The Forgotten Founder: Why 'Puritan Deviant' Preacher Roger Williams Deserves a Bigger Place in American History

Church & State, November 2008 | Go to article overview

The Forgotten Founder: Why 'Puritan Deviant' Preacher Roger Williams Deserves a Bigger Place in American History


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James Calvin Davis, associate professor of religion at Middlebury College in Vermont, has edited a new collection of the writings of 17th-century religious liberty pioneer Roger Williams. The book, On Religious Liberty: Selections from the Works of Roger Williams (Belknap Press, 2008) contains a generous selection of some of Williams" most famous writings as well as an introductory essay by Davis.

Davis talked recently with Church & State about the legacy of Williams.

Q. Who was Roger Williams and why should we care about his views?

A. Roger Williams was a 17th-century Puritan and the earliest notable voice for religious freedom in America. He's important not just because he called for religious freedom earlier than, say, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but because his views came out of a very different worldview than theirs, namely a traditionally (even conservatively) religious one.

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Q. Why did Massachusetts Bay Colony kick Williams out?

A. Well, there's some debate about that, and the debate goes back even to Williams' time. Williams insisted that he was kicked out of the Bay Colony because of his religious views, specifically that he taught that the Church of England was an apostate (false) church and that the New England Puritans should publicly declare their separation from that institution. This "separatism" was a minority view in Puritanism and was seen as dangerous by those who ran the Bay Colony, because a rejection of the official English Church was a rejection of the king's authority (since the king was the head of the church).

While Williams thought he was banished because of his religious scruples, some Bay Colony leaders insisted that religion had little to do with his banishment. They argued that Williams was kicked out because of the seditious nature of his views on the authority of the state and his carping about the land rights of the Native Americans. (Williams insisted that the king had no right to confer patents to land in the New World; instead it should be purchased from the Americans.) Whether or not Williams was factually right that his banishment was primarily about religion, he subsequently made a career out of railing against such religious discrimination.

Q. Williams was almost a fundamentalist Christian by modern-day standards, yet he favored full religious liberty for Catholics, Jews, Muslims and atheists. How did he come to this viewpoint?

A. Williams was "fundamentalist" in the sense that he believed his Puritan worldview to be true and virtually every other worldview (including those of other Puritans) to be false. But his Puritan theology also taught him that God gives all human beings a capacity to be good citizens, regardless of whether they professed proper faith. That capacity for social cooperation is part of the "natural law" instilled in all human beings as part of their creation. In other words, Williams believed that religiously it made no sense to assume that a person had to be a good Christian to be a good magistrate or citizen. His faith taught him to keep the spiritual and the civil separate, so that he could respect as good citizens and neighbors the very people whose religious views he unequivocally rejected.

Q. What would Williams think of the Religious Right's efforts to undermine church-state separation and make America an officially "Christian nation"?

A. I am convinced that Williams would break out in hives over contemporary calls for America to "recover" its identity as a "Christian nation." In his own time, Williams rejected that kind of language for a civil state. Williams insisted that no state has "most favored nation status" in the eyes of God. All societies are a mixture of the faithful and reprobate, and the only "Christian nation" is the church. I think he'd be particularly disappointed to discover that some of the most vocal calls for America to be a "Christian nation" come from the tradition that claims him as one of its forefathers, the Baptists. …

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