Monday, September 10, 2012

Tolerating Roger Williams

An orthodox rebel makes his own new world

The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.

The first vivid landmark in the long-term transformation from God-made man to self-made man is furnished by Roger Williams. Williams was an ordained minister in the Church of England who had studied at Cambridge with the great English jurist Edward Coke. Like a lot of Pilgrims and Puritans, Williams thought long and hard before declaring his dissidence, and like them grappled – perhaps agonized is a better word – over whether or not to renounce it, and what church to join. The Pilgrims, of course, had decided to abandon the Church of England entirely. The founders of Massachusetts Bay, whom Williams joined the year after their arrival in 1630, did not formally renounce their ties for another generation.* In some ways, that made their situation more difficult, because they had to weigh how much of the backsliding and corruption they could safely tolerate.
Williams, as it turned out, could tolerate very little. Eagerly received in Boston – trained ministers were a scarce commodity – he immediately alienated his hosts by declining to serve as assistant minister in the Boston church because he found it insufficiently rigorous. Williams was then invited to join the church in the town of Salem, which was further along toward the Separatist end of the spectrum. The Boston authorities warned that church this would be an impolitic move, however, and the offer was withdrawn. In 1632 Williams then did the logical thing and proceeded to Plymouth, where his brand of Separatism was explicitly embraced. But he didn’t fare well there, either, in part because he continued an unnerving habit of asking the question whether New England authorities had negotiated in good faith with area Indians before taking over the land they occupied – and whether in the fact the King had a legal basis for governing it. His controversial opinions led to him back to Salem, where he took on unofficial duties at the church. When Massachusetts officials got wind of Williams’s ongoing propensity to make questionable assertions, he was hauled before the colony’s General Court in 1634. He was able to smooth over the conflict that time, in part by promising not to raise the issue of whether the colony was founded on legitimate terms. When, as acting pastor of the church, he did so again, Williams was tried and convicted for heresy and sedition in 1635. His sentence was banishment. Rather than wait to be forcibly removed, which would have probably involved being shipped back to England, Williams braved a severe New England snowstorm and made his way to Narragansett Bay, where he founded a colony he called Providence in 1636.
Roger Williams was clearly an unusual man. And yet even as he was understood by himself and others to be a maverick, he was, in a way that matters decisively here, the quintessential Puritan. At the very heart of the Protestant experience in general, and the Puritan imagination in particular, was an insistence on the primacy of one’s own conscience. One of the major problems with the Catholic Church from a Protestant perspective was the way in which priests mediated between God and his people. That mediation was both (inevitably) corrupt and unnecessary. Puritans placed particular emphasis on people experiencing the word of Christ themselves, which is one reason why they placed such emphasis on the written world, even as they continued to rely on trained interpretation of clergy – who, nevertheless, they chose (and paid) to minister to their spiritual health. With remarkable rapidity, seventeenth century New England became of the most literate places on the face of the earth; the first printing press in English North America was established at Cambridge in 1638, a time when the Puritans were hardly out of the woods in any sense. Their desire, their need, to actively exercise their faith was hugely important.
But for that very reason, they felt compelled to temper that passion. Their insistence on a deeply personal, intimate relationship with Christ could not could not be allowed to reach a point where they believed they had some special knowledge or insight about God’s will: this was precisely the source of their grievance with Rome. They were deeply mindful of the sin of pride because they were so susceptible to it. This is why they agonized about whether they should leave a church that was not to their liking: was it their conscience or their vanity speaking? So it was that the first governor of Massachusetts Bay, John Winthrop, admonished his fellow migrants in his famous address “A Model of Christian Charity,” that “no man is made more honorable than another, or more wealthy, etc., of out any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creation and the common good of the creature, man.” Common good. As he famously said later in the same address, “we must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and the community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”
It has long been recognized that the Puritans were among the most communitarian people who settled English North America. Certainly they were more so than the adventurers of Virginia (who, as I will explain, developed their own version of the self-made man). But one way of reading the repeated refrain of togetherness in “A Model of Christian Charity” is as a warning: you don’t have to remind people to stick together unless you have some concern they won’t. And, in fact, the Puritans were notable for their tendency to scatter: New Haven, Hartford, New Hampshire (a colony which had already been established, but which they overran), not to mention the multiple towns that sprang up within them: all these colonies represented splinter groups who created new settlements out of a desire to do their own thing, spiritually and otherwise, even as they hesitated to renounce the Church of England entirely.
And this is what made Williams the Puritan par excellence. He founded – and in a half-century as a tireless administrator, solidified and protected – Rhode Island as a haven of tolerance. It’s important to make clear, however, that this was simply a means to an end: Williams wanted the right to worship as he (and he alone, as he refused to pray even with his wife) saw fit. He did help establish the first Baptist church in America, but his solitary spirit – what he himself described as “the restless unsatisfiedness of my soul” (Gausted 182) – a quickly asserted itself and he left it. Williams has long been recognized for his unusually good relationships with Native Americans, in part because he learned their language and bargained with them in good faith. But at some level he was comfortable with Indians because in their paganism they posed no risk of Christian hypocrisy. Figuratively speaking, he belonged to a congregation of one.
 Given this disposition, what may be most striking of all about is the way he somehow managed to stay on remarkably good terms with so many people. (He did have a long-running argument with the Puritan minister John Cotton, the opening salvo of which, the 1644 tract “The Bloody Tenet of Persecution,” used the word “bloody” in something resembling the modern profane sense of the term.) John Winthrop opposed Williams before the General Court expelled him, and yet the two enjoyed a cordial correspondence for many years. One of the many roles Williams played was that of diplomat, serving as mediator between the English and Indians in a variety of capacities. He was not always successful – the outbreak of King Philip’s War, the bloodiest per capita in American history, ravaged Rhode Island along with the rest of New England – but few people in American history have come as close as he did in hewing a world of his own making from the sheer force of his philosophical vision. In the words of the great Puritan scholar Edmund Morgan, “Never was a man of action more an intellectual.” 
Next: Anne Hutchinson sees for herself

* After a Civil War of the 1640s in which the Puritans in England prevailed, the Stuart monarchy was restored in 1660, at which point the Pilgrims finally gave up and founded what we have come to know as the Congregational Church, one of the more loosely federated denominations within American Protestantism. A political merger between the Puritans and Pilgrims occurred when Plymouth became part of Massachusetts in 1691.