Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Roger Williams 1603-1683

Roger Williams was a puritan pastor who immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the mid 17th century. He had worked in the law profession in Old England and had witnessed first-hand people being publicly injured, executed, or incarcerated for religious dissidence. This greatly disturbed his conscience and when he found the same being practiced by the Puritans, the very same group routinely persecuted in the Old World, he was shocked and set out to change the law.

Williams central philosophy was thus: God gave the Ten Commandments on two tables. The first table of the Law dealt with laws concerning one’s relationship to God. Examples from the first table include Sabbath keeping and the prohibition of idolatry. The second table of the Ten Commandments contains God’s law concerning human relations. Some of its contents include the prohibition against murder, stealing, and coveting the wife of another man. Williams held that civil government was perfectly legitimate in enforcing and punishing violators of the second table, but only God had the legitimate right to judge a man for violations of the first table of the Law. He found confidence for this view from Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 13. Further he was convinced that Christ taught that men would be drawn to Him as a result of conviction about the Gospel as opposed to any sort of legal compulsion to join the Church.

Williams soon became embroiled in a very public debate with a prominent Boston pastor named John Cotton. Cotton refuted this idea as a novelty, unfounded in scripture, and against the established authority of the Church and State. Our American forbears held the notion that the New England Puritans as a group were “God’s New Israel” and read the Old Testament directions to the nation of Israel and somehow their own. Or course Israel had special laws regarding religious purity because of their unique role in God’s plan and thereby giving a model of the state upholding religion and punishing any dissenters. Eventually Williams found himself banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and set out to find land where he could start a new colony based on his ideals. After peacefully negotiating with a local Indian tribe, Roger Williams was able to settle and start a colony called Providence Plantations in what is known today as the state of Rhode Island. Immediately religious dissenters and those disaffected by the Puritans began settling there. Williams traveled back to England to secure a charter for this new colony and became its first president. It was far from a perfect place to live and had it’s share of disagreements and public squabbles. But there in Providence, a person could believe and practice his faith or lack thereof, without fear of reprisal from the citizenry or the magistrate. As free men and citizens they had to cooperate and live together under the law. As sons of God they answered to no man but were accountable to God alone. This separation of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights as freedom of Religion and also the policy of separation between Church and State. The people, their churches, and their government all live side by side; each with their mission and their unique responsibilities to a common good. And so our great patrimony of religious freedom comes to us from the constitution via the contrarian opinion of Roger Williams and our most diminutive state Rhode Island.