Civil Liberties

Remembering Roger Williams

What the father of Rhode Island can still teach us.


Americans don't know much about history. Polls regularly indicate that upward of 95 percent of us can't even name the century in which we were born or say whether we fought the Nazis or the Soviets during the Battle of New Orleans.

None of which excuses our collective amnesia regarding Roger Williams, the first American explicator of religious tolerance and secular government. If ever there was a time to recover his legacy, it's now, with Christian zealots at home pushing creation science in schools and, far more important, Islamic fundamentalists abroad swearing death to godless infidels.

It's a national shame that Williams is remembered, if at all, as the namesake of a low-ranked law school and the founder of Providence, Rhode Island, the grim port town whose main growth industry is serving as the backdrop for gross-out comedies by the Farrelly brothers.

Edwin S. Gaustad's slim new volume Roger Williams (Oxford) provides not just an excellent introduction to the man but a deep analysis of his largely unacknowledged influence on our political and cultural life. "We do not know when he was born," writes Gaustad, a historian emeritus at the University of California, Riverside, "nor exactly when [in 1683] he died. We do not know what he looked like. We cannot visit his home because it went up in flames long ago….At his death, no carved stone marked his grave."

Yet Williams' life and major works–the 1643 bestseller A Key Into the Language of America and the 1644 treatise The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution–inspire nothing less than awe. Williams showed up in Massachusetts in 1631 and immediately mixed it up with the theocrats there, staking controversial positions on hotly debated questions such as the presence of a disturbingly papal cross on the flag of England.

Two of his arguments would earn him exile: He insisted that the colonists had robbed the local Indians of their property (he called it "an unjust usurpation upon others' possessions") and, even worse, that civil magistrates had no business enforcing religious laws (lest "the wilderness of the world" engulf "the garden of the church").

Given the chance to recant, Williams proved, as Gaustad puts it, "more a man of principle than prudence." In early 1636 he fled with his wife and children, wandering the frozen New England landscape for weeks before buying property from Indians and settling Providence, a city dedicated to "Liberty of Conscience," or true religious freedom. Indeed, even as Williams helped establish the first Baptist congregation in the colonies, he worked to guarantee civil rights for nonbelievers. Later, he would provide a haven for another great religious dissenter, Anne Hutchinson, after her banishment from Massachusetts, and secure a royal charter for what became Rhode Island–the first such English grant to articulate fully secular government.

Freedom of religion, and the freedom of speech and of the press that follow from it, eventually worked their way, however imperfectly, into the U.S. Constitution. If securing such liberty was a tough act in the 17th century, Williams' writings are no less impressive. The ethnographic Key Into the Language of America introduced British readers to every detail of native American life, and it did so in a way that simultaneously humanized Indians and eschewed noble savage romanticism.

Williams was a longtime ally of various tribes, and his writings about Indians–and his open and honest commercial dealings with them–offer a tragically ignored alternative to the bloody and brutal warfare that would mark the European settlement of North America (he unsuccessfully attempted to broker peace in King Phillip's War, the first extended conflict between Englishmen and Indians). The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, released the same year as his friend John Milton's defense of the free press, Areopagitica, argued for "soul liberty" for all people, "paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-christian."

Such ideas were far ahead of their time–perhaps even our time. Milton notably excluded Catholics in his case for free expression, and it would be 50 years before the English crown would officially tolerate dissent just among Protestants. Gaustad notes that Williams' ideas infused the charters of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other colonies with protections for religious freedom. And his notions of a fully secular state found their way into the writings of John Locke, who would have a seminal influence on Jefferson, Madison, and other Founders.

One wishes that America had taken even more from Williams and what Gaustad calls his "bequest…of liberty, responsibility, and civility." Or that as Iraqis draw up their constitution, its framers might take a long pass through an Arabic edition of his collected works.