Now's The Time To Recommit To The Vision Of Roger Williams

Rhode Island is the smallest state in the union, but it has a lot going for it. Its beaches on the Atlantic Ocean draw tourists, and Providence, the largest city and capital, struck me as a pretty vibrant place the one time I visited.

Rhode Island also has a fascinating history, which tourism and marketing officials in the state are wisely using to their advantage.

Roger Williams, an iconic Puritan minister who was later briefly a Baptist and after that a free-spirited Christian outside denominational bounds, founded the colony in 1636. He was driven to do it by his devotion to absolute freedom of conscience.

Williams never really fit in with the theocratic Massachusetts Bay Colony. He was always making trouble and frequently challenged the oppressive union of church and state there.

When the colony’s General Court decided in 1635 that all men should swear an oath of allegiance ending with “So help me, God,” Williams objected.

“A magistrate out not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man,” he wrote, because that would compel the oath-taker “to take the name of God in vain.”

No one knows what Roger Williams looked like, but a depiction of him watches over Providence, R.I.

Officials in Boston weren’t persuaded. In fact, they found Williams guilty of “disseminating new and dangerous opinions” and decided it was time to send him back to England – by force if necessary.

Williams and a few followers fled the city. He had a good relationship with the local Native American tribes and spoke several Native languages. Aided by the tribes, he found a good piece of land south of Boston, purchased it from the Natives and founded the city of Providence.

In Williams’ Providence, all people were free to worship, or not, as they saw fit. This included Quakers, a group Williams personally didn’t care for. But they worshiped unmolested in his new city, a testament to the purity of Williams’ vision.

Safe from the reach of the Boston theocrats, Williams wrote some books and letters outlining his views. Although somewhat cumbersome as a writer, he could reel off a good line every now and then. This one is my personal favorite: “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

In his best-known book, 1644’s The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution for cause of Conscience, Williams spoke of the need for “a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

The phrase is interesting because it’s similar to Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1802 metaphor of the need for a “wall of separation between church and state.” There’s no evidence that Jefferson knew of Williams’ writings, however. (For more on Williams and his legacy, see this article I wrote in 2013.)

Williams left a proud legacy of freedom of conscience, and Rhode Island officials are eager to remind people that their state stands for tolerance and liberty. They hope that legacy will attract new businesses to the state.

“Young people want to live in a place that’s tolerant and diverse and inclusive,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said recently during a visit to the Roger Williams National Memorial. “This is part of who we are. It’s not a fad or something temporary. It’s ingrained in who we are as Rhode Islanders.”

The Associated Press reported that Raimondo contacted officials at PayPal, a popular online money transfer site, after the firm decided not to open a branch in North Carolina because of the state’s infamous “bathroom bill” aimed at the transgender community. Raimondo referenced Williams’ ideals in her pitch.

It was a smart move, but the celebration of Williams shouldn’t just be about attracting jobs and investment.

It’s important to remember the scope of Williams’ accomplishment. At a time when few people could imagine religion and government decoupled, Williams stared down the theocrats and created a society based on what he called “soul liberty” – the complete freedom of conscience. His model became America’s reality.

These are unsettled times. We have a president-elect who seems to believe he can treat members of certain faiths like second-class citizens. He kowtows to the Religious Right and appears to have little respect for separation of church and state. Defenders of that principle will face many challenges in the months and years to come.

Now more than ever, we need the wisdom of Roger Williams.