded to carry out his convictions and his sacred principles. He had told the men of Massachusetts Bay that he did not believe the kings charter could, of itself, give to the white man a just title to the lands of the Indian. Canonicus and Miantonomoh, the chiefs of the Narragansett tribe were the owners of this land. He purchased from these, and they gave him a deed. He might, like William Penn, have secured this land forever to himself, and become the proprietor of his colony, thus enriching himself and his family. But such was not the purpose of this great man; it was not for such an earthly pageant of glory as this that he had suffered banishment and distress. “Principle, not profit; liberty, not power; conviction, not ambition, –were his impelling motives, which he consistently maintained, then and at all times.”
When the confirmatory deed was made in 1661, he incorporated its purpose in its recital. “I desired it might be a shelter for persons distressed for conscience. I, then considering the condition of divers of my distressed countrymen, communicated my said purchase unto my loving friends [whom he names], who then desired to take shelter with me.” And long years after he wrote: ”Here, all over this colony, a great number of weak and distressed souls, scattered, are flying hither from Old and New England–the Most High and only wise One hath, in His infinite wisdom, provided this country and this corner as a shelter for the poor and persecuted, according to their several persuasions.”
Soon the men of Providence found that it was necessary to enter into some form of compact or agreement to serve as a basis of government. This is a notable document, and it was signed by all inhabiting there:—
“We whose names are hereunder written, being desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to submit ourselves, in active or passive obedience, to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for public good of the body, in an orderly way, by the major consent of the present inhabitants. masters of families, incorporated together into a township, and such others whom they shall admit into the same, only in civil things.”
Those little words, seemingly so innocently tacked on to the end of the document, were pregnant with meaning and happiness to that and future generations. They secured to all the freedom to worship God according to the dictates of conscience.
The first case of attempted persecution which ever came up in the little colony is a unique and interesting one. There was a man of the name of Joshua Verin. His wife was desirous of attending the religious services of Roger Williams. But Joshua Verin said her nay. A town meeting was called to consider the subject and the case. The discussion was long and spirited. Loyalty to their cherished principle prevailed, and the town record states that “it was agreed that Joshua Verin, upon the breach of a covenant for restraining of the libertie of conscience, shall be withheld from the libertie of voting till he shall declare the contrarie.”
And now the character of Williams shines out more brightly than ever before. His former persecutors are in peril of their lives. Dark clouds hung over New England. The Narragansetts proposed to wipe out the men of Massachusetts Bay. The magistrates of this colony, his former persecutors, appealed to Williams for help, begging of him to act as mediator between them and their enemies. He promptly complied, and started upon his hazardous mission:—
“The Lord helped me immediately to put my life into my hand, and scarce acquainting my wife, to ship myself alone in a poor canoe, and to cut through a stormy wind with great seas, every minute in hazard of my life, to the sachem’s house. Three days and nights my business forced me to lodge and mix with the bloody Pequod ambassadors, whose hands and arms, methought, reeked with the blood of my countrymen, . . . and from whom I could not but nightly look for their bloody knives at my own throat also. God wondrously preserved me, and helped me to break to pieces the Pequods’ negotiation and design; and to make and finish by many travels and changes, the English league with the Narragansetts and Mohegans against the Pequods.”
Despite all his kindness to them, the men of Massachusetts seemed determined to pursue the founder of Rhode Island, if possible, until the crack of doom. They accused him of being a theorist, a crack-brain, of having a “windmill in his head,” and of being short of good sense. Steadily but surely, however, the small colony grew up. In 1637 a small island was added, to which Williams gave the name of Prudence; and shortly afterwards two smaller islands were added, one of which he named Patience and the other Hope.
If ever mortal worked for the good of others, unselfishly, it was Williams. He lived and died a poor man, working constantly with his hands to maintain himself and his family. According to his own words, “Time was spent day and night, at home and abroad, on land and water, at the hoe and at the oar, for bread.” His eldest son was the first white male child born in Rhode Island, and he christened him Providence. Constant were the efforts made by the leading men in other colonies to prove that Rhode Island, on account of its religious liberty principles, was the very hotbed of anarchy, and that Williams was responsible for the supposed disorder in civil things, on account of his teach ings. But the teachings of the founder never led to disorder in the affairs of civil life. Williams believed in the rights of civil government. Nevertheless, aspersions continued to be heaped upon him, until he finally wrote his famous “Parable of the Ship,” which set forth clearly and succinctly his true views upon the subject of the proper jurisdiction of civil government. It is so original and entertaining, besides being a masterpiece upon the subject, that I give it in full:—
“That ever I should speak or write a tittle, that tends to such an infinite liberty of conscience, is a mistake, and which I have ever disclaimed and abhorred. To prevent such mistakes, I shall at present only propose this case: There goes many a ship to sea with many a hundred souls in each ship, whose weal and wo is common, and is a true picture of a commonwealth, or a human combination, or society. It hath fallen out, sometimes, that both papists and Protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm that all the liberty of conscience that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two hinges–that none of the papists, Protestants, Jews or Turks, be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, if they practise any. I further add that I never denied, that, notwithstanding this liberty, the commander of this ship ought to command this ship’s course, yea, and also command that justice, peace, and sobriety, be kept and practised both among the seaman and all the passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services, or passengers pay their freight; if any refuse to help, in person or in purse, toward the common charges or defense; if any refuse to obey the common laws and orders of the ship, concerning their common peace or preservation; if any shall mutiny or rise against their commanders or officers; if any should preach or write that there ought to be no commanders or officers, because all are equal in Christ, therefore no masters or officers, no laws nor orders, nor corrections nor punishments;–I say, I never denied, that in such cases whatever is pretended, the commander or commanders may judge, resist, compel, and punish such transgressors, according to their deserts and merits. This is seriously and honestly minded, may, if it so please the Father of Lights, let in some light to such as willingly shut not their eyes.”2
Williams’ “parable” is plain, but grand in its simplicity. No plethora of words covers the sacred principle annunciated in the Old World by the Saviour, and first in the New by Roger Williams.
1 The common English phrase, “What cheer?” equivalent to “How do you do?” they had learned from the colonists. Netop means friend.
2 Nar. Club., Pub., VI, p.278.