A “Dangerous” Man: Roger Williams and His Lasting Legacy
Every Rhode Islander knows about the Roger Williams Park Zoo, Roger Williams Hospital and Roger Williams University, but who was Roger Williams and why does he continue to be celebrated around the Western world? Below are the five most important things to know about Roger Williams.
1. Roger Williams was too Puritan for the Puritans
Roger Williams lived at a time of religious wars as Christians sought the truest and purest form of Christianity. The Catholics were too worldly for the Protestants. The Protestants were too worldly for the Puritans. The Puritans were too worldly for the Separatists and for Roger Williams, they were all too worldly.
Williams’ religious convictions ran deep and affected the rest of his life. He was so conservative in his theology that after arriving in the Massachusetts Bay Colony he declined a church position because of the church’s lax membership rules. He refused it even though he had no other source of employment for his young family. Williams also rebuked other Puritans for worshipping at such lax churches and even called into question their own salvation.
2. He founded Rhode Island
Roger William’s outspoken convictions put him at odds with the ruling elders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Eventually, he would be found guilty for his “dangerous” convictions and teachings. They punished Williams and his family to exile.
Because of his radical reputation, Williams was unable to return to England or Europe. With few options, Roger Williams set out for the New England frontier. For the next 14 weeks, he would endure New England’s harsh winter with his only help coming from the local Native Americans. He would purchase land from them and name it “Providence” in recognition that God had provided the land and ensured his survival. In the midst of so much uncertainty, Williams remained confident that God had sovereignly guided him to establish a new colony.
3. He argued for the fair treatment of the Native Americans
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Roger Williams argued that the Native Americans should be respected and treated as equals. While he strongly disagreed with their spiritual beliefs and never compromised on his position that Christianity was the true religion, he did not believe that Christianity should be forced upon them.
One of his more “dangerous” ideas was not theological but moral and political. Williams’ argued that the English had no authority or right to grant the land of New England to the colonists. The Crown of England ignored the Native American’s possession of the land and provided no compensation to them. Williams denounced this as unchristian and a moral evil. His protest challenged the very legitimacy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and contributed to his exile.
Roger Williams’ respect for the Native Americans was very personal. He would regularly give gifts to Canonicus, the sachem of the Narragansetts. Canonicus showed genuine respect and affection for Williams, even sharing that he thought of Williams as a son. For his funeral, Canonicus even asked to be dressed in clothes given to him by Williams and requested Williams’ presence at the ceremony. Years later, the colonists would even call upon Roger Williams to act as a diplomat and mediator with the Native Americans during times of hostility.
4. He pioneered religious liberty
Though Roger Williams had very exclusive views of Christianity and a very conservative theology, his approach to the church and state relationship was a bold innovation. For example, in New England, church attendance was mandatory. Not attending could result in fines and the inability to vote. Williams saw mandatory church attendance as an infringement on a person’s “soul liberty.” In his case, he refused to worship with many of these churches because they didn’t adhere to his very narrow interpretation of what the Church was and who was in it. Compelling him or another person to worship was tantamount to violating his or another person’s core humanity.
Roger Williams also saw the unrest that the church and state relationship could cause in society. England like much of Europe had shifted back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism. With every shift in a nation’s religious affiliation the spiritual convictions of the people were also challenged and upended.
Christians should not be the only people to enjoy this religious liberty. Williams believed that it should be extended to the Native Americans, Jews, Muslims, and even those opposed to Christianity.
5. His lasting legacy
Shortly after Rhode Island’s charter was established, New Jersey would adopt a similar charter that would guarantee a person’s right to believe and practice their religion. Other colonies including the Carolinas and Pennsylvania would follow suite. Even our US Constitution would protect any candidate from having to pass a religious test before being qualified for office.
Most importantly, America’s Bill of Rights would include its first amendment that in part recognized that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This amendment codified something Roger Williams had spent his life fighting for: a government would be freed from adhering to one Christian denomination while also protecting every individual’s right to worship God according to their conscience.
Rhode Islanders may be surprised to find that Roger Williams’ impact extends even beyond that of the United States. Geneva, Switzerland hosts the International Monument to the Reformation which features the Reformation Wall. Among Christian giants like John Calvin and Oliver Cromwell and seven other figures emerges a statue to Roger Williams to memorialize his contributions to Christianity and the rest of the world.