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Roger Williams: Champion of Liberty


by Ian Williams Goddard - eighth-great-grandson of Roger Williams


At the unveiling of the statue of Roger Williams at the US Capitol in
1872, Rhode Island Senator William Sprague observed that Roger Williams
"successfully vindicated the right of private judgement in matters of
conscience, and effected a moral and political revolution in all
governments of the civilized world."

In his crusade for freedom of conscience Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island
and Providence Plantations in 1636 as a stronghold of religious liberty after the land
was deeded to him by the Narragansett Indians.

A refuge from rampant religious persecution, Rhode Island became home to
the first Jewish synagogue in America and a sanctuary for Quakers who were
being killed and persecuted in Massachusetts and other colonies. Rhode
Island was an open door to all people; a safe harbor in a vast sea of
tyranny and oppression; a safe harbor with a bright beacon shining forth
the light of liberty, a bright beacon that was Roger Williams.

Before founding Rhode Island, Roger Williams was exiled by law from Salem
in the Massachusetts Bay Colony after being repeatedly hauled before the
Salem Court of witch-trial fame for spreading "diverse, new, and dangerous
opinions" that questioned the Church. The law exiling Williams was not
repealed until 1936 when the Massachusetts House passed Bill 488, ending
300 years of exile.

Perhaps most heretical among Roger's many "dangerous opinions" was
challenging the King of England's claim to the American colonies with the
counter-claim that the rightful owners of the land were the native
Americans, not the King of England.

In Defense of Native Americans

Roger Williams tried to persuade his fellow European settlers to respect
the land claims of Native Americans and live and trade with them as
neighbors, not kill them like vermin. Roger's first book was entitled A
Key to The Language of America, which featured a language-translation
guide teaching Europeans how to communicate with the Natives a primary
precondition for peaceful association. Unfortunately the majority of
Europeans preferred extermination over translation.

Roger's contemporaries argued that Native Americans did not believe in
property, and therefore the claims of European settlers violated no
preexisting property claims. Roger argued that Native Americans did make
property claims and that those claims must be respected. Edwin Gaustad, a
professor of history at the University of California, describes the case
Williams made for Native land-rights:

The English...justified their grabbing of Indian land by claiming that
these simple folk did not really believe in property rights. On the
contrary, Williams observed, "the Natives are very exact and punctual in
the bounds of their Lands, belonging to this or that Prince or People,"
even bargaining among themselves for a small piece of ground. [2]

Roger Williams, a Christian minister by training, argued most vigorously
against the forced conversion of the Natives to Christianity. Williams
believed that forced conversion violated Christian principles and was one
of the most "monstrous and most inhumane" acts forced upon the Native
peoples of North and South America. Roger called forced conversion
"Antichristian conversion" that was like compelling "an unwilling
spouse...to enter into a forced bed." Ignoring Roger's appeal to the
sanctity of property and individual conscience, European settlers rushed
forward to rape not only the Indian's lands but their minds as well.

While most European settlers rejected his vision of peace and harmony
between European settlers and Natives, Roger Williams helped to establish
an American tradition of religious freedom and individual liberty that has
endured to some extent to this very day, encoded in that most sacred
document: The Bill of Rights. I could not be more proud of my
eighth-great-grandfather, Roger Williams of Rhode Island, an enemy of
tyranny and Champion of Liberty!

In closing I offer a quote from Cyclone Covey's book, The Gentle Radical:
Roger Williams:

"The most fascinating figure of America's forma- tive seventeenth
century," Roger Williams has now gained general acceptance as a symbol
of a critical turning point in American thought and institutions. He was
the first American to advocate and activate complete freedom of
conscience, dissociation of church and state, and genuine political
democracy. From his first few weeks in America he openly raised the
banner of "rigid Separatism." In one year in Salem he converted the town
into a stronghold of radical Separatism and threw the entire Bay Colony
into an uproar. Banished for his views, after being declared guilty of
"a frontal assault on the foundations of the Bay system," he escaped
just as he was to be deported to England.

He settled in Providence with thirteen other householders and in one
year formed the first genuine democracy, as well as the first church-
divorced and conscience-free community in modern history. Williams felt
that government is the natural way provided by God to cope with the
corrupt nature of man. But since government could not be trusted to know
which religion is true, he considered the best hope for true religion
the protection of the freedom of all religion, along with nonreligion,
from the state. [3]

[1] Murdock, Myrtle Cheney. National Statuary Hall in the Nation's
Capitol. Washington DC: Monumental Press Inc. 1955, p 71.
[2] Gaustad, Edwin S. Liberty of Conscience, Roger Williams in America.
Grand Rapids, Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991, p 29.
[3] Covey, Cyclone. The Gentle Radical: Roger Williams. New York: The
MaCmillian Co., 1966, cover leaf.
1997 Ian Williams Goddard -- free to copy nonprofit with attribute
Life member of The Roger Williams Family Association



 

Promoting the Principles of Religious Liberty