It Makes Sense—NowPosted May 17th, 2012
by Bert Williams
Roger Williams has been a hero of mine since the time one of my cousins did the genealogical research to establish that we—my cousin and I, and other members of the family—are direct descendants of Roger. And he is not just any old ancestor. Roger Williams is, truly, a hero.
Born more than four hundred years ago, Roger thought and acted much more like someone from the 20th century than like any of his peers from the 17th century. I purposely avoided saying he was like people of the 21st century. Roger would not have been amused or impressed by current post-modern platitudes. Truth, for Roger, was spelled with a capital T, and it was non-negotiable.
If it’s truth to you, then it’s truth—for you? Utter nonsense!
Which made it all the more remarkable that Roger Williams was so willing to allow people to believe whatever they wanted. But more about that a little later.
In the generation before Roger Williams, Puritans had fled religious persecution in England, landed on the shores of New England, set up camp, and shortly thereafter had taken to persecuting people who didn’t believe just like they did. All citizens were required to support the church financially. They were required to attend Sunday services. Record was taken. Harsh penalties strictly applied.
Shortly after Roger Williams arrived in New England, he was invited to serve as pastor of a large congregation. However, despite his fine education and equally fine mind—and the exceptional opportunity—he had reservations. Roger was not one to conform to the status quo.
He secured work as a kind of personal pastor to a wealthy family clan, which worked out all right for a while. But Roger was edgy. He was never willing to stagnate. He was always growing in his grasp of reality. He was a man on the move, both physically and spiritually.
It was a good thing he traded with the local Indians and gained their confidence. As it turned out, he would need their help.
Over time, Roger had stuck up for his beliefs and dug in his heels on principle often enough that the authorities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony eventually determined he ought to be extradited to England. He was a danger, they felt, to the proper functioning of a society of God-fearing believers.
So, after being tipped off by a sympathizer, even though he was not well at the time, Roger disappeared without a trace one snowy January evening into the deep New England woods. He was not heard from again for fourteen weeks. He would surely have perished were it not for the compassion of those Native Americans with whom he had traded and made friends. And if he had not disappeared, he might well have perished in an English prison.
Eventually the colonial authorities lost interest in arresting him, and the immediate danger passed. Roger, however, continued to press his ideas of religious freedom. These revolutionary ideas provided the foundation, some hundred years later, for the personal freedoms guaranteed by the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. By then, his ideas were making perfect sense to men such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison. But in Roger Williams’ generation, they simply did not. He was plowing in previously unturned cognitive soil.
After his sojourn in the winter wilderness, Williams eventually was able to return to England and secure a charter for his big lifetime project, The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. It eventually became the state we know as Rhode Island.
For new residents of North America, the formation of this new colony was a legal step that proved useful. However, Williams believed that the land was actually owned by the Indian tribes, not by anyone in England, whether or not he happened to be a king. So, as he was working to secure the English charter, Roger was also working out a deal for the land with the Wampanoag and Narragansett tribal chiefs.
And about that religious freedom thing: How, the good Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony asked, could Roger Williams possibly think religion so unimportant that it should not be strictly enforced by law?
Roger’s answer, though certainly counterintuitive for the time, was both simple and profound: Religion is much too important to have mere human laws made up about it. It must be a matter of a man’s own conscience.
A matter between the person and God—no one else.
It makes sense to us now. The reason it makes sense to us is largely because it made sense to Roger Williams—quite some time before it was making sense to anyone else.