Robert Cotner

e are not there yet. We appear to be closer, but with every three steps forward, we seem to take one backward. I speak of the ideal enunciated and demonstrated by Colonial leader Roger Williams (1603?-1683). This brilliant and powerful leader, born in England and educated at Cambridge University, began his career in the study of law and then turned to theology, taking orders in the Anglican Church in 1629.

At odds with Anglican Church authorities, he became a Puritan and relocated to Massachusetts in 1631. There he found the Separatists insufficiently separate. He moved from Boston, where he refused to accept a pastorate, to Plymouth, and then to Salem, where there was a more liberal view than in the other two Colonial settlements. His views regarding the imperialistic treatment of the American Indians, the mingling of affairs of religion and politics, and the church’s failure to welcome people of diverse views caused such grief that, in 1635, the General Court banished him from all jurisdictions surrounding Massachusetts Bay.

In the dead of winter, he went south to what is now Providence, RI, where he and a few followers established a colony, which became known for its openness and its tolerance of all creeds and all peoples. He cultivated friendship with the Narra-gansett Indians, living with them for a time, learning their language, and establishing a cooperative and productive relationship. His first book, in fact, was the much-read A Key into the Language of America (1643).

He became a Baptist for a time before leaving organized religion completely to become what was known as a “Seeker,” an adherent of the faith but not in any organized body. As a Colonial leader, he was singular in his vision, as he expressed it in the “Providence Agreement” of 1640: “We Agree, As formerly hath been the libertyes of the Town: so Still to hold forth Libertye of Conscience.” Liberty of conscience! This was, throughout his long life, a constant theme, his devoted demand within every society of which he was a part. It brought diversity, disorder, even chaos to the society—but rather than kill people for their differences, he said, engage them in discussion, dialog and debate!

In his late 70s, he challenged visiting Quaker George Fox to a four-day debate, covering 14 propositions relating to faith and scripture. Because Fox had a schedule conflict, he appointed three Quaker missionaries to debate. Williams rowed the 30 miles from Providence to Newport, where the first three days of debates were to take place. Massachusetts Bay Colony members were so impressed with Williams’ performance, they published Williams’ final book, George Fox digg’d out of his Burrowes (1676), a summary of his arguments with the Quakers.

Although many of Williams’ papers have been destroyed or lost, he has been remembered through the centuries as, according to his first biographer, “The first founder and supporter of any truly civil government upon earth.” His views on individual liberty, his opposition to a single national church, and his demands for the absolute and complete separation of church and state were elements that had great impact on the minds of the Founding Fathers a century later.v


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