Thursday, October 27, 2022

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, Massachusetts.  But though he found the Plymouth church to be insufficiently “separated” from both the Anglican tradition and all those who remained in fellowship with them, his time in Plymouth had brought him into proximity with the Native American population of the area. Williams believed he had a Gospel responsibility to reach out to them, and so he began a course of learning their language. His work and writings in that area were quite helpful to other colonists; many unnecessary battles were prevented because of Williams’ primer on the language. Understanding what a stranger is actually saying is key to peaceful relations with him.  During his time with the tribespeople, however, Williams’ conscience was affected in the same manner as William Penn. He began to hold the conviction that English colonists could not lay claim to the land just because their King said so. The land belonged to the Native Americans, and if the English colonists wanted to acquire some land, they should be treating with its rightful owners.

For two years, Williams continued as pastor of the Salem church. But its proximity to Boston made him more susceptible to the attention of the ruling civil/religious authorities in the city.  In 1635, he was brought before the court to answer four charges. First was the matter we just discussed: who owned the land. Williams proclaimed that the colonists should repent of the notion that they could take the land from the Native peoples, just because the King said so.  This understandably ruffled feathers and made him some enemies. The second thing that made Williams unpopular was that he had been speaking against taking oaths to the civil authorities. He reasoned that many people in the colony were not true Christians, and that it was blasphemous to ask unbelievers to take oaths in the name of God. He did not believe that civil authorities should be bound by oaths to God in the first place; such vows should only be taken to God in service to His Own Kingdom. The third charge brought him into direct conflict with established church authorities: Williams preached that it was sinful to sit under the teaching of any minister connected with the Church of England. He further taught that true believers should also separate from anyone who would not separate from Anglicans themselves—even if it was a family member! And fourth: that the civil authorities only had sway over the bodies and property of citizens. When they attempted to make laws compelling the consciences and religious affiliations of its citizens, they were treading on ground that belonged only to the Kingdom of God. 

There was really no question as to whether Williams was “guilty” or not: he’d taught these things openly, and he made no attempt to disguise it.  The judgment of the court was that Williams would be exiled from the colony within six weeks; if he behaved himself and refrained from these teachings, they would give him until spring of 1636.  But by now we’ve come to understand how bold Williams was. He continued to meet secretly with his flock and teach them just as before. When authorities found out, they sent officers out to arrest Williams and place him on a ship bound for England. This was January of 1636.  But here is an interesting twist: apparently, Massachusetts Bay Governor Winthrop had some liking for Williams and sent word to warn him.  Williams fled to the wilderness.

For the better part of four months, Roger Williams had to face the brunt of a harsh winter.  He faced hunger and exposure to the elements; as he said, “…not knowing what bread and bed did mean…exposed to a winter’s miseries in a howling wilderness of frost and snow.”*  His choice to honor the Native communities by learning their language and addressing them as sovereign owners of their own lands, however, reaped a reward. It was their kindness that made the difference between life and death. It was a terribly uncomfortable experience, but Williams did survive.  Spring came, and by June of 1636 Williams had arrived at the place we now call Rhode Island. He and some followers from Salem worked to establish the colony of Providence Plantations.  He chose the name to give thanks to God, who had provided for his escape from his Massachusetts Bay persecutors and kept him alive through a terrible winter.  When we return next month, we’ll cover the colony and church he started, and the principles that made it truly unique for the time.  Many of those principles are still part of our DNA as Baptists.


*My sources for this article include The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness by H. Leon McBeth (Broadman Press, 1987) and Roger Williams: New England Firebrand by James E. Ernst (The 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...