Today’s hero of the resistance: Roger Williams.

Born 1603, Educated at Cambridge. Became an Anglican priest and eventually a Separatist. This made him a heathen to pretty much everyone who ever met him.

Williams arrived in America in early 1631, and was offered a position in the Boston church. He declined this offer for three reasons:

  • It’s an unseparated church, meaning it’s still part of the Anglican communion and as a result he believed it was hopelessly corrupt.
  • Civil authorities in the colonies were enforcing religious beliefs. Williams thought civil authority should only be involved in relations between people, such as murder or theft or lying or contracts, or rules governing daily life and commerce.
  • Individuals should be free to follow their own conscience in religious matters.

Williams had intended to serve Native Americans as a missionary (and he wrote the first book on Native American language and customs, which was wildly popular). As he came to know them, he questioned whether the King of England had the right to sell or give away land that had belonged to Native Peoples for centuries.

He might have gone down in history as a Noted Local Crackpot, but he became pastor of the church in Salem. He also continued to question the treaty and the enforcement of God’s law by secular authorities (or, indeed, any authorities at all). He made himself so unpopular that the Town of Salem was held hostage by the Massachusetts Bay authorities, who wouldn’t let the town annex more land unless it got rid of Williams. Attempts to resist this coercion failed and Williams was banished in 1636.

Williams spent the first winter of his banishment with the Wampanoags. And in the spring he and some followers moved to the site of present-day Providence, Rhode Island.

Then Williams got in more trouble with the Massachusetts Bay people and, although he had already purchased his land from the Naragansett tribe, he went back to England to get a royal charter granting him land rights again. His colony was governed by majority votes by heads of households, who made no rules at all on religious matters and freedom of conscience. And over time, other dissenters settled in the colony. Quakers. Jews. Catholics. Freethinkers. And they all left each other alone.

And when the Constitution was written, there was Providence, a model of tolerance and brethren of many types. People who did not share a religion, but held ideas that made them alike.

Williams was a man ahead of his time. He believed, as most modern people do, that the Puritans had brought the bad parts of English government with them. America was big enough for disagreement and out of that disagreement came growth.

Dissent makes America great.

Further reading:

Excellent, detailed article by Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Williams

Less detailed, accessible article: http://www.biography.com/people/roger-williams-082515

Religion in the New World: http://historyofmassachusetts.org/history-of-the-massachusetts-bay-colony/

Excerpt from Williams’ most famous work: https://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/17century/topic_4/williams.htm

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