Out You Go With Your Talk of Freedom from Our Freedom

Narragansett Indians receiving Roger Williams (Wikipedia) October 9 is a good day if you’re Rhode Island. For on this date in 1635 Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

OK, so that too could stand a little clarification, especially as most readers probably aren’t Rhode Island. See, Williams was a Puritan preacher who left England early in the runup to the English Civil War, in late 1629, having been ordained in the Anglican Church but rejecting Archbishop Laud’s High Church views and ultimately the Church itself.

So he went to Massachusetts and was welcomed although he quickly raised eyebrows by insisting the local Boston church was not properly “separated” from the corrupt Church of England. He was more welcome in Salem and then Plymouth but Boston pursued him with a baleful eye.

It got more baleful as Williams increasingly insisted that the state should not enforce religious doctrine. Conscience, he said, was between man and God not man and Caesar. This shocked the Puritans, but in many ways they were hoist on their own petard since they had rejected the established church and with it the authority of the state to set religions doctrine only to have these views thrown back at them by this smart-aleck (who incidentally was apprenticed under the great jurist Sir Edward Coke and at some point tutored poet John Milton in Dutch in return for a refresher course in Hebrew which is not something most people can say).

Also, Williams became friendly with some of the aboriginal inhabitants and began to develop seriously unconventional views on the practice of showing up, saying oh look, there’s nobody here, ignoring the Indians going um yeah actually we’re here, this is our home, and just stuffing it into the king’s sack. So basically the Puritans were constantly getting on their high horse about everything and everybody and then he got on his even higher one about them with good cause.

In such a situation there’s clearly only one thing to do. And it’s not admit you were wrong. It’s haul the guy into court, try him for sedition and heresy, convict him and on Oct. 9 1635 order him to git out of Dodge. Actually they said look, you’re sick, winter’s coming on, take a break, shut up and clear out in the spring. But as you probably realize, Williams wasn’t a shutupy kind of guy, so they decided to chuck him out into the snow and discovered he’d already gone there himself.

After wintering with some Wampanaogs, Williams in the spring took the radical steps of buying land from Wampanaog Sachem Massasoit, creating his own colony of Providence, and establishing a government that actually rendered unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s, and a church that was happy to have it do so.

Eventually the threat from Massachusetts became so severe that Williams went back to England and got himself a charter for what would eventually become Rhode Island or, more formally, “the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” (yes, that is still its name). And he continued to make trouble, opposing slavery and reasoning his way around to adult baptism and free will (also anathema to the Puritans, though why they thought you should do anything I have never understood) and founded the First Baptist Church in America.

He was a troublesome man. I imagine he was by turns charming and infuriating. But he did show the way that ideas have a way of taking on a life of their own, and especially in America being taken to their logical conclusion no matter how uneasy it may make people.

Rhode Island is not a major state and never has been. And yet in many ways Roger Williams’ stamp on America was larger and more permanent than the people who indignantly threw him out back on that chilly Oct. 9.