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

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!


27 Responses

    1. 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?

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

    3. @ 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.

    4. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. @ 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.

    4. @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. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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