By Paul Dean
In our day, Baptists are often cast as bigoted and unwilling to grant other groups the religious freedom that they covet for themselves. The opposite is true, and the story of Roger Williams illustrates this fact. We Baptists need to rediscover and proclaim our basic belief that, while we claim the God-given right to preach the whole counsel of God, others have the right to hold to error if they insist. We believe in contending against falsehood with truth rather than with suppression and violence.
Throughout history most people have lived under governments that have refused to allow complete freedom of religion. Only in the last 200 years have major societies accepted what Roger Williams declared loudly in the 17th century. What he proclaimed, and what he applied to his own life out of the Scriptures, still inspires those who follow God’s Word and who enjoy freedom of conscience today.
In 1629, future Massachusetts governor and Puritan leader John Winthrop sadly concluded that the Anglican Church could not be reformed from within. Winthrop was part of a dissenting group of Christians who believed true worship would not happen until the Church of England was purified of its unreformed elements. These Puritans wanted the civil government to support a purified Church, not one that clung to elements of the Roman Catholic Church they had left behind.
John Winthrop and other Puritan leaders decided to show England what society could be if it were purified. This experiment was to be carried out in a “New England.” They would create a city on a hill whose light would shine so brightly that those in the “old country” would long to purify their own church and society. In 1630 the Arbella carried John Winthrop and his party to Salem harbor. Within a decade, fifteen to twenty thousand Puritans followed. Two who found emigrating to America less dangerous than staying in London were Roger and Mary Williams.
Born in 1603, Roger Williams was brought up in a pious merchant’s home and influenced by godly preaching. He was touched by the mercy of God and overwhelmed that he could be accepted by God Himself.
From early on Williams witnessed the grim reality of persecution. His home was located near the square where many men were executed for crimes against the state, including their particular belief in God. Williams also studied law for a time, recoiling inside as he witnessed trial after trial of those whose only crime had been a matter of conscience. What Roger Williams witnessed as a youth seemed to drive him to consistently speak for justice in the spirit of Christianity, even in the face of exile or worse.
His education from Cambridge coupled with his love of the Scriptures made him a formidable opponent in theological debates. With the accession of Charles I and Archbishop Laud, Charles’s appointee over matters of religion, persecution increased in number and hostility. Williams’s opposition also increased.
The culminating event for Williams was Archbishop Laud’s cruel punishment of Alexander Leighton. (For preaching religious reform, this Puritan physician and minister was committed to prison for life, whipped, and pilloried; his ears were cut off, his nose slit, and his face branded with a hot iron).1 Joining those who insisted that Christians must separate from the corrupt Church of England, Williams determined to remain silent no longer. His publication Dissent introduced the world to his forceful arguments and thinly veiled fury against religious intolerance. Consequently, an order for Williams’s arrest was issued. Determined to live and fight another day, Williams slipped away with his new bride to Puritan New England.
When the couple landed, they were welcomed to New England by Governor Winthrop himself. The Puritans were grateful to have a learned minister in a land where educated men were hard to come by, but they didn’t remain grateful for long. Williams refused to accept the pastorate of a Boston church because it had not separated from the corrupt Church of England. Undaunted, he moved on and was offered a job as assistant pastor in Salem, which was much more willing to separate than the church in Boston. But those in Boston offended by Williams’s positions sent letters of warning to the leadership in Salem, who heeded the warning and withdrew their offer.2
Next the Williamses moved to Plymouth, where they hoped to find kindred spirits among the Pilgrims. There he met Narraganset Indians, with whom he would have a long friendship. His first published book, born out of his exposure to and friendship with the tribe, was contrary to the popular notion that the Indians were somehow subhuman and should be treated as such.
In A Key into the Language of America, Williams stated that the Indians were no less human than Englishmen and that it was folly for the latter to think otherwise. He encouraged his brethren to consider the history of the world and not to foolishly suppose they could force their religion onto the natives.3
He also applied his views on forced adherence to religion to his own countrymen. Contrary to the practice of the day, Williams insisted that men be left alone with their conscience as their guide. The civil authorities had no right to force someone to attend church or to enforce morals that the church preached. At best this policy forced some people to outwardly comply with a spiritual truth they did not believe. This malting of hypocrites was horrifying to Williams, who took his spirituality very seriously.
According to the courts of Massachusetts, the list of offenses that Williams compiled was staggering. Williams stated that Charles I didn’t own the land in America; therefore, the Charter that provided the Massachusetts Puritans with land was invalid. He told the general court it usurped the power belonging only to God. He informed the transplanted Englishmen that the Indians they labeled barbarians often acted more civil than they did.
Through his theological and civil publications he offended the Puritans, angered the semi-separatists in Salem, and puzzled the lonely pilgrims in Plymouth. He managed to alienate almost every supporter and former friend. Looking back on this time, Puritan preacher and historian Cotton Mather concluded Williams was more dangerous than a fire raging through town.4
The court and people of Massachusetts had grown weary of Williams, and when he came for trial, he stood alone.
Although offered with pardon if he would recant, Williams held a steady gaze. They demanded he compromise his conscience; he proclaimed he would rather die than worship God in any other way than what his conscience dictated. Williams once again was exiled.
He fled to the south of Massachusetts. Sheltered by the Indians with whom he had cultivated a friendship, Williams purchased land from them and began a town of his own. Naming the town after the Providence of God, he determined it would be a haven for those who would be at ease with their conscience.
Though Williams had managed to anger almost every authority figure he had run into on both sides of the Atlantic, he had inspired thousands who did not believe what was forced upon them. Different groups filtered into Providence as word spread that they could worship there as their consciences dictated. Baptists, fleeing persecution elsewhere, arrived at Providence Plantation and found Williams receptive to their theology and church organization theory.
With them he founded the first Baptist church (a Five-Principle Calvinistic church)5 in the United States in 1631. Having found nowhere else to freely practice his Baptist beliefs, pastor and occasional physician John Clarke and his congregation joined Williams. Together they formed the First Baptist Church of Newport, where Clarke adopted the practice of baptizing only professing believers. Those in power in Massachusetts found this view horrific, believing this refusal to baptize infants “murder to an infant’s soul.”
Williams continually defended Baptist principles but did not stay with the Providence church long. He eventually labeled himself a “seeker” and continued to search for truth without any denominational ties.
Alternately Clarke and Williams visited London, securing the charter for the Rhode Island Colony amid the governing changes of England. Williams eventually managed to heal many of the rifts between himself and the Puritans. He even helped mediate various disputes between the colonies, exhorting his brethren to “act like Christians.”
Williams’s Rhode Island Colony became a haven for many who were exiled from their native lands for matter of conscience or culture. Jews fleeing the intolerance of the Spanish and Portuguese found rest there. Quakers exiled from Europe came in droves. Williams let them settle but took pains to inform them that they were dead wrong. In later years protestant Huguenots would find refuge from the violent French persecution. Due to Williams’s refusal to compromise and his commitment to securing liberty, Rhode Island was the only colony among the original 13 to have complete religious freedom before the 1770s.6 Roger Williams and John Clarke began the Baptist story on American soil. But the key to the success of the Baptists was not to be found on what the Puritan establishment labeled “Rogue’s Island.”17 The phenomenal growth for the Baptists would come when the formalized and sterile worship of a past generation was replaced with a “Great Spiritual Awakening.” But that is another chapter in Baptist history.
- Reuben Aldrige Guild, Biographical Introduction to the Complete Writings of Roger Williams, vol. 1 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1969).
- Edwin Gausted, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 27.
- Ibid., 30.
- Cotton Mather, Ecclesiastical History of New England, vol. 2 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1967), 495.
- William H. Brackney, ed., Baptist Life and Thought (Valley Forge: Judson, 1998), 97.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 7 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 84–85.
- William G. McLoughlin, Soul Liberty (New England: Brown, 1991), 3.