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All People Matter

Roger Williams—Colonial Champion Of Tolerance & Equality


The great religious dissenter Roger Williams is the founder of Rhode Island. He was exiled from Massachusetts because he differed with the rulers of Massachusetts Bay Colony about the best way to communicate with God.


The view that Williams held, that God could reached by any person, led naturally to his embracing ideas of the equality of all persons and religious liberty long before their time. (If that time has arrived even today.)


Williams lived between 1603 and 1683. He was a Christian who followed no specific creed. He organized Rhode Island on the basis of religious liberty and the equal rights of its citizens.


Rhode Island was established at Providence in 1636. In a fashion similar to my earlier post about John Cotton, here are observations about Williams done with the assistance of Vernon L. Parrington’s The Colonial Mind 16201800. This book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1928. 


Parrington writes— As a transcendental mystic he was a forerunner of Emerson….discovering an indwelling God in a world of material things, as a speculative seeker…. ( he discovered) the hope of a more liberal society in the practice of an open mind… 


Seeing a more open society by having an open mind—This offers a clue to what an individual can do without the aid of institutions or even without the support of others. You can imagine a better world and then help make it a reality.


Roger Williams was the most provocative thinker thrown upon the Massachusetts shores…the one original thinker amongst a number of capable social architects…he was the “first rebel against the divine church-order established in the wilderness”…but he was very much more than that; he was a rebel against all the stupidities that interposed a barrier betwixt men and their dreams.


The “social architects” may have had in mind a process by which the new colony would be organized and structured, but Williams had a real vision of how things should be. From that vision came clear understanding of what people really wanted in their lives.


He lived in the realm of ideas, of inquiry and of discussion; and his actions were creatively determined by principles the bases of which he examined with critical insight…..he was the incarnation of Protestant individualism, seeking new social ties to take the place of those that were loosening.


He was a product of ideas and discussion, and he turned those ideas and discussion into a working colony that still exists over 350 years later in the form of the State of Rhode Island. Relevant to the changes we are facing today with globalization, Williams had the ability to imagine the relationships and the type of society would replace the failing old order.


It was the spirit of love that served as a teacher to him; love that exalted the meanest to equality with the highest in the divine republic of Jesus….He regarded his fellow men literally as the children of God….and from this primary conception he deduced his political philosophy.


It’s the bottom line of any humane and just organization of a society—Everybody is an equal.


Much of his life was devoted to the problem of discovering a new basis for social reorganization, and his intellectual progress was marked by an abundant wreckage of obsolete theory and hoary wreckage that strewed his path.


It takes a lot of mental effort to get past the prevailing views of the day. I’m sure that along the way Williams had to discard many things he once held as true.


In accord with a long line of liberal thinkers…he accepted the major deductions of the compact theory of the state: that government is a man-made institution, that it rests on consent, and that it is founded upon the assumed equality of the subjects…..he had only to translate those abstractions into concrete terms and apply them realistically to create a new and vital theory….he located sovereignty in the total body of citizens.


Again—The ability to take an idea and make it something solid. This is the test of a visionary leader.  Realistic application of these ideas is, of course, also part of the plan.


...Roger Williams was a confirmed individualist…


And from that basis of individualism, Williams concerned himself with the lives of others. That is one of the most difficult things to explain—That to care for others you must often start from a position that might at first appear isolated or abstract.


It’s difficult for some not to allow a notion of themselves as individualists to take over their personality at the expense of the connections that can result from free thought and inquiry.


The reluctant judgment of Cotton Mather that Roger Williams “had the root of the matter in him” 


What more can you say about somebody than that they understood the core of the matter. It’s one of the highest compliments you can pay anybody. 

(Previous posts on John Cotton and Anne Hutchinson have generated a great deal of traffic to the blog. It’s great to know others share my interest in these subjects. I’d love to have your comments. Click here please for all my posts to date on the subject of Colonial America.)  



September 28, 2007 Posted by | Best Posts July-Dec. 2007, Books, Colonial America, History | 3 Comments