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Zion In The Forest

April 2024
10min read

Roger Williams liked Indians and almost everyone else, and he founded a colony that gave our freedom a broader horizon

There is a legend about Roger Williams that is exceedingly popular among Americans. There is also a truth which is slowly emerging from the welter of fancies. The truth is less simple than the legend, for most legends are oversimplifications. But it has some even more dramatic aspects than the beloved myth and it accords better, too, with the mental development of the normal human being. If it dims the halo of this pioneer of American liberty, it gives him a warmth, a nearness to ourselves that we could hardly feel while he stood on the pedestal.

The legend is that he came as a dedicated saint into the hard, bigoted theocracy of Massachusetts Bay. He came, according to the story, imbued with a passion for freedom of conscience in religious belief. This concept was thought to be original with him, and because he insisted on so unheard-of a doctrine before the stiff-necked Puritans of New England, he was banished. His banishment has been held to be one of the terrible injustices of history and to have placed an eternal stigma on the “Bible Commonwealth.” Having been thrown into exile, however, he founded the colony of Rhode Island, in which he became a great social and political leader, and out of his genius for organization came a peaceful, ordered community which was a model for other colonies. Many generations of American school children have cherished this tale.

The truth, uncovered by such industrious Puritan experts as Professor Perry Miller, is quite different. Actually, Williams went to Massachusetts Bay because he had a “call” to it at the time of its founding when there was a shortage of ministers. He was happy to accept, as he belonged to the Puritan band who were being persecuted by Archbishop Laud of the Anglican Church. When he arrived in Boston, however, he was anything but liberal in his views. Almost immediately he accused the Boston church of not being sufficiently separatist and refused its pastorship on the ground that it still clung to the pretense of being a “purified” part of the Church of England.

This was Roger Williams’ first offense in the sequence of his difficult behavior. His second was to maintain that the civil government had no right to enforce the first four commandments, all of which were strictly religious injunctions and therefore wholly under the jurisdiction of the church. In other words, he advocated the separation of Church and State. As the whole basis of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was an identification of Church and State, this seemed like blasphemy and treason.

What power was left to the magistrates if they could no longer punish the heinous sins of sabbath-breaking, profanity, and the worship of false gods? What would happen to a community in which such criminal conduct could be punished only by excommunication? Would not the pure and holy commonwealth soon be crawling with papists, Jews, Quakers, and heathen?

But on the heels of this subversion came the worst pronouncement of all—a dictum which struck at the very foundation of American colonial settlement. This was no longer religious—except that it favored the very heathen the magistrates feared—it was political, a realm in which, by Williams’ own preaching, the clergy had no business!

By this time, having become persona non grata with the Massachusetts Bay clergy, he had accepted a call to the Plymouth Colony, a community of avowed separatists under the tolerant Governor William Bradford. Here, perhaps, his early sins might have been forgiven. He had extraordinary magnetism. His gentleness, his kindness to men, women, and children everywhere, and the peculiar charm of his conversation stood in sharp contrast to the fanatic zeal with which he opposed the orthodox dogmas. Bradford thought him “godly and zealous, having many precious parts.” despite his “strange opinions.” But then Roger Williams committed his most damning “error.”

In his spare time at Plymouth he had wandered through the dense forests surrounding the settlements and had come to know and love the Indians. He was one of the very few New England clerics who was concerned about the welfare and happiness of the natives. He looked upon them as human beings entitled to certain rights and privileges—not as an inferior race of unredeemable heathen. He even learned certain of the tribal languages. Finally he was so stirred by what he considered the unjust treatment of these aboriginal Americans by the English that his conscience overcame his discretion.

He wrote, then, a treatise maintaining that the English king had no right to give grants and patents to land that belonged to the Indians, and that in doing it James had “told a solemn public lie.” Nothing could have been more unfortunate than such a word at that time. New England was already under suspicion among orthodox Englishmen. It seemed to the people of Plymouth and the Bay that such a criticism of royalty might do them great harm in the mother country.

In July, 1635, therefore, Williams was haled before the General Court and charged with his dangerous opinions. In September, when he still refused to recant, the sentence of banishment was pronounced against him.

Historians ever since have been arguing about the justice of this verdict. Yet it is hard to see how, in the context, anything else was possible. In any case we may feel profound gratitude for the outcome. If Roger Williams had been tolerated or ignored in Massachusetts Bay, a signal reform in Puritan thinking might have been long delayed. If his teaching had prevailed among many people, Massachusetts might have been split by a destructive schism. That he should have built a new Zion in the wilderness from which, in the course of time, the light of freedom would go out to illumine a continent and make America a haven for all the world’s oppressed was a far happier circumstance.

The magistrates did not simply tell him to go. They arranged to seize him at night, put him on a ship, and deport him to England. But Williams had too many friends—people he had captivated by his charm but who did not dare speak out for him—for such a plan to succeed. He was warned and escaped into the trackless wilderness in the dead of winter—a perilous adventure which he could never have carried through without the co-operation of his savage friends of the forest.

It is obvious from the sequence of events thus far that his banishment had nothing to do with a belief in religious liberty. Perhaps such an idea had never occurred to him. Certainly there was nothing particularly liberal about the doctrines on which he had insisted with a stubborn fanaticism even greater than that of the Massachusetts clerics.

But then, in the long loneliness and bitter hardship of his winter trek to the Narragansett country, other thoughts came to him. We know little of the journey and only those results of his meditations which appear in his later writings. From the inarticulate, illiterate boy, Thomas Angell, who went with him, we have learned nothing. Angell seems almost to have been a part of Williams or a satellite refracting the light and heat of him but without words.

All along the frozen overland trail there was a constant, spiritual intimacy between Williams and the Indians. He learned their language, making his notes into a kind of dictionary or grammar, valuable to ethnologists ever since. Evidently he was greatly beloved by these natives. They took him into their primitive homes—wigwams with fires burning in the center and the smoke moving uncertainly through holes in the tops; “filthy” he said, writing later in the mood of a cleanly Englishman—and he was deeply moved by the warm friendship emanating along with the stink from the crowded naked bodies sharing their shelter with the alien white.

One would expect a religious fanatic with Williams’ charm to try to convert these friends. But his conscience would not let him press the Christian God upon the Indians with any but the gentlest presentation. Though he did not say so, he was probably impressed with their own serene faith. He was certainly moved by their tolerant attitude—so different from the harsh bigotry he had lately known—and this must have confirmed him in any thought of liberty he entertained.

They have a modest religious persuasion (he wrote) not to disturb any man, either themselves, English, Dutch or any, in their conscience and worship; and thereupon say, “Peace, hold your peace.”

It is probable that as much of Williams’ fascination for these Indians lay in the spell of his personality as in what he said, for even his enemies have given testimony to an appeal that often disarmed them. Certainly much of his doctrinal exposition and even his passionate diatribe against bigotry is tedious, with an overloading of words and surfeit of repetition, and even in a day when such things were current in theological debate they would have bored and irritated his listeners but for the bright fire which seemed to play round him, the unfailing warmth of his presence.

He and Angell came, in the spring, to the estuary of Narragansett Bay called Great Salt River and there, according to his scruple, he arranged with two Indian sachems to buy from them the land for a settlement. He named it Providence in gratitude for his survival; presently he was joined by other exiles and by his own wife and children.

There was nothing exceptional about the physical fact of the little community of one street along the river, surrounded by wilderness explored by no one but the red hunters. Little settlements of the sort were springing up everywhere: along the Connecticut and the Hudson and the Kennebec—wherever that urgent impulse of the migrant English to get away from one another, to escape crowded society, was operating. So Roger Williams set no landmark of history with his Providence. But in its law he set a milestone in the history of the American conscience for which he must be honored while there is still freedom in our land.

The order echoed the Indian word, “Peace, hold your peace.” No man must be molested for his religion. Whatever faith he might choose, that he must be allowed to hold, be he Jew or Turk or pagan. The magistrates should have no power to intervene in the affairs of any church except in order to keep the civil peace. They were empowered, however, to act against violators of Williams’ decree. A year after the founding of Providence, one of its citizens lost his franchise “for restraining of the libertie of conscience.”

The concept was neither original nor unique with Roger Williams. It had been of long tenure in Holland; it was held by the Dutch in America, and it was spreading among the Independents in England. But Providence saw its first application in the English colonies of North America. From there the practice spread, slowly through New England, more rapidly through the middle and southern colonies, until at last no American could deny it and the concept was crystallized a century and a half later in the words of the federal Bill of Rights.


In another particular Providence was a departure from colonial custom. While it was true that sporadic settlements were occurring through the backwoods, all were attached to some established and chartered colony owing allegiance specified in words written on parchment to the English Crown. But Providence was attached to nothing. On the contrary it represented a definite gesture of disattachment from Massachusetts Bay. It was an outlawed community, a refugee, legally speaking, from justice. It had no charter. No royal patent appeared to specify the Narragansett country.

The result of this uncertainty was continual conflict. Even before Williams had settled on the bank of the Great Salt River, he had been pushed away from the first site he had chosen by Governor Edward Winslow of Plymouth, who claimed the territory and was afraid of “offending the Bay” by letting him squat there. It was a time when the gentler Plymouth people feIt obliged to watch their p ’s and q ’s in regard to their strong, rigid Massachusetts neighbors. Now the communities of Warwick, Portsmouth, and Newport, formed of various sorts of Massachusetts dissidents, were growing up in the unchartered territory. The arguments over the rights involved were carried on by such vigorous exiles as William Coddington and the heretic Samuel Gorton, who was sheltering the devil’s advocate, poor Anne Hutchinson. So Roger Williams was forced to go to England to get some sort of legal instrument for his community and there, from 1640 to 1644, in the midst of the first English Civil War, he conducted his classic fight for the liberty of the American conscience.

England, grown liberal to Protestant diversification, was good ground for his work. He had the sympathy and friendship of two of the most prominent Englishmen of the day, Milton and Cromwell, though he went further than either in his tolerance, being lenient even toward Catholics and opposed to the persecution of the Anglicans. But though his propaganda was printed in England it was directed against the theocracy of Massachusetts Bay and the minister, John Cotton, in particular. It was not only concerned with religion; it advocated democracy in advance of prevailing acceptance even by radicals, and in these writings we have what is probably the first suggestion of the sovereignty of the people in American literature. The climax of his effort was a pamphlet which today’s reader finds exceedingly difficult, called The Bloody Tenent of Persecution. It found response in England and turned English eyes with disapproval across the Atlantic to Massachusetts Bay, the target of the attack.

Finally, Williams secured his charter to “Providence Plantations.”

Williams was an idealist, a crusader for principle, not, as some have portrayed him, a practical worker for the welfare of society. The anxiety which took him to England was for a colony dedicated to liberty and government with the consent of the people, not to find a platform for his vengeance. Indeed, one is surprised that he was not more vindictive against those who were responsible for his banishment.

To Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay he was so astonishingly forgiving that it seems there must have been some secret understanding between them, dangerous to confess but compensating to both their consciences. Williams stated that Winthrop even secretly connived at the Narragansett exile. Throughout the Governor’s life they continued to correspond with full measure of affection at the heads and tails of their letters. In his heart Winthrop undoubtedly felt occasional misgivings about the theocratic dicta, yet he knew that if he relaxed the rule his colony, deeply dedicated to the principle of the “national” covenant, would fall apart.

When Williams returned, even the parliamentary charter was disputed. It was fought by the Bay colony to the north and by William Coddington of Portsmouth and Newport to the south. In all this difficulty Williams was far from the adroit antagonist or practical organizer. His community suffered poverty and dissent. It was invaded by Baptists, Jews, and Quakers who could find no refuge elsewhere.

Williams was unable to cope with the physical conditions consequent upon the influx. He was constantly preoccupied with his communion with God, with his personal theology, becoming after other experiments a Seeker—an astonishing sect among the complacent groups in its admission that it did not know all of the truth. There were times when he thought of leaving the group of planters for a forest heritage; again he thought of devoting his life to the Indians. Yet in the end he worked persistently, if not always effectively, for his community’s welfare and on a second visit to England won a second charter guarantering his independence of Coddington and endowing the whole of “Rhode Island Colony and Providence Plantations” with legal rights.

Perhaps no American hero has been so variously appraised as Roger Williams. Some of the estimates are obviously biased by theological prejudice. We can find only that he was the pioneer of the practice of religious liberty, that he is one of the first Englishmen who reached and moved the American aborigines, that he understood practical democracy ahead of his time, that he was dedicated to the search for truth rather than to its scriptural revelation, that he read the Bible as allegory rather than as history, and that he was a person of compelling warmth and—for all the high fury of his writing—of great personal gentleness in his dealings with others.

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