Being as How Early July is a Good Time for Some Murkan History…

Published July 9, 2020

Here’s something a reader sent me about Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island:

Roger Williams was one of the early immigrants to America. Born and educated in England, he was a Puritan who came over with his wife in 1630. He had shown quite a bit of natural inclination to learn languages, and had mastered 6 or so by the time he sailed for America. He quickly got interested in Native Americans, and learned the languages of the ones nearby. He spent much time among them, studying not only their language but their societies, culture, etc. He wrote the first dictionary of Native American languages.

He was against any government religion, and really—without doubt—is responsible more than any other person for the concept of separation of church and state enshrined in our Bill of Rights. His concept was “soul liberty” which held that any force which compelled a person to pay for, adhere to, or otherwise accept any religious belief or practice which conflicted with their own conscience or beliefs was “soul rape.” People have to choose salvation, not be forced to it. This was in the early to mid 1600s, LONG before the notion of religious freedom was popular among Puritans or other settlers. He felt that the best way to prevent religious wars was simply to separate religion from political rule. Not only was he for freedom of religion, he also stood for freedom from religion. He truly was the tip of the spear on these questions.

He also believed that since the “new world” was already occupied when the Europeans arrived, settlers should pay Indians for land, not get it through grants from the King. Later, when he founded Providence, he started it on land that was granted to the settlers by the tribe that owned the area, NOT (at least until later) by charter from anybody in England. As you know, it is popular these days to start every gathering by acknowledging the land as unceded territory. Maybe folks don’t do that in Rhode Island. Settlers there were given some original land, in an act of friendship with Roger Williams, who always campaigned, among the settlers and on trips back to England, for Indians to be considered equal in every way to the settlers. He apparently never “went native” nor did he womanize with the Native women, he simply believed in human rights for all, and he was their friend. When additional land for the new colony was desired, it was purchased, fair and square. This is not completely unique, of course, as the story about $24 worth of beads traded for Manhattan testifies. But this is in direct contrast to Massachusetts, for instance, where the settlers’ claim to the land came from a charter given them by the King of England. 

Roger Williams was a preacher, among other things. Before he founded Providence, he was living in Massachusetts but at a certain point had made enough enemies by espousing respect for the Indians, his notions of religious freedom and the separation of church and government, along with his opposition to slavery, that he was arrested with intention to ship him back to England once and for all. He was convicted of heresy for “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.” During a blizzard he escaped and walked almost 60 miles in deep snow, almost freezing to death, until the Indians found and saved him. He spent the winter in their camp and went on to create a new colony, Providence Plantation (“plantation” meant “settlement” in those days), in what would become Rhode Island, founded on the principles he espoused. Among other firsts, it was the first settler community in America to establish a majority rule democracy. He also co-founded the first Baptist Church (a key concept, an extension of his notion of “soul liberty,” was that baptism should be for consenting adults, not infants, who have no capacity to chose). He spearheaded the first effort to ban slavery from the Colonies, which in 1652 resulted in a law in Providence prohibiting all slavery. Roger Williams died in 1683.

A hundred years later, his views on separation of church and state, and other things, (well, NOT his views on slavery) were incorporated into the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Rhode Island was the first British colony to renounce allegiance to Britain, but the last colony to ratify the US Constitution, only doing so after the inclusion of the Bill Of Rights.

I find this history fascinating. Roger Williams is one of our founding fathers, long before Washington, Jefferson, and the rest, who he greatly influenced. He had, perhaps, a clearer vision of the American Dream than any of the guys who signed the Declaration of Independence many generations later. And unlike many of those framers of the Constitution, he had collegial relations with Native Americans and was not compromised by slavery. He should be considered a saint by the left, and just like he spent his life fighting for principles we still fight for, we should use his legacy to oppose to establish our side’s claim to the American Dream etc. In many ways, when he was banished from Massachusetts by land-grabbing, hate-mongering proto-Trumpians, he faced a situation similar to progressive forces today. We should be rubbing his legacy in the faces of all the flag-waving haters out there. Apparently Rhode Island does tout him a fair amount. They even have on display the apple tree root that grew through his coffin, presumably feeding on his remains. 

Now you know!

37 Responses

  1. You didn’t know that? We learned about Williams in school in the 70s. Or is this the old ‘Gee, he was almost perfect, not like those horrible Founding Fathers who gave us this horrible nation with a horrible Constitution and horrible Bill of Rights’ trick? I love what one young wag said about the modern Iconoclasm’s moves toward dismantling the legacy of the Founding Fathers: It’s like watching a generation of Yoko Onos tear down the works of the Renaissance Masters. Generation Loser striking again.

      1. Heh. In the olden days your retort was known as not having anything worthwhile to say.

      2. Whereas your reply to the piece would be called a “raging farrago of hyper-sensitive weirdness”. I just thought it was an interesting take on an interesting figure in US. Somehow you managed to take it as a confession of ignorance and an attack on these United States. What is wrong with you?

      3. raging farrago of hyper-sensitive weirdness?

        That’s weird. No, I’m often taken when people act as if basics of our history are something new. Roger Williams has always been quite a celebrated figure. As have the Founding Fathers until recent years. No doubt Williams had his faults, as did the Founding Fathers. Heck as we do. I’m just no fan of the current Iconoclasm against them. Personally, Mississippi has it right. If we want it done, bring people together and work out a way. When you talk about destruction, however, don’t you know you can count me out? A little Beatles reference there for Artevelde who seems to be taking my opinions more to heart than I expected.

      4. @DaveG: Whatever else has been said, Dave, I saw nothing in the post that said that the information was something new.

      5. You are still raging and being weird. Somehow you manage to get from “Here’s an interesting piece of Roger Williams if you are unfamiliar with him” to Revolution #9. Stop being weird and hyper-sensitive.

      6. @ Dave

        Why ”more than expected”? I never shied away from interacting with you, even though we have our disagreements. You ran a fairly open blog during your time at Patheos and I thank you for that.

        By the way, I never liked the Beatles. Give me Emmylou’s ”Tulsa Queen” or John Foggerty’s great intro riff to ”Up around the bend” instead.

      1. I think they have this new thing called the Internet where people find information. I’m looking into that. But it is an accurate comparison, you must admit.

      2. I wish I could reply to your comment, Dave, but this WordPress blog is somewhat lacking in the user friendliness department.

        About the comparison: I’m not a fan of this modern Iconoclasm and people who use the word ”white” in a disparaging way usually avoid me, and I avoid them. Based on my limited understanding, I tend to admire and agree with Barbara J. Field and Thomas Chatterton Williams, not so much T-N Coates and Robin DiAngelo.

        That being said, your right-wing fairy tale of the Greatest of the Greatest Greats America is nonsense. The USA is what it is, warts and all. I neither despise nor adore it. But you’re entitled to your own fuzzy feelings, of course. A bit of patriotism doesn’t hurt.

        And as for the great conspiracy against the Greatest Nation of All Time, fueled by Marxists, communists, The Beatles, weed smoking Euro’s and what’s more: demons are real, but these one’s aren’t. The one whispering these things in your ears, however, is real.

      3. Note, I never mentioned the Beatles or Communists or marijuana. Nor did I, or anyone I’m aware of, ever say the Founding Fathers walked on water or died for the sins of humanity. They were children of their time, as we are of ours. And a pretty lousy job we’re doing with our time we must admit.

        America is like any place – warts and all. Nobody I know of says otherwise. They just don’t act as if for ten thousand years the world did live in peace, love and John Lennon songs until the Founding Fathers invented slavery and racism in 1619 (sometimes they know things like the African slave trade predating Europe’s for centuries, and continued in parts of Africa and the Middle East until well into the later 20th century)..

        So there is a difference between acknowledging the Founding Fathers were great, albeit flawed (like all of us) men who did great things, and saying their sins alone define them and therefore their memory – and that of all similarly flawed people – should be torn down. There is a difference between saying America is a great, if flawed, nation and saying its a 400 year genocidal racist slave state defined primarily by its sins (can we do that with other cultures, too?). Likewise, a generation like ours with little to show for our time in this world should think twice about being as judgmental with those who came before. Something about ‘judge not …’

      4. Oh really Dave? Are you saying you didn’t mention the beatles in *this* particular post? Does that matter? I was on your former blog for many months and occasionally still take a look. I don’t know what kind of disconnect yoiu experience between what you write and what you *think* you write, but if ever an anthology of your blogging is published, ”Geat Murica vs the Marxist 68” would be a good title.

      5. First, I’m quite the fan of the Beatles (knowing that Abbey Road goes after Let it Be due to recording dates of course). Second, yes, I am not a leftist. I see in them a dangerous combination of threats against wrong-think mixed with foolishness, idiocy and arrogance that has seldom led anywhere good. But if you have read me, you know I’m no fan of Trump either, or the GOP. I wouldn’t waste space on Mark’s site with all of the posts I’ve written blasting Trump for, well, being Trump. Heck, I’m so much not a fan of Trump I didn’t like him when most liberal Democrats and liberal Hollywood moguls were sucking up to him, partying and golfing with him, and praising him for his bountiful financial contributions! And I have gone after Big Business and conservatives more than once. Since in my ministry days I butted heads with religious right types, I only feel it’s fair to do the same with the religious left types. If you’ve read my blog, you know all that.

        But am I more concerned about the Left? Sure. Because it has the positions of power. When you’re on the side endorsed and supported by the national press, corporate America and Wall Street, Hollywood and the greater Entertainment industry, most of higher education and the public school system, and at least half of the US government, I’ll watch your eccentricities and flaws much more closely. Especially if all of the aforesaid institutions support the idea that anyone who questions such eccentricities should be shut down and fast.

        And yes, I have little use for the hot mess dumpster fire that us adults have made of the world. I mean, here in the States, per the CDC, suicide is now one of the leading killers of children as young as ten That’s as young as ten years old. Pardon me if I have a hard time caring what the generations that have brought this about have to say about long dead generations from ages past who accomplished more on a bad day than we have in 70 years.. If it was any other generation going through our heritage with a weed eater, it might have some credibility. But not us. Not today.

      6. @ Dave

        “ . I see in them a dangerous combination of threats against wrong-think mixed with foolishness, idiocy and arrogance that has seldom led anywhere good. L

        Wow! That sounds just like the Christian Right! And the far right! And the far secular right! And the far Christian Right!

        Maybe the problem isn’t left or right. The problem is fact free ideology with a veiled threat of force behind it.

      7. For my part, that itself doesn’t bother me so much. I remember what the late Zippy Catholic said about the illusion of a values- free/completely open society. It don’t work. What bothers me about the Left is that they do it in the name of diversity and tolerance. You know, as long as you conform to the dogmas of the left, we’re completely open and tolerant of everyone who thinks the way we demand they think under threat of retaliation. Just say, we’re right, this is our country, and you’ll snap in line or watch your butt. That would at least be honest.

      8. @Dave

        You’ve called out “our generation” a couple of times now. Also you referenced “the past 70 years,” dating back thusly to 1950.

        I would advise you to please not romanticize the 1950’s, or for that matter, any time before that. All eras have flaws. The 1950’s were an era of segregation, lynching, McCarthyism, all sorts of horrible stuff.

    1. I’m sorry, but if your takeaway from this article is that its an attempt to tear down the Founding Fathers, the US and everything it stands for, then something is seriously wrong with you.

      Normal people who read this article simply get a feeling of pride and awe at someone who was influential in our nation’s history and considerably ahead of his time. All the sinister motives you’re ascribing to this piece are a reflection of your own fear, paranoia and lack of charity.

      I wonder, do you get as worked up by simply reading the Wikipedia entry for Roger Williams? Because when you feel as threatened as you do by someone simply stating the truth, then maybe its time for some self-examination.

      1. They were once on the same bus, Mark and Dave and a bunch of other former Evangelicals. It was supposed to be a happy trip to the sunny uplands of Catholicism. Fast forward 20 years or so and the bus is broken down, the windows are smashed, many of them are no longer Catholic and they have all gone into hiding along the way, waiting to snipe on their former fellow travelers.

        Close, but not exactly Saint Paul and his shipmates.

      2. “He had, perhaps, a clearer vision of the American Dream than any of the guys who signed the Declaration of Independence many generations later.”

        That’s exactly what it was about. Anyone who has been in school knows Williams, and how he (and others, like Penn) were celebrated for their vision. The reason for this article was that quote above and the final paragraph. Which is, in its way, true. But he wasn’t the Founders, and wasn’t contending with what they had to contend with. I have spent my whole life hearing about the flaws and failings of the Founding Fathers. And that’s fair. But we’re starting to miss the good, or ignore it, or purposely shove it under the rug. In fact, as I’ve said to Artevelde, my whole problem is a generation like ours casting judgement on others who did far more than we have with the time they had. That doesn’t take away from Williams (or again, Penn, my personal favorite), but it keeps things in much needed perspective, so we don’t end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. .

      3. If anything, this article is an attempt at the exact opposite – to uplift and honor the legacy of a founder who is often-forgotten! It’s practically good, old-fashioned patriotism.

        It only feels like an attack if you’re altogether too identified with the faults of other founders that don’t line up with the virtues of this one (and/or have too much riding on the “product of their times” excuse, which falls apart whenever you’re reminded that the oppressed themselves and many allies were perfectly able to see injustice for what it was.)

    2. @Dave G.

      But nobody here, or in the article, is saying to throw the baby out with the bathwater; that’s just you projecting your own pet peeves and imagined motives where there are none. You say its fair to talk about the failings of the Founding Fathers, yet you’re the one getting an aneurysm over the the mildest mention of them in passing.

      Seriously, this is all in the eyes of the beholder, and the only one who started freaking out about this was you. We actually *can* acknowledge the ways in which the US has fallen short of its ideals without losing our minds. Yet, for all your talk of being okay with that, you’re clearly incapable of doing the same.

      Whatever your problem is, you have to get over yourself. Not everything is about you and your hot-trigger culture war issues.

      1. Dave writes from *deep* in the heart of the Cult where accusation is always a form of confession and projection is a way of life.

      2. Actually Dave doesn’t write from cult. Dave just isn’t a slavish thrall of the Left. But please, let’s be adults here. Whoever sent that did not think ‘Gee, just thought for no reason you’d like to hear about this much celebrated Roger Williams guy’. In the context of a growing national debate about tearing down or removing the names and statues and memorials of the Founding Fathers (and, of course, their contributions to history), it’s hard to miss the point. It takes far more credulity to think it was just some random thought. For my part, not being an idiot, I am not in a hurry to follow this to its next conclusion and eliminate the contributions of the FFs. Part of it is because I remember that for all their worse sins than our stellar generation would ever commit, they did a few crazy things – like having one of the few revolutions in history that worked and kept its promise. That’s worth remembering as we’re watching these revolutionary movements rise up in our time. Historically speaking, they’ll far more likely be closer to the majority of revolutions in history which, if you need a reminder how they turn out, read Orwell.

    3. perhaps you were raised in Rhode Island. we in Manhattan learned about Minuit and Stuyvesant, and Dutch words like stoop and kill and Staten – as you’d expect. we learned the name of Williams, but not too much of his history.

      anyway, I’m sorry your fee-fees are hurt. me, i like learning things.

  2. These recent supreme court decisions are the reason I will be voting Biden. Woman can’t control their bodies? The catholic church can disriminate against LGBT teachers?

    I am gay and the catholic church and the MAGA cult have such a hatred against me. As Mark says, destroy the cult.

    1. It is true that many Catholics regard you with contempt. The Church does not since a) you are made in the image and likeness of God and b) you are one whom Jesus loves and for whom he died. As a Catholic, I welcome you and hope you will find respite from your maltreatment here in the name of Jesus.

  3. So, anyways, I just wanted to say that I didn’t know about Roger Williams, and I found this tidbit not only interesting, but rather inspirational and uplifting as well. We didn’t cover much US history in my school years, and what little we did, has been long forgotten by now.

    But you know, the one thing I’ve found to be rather bizarre from an atheist’s perspective is the way so many Christians have completely abandoned ideas and values that were once introduced and championed by people of deep religious conviction.

    How the heck did we get to a place where things like the separation between church and state and teaching the theory of evolution in schools have become “atheist issues”?

    What really burns me about this situation is that while I know that a lot of people have uncritically drunk from the Kool-Aid, I’m pretty certain there are a lot of people at the top who do know better, but are perfectly fine with lying and misleading others for their own personal and financial benefit.

    I guess this pervasive myth of radical individualism our society has bought into foments a dog-eat-dog, winner-take-all attitude, that lets any obligations people might feel towards the collective good fall completely on the wayside.

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