Zion In The Forest


Historians ever since have been arguing about the justice of this verdict. Yet it is hard to see how, in the context, anything else was possible. In any case we may feel profound gratitude for the outcome. If Roger Williams had been tolerated or ignored in Massachusetts Bay, a signal reform in Puritan thinking might have been long delayed. If his teaching had prevailed among many people, Massachusetts might have been split by a destructive schism. That he should have built a new Zion in the wilderness from which, in the course of time, the light of freedom would go out to illumine a continent and make America a haven for all the world’s oppressed was a far happier circumstance.

The magistrates did not simply tell him to go. They arranged to seize him at night, put him on a ship, and deport him to England. But Williams had too many friends—people he had captivated by his charm but who did not dare speak out for him—for such a plan to succeed. He was warned and escaped into the trackless wilderness in the dead of winter—a perilous adventure which he could never have carried through without the co-operation of his savage friends of the forest.

It is obvious from the sequence of events thus far that his banishment had nothing to do with a belief in religious liberty. Perhaps such an idea had never occurred to him. Certainly there was nothing particularly liberal about the doctrines on which he had insisted with a stubborn fanaticism even greater than that of the Massachusetts clerics.

But then, in the long loneliness and bitter hardship of his winter trek to the Narragansett country, other thoughts came to him. We know little of the journey and only those results of his meditations which appear in his later writings. From the inarticulate, illiterate boy, Thomas Angell, who went with him, we have learned nothing. Angell seems almost to have been a part of Williams or a satellite refracting the light and heat of him but without words.

All along the frozen overland trail there was a constant, spiritual intimacy between Williams and the Indians. He learned their language, making his notes into a kind of dictionary or grammar, valuable to ethnologists ever since. Evidently he was greatly beloved by these natives. They took him into their primitive homes—wigwams with fires burning in the center and the smoke moving uncertainly through holes in the tops; “filthy” he said, writing later in the mood of a cleanly Englishman—and he was deeply moved by the warm friendship emanating along with the stink from the crowded naked bodies sharing their shelter with the alien white.

One would expect a religious fanatic with Williams’ charm to try to convert these friends. But his conscience would not let him press the Christian God upon the Indians with any but the gentlest presentation. Though he did not say so, he was probably impressed with their own serene faith. He was certainly moved by their tolerant attitude—so different from the harsh bigotry he had lately known—and this must have confirmed him in any thought of liberty he entertained.

They have a modest religious persuasion (he wrote) not to disturb any man, either themselves, English, Dutch or any, in their conscience and worship; and thereupon say, “Peace, hold your peace.”

It is probable that as much of Williams’ fascination for these Indians lay in the spell of his personality as in what he said, for even his enemies have given testimony to an appeal that often disarmed them. Certainly much of his doctrinal exposition and even his passionate diatribe against bigotry is tedious, with an overloading of words and surfeit of repetition, and even in a day when such things were current in theological debate they would have bored and irritated his listeners but for the bright fire which seemed to play round him, the unfailing warmth of his presence.

He and Angell came, in the spring, to the estuary of Narragansett Bay called Great Salt River and there, according to his scruple, he arranged with two Indian sachems to buy from them the land for a settlement. He named it Providence in gratitude for his survival; presently he was joined by other exiles and by his own wife and children.

There was nothing exceptional about the physical fact of the little community of one street along the river, surrounded by wilderness explored by no one but the red hunters. Little settlements of the sort were springing up everywhere: along the Connecticut and the Hudson and the Kennebec—wherever that urgent impulse of the migrant English to get away from one another, to escape crowded society, was operating. So Roger Williams set no landmark of history with his Providence. But in its law he set a milestone in the history of the American conscience for which he must be honored while there is still freedom in our land.

The order echoed the Indian word, “Peace, hold your peace.” No man must be molested for his religion. Whatever faith he might choose, that he must be allowed to hold, be he Jew or Turk or pagan. The magistrates should have no power to intervene in the affairs of any church except in order to keep the civil peace. They were empowered, however, to act against violators of Williams’ decree. A year after the founding of Providence, one of its citizens lost his franchise “for restraining of the libertie of conscience.”