Wednesday, December 21, 2011

One of the Most Consistent Men in the World: Roger Williams

Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and one of the most consistent men in the history of the world, at least whom I've ever read about, was born on December 21 in 1603. He was born and baptized in London, although the records were destroyed in the Great Fire of London. He studied at Cambridge and was ordained in the Church of England, but he was not only a Puritan, but a Separatist. Williams was convinced that the Church of England was a totally corrupt church and that a new church must be formed.

He came to the New World in 1631 with his wife Mary and had six children. Williams soon propounded his three main ideas: separatism, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion. To the colonial leaders, the second idea seemed very strange. Williams disagreed with the state enforcing any laws based upon the first of the commandments (against idolatry and blasphemy, for keeping the sabbath, etc) but demanded absolute freedom of religion. Please note, however, that he thought Catholics should wear some article of clothing to identify them.

At the same time, his separatist beliefs were stretched to their most consistent conclusion: Williams left the Church of England, the Congregational/Puritan community, the Baptists, and finally any visible, institutional church. He doubted the efficacy of his own baptism, since it was administered by a Church of England minister; he doubted the efficacy of anyone's baptism, since at some point the minister would have been part of the Church of England or some other corrupt, papist-tinged church. Williams looked for a new apostle to be sent by God to establish a new church, because all the others on earth were corrupt.

Read more about his career here, including his exile from the Massachusetts colony and his new settlement in Providence. He was baptized again in 1638 in the first Baptish church in Providence--but he stayed there only a few months because, again, he became convinced that it was not separate enough, and somehow tainted by the Great Apostacy of the ancient church. Williams' absolute consistency led him, as Perry Miller explained in his biography, to be a kind of non-Christian hoping for Christianity to be re-established on earth. Edward S. Morgan's book, Roger Williams: The Church and the State is also helpful for understanding this most consistent, uncompromising man.

As I read Morgan's book in particular, I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson's saying: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." For how could Roger Williams reconcile his separatism and lack of faith in Christian baptism and the Church with Jesus Christ's statements in Holy Scripture promising His constant presence with His Church on earth and the power of the Holy Spirit to guide His followers? My little mind just can't figure that out.

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