Monday, January 27, 2014

Roger Williams Survives the Cold

It has been a cold couple of months for virtually everyone in the United States (with the obvious exception for those in Florida, California, etc.). In some places, the cold is breaking records with temperatures that have not been touched in a century. And as the thermometer continues to plummet in various parts of the eastern states, it's no wonder why so many are growing concerned for those who either cannot afford heat or don't have a warm place to rest their heads.

In the great state of Massachusetts, frigid winter temperatures are a perennial norm. A cold New England weather is what gives character to that part of the country. But for one native New Englander, the cold January weather became a matter of life and death.

After months of hearings regarding matters of theology, Massachusetts Bay officials finally elected to banish Roger Williams, a former Puritan preacher who taught a number of controversial religious beliefs that flew in the face of "traditional" Puritan theology.  Williams, who was granted the courtesy of remaining in the colony until Spring, was eventually forced to flee from the colony, due to his continued efforts at preaching what many saw as heresy.  As Dan Hinchen, a blogger with the Massachusetts Historical Society, explains:
As a blizzard and accompanying gale blustered out of the northeast, the ailing Williams received a secret message from none other than Governor John Winthrop, alerting him to the approaching soldiers. By the time Underhill and his men arrived, Williams had been gone three days. 
Williams escaped with his life, liberty, and little else. Leaving his wife and children behind until he could find a new home, he plunged into the winter woods by himself. "He entered the wilderness ill and alone…Winthrop described that winter as ‘a very bad season.’ The cold was intense, violent; it made all about him crisp and brittle…The cold froze even Narragansett Bay, an extraordinary event, for it is a large ocean bay riven by currents and tidal flows.
"But the cold may also have saved his life: it made the snow a light powder . . . it lacked the killing weight of heavy moisture-laden snow. The snow also froze rivers and streams which he would otherwise have had to ford."ii A silver lining to the winter clouds is one that we benefited from during our last storm and surely made our shoveling much easier.
It is remarkable that Williams was able to survive at all in such conditions.  It is a testament to both his resolve and his ability to negotiate with the native people of the area.

What I admire so much about Roger Williams is the fact that he maintained such incredible resolve in the face of constant difficulty. Not only was Williams undeterred by the fact that Puritan officials were extremely intolerant of anyone preaching anything different from their own interpretation of Christianity (wait, I thought the Puritans came to America to establish "religious freedom"?) but he also remained resolute when faced with expulsion from the colony.  Williams could have remained in Massachusetts until the Spring, but he chose to preach instead, thereby accelerating the need for his rapid departure.

Such devotion based almost exclusively on personal conviction is a rare thing in the world. Maybe that is why I like Roger Williams so much.

[Hat tip: John Fea]


Anonymous said...

It’s always worth reading more about Roger Williams, but it’s worth even more when the essay is even-handed, and does not attempt to impose 21st century standards on 17th century people. Roger Williams was a standard-bearer for the principle of dissent. To put it more plainly, he was an anarchist. And we need anarchists to pull us out of our presuppositions and habits. But anarchists are unsettling neighbors. We can honor his groundbreaking work on freedom and on native relations/language/etc without offering snarky ahistorical remarks about the Puritans and religious freedom. We all know (or should know, if we are historians) that the Puritans emigrated not for religious freedom, but for freedom to practice their own religion absent the religious compulsions of England. Go to the Pennsylvania or Maryland colonies for attempts to establish legal religious diversity. But stop attacking the Puritans for not doing what they never aimed to do. Let Roger Williams’ achievements stand in their own light rather than the shadow of perceived Puritan shortcomings.

Brad Hart said...

Lame comment, dude. Lame comment. Blah, blah, rabble, rabble. Can't even use your name. Go catch a chicken!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not only was Williams undeterred by the fact that Puritan officials were extremely intolerant of anyone preaching anything different from their own interpretation of Christianity (wait, I thought the Puritans came to America to establish "religious freedom"?)

The thesis of Barry Alan Shain's The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought is the the Puritans [and others] saw themselves as communities 1st & foremost.

Here's the Google Books preview, which is almost as good as buying the book.

"Barry Alan Shain challenges us to reconsider what early Americans meant when they used such basic political concepts as the public good, liberty, and slavery. We have too readily assumed, he argues, that eighteenth-century Americans understood these and other terms in an individualistic manner. However, by exploring how these core elements of their political thought were employed in Revolutionary-era sermons, public documents, newspaper editorials, and political pamphlets, Shain reveals a very different understanding--one based on a reformed Protestant communalism.

In this context, individual liberty was the freedom to order one's life in accord with the demanding ethical standards found in Scripture and confirmed by reason. This was in keeping with Americans' widespread acceptance of original sin and the related assumption that a well-lived life was only possible in a tightly knit, intrusive community made up of families, congregations, and local government bodies. Shain concludes that Revolutionary-era Americans defended a Protestant communal vision of human flourishing that stands in stark opposition to contemporary liberal individualism."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Great post Brad. And timely considering the weather.

JMS said...

Brad – you should withdraw your comment as inappropriate. Engage!

Anonymous – your comment is “ahistorical.” Roger Williams was no “anarchist.” A man who graduated from Cambridge, clerked for Edward Coke, became a chaplain to the Masham family (a Puritan baronet and MP), and left England to escape Archbishop Laud’s religious persecution, invited to become a minister at the Boston and Salem churches (although he impolitely declines both), befriended by John Winthrop (in spite of their disagreements), debated George Fox, drafted a charter and successfully lobbied Parliament for “Providence Plantation,” served as governor/president of the colony twice (two non-contiguous two-and-a-half year terms), and became the key intermediary to various Native American communities for Mass Bay, Plymouth and RI up until all hell broke loose in colonial New England with King Philip’s War (1675-76), was hardly an anarchist.

Your comment also implies that Puritans/Puritanism was some monolithic entity, when it really represented a broad spectrum of Calvinist dissenters to the Church of England (and separatists). They mostly agreed about what they did not like in England under Charles I and Laud. But once they crossed the Atlantic, they could not agree on what constituted a godly or Christian commonwealth. Their worldview had no inclusive way to handle dissent. Hence the banishments of fellow Puritans Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams (and many others), and the exclusion of Baptist and Quaker newcomers.
Williams was a spiritual seeker (from Puritan, to Separatist, to Baptist, to like Jefferson, a sect unto himself) and a visionary, who sola scriptura, believed that religious liberty was a biblical truth. As James Byrd noted in his book, “in his reading of the Bible, Williams portrayed Christ as an enemy of persecution who commanded magistrates to ‘see that none of their subjects be persecuted and oppressed for their conscience and worship’ - no matter how heretical or scandalous.” (p. 6, quoting Bloody Tenent, p. 188)

TVD – Shain’s thesis is marred by what reviewer David Zaret (via JSTOR) called “a wooden typology that distinguishes between ’two major patterns of thought, one communal and the other individualistic’" (p. 147). While Zaret noted that Shain “engages the complexity of individualism when [he] acknowledges how Protestantism, rationalism, and republicanism ‘supported varying, though limited, degrees of individual freedom’" (p. 121), Zaret honed in on the main problem that the book, “it misses when the analysis compares 18th-century evidence to a model of [modern] solipsistic individualism.” My main critique of Shain’s book is, how can a book subtitled, "The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought" omit the political thoughts and influences of Roger Williams and William Penn?

Tom Van Dyke said...

TVD – Shain’s thesis is marred by what reviewer David Zaret (via JSTOR)...

Yeah, whatever.

My main critique of Shain’s book is, how can a book subtitled, "The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought" omit the political thoughts and influences of Roger Williams and William Penn?

We cannot argue the exceptions rather than the rule. Williams' Rhode Island was and is a flyspeck; I grew up in Pennsylvania, 2 miles from Wm. Penn's house. He was so way cool.

America wasn't quite founded on working your ass off to create a place for somebody else's religious freedom. Roger Williams fled in the snow, and if William Penn's Quakers weren't so wack, he'd have probably used the money the king owned his dad for something more useful like any normal person, say hookers and blow.

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