The Providence Plantations, by George Bancroft

Roger Williams and the Settlement of Providence, Rhode Island – 1636



WHILE the state was thus connecting by the closest bonds the energy of its faith with its form of government, Roger Williams, after remaining two years or a little more in Plymouth, accepted a second invitation to Salem. The ministers in the bay and of Lynn used to meet once a fortnight at each other’s houses, to debate some question of moment; at this, in November, 1633, Skelton and Williams took some exception, for fear the custom might grow into a presbytery or a superintendency, to the prejudice of the church’s liberties; but such a purpose was disclaimed, and all were clear that no church or person can have power over another church. Not long afterward, in January, 1634, complaints were made against Williams for a paper which he had written at Plymouth, to prove that a grant of land in New England from an English king could not be perfect except the grantees “compounded with the natives.” The opinion sounded like treason against the charter of the colony; Williams was willing that the offensive manuscript should be burned; and so explained its purport that the court, applauding his temper, declared “the matters not so evil as at first they seemed.”

Yet his generosity and forbearance did not allay a jealousy of his radical opposition to the established system of theocracy, which he condemned, because it plucked up the roots of civil society and brought all the strifes of the state into the garden and paradise of the church. The government avoided an explicit rupture with the church of England; Williams would hold no communion with it on account of its intolerance; “for,” said he, “the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience is most evidently and lamentably contrary to the doctrine of Jesus Christ.” The magistrates insisted on the presence of every man at public worship; Williams reprobated the law; the worst statute in the English code was that which did but enforce attendance upon the parish church. To compel men to unite with those of a different creed he regarded as an open violation of their natural rights; to drag to public worship the irreligious and the unwilling seemed only like requiring hypocrisy. “An unbelieving soul is dead in sin,” such was his argument; and to force the indifferent from one worship to another “was like shifting a dead man into several changes of apparel.” “No one should be bound to worship, or,” he added, “to maintain a worship, against his own consent.” “What!” exclaimed his antagonists, amazed at his tenets; “is not the laborer worthy of his hire?” “Yes,” replied he, “from them that hire him.”

The magistrates were selected exclusively from the members of the church; with equal propriety, reasoned Williams, might “a doctor of physick or a pilot” be selected according to his skill in theology and his standing in the church.

It was objected to him that his principles subverted all good government. The commander of the vessel of state, replied Williams, may maintain order on board the ship, and see that it pursues its course steadily, even though the dissenters of the crew are not compelled to attend the public prayers of their companions.

But the controversy finally turned on the question of the rights and duty of magistrates to guard the minds of the people against corrupting influences, and to punish what would seem to them error and heresy. Magistrates, Williams protested, are but the agents of the people, or its trustees, on whom no spiritual power in matters of worship can ever be conferred, since conscience belongs to the individual, and is not the property of the body politic; and with admirable dialectics, clothing the great truth in its boldest and most general forms, he asserted that “the civil magistrate may not intermeddle even to stop a church from apostasy and heresy,” “that his power extends only to the bodies and goods and outward estate of men.” With corresponding distinctness, he foresaw the influence of his principles on society. “The removal of the yoke of soul-oppression,” to use the words in which, at a later day, he confirmed his early view, “as it will prove an act of mercy and righteousness to the enslaved nations, so it is of binding force to engage the whole and every interest and conscience to preserve the common liberty and peace.”

The same magistrates who punished Eliot, the apostle of the Indian race, for censuring their measures, could not brook the independence of Williams; and the circumstances of the times seemed to them to justify their apprehensions. An in tense jealousy was excited in England against Massachusetts; “members of the general court received intelligence of some episcopal and malignant practices against the country;” and the magistrates on the one hand were careful to avoid all unnecessary offence to the English government, on the other were consolidating their own institutions, and even preparing for resistance. It was in this view that the freeman’s oath was appointed, by which every freeman was obliged to pledge his allegiance, not to King Charles, but to Massachusetts. There was room for scruples on the subject; and an English lawyer would have questioned the legality of the measure. The liberty of conscience, for which Williams contended, denied the right of a compulsory imposition of an oath: when, in March, 1635, he was summoned before the court, he could not renounce his belief; and his influence was such “that the government was forced to desist from that proceeding.” To the magistrates he seemed the ally of a civil faction; to himself he appeared only to make a frank avowal of truth. Before the tribunals, he spoke with the distinctness of clear and settled convictions. He was fond of discussion; and to the end of his life was always ready for controversy, as the means “to bolt out the truth to the bran.”

The court at Boston remained as yet undecided; the church of Salem—those who were best acquainted with Williams—taking no notice of the recent investigations, elected him their teacher. Immediately the ministers met together, and declared any one worthy of banishment who should obstinately assert that “the civil magistrate might not intermeddle even to stop a church from apostasy and heresy;” the magistrates delayed action, only that a committee of divines might have time to repair to Salem and deal with Williams and with the church in a church way. Meantime, the people of Salem were blamed for their choice of a religious guide; and a tract of land, to which they had a claim, was withheld from them as a punishment.

To the ministers Williams frankly but temperately explained his doctrines; and he was armed at all points for their defence. In conjunction with the church, he wrote “letters unto all the churches whereof any of the magistrates were members, that they might admonish the magistrates of their injustice.”

At the next general court, Salem was disfranchised till an ample apology for the letter should be made. The town submitted; so did the church. Williams was left alone. Anticipating the censures of the colonial churches, he declared himself no longer subjected to their spiritual jurisdiction. “My own voluntary withdrawing from all these churches, resolved to continue in persecuting the witnesses of the Lord, presenting light unto them, I confess it was mine own voluntary act; yea, I hope the act of the Lord Jesus, sounding forth in me the blast, which shall in his own holy season cast down the strength and confidence of those inventions of men.” Summoned in October to appear before the representatives of the state, he “maintained the rocky strength” of his convictions, and held himself “ready to be bound and banished, and even to die in New England,” rather than renounce them.

The members of the general court of 1635 pronounced against him the sentence of exile, yet not by a very large majority. Some, who consented to his banishment, would never have yielded but for the persuasions of Cotton; and the judgment was vindicated, not as a restraint on freedom of conscience, but because the application of the new doctrine to the construction of the patent, to the discipline of the churches, and to the “oaths for making tryall of the fidelity of the people,” seemed about “to subvert the fundamental state and government of the country.”

Winter was at hand; Williams obtained permission to remain till spring, intending then to begin a new plantation. But the affections of the people of Salem revived; they thronged to his house to hear him whom they were so soon to lose forever; “many of the people were much taken with the apprehension of his godliness;” his opinions were contagious; the infection spread widely. It was therefore resolved to remove him to England in a ship that was just ready to set sail. In January, 1636, a warrant was accordingly sent to him to come to Boston and embark. For the first time he declined the summons of the court. A pinnace was sent for him; the officers repaired to his house; he was no longer there. Three days before, he had left Salem, in winter snow and inclement weather, of which he remembered the severity even in his late old age. “For fourteen weeks he was sorely tost in a bitter season, not knowing what bread or bed did mean.” Often in the stormy night he had neither fire, nor food, nor company; often he wandered without a guide, and had no house but a hollow tree. But he was not without friends. The respect for the rights of others, which had led him to defend the freedom of conscience, had made him the champion of the Indians. He had learned their language during his residence at Plymouth, had often been the guest of the neighboring sachems; and now, when he came in winter to the cabin of the chief of Pokanoket, he was welcomed by Massassoit; and “the barbarous heart of Canonicus, the chief of the Narragansetts, loved him as his son to the last gasp.” “The ravens,” he relates, “fed me in the wilderness.” And, in requital for their hospitality, he was ever through his long life their friend and benefactor; the apostle of Christianity to them without hire, or weariness, or impatience at their idolatry; the pacificator of their own feuds; the guardian of their rights, whenever Europeans attempted an invasion of their soil.

He first began to build and plant at Seekonk, which was within the patent of Plymouth. “That ever-honored Governor Winthrop,” says Williams, “privately wrote to me to steer my course to the Narragansett bay, encouraging me from the freeness of the place from English claims or patents. I took his prudent motion as a voice from God.”

In June, the law-giver of Rhode Island, with five companions, embarked on the stream; a frail Indian canoe contained the founder of an independent state and its earliest citizens. Tradition has marked the spring of water near which they landed. To express unbroken confidence in the mercies of God, he called the place PROVIDENCE. “I desired,” said he, “it might be for a shelter for persons distressed for conscience.”

In his new abode, “My time,” wrote Williams of himself, “was not spent altogether in spiritual labors; but day and night, at home and abroad, on the land and water, at the hoe, at the oar, for bread.” Within two years others fled to his asylum. The land which he occupied was within the territory of the Narragansetts. In March, 1638, an Indian deed from Canonicus and Miantonomoh made him the undisputed possessor of an extensive domain; but he “always stood for liberty and equality, both in land and government.” The soil became his “own as truly as any man’s coat upon his back;” and he “reserved to himself not one foot of land, not one tittle of political power, more than he granted to servants and strangers.” “He gave away his lands and other estate to them that he thought were most in want, until be gave away all.”

So long as the number of inhabitants was small, public affairs were transacted by a monthly town meeting. A commonwealth was built up where the will of the greater number of householders or masters of families, and such others as they should admit into their town fellowship, should govern the state; yet “only in civil things;” God alone was respected as the Ruler of conscience.

At a time when Germany was desolated by the implacable wars of religion; when even Holland could not pacify vengeful sects; when France was still to go through the fearful struggle with bigotry; when England was gasping under the despotism of intolerance; almost half a century before William Penn became an American proprietary; and while Descartes was constructing modern philosophy on the method of free reflection—Roger Williams asserted the great doctrine of intellectual liberty, and made it the corner-stone of a political constitution. It became his glory to found a state upon that principle, and to stamp himself upon its rising institutions, in characters so deep that the impress has remained to the present day, and can never be erased without the total destruction of the work. The principles which he first sustained amid the bickerings of a colonial parish, next asserted in the general court of Massachusetts, and then introduced into the wilds on Narragansett bay, he found occasion, in 1644, to publish in England, and to defend as the basis of the religious freedom of mankind; so that, borrowing the language employed by his antagonist in derision, we may compare him to the lark, the pleasant bird of the peaceful summer, that, “affecting to soar aloft, springs upward from the ground, takes his rise from pale to tree,” and at last utters his clear carols through the skies of morning. He was the first person in modern Christendom to establish civil government on the doctrine of the liberty of conscience, the equality of opinions before the law; and in its defence he was the harbinger of Milton, the precursor and the superior of Jeremy Taylor. For Taylor limited his toleration to a few Christian sects; the wisdom of Williams compassed mankind. Taylor favored partial reform, commended lenity, argued for forbearance, and entered a special plea in behalf of each tolerable sect; Williams would permit persecution of no opinion, of no religion, leaving heresy unharmed by law, and orthodoxy unprotected by the terrors of penal statutes. Taylor clung to the necessity of positive regulations enforcing religion and eradicating error, like the poets, who first declare their hero to be invulnerable, and then clothe him in earthly armor; Williams was willing to leave Truth alone, in her own panoply of light, believing that, if in the ancient feud between Truth and Error the employment of force could be entirely abrogated, Truth would have much the best of the bargain. High honors are justly awarded to those who advance the bounds of human knowledge, but a moral principle has a much wider and nearer influence on human happiness; nor can any discovery be of more direct benefit to society than that which is to establish in the world the most free activity of reason and a perpetual religious peace. Had the territory of Rhode Island been large, the world would at once have been filled with wonder and admiration at its history. The excellency of the principles on which it rested its earliest institutions is not diminished by the narrowness of the land in which they were for the first time tested. Let, then, the name of Roger Williams be preserved in universal history as one who advanced moral and political science, and made himself a benefactor of his race.

The most touching trait in the founder of Rhode Island was his conduct toward those who had driven him out of their society. He says of them truly: “I did ever, from my soul, honor and love them, even when their judgment led them to afflict me.” In his writings he inveighs against the spirit of intolerance, and never against his persecutors or the colony of Massachusetts. We shall presently behold him requite their severity by exposing his life at their request and for their benefit. It is not strange, then, if “many hearts were touched with relentings.” The half-wise Cotton Mather concedes that many judicious persons confessed him to have had the root of the matter in him; and the immediate witnesses of his actions declared him, from “the whole course and tenor of his life and conduct, to have been one of the most disinterested men that ever lived, a most pious and heavenly minded soul.”

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Americanist History is researched, compiled, formatted for the Internet by Steve Farrell. The copyright of the original text of George Bancroft’s History of the United States is held in the Public Domain.