Roger Williams, the dissident Puritan statesman who founded Rhode Island after being exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, has become something of a touchstone for everyone from middle-school textbook writers to politicians looking to add a rhetorical flourish to an upcoming speech–a kind of ‘good Puritan’ whose exile from the dour Winthrop regime and apparent concern for individual rights in the face of religious parochialism seems to map neatly onto present pleasantries. Indeed, ”Williams has been variously depicted by free-thinkers, rationalists, humanists, radical individualists, civil libertarians, Protestant separatists, religious seekers, progressives, and democrats as one of their own.”
Daniel Dreisbach, in a review of John Barry’s recent biography of the man, argues that, while it’s true that Williams sought to establish a refuge for “conscience” against certain Puritan laws he could not abide, his motivations for doing so were hardly rooted in some kind of universal humanitarianism, and his vision of conscience was in some ways even narrower than the rule of those he fled. In leaving home, Williams was pursuing a “relentless quest [...] to separate the true church from theological impurity and the unclean world.” His objection to the Commonwealth loyalty oath, for example, arose because he felt it “constituted state compulsion of an act of worship and forced the “unregenerate” person to take God’s name in vain.”
Placing too much emphasis on Williams’s core Calvinist, Puritan convictions would have complicated [the] narrative. The establishment Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, the heirs of Calvin and Calvin’s Geneva, are depicted as the embodiment of intolerance, close-mindedness, and authoritarianism. While not denying that Williams remained a Puritan, Barry’s portrayal of Massachusetts is a convenient foil for Williams’s tolerance, open-mindedness, and democratic impulses. Barry offers little insight into how Calvinism spawned these two very different exemplars of Puritanism. More important, the reader could easily miss the fact that Williams was a radical Puritan whose theology was more similar to than different from his Puritan nemeses in Massachusetts.
None of this, of course, should be to the discredit of Williams’ legacy. But knowing the actual circumstances of his life’s work, aside from sharpening our collective historical accuracy, also points to the fact that many of the liberal achievements we now take for granted (the protection of individual conscience, for instance) could only have arisen in circumstances where real theological disagreements were at stake between two groups equally committed to their religious faith. And outcomes like increased tolerance of religious diversity–today regarded as a self-evident goods and ends-in-themselves–were often not the result of a ‘secular party’ battling a ‘fanatical’ one, nor even really what those we now dub “reformers” set out to achieve.
Read Dreisbach’s full review here.
h/t: Richard M. Reinsch