Monday, June 9, 2008

Roger Williams: Restorationist

Nearly every student of early American history has heard the tale of Roger Williams. His story is usually told from the perspective of his being a brave rogue of religious radicalism, who defied the Puritans of Massachusetts and established a community of religious toleration in Rhode Island. While this version of the Williams story is generally true, there is a deeper saga that is often omitted from the Williams chronicle.

As we all know, Williams was a deeply inquisitive man. His knack for questioning everything around him -- particularly in the religious arena -- caused Williams to constantly push the religious envelope. Though he originally embraced Puritan theology, Williams' concerns about an attachment to the Church of England -- which he saw as a continuation of Roman Catholic dominion as the Antichrist -- caused him to adopt a more Separatist perspective. Inspired by these anti-Church of England sentiments, Williams embraced the admonition of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:17 to, "come out from among them, and be ye separate."

Upon his arrival to the "New World," Williams took his religious views even further. Instead of following the traditional beliefs of the early Puritans in Massachusetts, Williams chose to criticize his new neighbors for what he saw as a lack of penance. While Massachusetts Puritans were happy to accept both the godly and ungodly in their worship services -- with an exception being made for the Lord's Supper -- Williams believed that those outside of God's grace should not be permitted to worship with God's elect. In other words, those who had not yet experienced God's saving grace could not even attend the same services as those that had received God's grace (See The Hireling Ministry None of Christs). In addition, Williams also believed that any person who had not repented for his/her former association with the Church of England was in danger of losing their salvation. As Williams stated:

"why although I confesse with joy the care of the New English Churches, that no person be received to Fellowship with them, in whom they cannot first discerne true Regeneration, and the life of Jesus: yet I said and still affirm, that godlie and regenerate persons are not fitted to constitute the true Christian Church, untill it hath pleased God to convince their soules of the evill of the falce Church, Ministry, Worship etc. And although I confesse that godly persons are not dead but living Trees, not dead, but living Stones, and need no new regeneration, yet need they a mighty worke of God's Spirit to humble and ashame them, and to cause them to loath themselves for their Abominations or stincks in Gods nostrils..." (The Complete Writings of Roger Williams, vol. 1, 350).
These religious views, which eventually landed Williams in trouble with the Puritans of Massachusetts, only tell part of the story. Williams' departure to Rhode Island actually caused him to further question his faith. Williams began to question the validity of his baptism and those of his followers, which eventually helped to spawn the Anabaptist movement. As Williams continued to ponder the Bible and its teachings, he eventually came to the shocking conclusion that no church had the authority to assemble in Christ's name. His reasoning was simple: The apostles commissioned by Christ had been his personal ministers on earth. Until Christ returned to the earth and renewed the apostleship, no person/persons had the right or authority to gather as a Christian Church. Williams makes this belief clear when he writes:

I desired to have been dilligent and Constant Observer, and have been my selfe many ways engaged in City, in Countrey, in Court, in Schools, in Universities, in Churches, in Old and New-England, and yet cannot in the holy presence of God bring in the Result of a satisfying discovery, that either the Begetting Ministry of the Apostles or Messengers to the Nations, or Feeding and Nourishing Ministry of Pastors and Teachers, according to the first Institution of the Lord Jesus, are yet restored and extant" (The Complete Writing of Roger Williams, vol. III, 160).
Williams further adds credence to his argument when he writes:

"If Christs Churches were utterly nullified, and quite destroyed by Antichrist, then I demande when they beganne againe and where? who beganne them? that we may knowe, by what right and power they did beginne them: for we have not heard of any new Jo: Baptist, nor of any other newe waye from heaven, by which they have begunne the Churches a newe" (John Winthrop Papers, vol. III, 11. Quoted in Roger Williams: The Church and the State, 52, by Edmund Morgan).
In much the same way that Thomas Jefferson believed that the original doctrine of Christ had been changed over time, Williams believed that the religion and authority of Christ was not on the earth, and would not return until Christ's Second Coming. In essence, Williams' religious beliefs should be classified as those of a Restorationist. In this sense, Williams can be compared with the Restorationist beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Smith, Jemima Wilkinson, etc.


Lori Stokes said...

Brad, what a great article!! Roger Williams' story is indeed so much more interesting than his legend.

He got booted out of Massachusetts for saying that the Puritan settlers had no right to the land because it was given to them by King Charles, and Charles was a false king and a devil who had no authority on Earth. Williams wanted a group of Mass Puritans to go back to England, rip up their royal charter, then try to save the king's soul and get a new charter. For Puritans trying desperately not to offend the king and be put under royal control, this was too much.

And in Rhode Island, before his breakthrough that no church was valid, he had "separated" so much that only his wife and himself were allowed to meet as a church or share communion. Then he snapped back the other way and began to welcome everyone, which is the Williams we know and love.

Pinky said...

What I find most interesting in these facts of history is that they show us how we have come to believe the way we do--how we think about things.
Those times are imprinted in our minds as the ideas men held then grew and developed in our ancestors' personal lives and right up and until the present time. It is how we have come to be who it is that we are.

Good article.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks for the comments, Pinky and Lori. Williams has always been one of my favorite figures of early American history. The more I study him, the more questions I seem to have. He's simply a fascinating individual.

richp said...

I realize I'm responding to a post that more than two years old, but it includes a significant error: Roger Williams has no connection whatsover to the creation and development of Anabaptism. Rather, Anabaptism was born on January 21, 1525, in Zurich -- more than 75 years before Williams was even born. The first Anabaptists (Mennonites) arrived in the New World in 1683 from Krefeld, Germany.