Friday, November 26, 2010

Roger Williams: A Founder

Most of the Pilgrims and Puritans who ventured to this continent believed absolutely in their right to immigrate and lay claim to it. They furthermore believed that their version of Christianity was correct, and they tolerated no other versions. Such conviction gave them courage and direction.

Yet, as in all things and all times in history, a few people perceive the truth differently. Roger Williams was such a person.

He lived among the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and he was often the preacher in the pulpit. His unique opinions offended many, and he was forced to flee.

One of his opinions held that the Puritans had no right to seize Native American lands without contract and compensation. Such a notion was completely antithetical to a group who believed themselves ordained by God to carry His word into heathen places and enjoy the riches there. When Williams left Massachusetts Bay, he lived among the Native Americans for several months, surviving because of them and learning from them. When he established his own home and colony, he purchased from the indigenous Natives the land that later becomes the state of Rhode Island.

Another opinion that Williams offered is that Puritan church fathers had no right to discipline men and women for civil infractions. Williams believed that God’s law and man’s law are separate. Indeed, he is one of the first to distinguish between the State and the Church, calling for a separation of powers.

Williams’ seventeenth century beliefs have been tested over time, and the United States has affirmed Williams’ vision. Our judicial system has ruled that reparation should be made to the first Americans. Tribes have sovereignty and income as a result.

In addition, we have long held that the Church and State must be separate in order to insure religious tolerance and freedom. Having witnessed men and women burned at the stake for believing in a Protestant version of Christianity, the Founders feared a State religion that could punish, exile, and execute any who believed differently.

Williams was brave to speak so forthrightly for the rights of Native Americans. He was condemned for challenging the Church fathers. He is surely a man whom Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Leymah Gbowee would recognize as a brother.