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Roger Williams and the Birth of American Liberty

“Without freedom of conscience no other freedoms are possible.”

— George H. Smith, Freethought and Freedom

The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, otherwise known as “Rhode Island,” brought forth to the world a product often talked about but rarely achieved: personal liberty.  Since its founding in 1636 as a refuge from Puritan persecution, it has compromised its libertarian purity for a perceived need to establish a compulsory social order.  But unlike other settlements in early America, it offered true freedom of conscience.  A person could express his religious convictions in early Providence without fear of reprisal, at least from other residents.  In a world long dominated by fanatical religious intolerance this was unthinkable.

But one man did think that way: Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams.  He exemplified the toughness of body and spirit, and especially the fearlessness of thought, that proved necessary to give liberty a chance in a world hostile to its existence.

In Christianity’s formative years during the Roman Empire, toleration had its spokesmen.   George H. Smith (no relation) in Freethought and Freedom mentions Tertullian (c. 145-225), sometimes called “the founder of Western theology,” who believed that

Every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man.

Somewhat later, Lactantius (c. 240-320) held that any god that demanded worship by violent means would be unworthy of our worship.  He also rejected the “for their own good” argument, because it “is not a kindness which is done to one who refuses it.”

Religious toleration reached its zenith with the Edict of Milan in 313, but was overturned in AD 380 when Roman Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, decreeing that Nicene Christianity would be the state religion of the Roman Empire and other variants would be regarded as heresies, subject to persecution.

As Smith observes, “Thus did a religion born in opposition to the state become its friend and ally.”  So much for “live and let live.”

Theologians favoring intolerance

Augustine (354-430), who some adorn with the title of saint, began his intellectual life by defending religious toleration then switched to “righteous persecution,” a phrase he used to justify saving people from the torments of hell.  Unlike Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and others who followed, Augustine opposed killing heretics for their own good, favoring fines and banishment instead.  The “for their own good” argument, in its modern variant, has proven indispensable to governments seeking to justify invasions of privacy.

Exterminating heretics received major intellectual support during the Middle Ages and after.  Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued that heretics are worse than wrong; they are stubbornly wrong, a result of egoistic pride, and “should be submitted even to bodily compulsion.”

Martin Luther (1483-1546) defended toleration early in life then later “turned from persecuted to persecutor,” as Smith tells us.  Luther famously wrote:

Heretics are not to be disputed with, but to be condemned unheard, and whilst they perish by fire, the faithful ought to pursue the evil to its source, and bathe their hands in the blood of the Catholic bishops, and of the Pope, who is a devil in disguise.

John Calvin (1509-1564), a believer in predestination who apparently thought of himself as one of the elected, called for the extermination of heretics and blasphemers because they violated God’s honor.  He arranged for his Spanish friend Michael Servetus, a philosopher and physician credited with discovering the pulmonary circulation of the blood, to be burned at the stake — slowly, using green wood — for publishing The Restoration of Christianity in which he rejected the trinity and predestination.

Being alive was not necessarily a qualification for being persecuted.  Earlier, John Wycliffe (c. 1320s-1384), “the Morning Star of the English Reformation,” the first person to have the Bible translated into English (1382), was persecuted well after his death.  Unlike other priests who recited Mass in latin, Wycliffe preached and lectured in English so that commoners could hear his messages and tell others about them.  He regarded monks, friars, priests, and every other species of cleric as corrupt representatives of Christianity and considered the pope an Antichrist.  For Wycliffe, it was the Bible (Scripture) alone that revealed the truth about God.  In 1427, forty-four years after Wycliffe’s death, the pope ordered his bones exhumed and burned, with his ashes tossed in a river.

Whether one would be persecuted as a heretic depended largely on who was in power.  Under the five-year reign of “Bloody” Mary I of England (1516-1558), over 280 Protestants were burned at the stake.  Her successor and half-sister Elizabeth I (1533-1603) returned the nation to Protestant when she became queen in 1558.  Pope Gregory XIII excommunicated Elizabeth and declared that killing a heretic such as she was no sin.  In 1588, King Philip II of Spain, her brother-in-law, sent his seemingly invincible Armada against her for the purpose of making England Catholic again.  Protestants viewed the English victory as a sign that God had blessed them.

Elizabeth established a spy system aimed at Catholic enemies, and many Catholics were executed or died in prison.  But as John Barry explains in Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, Elizabeth did not kill because of religion, as Mary had.  “Acts, not thoughts, concerned her. She said she would ‘open no window into men’s souls.’”

Elizabeth’s tolerance spawns rebellion

It was under Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603) that certain Calvinists criticized the Church of England for its Catholic-like practices, such as its Book of Common Prayer, which they rejected as rote worship.  These people wanted a purer worship based solely on Scripture and became known derisively as Puritans.  The most radical of the Puritans, known as Separatists, wanted nothing to do with the Church of England, which they regarded as the Antichrist.  Though small in number they were regarded as a threat to the state, and Elizabeth hanged several of them.

James Stuart, Elizabeth’s successor, wanted to end the war between Catholics and Protestants, and began by curtailing the persecution of Catholics during his first two years.  Still, Catholic plots against him were uncovered, including the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605 when Guy Fawkes and followers attempted to blow up Parliament and the king.

Under Magna Carta the king was under the law, but James declared otherwise, saying as king he took orders only from God.   Puritans and other Protestants were unnerved by James’s move.  When Charles I became king in 1625 following James’s death “he continued his father’s expansion of royal power and impulsion of the Church of England toward Catholic practices.”

For Separatists it was time to get out of Dodge.  And for the crown, it was past time that they did.  Purging the church was considered necessary for the survival of the state.

Not only religious persecution, but the violence and crowding resulting from the enclosure of lands motivated people to look for an escape.  Through enclosure, the poor were driven from the royal forests to the cities.  In London, hordes of beggars and prostitutes flooded the streets.  To some Puritans this was God’s punishment for England’s sin.

They looked to America for salvation.  In America Puritans could build a New Jerusalem, they believed.

America beckons the persecuted

A group of Separatists, whom we call the Pilgrims, originally abandoned England for Holland but they found life there too routine, too easy.  Life should be a challenge, and they weren’t being tested enough.  According to William Bradford, their leader, a few preferred the prisons of England to the liberties of Holland, which they considered an affliction.

They left Holland, passed through England, and sailed on the Mayflower for America.  When they arrived on the Massachusetts coast they found an abandoned Indian village decimated by a three-year plague that began in 1617.  As author John Barry writes,

The English did not fear this plague. They believed God had used it to clear the land for them. They called it Plymouth Plantation. Ninety-nine passengers disembarked from the ship. In less than a year only fifty were still alive.

Unlike the Separatists, who had no backing in England, a ship of financed Puritans arrived in 1624 on the northern tip of Massachusetts Bay with ambitions to build a new world.  Their investors, known as the Massachusetts Bay Company, or simply the Bay Company, hoped the Puritans would establish a flourishing economy, convert the Indians, and establish the right kind of Protestant religion, as they defined it.

The arrivals established a settlement in Salem, Hebrew for “peace,” forty miles by sea north of Plymouth.  The settlers were families with livestock and supplies, most of them Puritans.  Five years later, in 1629, the Bay Company sent five ships of families, 350 people total, to Salem.  They consisted of “governors, able Ministers, Physicians, Soldiers, Schoolmaster, Mariners, and Mechanics of all sorts . . .”

Later in 1629 the Bay Company sent another ship to Salem, with John Winthrop chosen as governor, that included combat veterans.  Winthrop told the passengers they were establishing a “City upon a Hill” and that the “eyes of all people are upon us.”  When they arrived in Salem on June 12, 1630, they found more than 80 of the previous fleet dead and many others weak and sick.

Because of the debilitated condition of the settlers, Winthrop decided the settlement was vulnerable militarily and ordered the inhabitants to disperse.  They moved to Charlestown and what is now Boston.  People continued to die in the new settlements.  Winthrop wrote his wife “that God had only ‘stripped us of our vain confidence in this arm of flesh, that he may have us rely wholly upon himself.’”

Winthrop formed a government consisting of assistants known as magistrates.  They met for the first time in October, 1630, and dealt with a troublemaker by the name of Morton.  For this they built a jail, forbade dice and card playing, and forbade smoking in public.  Another agitator, Henry Lynn, was whipped and banished for writing “slanderous” letters against the plantation’s government and churches.

Roger Williams looks for a home

Back in England, William Laud intensified his campaign to rid the English church of “unworthy” ministers, one of which was Roger Williams.

Williams knew that his convictions made him more than eligible for imprisonment and torture.  Sailing on the ship the Lyon, Williams and his wife, along with John Winthrop Jr., left Bristol December 1, 1630 and anchored in Boston harbor on February 5, 1631.  Writes author Barry:

Williams entered a world of hardship but hardship limned with promise. No inns had yet been built, so leading citizens of Boston or Charlestown entertained him and his wife. He was a most desirable guest.

The Boston church offered Williams the position of teacher.  For Williams, 28, it would’ve been a great opportunity, but he declined, telling them “I dare not officiate an unseparated people.”  The church took offense at his reply.

According to Williams, the state had no authority to govern an individual’s relationship with God.  None whatsoever.

Salem, considered a backwater by the rest of the settlements, offered Williams a position, and he accepted.  But political pressure from Boston led them to withdraw the offer.

Williams then joined the settlement in Plymouth, home of the Mayflower Pilgrims, to become a farmer.  He was received with open arms by everyone, including the two governors, Bradford and Winslow.  He became active in the church and soon became an unpaid assistant pastor.  He also maintained a good relationship with Winthrop Sr., telling him in a letter that he had no desire to be an Elder in any church, and that all he wanted was “the natives Soules.”

To the Puritans, converting the Indians was their most important mission, for two reasons.  One, they wanted to prevent Catholics from gaining more converts, and two, they believed Christianizing the world was necessary for Christ’s return.

But so far, not a single converted Indian could be found.

Williams uprooted

Williams began his proselytizing not by preaching but with learning the Indians’s language.  He developed friendships with them, began trading with them, and traveled among several tribes.  He entertained them in his home.  He reached the unpopular conclusion that the Indians owned the land they occupied, and that the English had no title to it unless granted by the Indians.  He charged King Charles for telling “a solemn public lie” for claiming it belonged to the settlers.

Later in early fall of 1633, with Governor Bradford’s encouragement, Williams and a few supporters left Plymouth and returned to Salem.  He settled into a spacious home and lived an active social life.

Meanwhile, the Boston magistrates were quite upset at Williams having called the king a liar.  In a treatise he wrote on request, Williams implied that the king sided with the Antichrist and “committed fornication with the whore” — the Catholic Church as represented by the queen.  They talked to Williams about his treatise, and Williams suggested they burn it if they thought it was so dangerous.  And they did.

Conformity was central to the City upon a Hill.  It spread even to the stabilizing of profits and wages.  It especially applied to childrearing.  If possible, children should not know they possess a will of their own.  Education lay in humility and tractableness.

Any offenders were subject to excommunication or banishment from the settlement.  Any banished person who returned to Massachusetts was subject to punishments ranging from fines to death.

Even so, Williams remained in Salem, planting and harvesting crops and continuing his relationships with the Indians.  He acquired fluency in their language and wrote a book about it.  The Salem church made him its teacher, further irritating the Boston magistrates.  When the Boston Court wanted to impose a loyalty oath, in response to pressure from England, Williams objected.  He also attacked forced tithes and the policy of giving tax money to ministers.  He found widespread agreement with his views, but not among the magistrates.

The Boston Court ordered Williams to appear.  They admonished him for his statements but deferred on a decision about banishing him.  He was ordered to appear a second time and refused to recant.  The court then ordered him to depart Massachusetts within six weeks.

Williams escapes capture in a blizzard

He thought about where would he go.  Returning to England would mean prison, being whipped, having his ears cut off, and his tongue bored.  Returning to Plymouth wouldn’t work because they would fear offending a powerful colony that had banished him.  As he thought about his destiny his thoughts turned toward freedom.  Weeks later his wife bore him a daughter who he named Freeborne.

In early November he got sick.  The magistrates agreed to delay his banishment because of his illness and winter.  A few supporters began gathering in his home, some praying there.  Word reached Boston.  The magistrates debated executing him but his popularity would upset too many people.  They decided to send him back to England.

The governor ordered a party of soldiers to capture Williams and put him on a boat to England, but a fierce blizzard delayed them for days.  While they waited, Williams was tipped off by a secret messenger sent by Winthrop that he was targeted for arrest and deportation.

Sick and alone, leaving his family behind, Williams entered the forest and blizzard on foot.  With the snow already deep it was an exhausting trek that lasted for miles.  He survived only because Indians took him in.

In early spring he found a place near Narragansett Bay, but the Plymouth governor Winslow ordered him and a few others from Salem to move.  He scouted out country owned by the Narragansett Tribe, with whom he had a close relationship.  Canonicus, the tribe’s sachem, and his nephew Miantonomi, gave him permission to settle there.

Providence

Williams was fully free in the wilderness.

He attributed God’s merciful providence for leading him there during his darkest hours.  He called the place Providence, so that “it might be for a shelter for persons distressed for conscience.”

As others straggled in they realized they had no agreement about how to govern themselves.  Williams, the owner of the land, drew upon his experience as an understudy with English jurist Sir Edward Coke (pronounced “cook”), who said every Englishman’s home was his castle, and from Elizabeth, who sought no window into men’s souls.

Williams sent Winthrop a draft compact that incredibly did not mention God at all, nor did the final version refer to God in any way.  The scant Providence inhabitants unanimously agreed to his compact.  As the government grew its essential nature remained true to the original compact.  John Barry tells us:

Providence would neither impose a religious test for voting nor would it require church attendance of those living there. This was a costly step, since virtually every other government in England and New England collected significant revenues from fines on those who did not attend worship.

Williams went even further.  He maintained that governments governed only with the consent of the governed, rejecting both the divine right of kings and the Puritan view that governors were accountable only to God, not the people.

He could never forget that savages had saved his life, not his friends and fellow Christians.

Return to England

In Providence, people worshipped in their homes, not a church, and their homes were arranged in a straight line not around a town common, as found in the Massachusetts settlements.  A meeting place would not be built in Providence for another half century.

As the English expanded in New England the Indians became more of a nuisance.  After a war with the Pequots (1636-1638) they proved more adept at slaughtering Indians than converting them, basing their aggression on Scripture, on the belief they were slaying God’s enemies.  Williams later negotiated a peace to save the Narragansetts in 1645, but could not intervene on behalf of the Pequots.

Roger Williams returned to England twice, the first time in the spring of 1643 to secure a written charter that would authorize liberty of conscience.   While he was away the Puritan colonies of New England organized into the United Colonies and began meddling with claims about ownership of Providence itself. Williams eventually heard about it, and he knew that unless he could gain the support of England Massachusetts would devour his settlement.

On March 14, 1644 Williams secured his charter, which gave the colony the power and authority to govern and rule themselves.  It also left all decisions about religion to itself.

Providence Plantations thereby became the freest known state in the world.

As he left England in June, 1644 Williams left behind a book waiting to be published in which he argued for the separation of church and state, based on the New Testament.  It also struck down the idea that Scripture required the destruction of heretics and blasphemers.  The people were sovereign, and that “All true civill Magistrates have not the least inch of civill power, but what is measured out to them from the free consent of the whole . . .”

Not surprisingly, Parliament ordered the public burning of his book eight weeks after its publication, including the typeset.  As Barry writes, “The book did not bring Williams’ ideas to England.  They were already there, raised by persecuted sects.  His book brought the issues into prominence.”

Conflicting governments

When Williams arrived in Boston harbor he was ordered to leave.  As he approached Providence in a canoe, a flotilla of canoes emerged on the horizon.  They were his Providence neighbors, coming to pay him tribute. They gave him a hero’s welcome, something entirely new to him.

But the tranquility didn’t last long.  William Coddington, the richest man in the colony, tried to get Massachusetts and Plymouth to absorb the Aquidneck Island towns of Newport and Portsmouth. His ally, William Arnold, tried to provoke the Massachusetts magistrates by telling them that Rhode Island viewed them as witches and devils.  Still, all the United Colonies deferred, declaring the proposal to seize the settlements “full of confusion and danger.”

Coddington then went to London and received a new charter for Aquidneck Island, which included making him governor for life.  Violence erupted back home as the two governments clashed.  The United Colonies declared the Coddington’s charter overruled Williams’s charter.

Since Rhode Island lacked the military strength to make the United Colonies back off, Williams left for England a second time to nullify Coddington’s charter.  Oliver Cromwell had become dictator of England, Scotland, and Ireland.  Fortunately, Williams was on good terms with Cromwell, and he eventually reaffirmed Williams’s charter in 1653.  A charter signed by the powerful Cromwell ended the feud with the United Colonies.

The zealous Quakers

The first Quakers in America were two Englishwomen who arrived in Boston in July, 1656.  After hearing one of them say “thee,” authorities knew they were heretics and immediately imprisoned them, keeping them locked up for five weeks.  As Murray Rothbard tells us in Conceived in Liberty, the women were denied visitors, light, and reading material, and were almost starved to death.  They were finally shipped back to Barbados.

Though Williams personally despised Quaker beliefs, his colony’s charter guaranteed their safety.  The rejected the Puritan belief in predestination and the Puritan contention that “careful, scholarly study of Scripture was necessary to understand God’s desires and their own tasks in the world.” The Quakers instead believed in universal redemption and denied the doctrine of original sin.  They discarded all outward forms of worship and believed in an inner light that came from God and was part of themselves.  As John Barry tells us,

They substituted human judgment for Scripture and the rule of law. They eliminated the ministry and all forms of worship. They considered men and women virtually equal and allowed women to speak in worship. They also justified riotous behavior and even disobedience to the law. . . Any one of these beliefs was, to Calvinists, blasphemy; taken together they certainly justified a death sentence.

More Quakers arrived at Newport in 1657, and the United Colonies demanded that Rhode Island banish the Quakers and forbid any new arrivals.  Failure to cooperate would result in an embargo on all trade to and from Rhode Island.  But the little colony didn’t back down, pointing out that Quakers were allowed their freedom in England.

Thus began Quaker missionary operations in Massachusetts, using Rhode Island as a base.  Quakers used novel ways to draw attention to their beliefs.  One Quaker woman stripped naked and paraded down the aisle in the Newbury church during service, another walked nude through the streets of Boston, another woman was stripped to her waist and whipped so hard her nipples split.

Quakers Mary Dyer and two men were sentenced to be hung on October 27, 1659.  The men were duly executed, but Mary gained a reprieve, though only after the rope was around her neck.  She was sent back to Rhode Island but defiantly returned to Massachusetts, where she was hanged on June 1, 1660.

Massachusetts then passed the Cart and Whip Act.  Women, especially, were subject to this punishment.  In one case three women were stripped to their waists, “tied to a cart’s tail, and whipped through eleven towns, through deep snow, and lashed up to ten times apiece in each town. And yet the tortured women met their fate by singing hymns as they went.” [Rothbard]

Finally, in 1664, King Charles II sent a commission to New England to put an end to the persecution of Quakers.  As Rothbard notes, the Massachusetts theocracy, successful in driving out Roger Williams, failed to stop the indomitable Quakers.

Conclusion

Rhode Island’s legacy as a staunch defender of freedom was not completely lost with the passage of time.  On May 4, 1776 it became the first colony to repudiate its allegiance to England, the fourth among the newly independent states to ratify the Articles of Confederation on February 9, 1778, and it became the last state to ratify the Constitution on May 29, 1790, but only after assurances that a Bill of Rights was forthcoming and under threats of crushing tariffs from other states.  It was also the only state to boycott the Constitutional Convention.  (For those who think the boycott was a blight on Rhode Island’s record, I invite them to consider the research of Leonard L. Richards in his Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle.)

Like all US states, Rhode Island today suffers from politics, debt, and taxes, more so than most states.  Taking money out of the hands of those who have earned it and putting it in a political pot to redistribute is still regarded as sound policy and morally respectable.  Yet I find hope for its future.  One might think the state’s full name would be regarded by most as obsolete in the 21st Century’s free lunches, political correctness, identity politics, and war.  But residents don’t think so.  In 2010 they voted 78% – 22% to retain the full name – the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

Retaining the original name keeps current Rhode Islanders connected to the tough, libertarian thinker who founded their state.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.