by Debra Conley
Roger Williams is one of the most controversial figures of early Christian history in America. In reading numerous sources, one comes across a succinct dichotomy of opinion as to his character and motives. Some thought he was too stubborn about his beliefs, choosing to voice them rather than to remain silent. One view states, “Let him believe whatever he wants as long as he is quiet about it,” because he was seen as one “continuing in an obsession with doctrinal purity; adamant, intellectual self-righteousness.”1 The author said he should have been willing to compromise his conscience for the sake of peace in the community. Williams grew up in the Smithfield area of London where hundreds of dissenters were burned to death for their beliefs. This experience most undoubtedly influenced his fervor. The Puritans banished Williams when he refused to sign an oath respecting the orders of their church. He stated his opposition to these practices: forced church attendance under penalty, refusal to completely separate from the Church of England, taking land from the Indians rather than purchasing it, requiring oaths to the colony (thus making theirs another state ordained church), and using civil magistrates to guard the church.2 There was no question about his knowledge and scriptural discernment, according to both Governors Bradford and Winthrop, who remained his friends even after they banished him. The Plymouth Pilgrims and the Quakers insisted on public reprimand of Williams for speaking his views, which, as others point out, flies in the face of one of the most cherished principles, freedom of speech. Williams separated from these groups, founding his own colony of true religious freedom, Providence, RI.
These principles form the other opinion of Williams, that freedom of conscience, no matter what that led one to believe, is each man’s right. This particular philosophy is one America treasured enough to place into the Constitution (Amendment One) and of which George Washington said that Rhode Island created an era in the history of true liberty.
“Williams was one of those rare people for whom conviction is everything. Such people live out their conscience, regardless of consequences.”3
And so the contention boils down to the question of whether Williams should have stood firm in what he believed to the point of separation, answering only to his conscience, and did he have the right to do so?
1. Marshall, Peter The Light and the Glory (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 1977) p. 242, 243
2. Gibbs, Dr. David C. One Nation Under God (Seminole, FL: Christian Law Assn., 2005) p. 49
3. Ibid. p. 48