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Radical, Pure, Roger Williams

Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence
Alonzo Chappel: The Landing of Roger Williams in 1636, 1857

It’s easy to believe in the separation of church and state when one has nothing but scorn for all organized religion. That was the position of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s hatred of the clergy and established churches knew no bounds. He thought that members of the “priestcraft” were always in alliance with despots against liberty. “To effect this,” he said—privately of course, not publicly—“they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man, into mystery and jargon unintelligible to all mankind and therefore the safer engine for their purposes.”

The Trinity was nothing but “Abracadabra” and “hocus-pocus…so incomprehensible to the human mind that no candid man can say he has any idea of it.” Ridicule, he said, was the only weapon to be used against it. It was thus no great task for him to urge, as he did in 1802, the building of “a wall of separation between church and state.” As he provocatively declared in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he was not injured by his neighbor’s believing in twenty gods or no god at all. “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

But can one be devoutly and deeply religious and still believe in the separation of church and state? Many people throughout the world, and especially Muslims, would likely say “no.” If religion and the worship of God are truly important, indeed, the most important things in the world, then the state, they say, must be involved. The conclusion seems obvious to such believers: since the spread of atheism does in fact injure them, the government must protect and promote religion and the belief in God.

What if, however, there is the possibility of being extremely religious and yet at the same time believing zealously in the separation of church and state? Can those who are exceedingly pious accept the idea that the government has no role whatever in religious matters; indeed, accept the idea that government is ultimately the enemy of religion and thus a wall of separation is necessary to protect religion from the state?

That was the conclusion of Roger Williams, who was one of the most pious and provocative Puritans in the English-speaking world of the seventeenth century, a world full of pious and provocative Puritans. John M. Barry, one of the most talented of the distinguished nonacademic historians writing today, believes that Williams has taken on a new relevance for Americans presently confused about the division between church and state. Although Barry’s title seems exaggerated—Williams by himself scarcely created the American soul—he has written one of best biographies of Williams that we have. And that’s saying something, since Williams is surely the most written about figure in seventeenth-century America.

This in itself is remarkable, because, as one of his recent biographers, the late Edwin S. Gaustad, observed, we don’t know a lot about Williams’s life:

We do not know when he was born, nor exactly when he died. We do not know what he looked like. We cannot visit his home, for it went up in flames long ago. Although he was a preacher, no sermon of his survives.

Indeed, few of his writings still exist. As Glenn W. LaFantasie, the editor of Williams’s letters, pointed out, “great gaps in his surviving correspondence have meant that the story of his life and career must remain, in many respects, a broken chronicle.” In addition, Williams’s letters and writings were so often hastily composed and are so full of parenthetical asides, cryptic allusions, and convoluted prose that deciphering them is a nightmare. It is amazing that so many historians have been able to write about the man.

Williams seems to have been born early in the seventeenth century, sometime in 1603 or 1604. We don’t know much about his background or his youth. He grew up in Smithfield in London, in middling but certainly not lowly circumstances. His father belonged to the Merchant Taylors Guild, and he had an uncle who was high sheriff of Hertfordshire and another who was mayor of London in 1611. He seems not to have had a happy childhood. In nine surviving volumes of his writings and letters he mentioned his upbringing or his father only once. When he was nearly thirty, he recalled being “persecuted in and out of my father’s house these 20 years.”

He was obviously bright, a quick learner who picked up languages easily, including Dutch from his Smithfield neighbors. Sometime in his teens, his intelligence and his special skill in shorthand were observed by the great English jurist Sir Edward Coke, who apprenticed him and apparently grew close to the young man, according to one report often calling him “his Son.” Williams remembered Coke as a “much honored friend” who had left him with the “precious remembrance of his person, and the life, the writings, the speeches, and the example of that glorious light.” In 1621, Coke arranged for Williams to attend the Charterhouse School, where he excelled. In two years he mastered Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and earned a scholarship to Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Although the evidence of Williams’s relationship with Coke is scanty, Barry makes a great deal of it. He spends the first six chapters, nearly a quarter of the book, describing the growing opposition of Coke and other jurists and members of Parliament to the prerogative and pretentions of the Stuart kings, first James I and then, after his death in 1625, Charles I. Throughout this well-told story of English constitutional history, Roger Williams largely drops from sight.

Although tracing influence is a tricky business, Barry is eager to engage in it. His rationale for his lengthy description of England’s constitutional crises that led to the Civil War and the execution of Charles I in 1649 is that Coke’s involvement, at least up to his death in 1634, would have taught Williams about power and its abuses. Indeed, at the outset Barry says that his book “is a story about power.” Not only does Barry want to emphasize Coke’s importance to Williams’s ideas, but he also brings in Sir Francis Bacon, whom Coke hated, as another possible influence on Williams. Bacon was obviously a great mind, and Williams would probably have read his works at Cambridge. But to assume, as Barry does, that Williams’s later use of facts and experience in refuting his opponents is evidence that “Bacon’s ideas eventually seemed to lodge in his mind” is a stretch.

The problem with Barry’s assumption about the influence of Coke and Bacon on Williams is that Williams became a Puritan and neither Coke nor Bacon was a Puritan. We don’t know why Williams became a Puritan. Indeed, explaining why some Englishmen in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries became Puritans and many others did not remains a major historical problem.

Puritanism began in the late sixteenth century as a protest against the way the Church of England was being consolidated under Queen Elizabeth. It was a complicated movement composed of a wide variety of mostly Calvinist protesters ranging from those who would eventually become Presbyterians at one end to the most radical groups of Ranters and Quakers at the other. These extreme Protestants were convinced that the English Reformation was not being carried far enough; just how far to carry it separated them from one another. Not only did these Puritans aim to purify the English Church of rituals, sacraments, vestments, ecclesiastical hierarchies, the Book of Common Prayer, and other corrupt remnants of “popery,” but they sought as well to bring directness and vitality back into people’s relationship with God.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century these various Puritan strains and sects had become a beleaguered but powerful minority within England, deeply dismayed and angry at what they considered the wickedness that was corrupting their country and their church. Being persecuted made them acutely conscious of their difference from other Englishmen, of their being the godly, the saints, the elect, in contrast to the wicked, the godless, the reprobate surrounding them. Under the persecution of Archbishop William Laud, some of them began to leave England. In 1620 a small group of Separatists who actually had broken from the Church of England went to Plymouth in New England, some by way of Holland, and became famous as the Pilgrims. In the 1630s these few Pilgrims were followed by tens of thousands of Puritan migrants who had a congregational conception of church organization but wanted to reform the Church of England from within, not leave it.

Most of these migrants settled in Massachusetts Bay, just north of Plymouth, where they hoped to become “a citty upon a hill,” a model of righteousness for their brethren in England seeking reform. In Massachusetts Bay this once-persecuted minority of Puritans suddenly became the dominant religious establishment in control of a godly commonwealth. The Massachusetts Puritans, whose “vision,” Barry claims, “would define—and still defines—the national consciousness of the United States,” decided that they had to impose order and orthodoxy on themselves with an unexpected ruthlessness. In the worst of ironies, just as Archbishop Laud in England had tried to purge them from the Church of England, they now had to root out deviants within their own midst.

Roger Williams became the most famous of these deviants. He arrived in Massachusetts in 1631, a recent graduate of Cambridge and only in his late twenties. But having a reputation for being “a godly and zealous preacher,” he was immediately offered a plum ministerial post in Boston. To the surprise of John Winthrop, the governor of the colony, and all others, Williams turned the offer down.

He soon revealed the radical purity of his Puritanism. He had come to believe that no government could enforce the first four of the Ten Commandments, those having to do with the individual’s obligations to God—to have one God, to make no graven images of God, to be forbidden to take the Lord’s name in vain, and to keep the Sabbath. The state could enforce the other commandments, those that governed human relationships such as the prohibitions against murder, theft, lying, adultery, and covetousness. But, said Williams, the state had no authority to inject itself in any way into an individual’s relationship with God. This was a direct assault on everything the Massachusetts Bay Puritans were trying to do in their biblical commonwealth.

No one knows where Williams acquired these radical ideas. Barry strains to suggest that they might have come in part from witnessing Coke’s defense of individual rights against the state. But he also suggests a more likely influence: the early English Baptists who had worshiped secretly near Williams’s home in London. Whatever the source of his views, writes Barry, “this very first criticism of the Bay authorities expressed the essence of his later thought,” which

would eventually develop into a systematic and comprehensive formulation of religious and political freedom, of the appropriate exercise of power by the state and by the church, and of an individual’s rights and the limits on those rights.
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