The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books of 2018 was a great chance to hear people’s questions about Roger Williams and annouce the audiobook of Rekindled is now available. I came away knowing there are lots and lots of people interested in thinking through the questions/discussions that Roger Williams dealt with and that we still deal with today. What follows is a sampling of our discussions, and I’ve added information that I had to look up later in a few cases where I wasn’t able to quote Roger Williams off the top of my head.
Why is Rekindled fiction if Roger Williams was real?
Roger Williams is historical, and any known historical record is not (knowingly) contradicted in the book. As with any history, the detail of most conversations is not known, and in the case of Roger Williams many relavent letters were burned. There is a list of characters at the back that indicates where the facts ended and the fictional extrapolation began.
I’ve written other blog posts on why Rekindled (and some other books currently labeled as nonfiction) are most conservatively labeled fiction:
Fiction or Not
Books get divided into fiction and non-fiction early in the classification. History books classed non-fiction often…
Continuing to Learn
With software we continually improve by removing bugs and adding features. Eventually we get to the point we want to do…
Wasn’t Roger Williams a skeptic?
Roger Williams believed skeptics should be protected and engaged. He believed every man has some doubt, that must be addressed with conversation so that we would sharpen each other and find the truth.
However a true skeptic denies the ability of a man to truely believe in some sphere, usually the sphere of religious or supernatural. Roger Williams motivation to protect and grow consciences grew from his faith that God interacts with people, not from any documented skeptic tendency that I have found in his own writings in context.
As an atheist, why should I read about Roger Williams?
I think everyone should want to know the motivations behind our Bill of Rights, and should think through for themselves how those Rights should best be protected and/or evolved in our day. I wrote the book as story of the people debating the ideas to show multiple sides in plain modern language, given what was going on in the 17th century. Times are different, but people aren’t that different, and seeing a window into the past helps us not to repeat history in endless cycles without improvement.
I read your book, and as an atheist, I was surprised he seemed so Christian in your book?
Well, Roger Williams in his writings declared himself to be but the least servant of the Lord. He viewed scripture as the ultimate authority for his views. I’m not going to leave that out, as it was at his core. To leave it out would be a complete fiction.
I don’t think that makes him irrelevant to atheists. Even an atheist can recognize the thousands of years of wisdom the Bible represents. Not to recognize past wisdom is to be doomed to reconstruct it. I once had to rederive a formula from scratch in the middle of a chemistry test because I could not remember it. It took too long and even though I was able to do it, I didn’t have enough time to do well on the rest of the test. Each of us has one lifetime — wouldn’t you want a leg up to getting it right?
Some biographers did make Roger Williams turn skeptic or atheist or secular in later life. But his later writings, decrypted since that time, reveal a secular or even deist Roger Williams to be pure fiction.
Wasn’t Roger Williams suspicious of all organized churches?
Yes, he was! All churches are made of fallen humans. No human can read another human’s heart. Some are authentic and simply fail to be perfect, and other humans are there for nefarious purposes (like social success). If that’s true in our day, it was even more true in his day when church attendance was monitored and absence punished.
That said Roger Williams also recognized the value of humans interacting to improve their thinking. He was not prideful enough to think he was right and everyone else wrong. He seemed to believe in local gatherings (at the smallest level, this would be the family church) more than elaborate hierarchies. He clearly believed forcing anyone to church was a recipe for false worship, which he believed based on scripture to be a stink to God, worse than no worship at all.
Roger Williams believed in heartfelt conscience. Isn’t that really the beginnings of belief in spirituality without religion?
Heartfelt Conscience is what tells us right from wrong. Certainly it is the spiritual part of each human that drives conscience. So in that sense, yes, Roger Williams was fighting to protect the spirituality of each human, whether or not they shared his own beliefs. However that doesn’t mean Roger Williams was without specific beliefs. He made his own beliefs clear, as is evidenced here in the answers to other questions below. He called himself in his letter to Winthrop, likely written in 1636, but the least servant of Christ. Of course, he wrote partly in Greek, perhaps his prior secular biographers overlooked it. A difference between spirituality is that often people perceive it to mean looking to the human spirit within, whereas Christian spirituality is the experience of connection and indwelling by a God who reveals Himself in the Bible and in the collective body of His people.
Did Roger Williams believe in Jesus as his personal savior?
Yes. In the letter Winthrop, Roger Williams declares he sees himself a follower, or servant, of Christ. He references God’s grace as the only salvation, as opposed to acts (see below). He references faith and repentance as required to enable God’s grace , The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Volume Five, “George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes,” page 199 (as republished in the Baptist Standard Bearer Inc, 2005).
How can Roger Williams be Christian or Baptist if he fought for freedom of conscience and today’s Baptists seem to want to force the law to their political positions?
Historically, Baptist have championed freedom of religion. They have also respected the state as having the authority to protect the civil peace. Baptists will tend to political activism when they perceive human life or God-given dignity is threatened by the state. For example, because they perceive abortion to take an innocent and powerless human life, they will become active.
In recent history, Baptists sometimes participated beyond their historical positions, and promoted other values into the law, because they believed those laws to help all humans flourish. A Roger Williams student is not surprised when those efforts backfire. We have seen this before. In my opinion, every Baptist-maybe every Christian-would do well to remember the Roger Williams story!
Did Roger Williams believe in the authority of Scripture over his own conscience?
Yes, and enunciated this clearly in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Volume Five, “George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes,” page 140–141 (as republished in the Baptist Standard Bearer Inc, 2005):
“We ought in all our Preachings, Hearings, Readings, Prayings &c. to beg the help of the Spirit called the Finger and Power of God: and yet I also maintained that this Record, the Word Will or Mind of God written and pen’d by chosen Pen-men as Pens in the hand of his holy spirit, and so miraculously preserved from…I say this record is the outward and external Light, Lantern Judge, Guide, Rule by which God witnesses himself and his truth in the world, comforteth and feedeth his Saints in their dispersions, discovers and reforms the defects and wanderings of His people….”
Did Roger Williams believe Jesus existed before he was born on Earth?
One can say yes, becuase he affirmed scripture including John chapter 1. The closest I have found him so far in his own words is in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Volume Five, “George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes,” page 230 (as republished in the Baptist Standard Bearer Inc, 2005):
“Tis true who doubts it but that God and the Spirit were before the scriptures, and so He was before the Creation, before Christ Jesus was born and his Redemption actually accomplished…”
Did Roger Williams really believe in the trinity?
Yes, and enunciated this clearly in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Volume Five, “George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes,” page 141 (as republished in the Baptist Standard Bearer Inc, 2005):
“There are four great points of the Christian belief: 1. The Doctrine of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and these they [Quakers] will not distinguish but make all one, and all in man…”
Did Roger Williams really believe the indigenous should believe in Jesus as personal savior?
Yes. He believed they are created in the image of God, and as human as any other. He protected their consciences, and did not believe they should be persecuted. He also did not believe they should become Englishmen in order to believe in Jesus, but rather that they could be saved by repentance and belief in Jesus and that they would establish the Christian culture of the indigenous peoples. Thus, he spoke to them in their own language and did not not encourage them to come to the flawed white man’s church. He eventually believed that with the reality of the sins committed by the English in the Pequot war, the Christian witness of the Puritans was so flawed that he must work to fix the church before there could be an effective witness.
How can anyone be against banning books on reparative therapy when it is harmful? After all, even knowledgeable Christians call it heresy?
The museum for Kurt Vonnegut was a couple booths down from us in LA, taking donations against banning books. California was considering a bill to ban the sale of books about reparative therapy at the time of this festival. What strange booth-fellows we made! We are both against banning books, even when we disagree with them. The path forward we both believe is not to ban “bad” speech, but to create more and better speech debunking the speech we disagree with.
What would the Roger Williams lesson be? It was the burning of his books that got him well known in his day. It was the banning that got him read. Moreover, he was fighting for a toleration perceived as harmful in his own day. People worried that toleration would cause the end of civilization.
If Rosaria Butterfield, a Christian more expert than I, thinks reparative therapy is harmful and the modern secular experts also believe that, I’m willing to believe it harmful. I cannot believe it is a good idea for California to ban books on the topic, however.
Are there any African Americans in the book?
Not as characters. The first slave ship to bring African Americans to the northeast is a part of the story, however.
Many people who self-identify as African American (and other races for that matter) also have indigenous blood in America. There are many indigenous characters and they are a major part of the story.
Are there any Quakers in the book?
There are people who will become Quaker later in this book. John Throckmorton and Mary Dyer are examples. However, the book ends before George Fox’s religion has formally spread to New England in a major way, and before the major debates that Roger Williams has with the Quakers. Roger Williams had his best friend John Throckmorton become Quaker, and he believed that friend was wrong. Even as he provided refuge for the Quakers and role-modeled the behavior of tolerating them in his colony, he was arguing they were wrong. His fifth book details the debates.
A key point, as evidenced in The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Volume Five, “George Fox Digg’d Out of His Burrowes,” page 199 (as republished in the Baptist Standard Bearer Inc, 2005, is that Roger Williams as a protestant believes “in great Failings and Desertions of Gods children, yet they hold the seed of God, the holy Spirit and word of God…of which they are begotten…cut off by sin, renewed by repentance…” The Quakers, as defended by George Fox through intermediaries claimed each individual contained an infallible light. The Catholics of Roger Williams’s day were too focused on acts of justification Roger Williams claimed, but yet came closer to the scripture than the Quakers in that they knew man was fallen and cut off by sin. The only remedy is from “true and saving grace,” which Roger Williams says in truth both have forgotten.
Do Roger Williams and the Pilgrims share some beliefs and traditions akin to Jehovah’s Witnesses?
The Geneva bible did sometimes call God Jehovah, and while the King James Bible existed the Geneva Bible was more widely available in this timeframe. It is not surprising to see Anglicans and/or separatists use the word Jehovah, especially if they are using the Geneva Bible.
Puritans did not believe in celebrating holidays like Christmas. They despised Anglican traditions of the day like appointing the Lord of Misrule. Such celebrations were drunken feasts, often incorporating pagan traditions, and were considered sinful.
That said, the scripture of Roger Williams was the Hebrew and Greek-he knew both languages. He was an expert in Bible interpretation and would not have agreed with the changes made to create the Jehovah’s Witness “New World Translation”. See the questions above about the trinity — these are some of the areas of difference.
Is there any Los Angeles history in this book?
Only in the sense that Los Angeles is part of the United States, and as such is governed by a federal government that includes the first amendment. I was really surprised by people who said they only read history of their own area. Roger Williams influenced the wording about religious freedom that eventually spread as far as Australia. People in areas of the world that do not today have religious freedom are interested in his thinking. In the end we only have one planet. Every human has an interest in what is right and wrong. There should be no human uninterested in determining truth, whether or not that is currently sanctioned by the state.