Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Roger Williams’ Banishment

No portrait of Williams exists. This hypothetical
sketch was done in 1936.  This is how I
imagine him.
It’s Roger-Williams-time at last:  the enigmatic puritan whose views on justice were hundreds of years ahead of his time, and who was banished for them; a man drunk on the vision of the glory of God, and who nearly destroyed the fledgling community in Massachusetts.

  I try to pursue my research for this story by letting Anne’s own experience guide the timeline -- so I  research various people and events as Anne would have encountered them.  I should have turned to Williams before this, actually -- he was at Sempringham in the spring of 1629 --  but my Inner Historian has been kicking up a fuss about turning him into a character in a novel (as opposed to the Complex Elusive Historical Figure that he was).  But the deed must be done.  So here goes.

The first stop in Williams’ transformation into a character in a book is of course historical studies.  I have three scholarly works on Williams.  Oddly, they are all slender volumes.  History books not known for being slender.  History books are usually thick, as historians always seem to have plenty to say about stuff that you never wondered about wondering about.  A “short” history work runs around 250 pages.  Typical length is around 400 pages.  None of the Williams’ books top 200 pages.

Part of this is lack of material:  we know very little about his growing-up years, not even the precise year he was born.  I suspect the other part is the complexity and foreign quality of his theology; for the newcomer to puritan New England, it’s just hard to make heads or tails of exactly what everyone was so upset about.  (This is true of the Anne Hutchinson affair as well.)

It’s even hard for us to figure out if was he a Good Guy or a Bad Guy.  Was his banishment from Massachusetts an injustice, or not?  The problem is that Williams was kind of a nut -- as visionaries and forward-thinkers often are -- and he is much easier to get along with from a distance of 400 years than he would be if he were in our own time, sitting on a local school board for instance.

Even history textbooks can’t decide if he was a good guy or a bad guy.  Here’s some samples from my shelf:

From Out of Many:  
     "Williams believed in religious tolerance and the separation of church and state” -- good guy!
     "He also preached that the colonists had no absolute right to Indian land but must bargain for it in good faith” -- good guy!
     "These were considered to be dangerous ideas” -- bad, dumb other Puritans . . . 
     "and in 1636 Williams was banished from the colony.  With a group of his followers, he purchased land from the Indians and founded the town of Providence.” -- good guy!

From Liberty, Equality, Power:  
     "Williams, who served briefly as Salem’s minister, was a Separatist  who refused to worship with anyone who did not explicity repudiate the Anglican Church.” Oooh, sounds pretty narrow  -- bad guy.
     "In 1636, after Williams challenged the king’s right as a Christian to grant Indian lands to anyone at all, the colony banished him.”  Um, the king’s right “as a Christian?"  What’s all that about?  (See, these poor undergrads get these hunks o’ history flung at them in some of these books -- you can tell there’s a lot to this story, and you get two sentences.)  But we’ll say good guy, because we like the Indians and we hate what happened to him.
    "He fled to Narragansett Bay with a few disciples and founded Providence.” -- anyone fleeing persecution has the sympathy of most Americans, so -- good guy.
     "He developed eloquent arguments for religious liberty and the complete separation of church and state.” -- good guy

America, a Narrative History: 
    “Williams' belief that a true church must include only those who had received God’s gift of grace led him eventually to the conclusion that no true church was possible, unless perhaps consisting of his wife and himself.” -- Aha.  Bad guy. Whack job.

Truth was, Boston in 1635 just wasn’t big enough to contain Roger Williams’ ideas, and Williams was temperamentally unable to work patiently to win people over to them.  The mighty tidal wave hit the immovable rock, with predictable results.  What most intrigues me about his story is, long after the shouting was over and he was gone, Williams maintained a friendly correspondence with one of his chief accusers, John Winthrop.  That fact alone, I think, says something about Williams’ appeal, even in his own time.  It makes me look forward to writing him.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Kick a Puritan, Hard

Were you one of those precocious tots who awed their parents and grammar-school classmates by learning to spell, “antidisestablishment- arianism?”  But what does it mean, ha ha?  It means being opposed to cutting off tax monies to a state church -- un-state-churching it, in other words, or in the proper terminology, “disestablishing” it.  An “established” church is one that has a favored status with the state and receives financial support from it.

One of the first things that the government of Boston, Massachusetts did after its founding in 1630 was to establish a church, and they did that by providing that the minister’s salary would come out of tax monies.  “Theocracy asserted itself at once,” sniffed a 20th-century editor of the town’s chronicles.

Anyone smart enough to be in his job should know better.  This was not the establishment of a “theocracy.”  Most of our 13 colonies had state churches.   They did not invent the practice, either.  The Anglican Church back home was (and still is) an established church.  The four colonies that did not have state churches (Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Rhode Island) were bucking a centuries-old tide.  As it turned out, that tide turned out to be the tide of the future, so those four came out looking pretty good.

So why didn’t the above history expert realize this?  Maybe he just goofed up . . . or maybe it was that the Puritans present such a tempting target for all things unAmerican.  When the subject is the Puritans, then providing for the minister can only mean theocracy, the rule by a narrow ministerial class over and against the wishes of the people.

The Puritans get that a lot, and I think the reason for it (in America, anyhow) is the Salem witch trials.  That was such a horrendous event that the rest of New England history is read, backwards and forwards, in its light.

Yet most of New England legal and social practices were pretty much in line with their century, Salem witch trials excepted.  It was a violent era, and an unfree one, wherever you were.  Freedom of worship was unknown in all the colonies except rogue Rhode Island; even Pennsylvania required a belief in God amongst its colonists.  And the story is never as black-and-white as we’d like to make it; for instance, even as they established tax-based churches, Massachusetts also banned ministers from holding public office, because they themselves had had a very bad experience at the hands of politically empowered church officials back home.

New England law is another example.  How likely would it be for you to get a fair trial in New England, would you say?  I bet most Americans assume that New England law was pretty much just a parade of of ear croppings, public whippings, and burnings at the stake for any and every cause.  Not so.  This is a huge and interesting topic which, unfortunately, I don’t have space for here.  But consider the conclusion of legal historian William Nelson.  Dr. Nelson compared Massachusetts law with that of neighboring Virginia and found that while in Virginia the law definitively empowered the economic elite,  “[Massachusetts legal practices] prevented those wielding political, economic, or social power from pressing their advantage and exploiting those under their control to whatever limits the market would permit.”

Maybe the Puritans get such a bad shake because we need bad guys to make sense of our national story.  Salem tarred them as the Ultimate Bad Guys.  So heck, let’s blame them for everything about ourselves as a nation that we can’t bear.  And  it won’t even matter if they’re not to blame, because they aren’t even really around anymore!  We can hate them and nobody gets hurt!

So are you grieved by our racist past?  The Puritans held African slaves.  Appalled by the abuses suffered by the Native Americans?  The Puritans  exiled the one person who said they should pay the Indians for that land.  Embarrassed by Prohibition?  The Puritans railed against drunkenness.  Angered at how human sexuality has been regarded as something dirty and shameful?  The Puritans whipped fornicators and declared adultery a capital crime, punishable by death.  Upset by environmental degradation?  The Puritans brought dandelions and garlic mustard to America and happily trashed their surroundings.  Uneasy about the direction that religious fundamentalism might take in our own generation?  Baby, look at them fundies frothing and fulminating in Massachusetts Bay!  How handy it is that we have a ready-made Source of All Evil in the American Past.

Everything in that above paragraph is true, and yet there is more to the story (as always) in each instance.  It is also a story worth exploring.

 Winthrop’s Journals:  History of New England, 1630 - 1649, edited by Franklin Jameson (1908), pg. 52. Via google books.

Nelson, William E., The Common Law in Colonial America, Vol 1.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2008, pg. 65.