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Monday, April 2, 2012

Rhode Island Governor Roger Williams, Founding Father

I'm not sure if we're related, but Roger Williams and our ancestor, Mary Elizabeth Williams (m. John Denman, b.1701, and founder of Cranford, New Jersey; parents of our 5th g-grandfather, Daniel Denman) -- are both described in historical records as being "of Welsh descent".

And since I feel very sympathetic toward much of this interesting man's philosophies and experiences, I would like to quote at length about him from Joseph Dillaway Sawyer's excellent tome, "History of the Pilgrims and Puritans - Their Ancestry and Descendants", c1922, volume ll, beginning on page 320:

"Roger Williams, when famous in the Pilgrim and Puritan colonies, was not the settled-down old governor, the wise and calm man, with both experience and prolonged self-examination; but in fiery youth, and described as "having windmills in his head."  To Bradford's view, he was "very unsettled in judgement."  His arrival at Plymouth, not long after he landed at Boston from the ship Lion, February 5, 1631*, was an event which has proved to be the seed of a large crop of controversial literature.  It followed after his Boston and Salem experiences, where for a time in his eloquent preaching two cardinal points, very obnoxious to his critics, were emphasized.  He insisted first that every true pilgrim and Puritan should abstain from formalism*2 and express contrition for ever having indulged in such worship, which was mainly through symbols*3 and not by direct approach to God.  Even when visiting England, a true believer should refrain from entering the parish church, the church of his youth and that of his neighbors.

"Thus at one blow this sensational preacher would cut the roots that had nourished the deepest affections of life.  His second insistence was his belief that a royal charter giving what was not owned was an insult to the Indian*4, who claimed sovereignty over his native soil.  A scholar in Dutch, and living among these people*5, who were very prone to treat all men alike*6, by recognizing humanity under all colors of skin, Roger Williams, the Welshman*7, thus slapped royalty in the face*8 by preaching vehemently the doctrine laid down in the charter of the Dutch West India Company.  To an Englishman of that day, when absolution was in the ascendancy, royalty was accepted as a near neighbor of Divinity.

"Williams came to Plymouth heralded by his devoted followers from Boston and Salem*9 who declared that he was 'lively in his carriage, godly and zealous, having special gifts within.'  His radicalism certainly added spice to Plymouth's religious life.  As an assistant to the Reverend Ralph Smith, Williams must have thrown that somewhat commonplace worthy deeply in shadow.  Convincing argument and brilliant rhetoric however did not save the gifted but fiery-tempered Welshman from ultimate banishment*10 even from justice loving Plymouth.  Among the close associates of Williams, showing the fibre of this progressive*11 man, was Sir Edward Coke.  For three years their thoughts ran in grooved companionship.

"A leaning toward Anabaptism (baptism of adults as well as rebaptism of children already christened in the Anglican church)*12 was the reason given by Elder Brewster for brusquely advising Roger Williams to 'move on.'  As Bradford pithily states it, 'Williams fell into strange opinions, and from opinions to practice, ... and I feared he would run a course of rigid Anabaptistry.'  Bradford prayed to God that he would give Williams 'a settled judgment and constancie in ye same.'

"The high-spirited Williams, thus brought to book by both Governor and Elder, indignantly demanded an immediate transfer to the Salem church, which was speedily granted, with the gratuitous caution to said church to 'look out for him.'  This caution was perhaps given somewhat in pique, as a number of Plymouthites accompanied their pastor to Salem.  Elder Brewster was glad to facilitate Williams' removal from Plymouth.  Ever fearless in the presence of their God, the Pilgrim and Puritan still feared the machinations of the evil one as deeply as does the Hindoo of India.  'Williams the disputatious, not a comfortable man to have in one's neighborhood' was the summing up of the Pilgrims as they bade adieu to this Cornish Welshman, born in London.

"Affectionately the Salem church greeted its former minister as a 'prophesier,'*13 and on the death of the Reverend Samuel Skelton, installed Williams as its regular minister -- so forceful and helpful had been his prophesying.  Williams' trouble-making essay on Indian land ownership, being a private paper, was diplomatically overlooked by the august, dictatorial coucil in Boston.

"The wearing of a veil, as did Ruth before Boaz, which Williams states modesty requires of women, gave Reverend John Cotton his opportunity [here, I part ways with Roger Williams, as I disagree with his interpretation of the veil, which I believe according to scripture was worn by Israeli women only when they wished to 'play the harlot' by disguising their identities].  In supplying the Salem pulpit, finding all feminity veiled, the Boston pastor explained that interpretation was incorrect and in no sense applicable.  The next Sabbath, Roger Williams gazed with some astonishment upon a congregation of unveiled women.  Brother John Cotton lost vastly in prestige in Boston's Thursday Lecture, by airing his supine victory.  Then most forcibly did the fiery Endecott, Williams' unswerving friend, come to his rescue.  He girded hard at that minister whose 'insinuating, melting ways' was one of his strongest cards to popularity.  Amazingly like the human nature of our century and of all time, were these exhibitions of subjective personality [I must say I've often been quite turned-off to attending formal church services, due to these same sorts of embarassing ego trips from the pulpit by preachers.  I'm sure I'd have disagreed with Williams' interpretation of the veil; but witnessing Cotton's boastful, manipulative, alpha-male domineering behavior would have enraged me.]

"...In all truth, however, it must be said that the English and American Puritan, like his fellow reformers in many ages and lands -- notably in Palestine and India -- felt it to be his business to seek reality, even at the expense of the the symbol.  He often destroyed the sheath to get at the 'veritas.'  It is by no accident that Harvard College -- first child of the New England Puritans -- adopted as its motto 'Veritas.'  Puritans did it 'pro Christo et ecclesine,' that is, for Christ and His church, borrowing the motto of the Dutch University of Franeker, founded in 1585.

"Williams had the faculty of gaining fast friends in high places as well as low.  Endecott ever fought for him at the drop of the hat and fair-minded Governor Edward Winslow of Plymouth was his staunch advocate.  Williams kept Salem stirred up with his new doctrines until Governor Haynes, chief magistrate of Massachussetts, afterward Governor of Connecticut, sent Captain John Underhill to Salem on a pinnace with a bench-warrant to arrest Williams and ship him to England for trial.  Secretly warned, and advised to fly to the Narragansett [Indian] Country by another friend at court -- in fact, the biggest man in the colony, ex-Governor Winthrop -- Williams took to the woods, filled though they were with savages.  In the new field thus opened he carried forward effective labor for the spiritual and physical welfare of fellow colonists and Indian proteges.

"Like the lion-tamer who was known to fly the tongue of this virago wife by taking refuge in the lion's den, pillowing his head on the animal's body and sleeping in peace until morning, Roger Williams found a truer Salem among the red men, though Rhode Island was long dubbed by jealous neighbors 'The Land of Crooked Sticks,' in allusion to its alleged heretics and its hated toleration of all creeds gathered and sheltered in that little State which became one of the brightest stars in the galaxy which the flag of the American commonwealth flings to the breeze.

"How an audience beyond the size of a baker's dozen or two was ever gathered in Williams' church or how two pastors and a residence could be supported is a question of interest, but here is the church and on file is the statement that is was 'crowded to the doors.'

"Roger Williams tells us that on his memorable forced march into the wilderness, fleeing from sheriff John Underhill, to the new city of refuge among the trees, he was 'lost in a bitter season, not knowing what bed or bread did mean.'  The year 1636 [the elder John Denman was only about 15 yrs old and living in Salem at that time] saw not only real Christianity in the form of acknowledgement of Indian land ownership, but it also witnessed the Narragansetts -- with whom Williams affiliated -- coming to Boston to treat with the Puritans.

"Williams' kindly services helped these and other fraternal meetings between colonists and sons-of-the-forest.

"When homeless Roger Williams, driven into the wilderness by his countrymen*14, reached forth and took into his hand this deed of the site of Providence signed by Miantonomo and other red men, this proof of regard still more deeply stirred his belief in the integrity of the Indian [tragically, Miantonomo was later betrayed and murdered by blood-thirsty Chief Uncas of the Mohegans / Mohicans, who cannibalized his body as he lay dying].  That the red man in this case understood transfer of ownership and land tenure in fee simple, arose from the fact that beside some experience with the English colonists in bartering, one or more had been in Europe and knew the white man's ways.  To all Rhode Islanders this parchment wears a halo, for it is the Indian mark of full confidence in Roger Williams.  Few colonial papers have greater interest to Americans that this insignificant sheet bestowed voluntarily on the banished minister fleeing from Pilgrim and Puritan wrath into the arms of the sympathetic savage.  It was late in life when Williams, wiser than of yore, preached and wrote these words concerning his red friends and their unhygienic domiciles, 'God was pleased to give me a painful, patient spirit, to lodge with them in their filthy, smoky homes (even while I lived at Plymouth and Salem) to gain their tongue [language].'

"Rhode Island having been left out of the New England confederacy as proclaimed and explained by Governor Bradford, it was no wonder the welkin rang and hearts glowed when Roger Williams returned from England with a charter for the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.  This epoch-making event had a mighty influence on the future development of the thirteen colonies.  The charter was wrested from the English king and parliament March 24, 1644.  'No man shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any difference of opinion in matters of religion which does not actually disturb the civil peace of the colony.'

"In spirit and very nearly in words, this was an echo of the order which William of Orange (William the Silent) had given to the magistrates of Middleburg [aka Newtown, NY, I believe; where the elder John Denman and his son settled on land purchased from local Indian chiefs, in partnership with the Scudder brothers] in 1572, which Roger Williams read in the original Dutch and which, with the spirit of the Master who, after bringing in other sheep, 'not of this fold,' had not 'one fold,' but 'one flock,' however diverse in size, color or breed.  Following Williams were the two other Welshmen, William Penn [the great Quaker; Sawyer describes Quakerism as Puritanism taken to its logical conclusion] and Thomas Jefferson, all being America's major prophets of spiritual freedom.

"That Cotton Mather's view was strongly contrariwise is shown by describing Rhode Island in 1695 as a 'colluvies of Antinomians, Familists, Anabaptists, Anti-Sabbatarians, Arminians, Socinians, Quakers, Ranters' and with his usual punctilious regard for exactness of speech, he adds, 'Everything in the world but Roman Catholics and true Christians.'

"Rhode Island was the first to win so great and so broad a charter, and New York was first of the States to follow colonial Rhode Island's noble precedent, and even to enlarge upon it.  Against the commonwealth founded by Roger Williams, the Puritan coined many an offensive epithet and head-shaking proverb, but, unlike sticks or stones, however skillfully hurled, they never hurt.

"Williams had not a few friends in high places.  Governor Winthrop was an interested adviser, and we find Williams -- a Welshman excels in irony -- thus writing, from Sekonk (Rehoboth) of Governor Winslow:  'I received a letter from My Ancient Friend, Mr. Winslow, the Governor of Plymouth, professing his own and others' love and respect for me, yet Lovingly advising me, since I was fallen into the edge of their bounds, and they were loth to displease the Bay (the Colony of Massachussetts, at Boston), to remove to the other side of the river, and there, he said, I had the country before me, and I might be as free as themselves, and we should be loving neighbors together.'

"Again Williams writes, and on this occasion money evidently talked jointly in the interview:  'That great and pious soul, Mr. Winslow, melted and kindly visited me at Providence, and put a piece of gold into the hands of my wife, for our supply.'

"When Williams was seventy-seven years old, and his house burned over his head, the Baye Colony, forcing words instead of works to the fore, relented sufficiently to send 'regrets and sympathy.'  The good man's mind doubtless reverted to the Devonshire proverb:  'Pity without relief is like mustard without the beef.'  In later times, official ingratitude was more clearly shown, when the great State of Virginia handed poverty-stricken John Rogers Clark a sword, when he needed bread.  Little wonder he broke it in twain with his crutch and returned it with the message that will live for all time.

"It was at Williams' instigation that King Philip's war was postponed a few years, when the Indian king, under Williams' eye, signed that treaty in the church at Plymouth, giving the colonists time to prepare for the conflict that was sure to come."

Note: "official ingratitude" hasn't improved any at all, in nearly half a millenium.  Goes to show that we can never count on most of our so-called government "leadership" or "authorities" to lead us anywhere other than to hell.
Exciting news about Roger Williams' writings.

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