The Founding Father of Religious Freedom
“New and Dangerous Ideas” is the title of a new exhibit at the Roger Williams National Memorial on North Main Street in Providence. The quote is from the Puritan leaders who banished Roger Williams from Massachusetts in 1636 for holding these opinions. This interactive exhibit is meant to draw parallels between Williams’ times and our modern struggles for equality.
While it doesn’t take long to view this one-room exhibit, it is worth a visit, especially on a weekend when there is ample parking on North Main Street. Check out the memorial’s website for details and a more complete description of Williams’ life and times. His remarkable career is way too complex to sum up in a few paragraphs.
Among the quotes from Williams displayed at the exhibit is: “It is the will and command of God that … a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian consciences and worship be granted to all men, in all nations and countries.” Way back in the 1600’s, little Rhode Island became the vanguard of religious freedom in the new colonies, thanks to Roger Williams.
At the Roger Williams memorial, we learn that “more than 300 years ago this fiery Christian preacher believed that the wall of separation between church and state was essential for all other liberties. His ideals, incorporated into the Rhode Island Charter of 1663, laid the foundation for the laws that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would eloquently affirm in this nation’s defining documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.”
Roger Williams was born in London in 1603 and went on to graduate from Cambridge University. In college he excelled in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Once in the New World, he learned the Narragansett language and he later wrote the first book about Native American language and customs, “The Key to the Language of America”, which was a best-seller back in England.
Ordained in the Church of England, Williams became dissatisfied as his own beliefs were more like those of the Puritans. Religious dissent was dealt with very harshly in England at that time and in 1630 the first mass exodus of Puritans left England. Under John Winthrop approximately a thousand Puritans sailed the Atlantic for what was to become the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Roger and his wife Mary followed soon. They eventually had six children, all born in the New World.
Williams soon disagreed with Winthrop about religious matters. He went first to Salem, then to Plymouth, and then back to Salem. There he once more got into trouble with the Massachusetts Bay authorities. Among other things, he had disputed English charters that took land from native peoples. He wrote: “Boast not proud English of thy birth and blood. Thy brother Indian is by birth as good.” He was warned to be quiet or face the consequences. Finally he was charged with “new and dangerous opinions” against the authority of the magistrates.
Facing arrest, Williams left Salem, alone and on foot, in the dead of winter in 1636, a severe winter like the one we had two years ago. Facing a blizzard in the wilderness, Williams only survived by being rescued by a Wampanoag hunting party and was given shelter by Massasoit until spring. Williams eventually headed across the Seekonk River, outside the jurisdiction of the Puritan colonies, where there was a Narragansett settlement. There he founded a new community, which he called Providence.
He later wrote, “Having made covenant of peaceable neighborhood with all the sachems and natives around us and having in a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress, called the place PROVIDENCE, I desired it might be for a shelter for persons distressed for conscience.”
A constant seeker in matters of religion, Williams founded the first Baptist Church in America, in Providence. He welcomed Quakers to Rhode Island, though he did not share their views. Although Williams could not have been an easy man to live and work with, he certainly had the courage of his convictions throughout his 80 years. His many descendants can be justly proud of their ancestor.
Now, speaking of religious freedom and dangerous ideas, an ugly old idea is popping up again recently in the form of anti-Semitism. This is simply inexcusable and appalling. You don’t have to be Jewish to be horrified by this. And, the hateful thugs who paint swastikas on a synagogue are not only threatening Jews, they are also gravely insulting the millions of Americans who fought the Nazis in World War II, especially those who lost their lives. When I see a swastika, I feel sick to my stomach.
I get tired of hearing the oft-quoted phrase about those who forget the past being condemned to repeat it, especially since it seems that those who DO remember the past are apparently condemned to repeat it too. Come back, Roger Williams. We still need you.