Roger Williams & the Ship of State

Roger Williams, who represents America on the oversized Reformation Wall in Geneva, was not an easy man. Graduating from Cambridge in 1627, he was chaplain to Sir William Masham; by 1630 Archbishop Laud’s demand for oaths of loyalty reached even such clerics, and so Williams and his bride set off for New England. Fortuitously, John Wilson was just then returning to England to gather his family; that is, fortuitously for anyone but Williams. He declined the First Church of Boston post, for he “durst not officiate to an unseparated people.” In the cold winter of 1634-35, he was exiled from Salem, having already been sent from Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. “Soul liberty” became the governing core of his Providence government – one he defended against Indian attack and the ambitions of other colonies, one he buttressed with authority from England, under both Cromwell and Charles II. He understood liberty because of his “separateness.”

At times he seems an early libertarian: he took Calvinism farther than even these steely New Englanders, having sacrificed much for their faith, were willing to go. If “moderation,” as Cotton Mather noted, characterized every page of Winthrop’s biography, “extremism” would of Williams’.

He argued no unregenerate person should be required to pray or swear an oath. The Bay policy was somewhat more coercive in these matters – though not a theocracy, the ministers were major forces in any civil decisions. They saw problems with testimony without an oath – Williams saw problems with its requirement. He believed the colony’s churches should separate themselves from the Church of England and indeed repent they’d ever served it. He would have them do no less than return to England to make that statement – one not good for their health. In communities that had come to enforce their own doctrine, his belief that the state should not legislate in terms of the first table. And, always the state – the wilderness, he argued, should not intrude upon the garden – religion. This could mean – did mean – that ministers who had attended church services in England should not be welcomed back to the separated churches of New England; this could mean – and it did – that a man might not pray with unregenerate souls. In any large family, some members were likely unregenerate; therefore, Williams found family prayers problematic. We see in his arguments assumptions that undergirded the Constitution, over a century and a half later. Some of this we accept as central. But they weren’t central then. And that certainly doesn’t mean that Williams himself, with his powerfully separatist theology, wasn’t firmly a character of his century.

I never spend much time on Williams. His contemporaries saw him as charming, but neither his eccentric prose nor his theological and political isolation characterize those who admire him now. We still read Winthrop’s and Jonathan Edwards’ sermons with real appreciation. But a glance at Williams’ letter to Providence, – what should and shouldn’t be rendered unto Caesar – hints at foundational ideas.

John M. Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty is fascinating, but it also led me to look at monographs by the two great writers that have made 17th century America accessible – Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan. The contrasts between these three writers indicate the pendulum swings – clearly Miller and Morgan were writing against approaches like Barry’s, decades earlier. That period’s twin interests – religion and law – were mastered by Williams. Miller and Morgan discuss Williams’ theology – its separatist vision and its radical internalization. Barry’s agenda is law; he discusses Williams’ mentor, Coke, in considerable detail and then fastens Coke’s thinking to Williams’ later, theological disputes. However, if the beauty of the law was important to him, religion was more so. Barry slights the rigor and, indeed, the narrowness of separatist theology; Miller and Morgan give but a passing notice to Coke.

Men like Coke as well as men like Calvin created the thinking that made New England. Coke’s words resonate: “Magna Carta is such a fellow as he will have no sovereign.” Common law and precedent, property rights and individual ones, governed that wilderness. Perhaps the law’s stability enabled Puritans – driven by a theology always open to challenge, always wrestling with the great questions – to rest in that uncertainty as central to Williams’ religion as the stability of law he learned in his youth.

So, let’s conclude with that letter that introduces Williams to many. Using the hoary analogy of ship of state, he defines the extent of the captain’s power. He was confidently certain: so certain he relished the battle of opposition, the open market place, enjoying balancing himself after another’s blow shook but never downed him. Like the leaders of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth, he disagreed with the Quakers. But they exiled and, if the Quakers persisted, hung such heretics. As a very old man, Williams traveled to engage the Quakers in a three-day debate. He would kill the ideas rather than the man. He may not have changed minds, but that was how he demonstrated his faith – that was how he was.

A Letter to the Town of Providence

Loving Friends and Neighbors:

It pleasesth GOD, yet to continue this great Liberty of our Town-Meetings, for which, we ought to be humbly thankful, and to improve these Liberties to the Praise of the Giver, and to the Peace and Welfare of the Town and Colony, without our own private Ends. -I thought it my Duty, to present you with this my impartial Testimony, and Answer to a Paper sent you the other Day from my Brother,- That it is Blood-Guiltiness, and aginst the Rule of the Gospel, to execute Judgment upon Transgressors, against the private or public Weal. -That ever I should speak or write a Tittle that tends to such an infinite Liberty of Conscience, is a Mistakes, I at present shall only propose this Case. -There goes many a Ship to Sea, with many a Hundred Souls in one Ship, whose Weal and Woe is common; and is true Picture of a Common-Wealth, or an human Combination, or Society. It hath fallen out sometimes, that both Papists and Protestants, Jews, and Turks, may be embarqued into one Ship. Upon which Supposal, I do affirm, that all the Liberty of Conscience that ever I pleaded for, turns upon these two Hinges, that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the Ships Prayers or Worship; nor, secondly, compelled from their own particular Prayers or Worship, if they practice any. I further add, that I never denied, that notwithstanding this Liberty, the Commander of this Ship ought to command the Ship’s Course; yea, and also to command that Justice, Peace, and Sobriety, be kept and practised, both among the Seamen and all the Passengers. If any Seamen refuse to perform their Service, or Passengers to pay their Freight;- if any refuse to help in Person or Purse, towards the Common Charges, or Defense; -if any refuse to obey common Laws and Orders of the Ship, concerning their common Peace and Preservation;- if any shall mutiny and rise up against their Commanders, and Officers;- if any shall preach or write, that there ought to be no Commanders, nor Officers, because all are equal in CHRIST, therefore no Masters, nor Officers, no Laws, nor Orders, no Corrections nor Punishments- I say, I never denied, but in such Cases, whatever is pretended, the Commander or Commanders may judge, resist, compel, and punish such Transgressors, according to their Deserts and Merits. This, if seriously and honestly minded, may, if it so please the Father of Lights, let in some Light, to such as willingly shut not their Eyes.

I remain, studious of our common Peace and Liberty.

Roger Williams


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