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People & Ideas: Roger Williams

Roger Williams

A young English minister with a talent for languages, Williams arrived in Boston in 1631. John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, expressed his pleasure with "Mr. Williams, a godly minister." He soon changed his mind. Williams had developed an interpretation of Scripture totally at odds with the theology that governed the holy commonwealth.

The Puritans believed they were creating a new Israel, a society modeled on the Old Testament. That society demanded religious conformity. Williams argued that Jesus Christ had inaugurated a new age, a new dispensation that demanded a break with the past. It was the New Testament, not the Old, that mattered. For Williams, the commonwealth was based on a theologically faulty foundation.

Williams argued that the Puritans were hypocrites because they remained within the Church of England rather than making a clean break, as the Pilgrims had done. He went on to assert that it was dishonest and wrong to take land from the Indians without paying them for it. Finally, he insisted that civil magistrates did not have the right to enforce religious duties like making people go to church on the Sabbath.

A restless spirit, Williams moved between Boston, Salem and Plymouth Colony, winning followers, irritating opponents and provoking controversy. Finally banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, Williams headed south and established a small settlement at the headwaters of Narragansett Bay, in present-day Rhode Island. Named "Providence," the community officially guaranteed liberty of conscience. Baptists, Quakers, Jews and other religious dissidents, including Anne Hutchinson, soon found a haven there.

Williams believed passionately in "soul liberty" or liberty of conscience. God had created human beings and endowed them with the inborn right to make choices in matters of faith. "It is the will and command of God," wrote Williams, "that a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God's spirit, the Word of God."

For Williams, religion was an inherent God-given right. Belief must never be coerced. History clearly demonstrated that subjecting the conscience to "spiritual and soul rape" had caused endless bloodshed and cost countless lives. Rulers in all ages, Williams wrote, have practiced "violence to the Souls of Men."

Williams died at the age of 81 in 1683, almost 50 years after his banishment from the Bay Colony. As his biographer Edwin Gaustad observed, there was no state funeral, no monument, no eulogy. But Williams won a more lasting memorial: His ideas about conscience decisively shaped the way that Americans understand and value religious liberty.

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Published October 11, 2010

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