Monday, February 24, 2014

Roger Williams

As a native Rhode Islander, the name Roger Williams conjures up many images for me, most of them involving the park in Providence. Roger Williams Park is home to the zoo where my family went to visit at least once a summer when I was a kid. It is also a great place to bike or to have a barbecue or see an occasional concert. I have fond memories of it. He also lends his name to Roger Williams University with its beautiful 160 acre campus on Narragansett Bay in Bristol. Other than that, his name didn't mean much to me. I knew he founded Rhode Island under the auspice of religious tolerance after being thrown out of Massachusetts, but that is about it.   

Roger Williams was raised in London and educated at Oxford University. He arrived in the new world in February, 1631 on a ship named the Lyon. He was 27 years old and married to Mary Barnard. He was working as a private chaplain to a cousin of Oliver Cromwell. He was hired by the Puritan church in Boston, MA, as a religious teacher. The teacher they intended to hire, John Wilson, was returning to London on the Lyon's return trip to get his wife. Williams was a separatist and his beliefs quickly clashed with their allegiance to the Church of England so he didn't take the position. They didn't like what he had to say all over the colony. When he started telling them how much they were sinning by being loyal to the Church, they didn't take kindly to it. The Puritans were a pretty tough crowd. The colony was only about a year old at this time. They were the survivors and they didn't take kindly to his admonishments. The Pilgrims down in Plymouth, the Boston folks, the Salem folks ... not really known for their tolerance.

His big concern were the first four commandments, the ones dealing with God. They were a matter for the church and not for the state. These were sins not crimes. The church dealt with sin, the state dealt with crime. This is a radical idea, one that we would refer to these days as the separation of church and state. He pissed off so many people so they sent him packing. He went to Plymouth but apparently, they weren't as separatist as he thought they should be. He preached against corporeal punishment for non-believers and thought that their punishment would come after death in hell. He thought we should punish them by preaching and trying to convert them. I think this idea persists today. I can tell by observing the crazies that come to my door with a big black book in their hands and keep returning no matter how rude I am to them. Eh! I guess it beats corporal punishment. Thomas Jefferson became famous for this idea, but it probably came to him from the same source material as it did to Williams. One of Williams' mentors, Edward Coke, was one the most important English lawyer of his day and defender of the Magna Carta. Coke's legal textbook, Institute of the Lawes of England, was used for at least 100 years and read by a young Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson believed that government needed to be protected from religion, Williams believed the opposite, religion needed to be protected from government.

Williams also believed that Plymouth colony was illegitimate because they didn't get the land deed from the Indians but from the King. He believed that England stole the land from the natives. This is widely believed today. I believe this. When he settled in Rhode Island, he befriended the natives and was one of the first Europeans to publish a translation of their language.

The state of Rhode Island was the first colony to declare its independence from England but the last of the original 13 to ratify the US Constitution, not because they were slow, but because they demanded a Bill of Rights. Even though this happened over 100 years after Williams was dead, his influence is all over this. They rejected the Constitution in 1788, only to ratify it in 1790, basically because they were threatened with being treated as a foreign government. It was ratified with a margin of two votes, the smallest margin of all the colonies.

I don't know how religious tolerant Rhode Island is today, but I know the United States is still one of the most (if not the most) religiously tolerant places on the planet. I know we are not perfect. Some times we look to Europe as examples of progressive thinking. But not on this issue. While France has a ban on burqas in public places and Switzerland has a ban on minarets on Mosques, we have nothing of the sort ... at least on the Federal level. It is difficult to know what Roger Williams would think of us if he magically appeared. Perhaps he'd be proud. Personally, I think he'd freaked out by car and planes but that is another story.

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