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Zion In The Forest
Roger Williams liked Indians and almost everyone else, and he founded a colony that gave our freedom a broader horizon
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
The concept was neither original nor unique with Roger Williams. It had been of long tenure in Holland; it was held by the Dutch in America, and it was spreading among the Independents in England. But Providence saw its first application in the English colonies of North America. From there the practice spread, slowly through New England, more rapidly through the middle and southern colonies, until at last no American could deny it and the concept was crystallized a century and a half later in the words of the federal Bill of Rights.
In another particular Providence was a departure from colonial custom. While it was true that sporadic settlements were occurring through the backwoods, all were attached to some established and chartered colony owing allegiance specified in words written on parchment to the English Crown. But Providence was attached to nothing. On the contrary it represented a definite gesture of disattachment from Massachusetts Bay. It was an outlawed community, a refugee, legally speaking, from justice. It had no charter. No royal patent appeared to specify the Narragansett country.
The result of this uncertainty was continual conflict. Even before Williams had settled on the bank of the Great Salt River, he had been pushed away from the first site he had chosen by Governor Edward Winslow of Plymouth, who claimed the territory and was afraid of “offending the Bay” by letting him squat there. It was a time when the gentler Plymouth people feIt obliged to watch their p ’s and q ’s in regard to their strong, rigid Massachusetts neighbors. Now the communities of Warwick, Portsmouth, and Newport, formed of various sorts of Massachusetts dissidents, were growing up in the unchartered territory. The arguments over the rights involved were carried on by such vigorous exiles as William Coddington and the heretic Samuel Gorton, who was sheltering the devil’s advocate, poor Anne Hutchinson. So Roger Williams was forced to go to England to get some sort of legal instrument for his community and there, from 1640 to 1644, in the midst of the first English Civil War, he conducted his classic fight for the liberty of the American conscience.
England, grown liberal to Protestant diversification, was good ground for his work. He had the sympathy and friendship of two of the most prominent Englishmen of the day, Milton and Cromwell, though he went further than either in his tolerance, being lenient even toward Catholics and opposed to the persecution of the Anglicans. But though his propaganda was printed in England it was directed against the theocracy of Massachusetts Bay and the minister, John Cotton, in particular. It was not only concerned with religion; it advocated democracy in advance of prevailing acceptance even by radicals, and in these writings we have what is probably the first suggestion of the sovereignty of the people in American literature. The climax of his effort was a pamphlet which today’s reader finds exceedingly difficult, called The Bloody Tenent of Persecution. It found response in England and turned English eyes with disapproval across the Atlantic to Massachusetts Bay, the target of the attack.
Finally, Williams secured his charter to “Providence Plantations.”
Williams was an idealist, a crusader for principle, not, as some have portrayed him, a practical worker for the welfare of society. The anxiety which took him to England was for a colony dedicated to liberty and government with the consent of the people, not to find a platform for his vengeance. Indeed, one is surprised that he was not more vindictive against those who were responsible for his banishment.
To Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay he was so astonishingly forgiving that it seems there must have been some secret understanding between them, dangerous to confess but compensating to both their consciences. Williams stated that Winthrop even secretly connived at the Narragansett exile. Throughout the Governor’s life they continued to correspond with full measure of affection at the heads and tails of their letters. In his heart Winthrop undoubtedly felt occasional misgivings about the theocratic dicta, yet he knew that if he relaxed the rule his colony, deeply dedicated to the principle of the “national” covenant, would fall apart.
When Williams returned, even the parliamentary charter was disputed. It was fought by the Bay colony to the north and by William Coddington of Portsmouth and Newport to the south. In all this difficulty Williams was far from the adroit antagonist or practical organizer. His community suffered poverty and dissent. It was invaded by Baptists, Jews, and Quakers who could find no refuge elsewhere.
Williams was unable to cope with the physical conditions consequent upon the influx. He was constantly preoccupied with his communion with God, with his personal theology, becoming after other experiments a Seeker—an astonishing sect among the complacent groups in its admission that it did not know all of the truth. There were times when he thought of leaving the group of planters for a forest heritage; again he thought of devoting his life to the Indians. Yet in the end he worked persistently, if not always effectively, for his community’s welfare and on a second visit to England won a second charter guarantering his independence of Coddington and endowing the whole of “Rhode Island Colony and Providence Plantations” with legal rights.