After Roger Williams founded Providence, John Winthrop wrote him a letter. John was still in Boston, staging a comeback from a failed election. Roger was banished from John’s town, and John while a friend had been one of the participants in getting Roger banished. By the time of the letter, most had given up on Roger ever recanting. John Winthrop had been help by Roger’s relationships with the natives local to Providence, and John was exploring potential ways to reward Roger.
He asked Roger six questions, one of which could be rephrased, the first of which was “What have you gained?” In other words, was it worth it? These two men come from similar background, both of modest means but backed by a wealthy mentor. His query betrays either sarcasm or curiosity — perhaps both. What was it that Roger Williams valued so highly that he could spurn the church fathers, that made him willing to live in the mud hole of outcasts that John had elsewhere called the sewer of New England?
One thing. It was only one thing. Roger William’s was convinced his mission was from the Lord. He counted his relationship with the Lord higher than any relationship with man. His conviction to separate church and state would purify the church, freeing it to grow in conformance to scripture, but not in the timeframe of his own life on earth.
He wasn’t a victim. On the contrary he ran when they were after him, and avoided the gallows and the Towers. He was shrewd in retaining his liberty. But he wasn’t about to give up on his convictions or his liberty. You can see the full response to Winthrop’s questions, quoted in full with minimal language modernization, at the end of chapter 30 in Rekindled.
Of all the differences in characterization of Roger Williams over the years, this is the also the one thing that has been misportrayed. The grandson of two of the men that fought him was Cotton Mather, and Cotton Mather had a vested interest in assuring Roger Williams reputation remained poor among the faithful. Cotton Mather did not take Roger Williams at face value but twisted his views and portrayed them as Godless. That is how Roger Williams came to seem secular to the modern mind. If all you read is the one sentence soundbites lurking about Rhode Island to this day you could have believe John Barry’s and prior biographers version of Roger Williams.
That view falls apart quickly if you read Roger Williams’s own writing. His rationales are based in scripture, scripture that appears to be memorized and slung like a sling shot. Writings in the 17th century, especially of those not wealthy enough to have editors, can be circular, repetitive, difficult for the modern mind to read. It is no wonder most stick to the sound bites. To unravel the knot of argument between Cotton and Williams takes time and care. And yet, Cotton, Williams, Vane and Winthrop all have writings available today. In fact, they are more accessible than at any intervening time period given digitization and modern scholarship. While Rekindled is not derivative of intervening years’ historians’ views, the story is directly consistent with original period writings.
A late-in-life letter was deciphered a few years back that confirms the late Roger Williams held the beliefs of the early Roger Williams. His early writings were not just the passion of youth, discarded with age. In fact the opposite. His disillusion with earthly institutions left his yearning for the Kingdom whole.
Find Worth Part 2 here.