Kicked out of Massachusetts for preaching “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions,” Roger Williams fled into the wilderness and founded his own town and colony, Providence, Rhode Island. Williams also established the first Baptist church in America.
If not for his non-conformist ways, Williams, a Cambridge-educated chaplain to a prestigious family, may have become a man of great influence in his home country of England. Instead, his unorthodox views led him to depart for New England. Rather than finding agreement in the colonies, however, Williams made peace with neither the Puritans of Boston nor the separatists of Plymouth, eventually resulting in his banishment from Massachusetts. What were the values that made Roger Williams such a controversial figure?
A gifted linguist, Williams mastered the language of the Native Americans of New England. As a result, he developed strong relationships with Native American tribes, such as the Narragansetts. His view of the Native Americans deviated from most American colonists. In writing his book, A Key into the Language of America, Williams wrote, “From Adam and Noah they spring, it is granted on all hands.” His point was that the Native Americans should be afforded the same rights as all men. This view led Williams to despise the practice of securing land from the King of England. He felt that the land must be purchased from the Native Americans. Roger Williams purchased the land for the colony of Rhode Island from the Narragansetts, only later travelling to England in order to obtain a charter for the colony.
One of the values that separated Williams from many of his fellow colonists was his view of the Native Americans. He acknowledged them as equals, to be regarded with respect. He recognized their land rights. He endeavored to treat them with equity.
Another value that made Williams controversial was reflected in the eventual religious formation of Rhode Island. Unlike Massachusetts, Rhode Island was established upon principles of complete religious toleration, separation of church and state, and political democracy. The Rhode Island Royal Charter of 1663 calls for “full liberty in religious concernments.” As a result, the colony became a refuge for those who had been persecuted for their religious beliefs, including Baptists, Quakers, and Jews. Years later, Roger Williams’ words were quoted by Thomas Jefferson in his judicially infamous Letter to Danbury, promoting, “a hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.” The separation of church and state was another of the values that separated Williams from many of his fellow colonists. Williams envisioned a secular state preserving religious freedom rather than a religious state enforcing Christian worship. Forced worship, he wrote, "stinks in God's nostrils." While this belief was unpopular among the Puritan crowd, in time, it became embedded in the law of the United States.
Why do I bring up Williams and his controversial views of respect for Native Americans and separation of church and state? This past Sunday, on July 4th, we opened Psalm 9 and highlighted the Lord’s ideals of righteousness, equity, and justice. We emphasized that since these are values promoted by our God, they should also be promoted by God’s people. The life of Roger Williams gives us a handle by which to hold these values. Though flawed in many ways, Williams exemplifies the values of equity toward those who are not like us and justice toward those who do not believe the same way we do. Unwilling to bend, Williams was persecuted for these ideals.
While we may not face banishment from our state, and while we are not establishing colonies and writing charters, each day we face opportunities to practice righteousness, equity, and justice. Will we be bold enough, like Roger Williams, to row against the tide? Whenever we find ourselves opposing righteousness, equity, and justice, it is time for self-examination and repentance. In the exercise of these values, however, we represent Christ well; opening wide the doors for the spread of the gospel.