Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

The Relevance of Roger Williams

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

The Relevance of Roger Williams

Article excerpt

When John Winthrop sailed across the Atlantic to the New World in 1630, the perceptions of others were at the forefront of his mind.


As he spoke to some of America's earliest colonists aboard the English ship Arbella, he encouraged them to believe that "the eyes of all people are upon us." Envisioning what those eyes would see if they remained faithful to God, he declared that God "shall make us a praise and a glory ... we shall be as a city upon a hill." (1)

Traditionally, the focus of attention on Winthrop's sermon has been on his use of the metaphor of New England as "a city upon a hill." This metaphor serves as the first act in the script for the mythology of Christian Nationalism and provides the theopolitical underpinnings for the pretensions of American exceptionalism. (2) In this narrative, Roger Williams plays a bit part as an antagonist. His is the role of the recalcitrant individualist who caused discord, which threatened to undermine the peace and harmony of Winthrop's idyllic Massachusetts Bay.

Winthrop and Williams were equally aware that they stood under the observation and judgment of God. Both men were conscientious about living and acting in ways that they believed would be pleasing to God. Both were also acutely aware that they were under the observation and judgment of other men. The nature of their self-consciousness before others will then be taken as a key to understanding the character and breadth of the community that each man envisioned for America.

This article will shift attention away from utopian pretensions to focus on the character of the self-consciousness revealed by Winthrop's concern for the perceptions of others The article will fulfill this intent by comparing and contrasting the nature of Winthrop's concern for the perceptions of others with that of Williams.

John Winthrop and Roger Williams

Born into a family of English gentry, Winthrop was heir to the Manor of Groton in Suffolk. Before sailing across the Atlantic, he was elected governor of Massachusetts Bay by speculators and investors who had never set foot in New England. Their idea of a "Christian commonwealth" was but a step or two removed from a feudal fiefdom. They expected their commonwealth to be ruled by an aristocracy of Puritan gentry aided and abetted by a Puritan clergy desirous to secure their own privileged standing within the community. As much as anything else, they were searching for a place where their family fortunes would not be placed in jeopardy by the instability of English political life. (3)

Williams was the son of a moderately prosperous merchant in Smithfield, England. Educated at Cambridge under the patronage of Sir Edward Coke, Williams earned a degree that qualified him for the title of "gentleman." (4) After college, he secured a position as chaplain at Sir William Masham's Manor in Essex County. While there, he sought the hand in marriage of Jane Whalley, who appears to have been born above his station in life. His overtures were rudely rebutted by her relentlessly political and pretentiously pious aunt, Lady Joan Barrington. (5) A year later, Williams married a maid who served the Masham Manor, and shortly thereafter, the couple set sail for New England.

Winthrop's Aristocratic Self-Consciousness

Winthrop's sermon Oil the Arbella reveals a concern to preserve aristocratic authority. The desire to maintain old world hierarchical social divisions among the inhabitants of New England was at the forefront of his mind. His sermon began with the words: "GOD ALMIGHTY in his most only and wise providence hath soe disposed of the Condicion of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poore, some highe and eminent in power and dignitie; others meane and in subjeccion." (6)

In the first third of the sermon, Winthrop offered an apologetic for why a divinely ordained hierarchy should be preserved within both civil and ecclesiastical life and why every society must be divided between rich and poor. …

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