Zion In The Forest

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There is a legend about Roger Williams that is exceedingly popular among Americans. There is also a truth which is slowly emerging from the welter of fancies. The truth is less simple than the legend, for most legends are oversimplifications. But it has some even more dramatic aspects than the beloved myth and it accords better, too, with the mental development of the normal human being. If it dims the halo of this pioneer of American liberty, it gives him a warmth, a nearness to ourselves that we could hardly feel while he stood on the pedestal.

The legend is that he came as a dedicated saint into the hard, bigoted theocracy of Massachusetts Bay. He came, according to the story, imbued with a passion for freedom of conscience in religious belief. This concept was thought to be original with him, and because he insisted on so unheard-of a doctrine before the stiff-necked Puritans of New England, he was banished. His banishment has been held to be one of the terrible injustices of history and to have placed an eternal stigma on the “Bible Commonwealth.” Having been thrown into exile, however, he founded the colony of Rhode Island, in which he became a great social and political leader, and out of his genius for organization came a peaceful, ordered community which was a model for other colonies. Many generations of American school children have cherished this tale.

The truth, uncovered by such industrious Puritan experts as Professor Perry Miller, is quite different. Actually, Williams went to Massachusetts Bay because he had a “call” to it at the time of its founding when there was a shortage of ministers. He was happy to accept, as he belonged to the Puritan band who were being persecuted by Archbishop Laud of the Anglican Church. When he arrived in Boston, however, he was anything but liberal in his views. Almost immediately he accused the Boston church of not being sufficiently separatist and refused its pastorship on the ground that it still clung to the pretense of being a “purified” part of the Church of England.

This was Roger Williams’ first offense in the sequence of his difficult behavior. His second was to maintain that the civil government had no right to enforce the first four commandments, all of which were strictly religious injunctions and therefore wholly under the jurisdiction of the church. In other words, he advocated the separation of Church and State. As the whole basis of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was an identification of Church and State, this seemed like blasphemy and treason.

What power was left to the magistrates if they could no longer punish the heinous sins of sabbath-breaking, profanity, and the worship of false gods? What would happen to a community in which such criminal conduct could be punished only by excommunication? Would not the pure and holy commonwealth soon be crawling with papists, Jews, Quakers, and heathen?

But on the heels of this subversion came the worst pronouncement of all—a dictum which struck at the very foundation of American colonial settlement. This was no longer religious—except that it favored the very heathen the magistrates feared—it was political, a realm in which, by Williams’ own preaching, the clergy had no business!

By this time, having become persona non grata with the Massachusetts Bay clergy, he had accepted a call to the Plymouth Colony, a community of avowed separatists under the tolerant Governor William Bradford. Here, perhaps, his early sins might have been forgiven. He had extraordinary magnetism. His gentleness, his kindness to men, women, and children everywhere, and the peculiar charm of his conversation stood in sharp contrast to the fanatic zeal with which he opposed the orthodox dogmas. Bradford thought him “godly and zealous, having many precious parts.” despite his “strange opinions.” But then Roger Williams committed his most damning “error.”

In his spare time at Plymouth he had wandered through the dense forests surrounding the settlements and had come to know and love the Indians. He was one of the very few New England clerics who was concerned about the welfare and happiness of the natives. He looked upon them as human beings entitled to certain rights and privileges—not as an inferior race of unredeemable heathen. He even learned certain of the tribal languages. Finally he was so stirred by what he considered the unjust treatment of these aboriginal Americans by the English that his conscience overcame his discretion.

He wrote, then, a treatise maintaining that the English king had no right to give grants and patents to land that belonged to the Indians, and that in doing it James had “told a solemn public lie.” Nothing could have been more unfortunate than such a word at that time. New England was already under suspicion among orthodox Englishmen. It seemed to the people of Plymouth and the Bay that such a criticism of royalty might do them great harm in the mother country.

In July, 1635, therefore, Williams was haled before the General Court and charged with his dangerous opinions. In September, when he still refused to recant, the sentence of banishment was pronounced against him.