In this essay, I’d like to do something that Roger Williams would likely have enjoyed. I’d like to argue against some of the other essays written for this site, including by me.
When Roger’s admirers talk about what made him special, they usually claim that he was a pioneer, and helped to think about the world in new ways. In other words, he was more modern than most of the people around him, and made the world we live in possible.
But these kinds of arguments can lead to a temptation to regard Roger Williams a more current thinker than he was. To do so feels right in one sense; it is natural to want to argue that his often lonely path was heroic, and created a model for others. It allows us to feel that Rhode Island’s own path, sometimes lonely, has been similarly heroic.
At the same time, it is dangerous, from a historian’s point of view, to put Roger into modern categories – “liberal” or “conservative,” or “secular” or “religious.” They oversimplify him.
People have been doing that for a long time, almost as long as the United States has existed. Many early American historians made extravagant claims for him as a thinker who essentially protected free thinking from religion. In other words, what was important about him was that he weakened the hold of religion on governments and people. George Bancroft, who helped build American history into a discipline, wrote that Roger “asserted the great doctrine of intellectual liberty,” and “it became his glory to found a state upon that principle.” In 1894, a distinguished diplomat, Oscar Straus, published a biography of Roger that developed the idea of even further. In the 20th century, other historians like Vernon Louis Parrington and James Ernst called Roger a “free thinker” and argued that he was a precursor to famous skeptics like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
But to call Roger Williams a “free thinker” or a “liberal” reduces his thinking to something different than what it was, and ignores the intensity of his religious experience. Religion guided nearly everything that he did – his reading, his writing, and his lifelong effort to live up to the Bible’s teachings. The arguments that led him to come to America were largely theological, and the arguments that led to his banishment were largely theological.
It is not simple to wade into the intensity of these old arguments. They are difficult to read, and it is hard to wade through page after page of bitter recriminations between Roger and his chief antagonist in Massachusetts, John Cotton. All of the terms of the debate are complex. For example, it is fair to ask, was Roger Williams a Calvinist? Surely he read Calvin, and admired his intellectual courage – but in many ways he had moved on from a thinker who had written a century earlier. Was he a Puritan? Surely he was a part of the immense Puritan movement, so integral to the founding of New England. He was swept up in its energy as a young man, and participated in the meetings and intense conversations that led to the founding of Massachusetts – in a sense, he participated in the founding of two states, not just one.
But he was also a dissenter from the strands of Puritanism that he found objectionable – particularly the imposition of an orthodoxy, guided by religious and civil authorities working hand in hand. For him, religion was simply too important to be left to the government. He wanted church and state separate, not to keep religion out of government, but to keep government out of religion.
A 2015 essay by the eminent historian of early Rhode Island, J. Stanley Lemons, sheds much light on these questions. Lemons argues that the best term to use for Roger’s religious beliefs is a “Witness,” a word he used to describe himself. Some have called him a “Seeker,” a word that fits our modern sense of a restless intellect, eternally searching for new ways to grasp truth. But as Lemons points out, that was a specific religious term in Roger’s lifetime, and one he did not agree with.
It is the easiest thing in the world to call Roger Williams a kind of champion of liberalism – a separation of church and state that essentially places religion in the background. But to relegate religion to the background does not do justice to a thinker who thought intensely about religion every day of his life.
Anthony O. Carlino, “Roger Williams and His Place in History: The Background and the Last Quarter Century,” Rhode Island History 58:2 (May 2000), 35-71
Andrew Delbanco, The Puritan Ordeal (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989)
Glenn LaFantaisie, ‘Introduction,” The Correspondence of Roger Williams (Providence: Brown University Press/RI Historical Society, 1988)
J. Stanley Lemons, “Roger Williams Not a Seeker But a “Witness in Sackcloth,” New England Quarterly (December 2015), 693-714
Perry Miller, Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953)
Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967)
Nancy E. Peace, “Roger Williams –A Historiographical Essay,” Rhode Island History 35:4 (November 1974), 103-114