The Puritanical Roger Williams

Possibly no figure out of the American past today enjoys a greater prestige than Roger Williams – and for none is esteem based on so little familiarity with his deeds or so comprehensive an ignorance of his words.  – Perry Miller [1]

Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and champion of religious liberty, is one of those figures in American history the biographies of whom almost always reveal more about the biographer or the times in which they were written than about the subject.  An enigmatic character, Williams’s biographers have tended to treat him as if he were of a time and place other than his own.  Biographers have recast his image to appeal to desired values and aspirations, and then enshrined that image in national mythology where it has been appropriated to serve ideological or partisan interests.  The subject of scores of biographies, Williams has been variously depicted by free-thinkers, rationalists, humanists, radical individualists, civil libertarians, Protestant separatists, religious seekers, progressives, and democrats as one of their own.  The Baptists, with whom Williams is said to have worshipped for a few weeks, claim that he co-founded the first Baptist church in North America.  He is revered by some as an early defender of the rights of Native Americans.  These are, in most instances, ill-fitting personae.  Meanwhile, the real life and thought of Roger Williams remain as elusive as ever.

For all its strengths, and there are many, John M. Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul:  Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty similarly suffers from the conflation of memory and desire.  To describe this as a sympathetic biography would be an understatement.  Williams is portrayed as a prophet of freedom and democracy, whose lively experiment in free thought and church-state separation is praised effusively as original, revolutionary, and “unique in all the world” (296).

The broad outline of Williams’s life is well known.  Born into a well-connected, middle-class family near Smithfield, London early in the seventeenth century, he was educated at Charterhouse School and Pembroke College, Cambridge, thanks to the largesse of his mentor, the eminent English jurist Sir Edward Coke.  (Smithfield was for centuries the site of public executions of religious heretics and dissenters, including some fifty Protestants during the bloody reign of Mary I.  One wonders how his proximity to this notorious space shaped Williams’s subsequent views on persecution and liberty of conscience.)  He became a Puritan, probably during his college years, at a time when such an affiliation was dangerous.  Facing increasing harassment under Charles I and Anglican Archbishop William Laud, he migrated to Massachusetts Bay in 1631 where he was eventually called to be a teacher in the Salem church.  He soon ran afoul of the colony’s Puritan establishment for his “dangerous opinions,” including his teaching that civil magistrates have no authority to enforce the “First Table” of the Ten Commandments, and his objections to the Commonwealth’s loyalty oath because it constituted state compulsion of an act of worship and forced the “unregenerate” person to take God’s name in vain (196).  Tried, condemned, and sentenced to banishment by the Massachusetts General Court in 1635, he was forced to flee the colony in the dead of winter to avoid likely detention and possible execution.  With the help of friendly Indians, he escaped into the New England wilderness, finding refuge on the edge of the Narraganset Bay where he established what came to be the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation – a polity Williams desired to become “a shelter for persons distressed for conscience” (220).

Williams was a spiritual or theological separatist whose relentless quest was to separate the true church from theological impurity and the unclean world.  (Williams, his critics said, even refused fellowship with his own wife when he thought she was insufficiently pure in her spiritual life.)  He contested an essential premise of the Puritans’ New England commonwealths when he denied that they were God’s new Israel.  Rather, he thought the voluntary spiritual society of Christ’s church was the successor to Israel in the Old Testament.  Furthermore, he rejected the idea of a national church because he thought it improperly combined regenerate and unregenerate members of society.  Where there was an established church, Williams instructed congregations to be separated from it in order to maintain spiritual purity.

A theme that frames this biography is that Williams’s “logic and thought” were “largely shaped by two men”:  the jurist Sir Edward Coke and the statesman and scientist Sir Francis Bacon (5).  “From both these men,” Barry contends, “Williams derived his own path, his own view of the state, of law, of politics, and of the role of religion in the state” (59).  Coke, who regarded the young Williams as a son, taught him a “reverence for man’s law, an abhorrence of absolutism, the flexibility of reason, and of course courage” (58).  From Bacon, whose influence was more indirect, he learned “an entirely new way of thinking, a new way of inquiry, a new view of evaluating logic” (6).  The progenitor of a scientific method, Bacon taught him to reject “reliance on logic alone, in favor of experiment and observation” (59).  While Coke, especially, looms large in Barry’s narrative, the theme is not developed far beyond these general claims.  Moreover, this thesis, as intriguing as it is, is noteworthy for who is not numbered among Williams’s mentors, namely John Calvin.  Barry reminds readers that Williams became a devout Puritan, a Calvinist sect within the Church of England.  Yet little attention is given to Calvin and his ideas, in striking contrast to the prominence given to Coke and Bacon (neither of whom was a Puritan).

There is scant description of Calvinist theology beyond an unyielding belief in predestination, the election of the saints, and the radical depravity of human nature.  Barry’s biography similarly neglects mention of the specific events and reasons prompting Williams’s conversion to Puritanism.  Why not give these topics more attention?  Placing too much emphasis on Williams’s core Calvinist, Puritan convictions would have complicated Barry’s narrative.  The establishment Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, the heirs of Calvin and Calvin’s Geneva, are depicted as the embodiment of intolerance, close-mindedness, and authoritarianism.  While not denying that Williams remained a Puritan, Barry’s portrayal of Massachusetts is a convenient foil for Williams’s tolerance, open-mindedness, and democratic impulses.  Barry offers little insight into how Calvinism spawned these two very different exemplars of Puritanism.  More important, the reader could easily miss the fact that Williams was a radical Puritan whose theology was more similar to than different from his Puritan nemeses in Massachusetts.

Barry rightly observes that, at its core, Williams’s controversy with Massachusetts concerned differing visions of the relationship between religion and the civil state, especially the authority of civil magistrates to intervene in matters of worship and religious conscience.  It is also true that most Americans today associate Williams with the cause of religious liberty and church-state separation.  Thus, this legacy merits scrutiny.

Shortly after removing to Providence, Williams and his followers drew up a brief civil compact.  It did not proclaim a mission to build God’s kingdom on earth or to establish a Christian commonwealth.  Indeed, in striking contrast to Plymouth’s “Mayflower Compact,” it did not mention God at all.  It contained no oath, only a simple promise to obey future orders and agreements made for the public good consented to by the present inhabitants, but “only in civil things.”  The final clause underscored that civil government’s jurisdiction extended only to the concerns of this world.

Williams is perhaps best known today for his invocation of a “wall of separation,” a metaphor subsequently made even more famous by Thomas Jefferson and embraced by the U.S. Supreme Court in the mid-twentieth century as the theme of a strict separationist interpretation of the First Amendment.  Williams’s construction of the “wall” is found in a 1644 tract entitled “Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered.”  A conservative Puritan divine, Cotton promoted the idea that there was one objective, revealed truth of God articulated to a Christian society by the visible, organized church and defended by a civil state – ordained by God – and by godly civil magistrates.  Williams, unlike Cotton, denied the civil magistrate jurisdiction in spiritual affairs, including all authority to invade the sacred recesses of the soul and coerce conformity to religious beliefs and conduct.  Drawing on the imagery of Isaiah 5:5-6, Williams set forth the necessity for a “hedge or wall of separation”:

[T]he faithful labors of many witnesses of Jesus Christ, extant to the world, abundantly proving that . . . when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made His garden a wilderness, as at this day.  And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world; and that all that shall be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the world, and added unto His church or garden.[2]

Williams advocated maintaining a “hedge or wall of separation” to safeguard the religious purity of the fragrant garden of Christ’s church from external worldly corruptions.  In contrast, the Enlightenment perspective attributed to Jefferson viewed a “wall of separation” as a structure to protect the secular polity from the intrusions and depredations of ecclesiastical authorities.

Barry has written an engaging, informative account of Williams’s life and times.  He renders accessible Williams’s notoriously opaque and turgid prose.  The book’s greatest strength is its expansive descriptions of the messy political and religious conflicts in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and New England.  These provide valuable contexts for the controversies that engulfed Williams’s life.  Barry recounts with clarity and brevity, to give some examples, the rise of Puritanism in England, the political and religious turmoil surrounding the English Civil Wars, the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Company, the founding of Rhode Island and the struggle to secure legitimizing charters, and the New England colonies’ uneasy and sometimes violent relations with native peoples.  He also paints vivid verbal portraits of the larger-than-life personalities that populate the narrative – including, among others, Archbishop Laud, John Winthrop, John Cotton, Henry Vane, and Anne Hutchinson.

Although popular histories tend to exaggerate Williams’s influence on American thought, scholarly opinion is divided on his lasting legacy.  Tracing and substantiating claims of influence are never easy tasks.  Barry credits Williams for influencing John Milton’s and John Locke’s views on religious freedom.  He is more circumspect in assessing Williams’s influence on the thought of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others of their generation.  There is no evidence that either Jefferson or Madison read Williams’s writings.  His works, which for the most part were published in England and not widely circulated in the colonies, were largely forgotten until the Massachusetts Baptist minister Isaac Backus rediscovered them at the end of the eighteenth century.  His writings did not become generally accessible to an American audience until they were republished in the nineteenth century.  Other commentators have argued that Williams’s views had a negligible impact on the development of religious liberty in the founding era.  “As for any direct influence of his thought on the ultimate achievement of religious liberty in America,” Perry Miller bluntly concluded, “he had none.”[3]  It is almost certainly too much to credit Williams with, as the book’s title suggests, the “creation of the American soul,” but few would deny that Williams was an American original who championed the sacred rights of conscience.

[1]  Perry Miller, Roger Williams:  His Contribution to the American Tradition (Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1953; New York:  Atheneum, 1962), v.

[2]  Roger Williams, “Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered,” in Miller, Roger Williams:  His Contribution to the American Tradition, 98.

[3]  Perry Miller, “Roger Williams:  An Essay in Interpretation,” in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams (New York:  Russell and Russell, 1963), 7:10.