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.


  1. Well done! This is exactly what I have concluded about him as well.

  2. Sounds very interesting. I look forward to hearing more. Go Joyce Go!