Williams, Roger (1603–1683)

AuthorThomas Curry

Page 2905

Arriving in New England in 1631, Roger Williams preached in Plymouth and Salem, but almost immediately clashed with the Massachusetts authorities over issues involving both church and state. He attacked Massachusetts's right to its land on the grounds that the land had not been purchased from the Indians?only granted by the king. He claimed that the colonial churches had not broken sharply enough with the Church of England, and he denied that magistrates had power to punish in religious matters. Under sentence of banishment from Massachusetts,

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Williams fled to Providence in 1636 and formed a settlement there. By 1644 he had secured a patent from the English government combining his own and neighboring towns into the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

Although always a Calvinist, Williams adhered to no church after his departure from Massachusetts except for a brief period as a Baptist; rather, he lived as a Seeker. RELIGIOUS LIBERTY was his abiding passion, and he defended it primarily for its benefits to religion. Drawing the analogy of church as garden and world as wilderness, he insisted that only a wall between the two could preserve the integrity of the church.

Williams believed that allowing the state any power in church affairs made the state the arbiter of religious truth, an area in which its lack of competence only perverted religion. To demonstrate the absurdity of state attempts to proclaim the true church, he cited history, especially the recent multiple changes in religious allegiance on the part of the English government, and he expressed the psychological insights that rulers tended to advance their own religious preferences as truth and that persecutors always justified their actions in religion's name.

Williams's political views flowed from his religious theories. For him the Israel of the Old Testament was a figurative entity and not, as Massachusetts Puritans claimed, a model for government. He saw government as a SOCIAL COMPACT drawn up between citizens for secular purposes only. Just as civil interference ruined religion, so religious interference disrupted government?by accusations of heresy against civil leaders and demands for their removal from office. He believed that governing was an art, for which Christianity did not necessarily constitute a...

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