Marty Muntz and Jared Slyh

REL 319

Prof. Westblade

Oct. 1, 2003

The Foundations of Roger Williams’ Worldview

            Roger Williams was born in London c. 1603, in a time very much feeling the effects of the great societal unrest of the century before. Europe was troubled by what Vernon Parrington, in his Main Currents in American Thought, calls “the knotty problems of a complex society in transition from the old static feudal order to the modern capitalistic,” and, “the disintegration of a corporate feudal order into unregimented individual members of a society, and the struggles of those free individuals to regroup themselves in new social commonwealths.”[1] The Protestant Reformation was one of the forces driving this unrest by helping to disintegrate the old feudal order. Edwin Gaustad writes:

The sixteenth-century Reformation jolted and fractured the Western world with such force as to scar all the land forever. . . . By the time Roger Williams was born, early in the seventeenth century, the religious map of Europe bore little resemblance to one drawn a mere hundred years before.[2]

But the Reformation’s effects were not relegated merely to the religious map. The groundbreaking doctrine of the priesthood of all believers affected all society. Parrington writes:

[T]he seventeenth century was engaged in adapting the forms of social and political institutions to that revolutionary principle. It was concerned to discover a new system of social organization that should adjust equitably the rights of the individual to the needs of the political state and to society.[3]

European Society was in the midst of a great transition, because of which every man was forced to closely examine his place in relation to his community and to God.

The England of the sixteenth century was every bit as restless as mainland Europe. In 1534, Henry VIII transferred supremacy over the English church from Rome and the pope to the English crown, an obviously political maneuver. This move, though “Protestant,” did little to reform the church; it remained very much as it had been. The only major difference could be seen at the head of the church, where the English monarch sat in place of the pope. The next two reigns proved to be confusing and difficult for the people of England. In 1547, Edward VI dragged the English church into a short period of a more strict Protestantism. In 1553, began the five-year reign of Queen Mary I. Mary’s Roman Catholic sympathies led her to attempt, unsuccessfully, to rejoin the English church with the Roman. Through her violent persecution of Protestants she came to be known as “Bloody Mary.” The Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, whose rule was a lengthy forty-five years and gave rise to the “Elizabethan settlement,” ascended the throne after Mary. [4]

Though English society stabilized much under Elizabeth, the English church was still in turmoil. For many believers, separating the church from Rome was not enough to satisfy their hunger for reform. They desired to rid the Anglican Church of all the vestiges of Catholicism, and thus purify it. These believers, who sought to better the national church and not to abandon it, came to be known as Puritans.

Elizabeth and James I, the next monarch, were never more than lukewarm on the subject of Puritan reform. Both were happy with the highly bureaucratic church which was neither wholly Catholic nor wholly Protestant and intolerant of differing beliefs. It soon became apparent that in order to live with clear consciences and outside of prison, the Puritans would need to affect change in the Church of England from elsewhere. They thought that, perhaps, if a model could be set for the English church, reform would be a step away. Apprehending the beauty of a healthy church, the king and people would desire the same health for the Church of England. And what better place to build such a model than New England? With high hopes of freedom and reform, the first wave of Puritan emigrants sailed for the Americas during Williams’s childhood.

            This, then, is the confused and changing society into which Williams was born. In 1624, the bright young Williams entered Pembroke College at Cambridge and was trained to be a minister. At college, he quickly became identified with the Puritan movement and, shortly after graduating, sailed for New England with his new wife as part of the great Puritan migration. In early 1631, he and his wife arrived at the Massachusetts Bay Colony and settled in at Boston. There, Williams was asked to be the resident minister of the local church, a promising position which the promising young minister promptly declined. The Boston church was quite offended by Williams’s refusal of their offer. Why would Williams, an exceedingly intelligent individual with a fairly frail position in the New World, make such a seemingly imprudent choice? Gaustad writes:

Boston’s Puritans still clung to the idea that they could reform the national church from within, that it was not necessary to separate from or reject that nurturing mother. For Williams this seemed an illogical, and perhaps even hypocritical, compromise. How could one profess loyalty to a church while at the same time being dedicated to changing or reforming that church?[5]

Even the new church in Boston was not Protestant enough for Williams. In order to build the most perfect church, one must start from the ground and build up, he thought.

            Having declined the Boston position, Mr. And Mrs. Williams moved north to Salem where a church more in keeping with Williams’s opinions was located. The Salem church, however, was under pressure from Boston to distance itself from Williams and could not ignore the political power growing in that city. So, the Williamses moved again, this time to the south of Boston, to Plymouth. Here, in this separatist community, Williams might have been happy. But his opinions and actions once again forced a move. He and his wife moved back to Salem.

            At Salem, Williams was appointed minister. Here, in challenging the legitimacy of the land title given the colony by the king, Williams “questioned the very foundation of the colony’s government.”[6] Williams felt it a sin to take land from the Indians inhabiting the area without due compensation in the name of Christendom. It seemed to him absurd to steal and distribute the countries of others in the name of God. Williams also found the authority of civil bodies in religion or matters of the conscience to be overextending itself. He felt that the civil authority had no right to require the performance of religious duties, such as obedience to the commands to keep the Sabbath or to love God. Almost everyone else in the seventeenth century felt that the civil body did have the right to impose such requirements.

            Williams’s “dangerous” opinions led finally to his permanent exile from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Parrington says of Williams that “he sought to adjust his social program to the determining fact that human worth knows neither Jew nor Gentile, rank nor caste; and following the example of his Master he went forth into a hostile world, seeking to make it over.”[7] A belief in the inherent worth of the individual no matter his class or status (derived from the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers) informed every aspect of Williams’s worldview. It was this belief that precipitated his friendly dealings with the Indians and this belief that caused him to fight so ferociously for a liberty of the conscience. Williams truly was a man better made for a later time. The beliefs that brought him exile in his lifetime might have brought him praise and ascendancy in another.


The Manifestations of Roger Williams’ Worldview

Roger Williams’ exile from the puritan colonies acted as a watershed in Williams’ life. Though there is certainly great continuity between his worldview before and after his banishment, this exile forced him to move from primarily developing and arguing for his beliefs, to actually setting up a little corner of the world which would be managed by his worldview: Liberty of Conscience and the practical application of the distinction drawn and maintained between the religious and the secular world.

To begin with, in founding Providence, Williams and the original twelve settlers of Providence follow the general trend of the other towns of New England in establishing a covenant of sorts with each other. Generally found in the Puritan covenants was a sort of social contract made between the would-be members of the covenant community. The covenanting members all gave purposeful mental assent to the end for which the town was founded and on this basis, they agreed to the principles enumerated in the covenant. However, due largely to their identification of themselves as the mirror image of God’s chosen community of Israel, the Puritan covenants also typically maintained an openly spiritual tone and made no sharp distinction between the church community or the civil governing of the community.[8]

The Agreements upon which Providence was founded followed the Puritan model in one way, but rejected the other aspect of covenant. Like the typical New England covenants, the agreement made between the founding families of Providence was a short social contract: “We, whose names are here under-written” (the parties involved), “being desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence” (the end to which the parties aspire), “do promise to submit ourselves, in active or passive obedience, to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for the public good of the body” (the promise or covenant made to which the parties hold in order to accomplish their end goal).[9]

However, Williams was frustrated by the staunch parallel drawn by the Puritans between the Christian community and the rest of the world. He recognized that not all people in the “Christian” communities of New England were truly reconciled to God, and so Williams did not wish to use the words “Christian”, “Church”, or “Christendom” in any way except for referring to the regenerate who genuinely experienced a conversion to Christ. Words such as these “could be instruments of perdition when they were stretched to include any part of the world save God’s elect.”[10] Instead, Williams argued that “all nations, even the most civilized, were therefore in the religious sense heathen--not a part of the church.”[11]

Due in part to this rational, four very important words were included in the agreement made in the foundation of Providence which were no where to be found in Puritan New England Covenants: “ promise to submit ourselves...only in civil things”. This agreement made no bones about being a contract between those in the community, with responsibilities and consequences for those partaking in the community. However, the founders of Providence were careful to frame the agreed upon responsibilities within the bounds of the “civil” or secular realm. Anything outside of these lines that framed the community were not to be governed by the civil authority of Providence. Instead, consistent with his doctrine of the Liberty of the Conscience, one was free to follow the dictates of his conscience in moral and theological issues, generally without consequences in civil society. In fact, this freedom was so sweeping even to the point that Antinomians, Quakers, Jews and other typically undesirable sects or religions were later allowed to freely settle and practice their religions in Rhode Island.[12]

A second major way in which his banishment demonstrates his practical working of his political and religious philosophies is found in his dealings and relationships with the Indians, especially around the area which became Rhode Island. Williams had desired to work as a missionary to the Indians prior to his banishment, so he spent time with the local Indians learning their language and gaining their trust.[13] When he was forced to leave Massachusetts, this relationship with the natives came into play and he found himself residing in the territory of the Narragansetts, surviving outside of the community he had known for so long and also acting as a missionary to this native people.[14]

However, despite the pagan customs and religions of the natives, he treated them with respect, due largely to his view of how civil and religious society should be structured. Therefore, while the Puritans had no qualms with forcibly taking the New England territory because they viewed it as a “promised land” parallel to the land of Canaan promised to the Israelites, Williams made it a point to deal as fairly as he could with the Natives, buying the land which would become Providence and Rhode Island.[15] Even during the Pequot War, despite his support of the Puritans, he made it a point to advocate fair, kind treatment of the captured enemy natives.[16] In fact, one can make the strong argument that it is because of the outworking of his beliefs, the fairness and mutual respect he demonstrated to and gained from the Indians, he acted as a sort of ambassador and translator between the Colonists and the Narragansetts during such crises as the Pequot War and King Philip’s War.[17]

However, his relations with the Indians were not ends in themselves, but rather manifestations of his worldview and ultimately means to their conversion. If the physical, visible, civil society is never truly Christian, but rather simply includes varying numbers of regenerate believers, then it cannot be the job of a non-Christian institution to enforce or sponsor a specific theological leaning or religion. Furthermore, even non-Christians and outright pagans, such as the Indians should then be granted the same latitude which Christians are allowed in regards to the civil world.

Thus, it was this expulsion from his New England home which fully pushed him into the path of the local Natives and allowed him to deal with them in a manner consistent with his worldviews. It was his banishment which led to the founding of Providence, governed and organized by the dictates of Roger Williams’s theological stance for the “Liberty of Conscience”. Though never fully finished adapting and reforming his beliefs, the period of Roger Williams’ life subsequent to his exile from Massachusetts was a time in which Williams was able to fully put his beliefs into practice, perhaps in a way which he could not have done before.



[1] Vernon Parrington, vol. 1 of Main Currents in American Thought, p.5

[2] Edwin Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America, p.1

[3] Parrington, p.6

[4] Gaustad, Roger Williams: Prophet of Liberty, p. 9

[5] Gaustad, Roger Williams: Prophet of Liberty, p. 15

[6] Ibid., p. 17

[7] Parrington, p. 65

[8] Donald J Westblade, “The Political Side of Reformed Theology” (lecture in REL 319: 18th Century Theology: Jonathan Edwards, at Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI. 24 and 26 September 2003).

[9] The Agreements of original settlers of Providence (1636).

[10] Edmund Sears Morgan Roger Williams: The Church and the State (New York: Harcourt, 1967), 29.

[11] W. Clark Gilpin, The Millinarian Piety of Roger Williams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 41.

[12] Henry Chupack, Roger Williams (New York: Twayne, 1969), 41.

[13] Ibid., 64

[14] Emily Easton, Roger Williams: Prophet and Pioneer (Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), 177.

[15] Gilpin, 41; Oscar Straus, Roger Williams: The Pioneer of Religious Liberty (Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1970), 78.

[16] Easton, 195.

[17] Ibid., 190.