Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Baptist Bites: The Good and the Bad of Roger Williams' Separatism

      We have been surveying the life of Roger Williams, the most prominent founder of the Baptist movement here in North America. We have covered his early life and strong religious zeal. As a law clerk, he saw the unjustly harsh treatment of the nonconformists who questioned the theology and practices of the Church of England. As he pursued his theological education further and took up his first clerical position, his own convictions led him in the Separatist direction. His zealous, outspoken tone no doubt hastened the disfavor he began to experience from the Anglican hierarchy, until in 1630 he booked passage with his wife aboard the ship Lyon to America. It seems that the radar of King Charles I had locked onto him. He would have soon been arrested by the order of Charles’ Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Laud was England’s answer to the young Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, who hunted down believers in Jesus and led them, shackled, to their doom.  Laud was very zealous for the high liturgy of the Church of England and demanded strict allegiance to its hierarchy. Those who fell out of line were often publicly whipped, mutilated, experienced facial branding, or exiled.  Williams had no desire for that treatment for himself and his beloved wife. But he left England with some resentment, writing to a friend that “It was bitter as death to me when Bishop Laud pursued me out of this land, and my conscience was persuaded against the national church and ceremonies and bishops.”* That backdrop is important for understanding what formed his mindset as he arrived in America.


His reputation for learnedness and zeal preceded him; he was promptly offered a position of teaching pastor at the prominent Boston church. Williams turned them down flat, and not in the most diplomatic tone. He judged the Boston church to be only half-hearted in their separation from the Anglican Church, and he communicated enough of that to them that the church was deeply hurt and resentful about it.  In spring of 1631 he was installed as pastor at the nearby church in Salem, but the civil/church authorities in Boston found out about it. They waged a campaign to discredit Williams and pressure the Salem church to turn him out. Williams then moved to Plymouth, where he took a position as assistant minister. The people in Plymouth gave him a warm welcome, but Williams stayed only two years. Again, he began to conclude that the Plymouth church was not “separated” to the degree he thought appropriate. Though they tried very hard to be supportive, he pushed his Separatist views to the extent that they too became hurt and pushed back. Elder William Brewster wrote that he was concerned that Williams might “run the same course of rigid Separatism and Anabaptistry, which John Smith…” had done. Brewster’s prediction turned out to be right on the money.


In 1633 Williams moved back to Salem, where he was appointed minister regardless of objections from his detractors in Boston. He remained there until 1635 as he progressed in his views of Separatism and religious freedom. He grew in his belief that political power should never be used to coerce the spiritual beliefs and practices of the people. When his time at Salem ended, it wasn’t because of church conflict. He had brought the ire of civil authorities. Thus began the series of events that led to his flight from Massachusetts and establishment of a new colony founded on the principle of religious liberty. It was there that Williams founded the first Baptist Church in America, though his Separatist mindset led him to pull away even from his own church. But we will discuss more of that in the future.


For this month, I’d like to conclude with a brief evaluation of this ever-separating impulse, held by Williams and others in Baptist history.  Protestants, and especially Baptists, have shown a keen ability for perceiving areas of belief which differ from others. This has led to many church splits and the formation of new denominations. But to what extent is this a healthy impulse? We have to be careful about evaluating historical events through the lens of modern sensibilities; our biases may cause us to dismiss people of the past too easily. We need to remember that there were principles involved in the Protestant Reformation, principles that were viewed as making the difference between eternal life and death. I would say that many reasons for the split from the Catholic Church could be viewed as true “essentials.” But Protestant groups have continued to splinter, and Baptists in particular have done so. At what point have we entered unhealthy territory? Baptists have had legitimate concerns. Believers’ Baptism is clearly attested by Scripture and Church history, and we have good reason to believe that immersion is the mode taught in Scripture. Baptists like Williams have rightly contended that belief must be freely led by independent study of the Bible, that personal conscience cannot be compelled by civil power. Williams was a true champion of this last point, and we owe so much to him and others like him who were willing to suffer persecution for these beliefs. There was much to the “good” side of the ledger for our Baptist founders.


But Williams is also an emblem of the factious spirit that plagued both historical and contemporary Baptists. We’ve read about why Separatists concluded there was still too much corruption and compromise in the Church of England. They believed that there could be no continued fellowship with the Anglicans.  However, Williams and other Baptists took this impulse too far. Not only were the Catholics anathema, not only were the Anglicans anathema because they would not separate from the  High-Church trappings of Catholicism – Puritans were anathema because they didn’t cut off all association with Anglicans. Even Separatist churches were the enemy if they weren’t separated enough, or even if they continued to associate with those who didn’t separate enough. Do you see the absurd and unhealthy places this can take us to, this spirit of factionalism run amok? Guilt by association is a diseased way of thinking that wounds Christ’s church. Eventually, Williams separated from the church he founded and he was all by himself. Baptists today need to learn from the unhealthy aspects of our history as well as the healthy ones. We need to learn that there is a difference between essentials and non-essentials. Baptists differ on some points from other denominations, and those differences are valuable enough to uphold. What we must not do is cast judgment upon other Christian denominations who agree with us on the essential points of orthodox belief but differ on some non-essential points.  Let us value and maintain the things that make us Baptists, but let us call biblical Christians in other denominations by their right names: brothers and sisters in Christ.


*Note: the direct quotations in this article are from Roger Williams: New England Firebrand by James Ernst (New York: Macmillan Company, 1932)

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Baptist Bites: Roger Williams' Dangerous Ideas

When we last checked in with Roger Williams, he had left the Plymouth church, in 1633, and was made pastor of the church at Salem, Massachus...