Happy 4th of July. Happy Birthday USA. We live in the land of the free because this was the home of some very brave people. One of these brave individuals is Roger Williams. I grew up in a Baptist home, went to and pastored Baptist churches, received my undergrad and graduate education at Baptist schools. So Roger Williams was as much a hero to me as Stan Musial is to Cardinal Nation. Yep. Roger Williams established and pastored the first Baptist church in the New World, located in Providence, Rhode Island. Oh, he founded the town of Providence as well, giving it that name because he figured that God’s providence had led him there – God’s providence and Roger’s rebel spirit.
Williams rebelled against the religious philosophy and practice of the day, which was basically, “my way or the highway,” or “my way or the stocks or sword”. The Puritans came to these shores to find religious freedom, but when they got here they turned it around and denied it for everyone else. “You’re free to think, believe, and act like us.” New England residents who didn’t attend worship services were put in the stocks. People of other faiths were often forced to pay higher taxes or kicked out of the colony. This “my way” approach was personified in John Winthrop, the Governor of Massachusetts, the “City on a hill” guy.
Enter Roger Williams. He came to Massachusetts Bay from England preaching and teaching “soul freedom,” the idea that faith cannot be dictated by any civil or church authority. In fact, he said that forcing someone toward a belief or to think a certain way was “soul rape.” “Forced worship,” he said, “stinks in the nostrils of God!”
Roger Williams was a Bible scholar, holding a high view of Scripture. Yet, he recognized the difficulty in reconciling contradictory scriptural passages as well as different Bible translations. Given these complexities, Williams judged it impossible for any human to interpret all Scripture without error. So, he considered it “monstrous” for one person to impose any religious belief on another.
That kind of thinking might get you fired – or in William’s case, banished. Roger Williams had once been considered as pastor of the Puritan church in Boston – a great job! Yet his ideas were too radical. The authorities found him guilty of spreading “newe and dangerous opinions” and banished him from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony’s leaders agreed that his position was nothing less than “Satan’s Policy.” Williams found a safe place with the Narragansett Indians whose chiefs sold land to him and his followers. They established a new settlement and named it Providence. Its reason for existence, its claim to fame was complete and absolute religious liberty. Rhode Island became a safe haven for all sorts of religious outcasts and misfits -people who would not let the establishment make spiritual decisions for them.
Having been both a witness to and victim of religious persecution, Roger Williams believed that most of the wars in the world were the result of religious conflict. He advocated total religious toleration even as other Puritan pastors preached, “Tis Satan’s policy, to plead for an indefinite and boundless toleration.” Not for Williams. He argued that “ all religious sects had the right to claim equal protection from the laws, and that the civil magistrates had no right to restrain the consciences of men or to interfere with their modes of worship and religious belief.”
Now we understand why Rhode Island never had a a witch trial. Or blasphemy trials. Nor hanged, whipped or jailed people because of religion. All the other colonies executed witches. Most had blasphemy trials. In nearly all of colonial America people of faith were persecuted. Massachusetts hanged Quakers. Virginia threw Baptists into jail. These things did not happen in Rhode Island because Roger Williams founded Providence to be a “shelter for those distressed of conscience.”
Other governments called Rhode Island the “latrine of America”. Roger Williams called it a “shelter.”
Fast forward 150 years. Our founding fathers were putting together a government for the USA. “Which way do we go?” The way of John Winthrop or the way of Roger Williams. The way of religious intolerance or the way of liberty? The way of government enforcing religious principles upon the people or the way of a wall of separation. The American experiment could have gone in the direction of John Winthrop and, yet, it went in the direction of Roger Williams.
Freedom. We love and appreciate it. Many have died for it. It was Roger Williams who planted the seeds of religious liberty that we enjoy today.
Want a great book on Roger Williams? Check out Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul by the premier historian John M. Barry.