Roger Williams: A Principled Dessenter
Sometimes these days it feels like there are few, if any, people in the United States who are willing to stand firm in their principles and convictions. Politicians and average citizens alike often side with the things which are popular rather than the things which are right and true. Along with this, individuals all too often simply align their beliefs with whatever their political party believes in - even if those positions were the exact opposite a week before. We live in a society of shifting sands lacking any absolute moral standards.
Americans have largely forgotten about some of the heroes of our past who demonstrated the ability to take principled stands at the risk of losing everything. One such individual in American history is Roger Williams. I hope you’ll take the time to read his story and reflect on what we can learn from this man of principle.
The Story of Roger Williams
The ocean waves crashed against the shoreline as the religious outcast stepped onto the shore. The land on which he stood was called Massachusetts. He and his wife Mary had set sail from England in hopes of finding a place to practice their religion freely. Roger Williams looked around him and saw what many European immigrants saw upon arrival in 17th-century America: The Promise of a better life. Williams was a dissenter, just as his fellow Puritans had been when they came to America. He would soon come to realize, though, that his pilgrimage for religious liberty was only just beginning.
Roger Williams arrived on the shore of Massachusetts in 1630. In just five short years, Williams was banished from the Massachusetts colony for his teachings. Yet what did he teach? From Plymouth to Salem, Williams proclaimed that men and women had the right of conscience - the right to believe in whatever religion they chose. It was therefore wrong, in his view, for the government to tell anyone what they should believe. He declared, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” 1 He also made clear his belief that Native Americans should be paid for their lands. Views like these challenged the ideas of the Puritan Massachusetts leaders, who had replaced the religious intolerance of the Anglican Church with their own form of religious tyranny.
Roger Williams’s controversial teachings stretched from Salem to Plymouth, where he instructed his listeners in the doctrines of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. He was eventually banished from Massachusetts by the Puritan authorities for his teachings. 2 Although Williams was supposed to be sent back to England as a prisoner, he managed to escape in the midst of a blizzard. He was taken in by the Wampanoag Indians, whom he had befriended through earlier missionary endeavors. 3
After his time with the Wampanoags, Williams purchased land from the Narragansett Indians and established the colony of Providence in 1636. 4 Regarding the name of his colony, he declared, “I...having, of a sense of God’s merciful Providence unto me in my distress, called the place Providence, I desired it might be for a shelter for persons distressed for conscience.” 5 While in Providence, Williams established the First Baptist Church in America and put into practice his strongly-held beliefs of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. 6 It was because of these beliefs that residents of Rhode Island could follow whatever religion they wanted.
Over the next 47 years, Roger Williams acquired a charter for the colony of Rhode Island, served as the colony’s president, and diligently worked to improve colonial relations with the local Indians. His book A Key Into the Language of America was published in 1643 and offered a study into the Narragansett language as a means to share the gospel with the Narragansett Indians. In one account from this work, Williams describes an interaction he had with a group of Narragansetts. He states
“...little could I speak to them to their understandings especially because of the change of their dialect or manner of speech from our neighbors: yet so much (through the help of God) I did speak, of the true and living only wise God, of the creation: of man, and his fall from God, etc. that at parting many burst forth, ‘Oh when will you come again, to bring us some more news of this God?’ . . .” 7
After many years of service to his colony of Rhode Island, Roger Williams died in 1683 at approximately 84 years old. 8
There are many lessons we can learn from the life of Roger Williams. First, he was willing to stand for his principles even though it meant persecution would be the result. The right of conscience is certainly worth standing for, and he refused to back down from his belief in this God-given right. Also, Williams made a point to learn the local Indian languages in order to spread the gospel to their culture. Like the Apostle Paul, Williams became “all things to all people, that by all means [he] might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) He also treated the Native Americans with respect by purchasing their land rather than simply taking it from them. Had Williams made no attempt to learn their language or treat them with integrity, his life or freedom could have been cut drastically short. And of course one of the greatest lessons we learn from Williams is the importance of religious liberty. This notion, which took root in the colony of Providence and spread throughout the colonies in the First Great Awakening, would become a pillar of our republic. This principle is listed as the first freedom to be protected in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
Roger Williams was willing to go against the cultural and religious norms - whether in England or in America - in order to serve the Lord. For the sake of religious liberty and service to the Almighty God, Williams lost his home, his livelihood, and his reputation. In risking all, he left a legacy of liberty that has been ingrained in our nation since its beginning. We would do well to learn from his example and honor his efforts by continuing to uphold that freedom which he held so dear - the first freedom - the freedom of religion.
Where are the men and women today who are willing to take difficult stances on the truth? They certainly are few and far between in our government. While we should continue to work toward electing politicians who will take principled stands, we can’t expect our culture to improve simply through the election process. It is the responsibility of each of us to stand firmly upon the truth as Roger Williams did, regardless of what those in authority say or do. Along with this, we should strive to learn how to effectively communicate with those around us. Just as Roger Williams learned and spoke the language of the local Native Americans, we should learn how to speak to others who believe differently than we do. Railing at others on social media isn’t cutting it. We have to genuinely connect with people in a way that shows compassion and real effort on our part.
To conclude this look at Roger Williams, let us remember the following applications:
Stand firmly upon the truth, regardless of the consequences.
Speak to others in love and in their language without compromising on the truth.
Remember and uphold the freedom of religion.
1 Glenn W. LaFantasie, ed., The Correspondence of Roger Williams, Volume II: 1654-1682 (Brown University Press of New England: Providence and London, 1988), 618.
2 Zachariah Atwell Mudge, Foot-prints of Roger Williams: A Biography, with Sketches of Important Events in Early New England History, with which He was Connected, (Carlton & Lanahan, 1871), 71.
3 Mudge, Foot-Prints, 75-78.
4 Ibid, 85
5 Roger Williams, Memoir of Roger Williams: The Founder of the State of Rhode-Island, (Lincoln, Edmands, 1834), 113.
6 Roger Williams, The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, Volume 1, (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 392.
7 Roger Williams, A Key Into the Language of America, (Applewood Books, 1997) 20-21.
8 Mudge, Foot-prints, 264.