When I first encountered Roger Williams, it was because of his prolific writings and his proximity in time, place and belief to one of my ancestors. Soon his story fascinated me. The Puritans in general are an inspiration. Who else runs away into the woods and walks out having founded Harvard? However, the Puritans also had tunnel vision, antagonizing and destroying the indigenous peoples they meant to evangelize. Roger Williams got kicked out of even the Puritan world into a blizzard, and walked out founding Providence. Roger Williams cared about the people he met and initially befriended them. And yet, he abandoned them at crucial moments, prioritizing obtaining an English colony as refuge for those persecuted by conscience over his diplomatic endeavors. This fascinated me. He walked away from real human relationships — English and Algonquian — in pursuit of principle, over an over. What drove him? Was it good or bad that he did this?
Roger Williams is a prototype for a Christian liberal, a person grounded in scripture and believing that God’s kingdom is meant to come in part in this world through progress. That, even though he firmly believed it could not come completely through progress and that the Puritans would not be successful in building a New Jerusalem as a human city due to our fallen state. In today’s world, liberals are rarely grounded in scripture. I come from a family of mostly liberals, and few are versed in scripture, though their ancestors were. The family members that are familiar with scripture seem to trend conservative, much to the consternation of the others. Yet here is Roger Williams sticking out like a sore thumb — pushing for change with every ounce of his life and doing it from scripture and because of his Christian conviction. Of course there are others like this: Martin Luther before him, and Martin Luther King Jr. much more recently. However, Roger Williams had a reputation as a seeker at best and a possible a forerunner of secular skeptics, unlike them. That is not how is own writing reads — how did that happen?
Roger Williams was entangled in debate with the Puritan leaders of his day — most notably John Cotton and Richard Mather, both grandparents of writer Cotton Mather. Cotton Mather, of Salem witch trial fame, was a prolific writer and not a fan of Roger Williams. I was thrilled to find that not only were Roger Williams writings available but also that of his friends and opponents. I like a good debate — and here were both sides laid out — laid out in an age before editing cleaned them up. I am definitely a debate appreciator and not a trivia quiz person. Here was a debate for the ages. Digging in, I found that for many of the issues they debated, the debate rages on today. Roger Williams is a stubborn champion for change, and the changes he fought for are imperiled still. We can’t responsibly modify (evolve?) or imperil the freedoms he fought for without understanding them in full.
Now that I know his story, how did he change me? I had to study scripture more closely than ever before to even understand the disagreements between the two 17th century men, sometimes in the version of the Bible they would have used as ours reads a little differently. Why did it read differently? What causes a Geneva Bible concept sourced in the original Greek or Hebrew to get lost or de-emphasized in the King James and later translations? Or did it? That study led to an eventual respect for and love of scripture at a deeper level than before I encountered Roger Williams in his writing. I can’t say I cared deeply about religious freedom, and I certainly wasn’t formally a Baptist at that time (I am now). He taught me an appreciation for both, an appreciation that leads me away from positions that do not respect deeply held consciences of both religious and secular flavors. In the end I look for the win-win, not the win-lose sought in so many political situations today. And I do it turning away from a set of rules (e.g. “speak now or forever hold your peace” in a marriage ceremony) based on a Book Of Common Prayer that goes beyond scripture (as Roger Williams so ferociously maintains), choosing instead to focus on scriptures in which Romans tells us to rejoice as our pagan fellows rejoice, to weep as they weep. We can all love others as people who bear the image of God, and share the good news of a savior for all of them, should they want to accept Him.
This week the funeral of President George H. W. Bush happened in the National Cathedral in our nation that yet claims to separate church and state. Episcopal is the American version of Anglican, the exact type of Christian the Puritans sought to purify, the very arm of religion that chased Puritans out of England. Roger Williams would have been deeply uncomfortable with the notion of a state funeral, orchestrated by the military, especially and ironically at such a church. Bush was an Episcopalian, and so the religious aspects were consistent with his own convictions, and yet the military role must disconcert any student of Roger Williams. Completed during my lifetime during the presidency of Bush 41, sanction by the government of the National Cathedral has made that church feel more “established” than the first amendment to the constitution implies will be condoned. The changes Roger Williams fought for, and that seemed to be achieved in the first amendment to the US Constitution, are indeed not to be taken for granted.