Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Sunday, June 3, 2012

What Happened to Roger Williams?

Roger Williams has undergone quite a transformation over the centuries:  from a purist who was too pure to worship in Massachusetts (which is how his neighbors saw him) to a backslidden Christian centuries ahead of his time, embracing post-modern liberal thought (which is how many of us see him).  I suppose it’s an understandable error; anyone in the 17th century who respected Indian cultures and championed freedom of conscience must have rejected the stern certitude of puritanism, right?

“The Bloody Tenent”, Williams’ attack on
religious persecution.
Turns out Williams was a thorough-going puritan, even a quite conservative puritan.  I’m reading this book that rightly charts his intellectual sources to be Reformed theology -- the same theology that his persecutors were working off of.  But Williams interpreted certain biblical concepts (most notably, the implications of the incarnation) in different ways and so came to very different conclusions.  So while the likes of John Cotton said that the incarnation implied that God wished to build society infused with Christian values (and from there justified mandatory church attendance), Williams argued that the incarnation implied that the Church was only spiritual and had no business forcing itself on the unwilling individual.

But Williams went further.  Once he got to Rhode Island, he formed (or helped to form) a Baptist church, which was more in line with his theology.  But he left that church as well.  Ultimately, he decided that no church currently in the world was a “true” church, and in fact that a "true" church in his time was not possible.  Reason?  The apostolic succession -- that is, the line of spiritually anointed leaders, from Christ to Peter and on down -- was broken in the Middle Ages.  Those whom Jesus had commissioned to be the church leaders and church planters had now vanished from the earth.  One could only wait until Christ returned to restart the apostolic succession before true churches would be possible again.

Huh.  Now I’ve heard wacky theology in my time, and I’ve found that the first question to ask is, what does the Wacky Theologian get out of it?  Does it justify something that s/he wants, like more power or more sex or what have you?  Or did something happen to that innovative thinker, something painful perhaps, and now a concept in her faith is difficult to live with, and so is discarded or reshaped so that it could be defanged?

What was it that made Williams reject organized religion (while remaining a thorough-going Calvinist), even when he could form his church to be anything he pleased?

How about his other beliefs?  What happened to Roger Williams that brought him to believe that Sunday worship was a sacrament meant only for true believing Christians, and that the presence of nonbelievers polluted it?  What pushed him toward the unheard-of opinion that Indians had rights to all the land in America?  Why was he willing to take a stand, to risk all and lose all, on those particular issues?

What happened to Roger Williams?  What events or series of events opened him up to considering his beliefs through such a different lens?  What opened his mind or wounded his heart, that made him bury his face in his hands, maybe, that day alone in the house, unable to handle the implications of  . . . and then his head came up, and he reached for his Bible . . . how did that verse read, exactly?  Could it mean -- that?

What happened to Roger Williams?

And was there a woman involved?

OK, sorry about that last one.  I’m sure that whatever happened to Williams was more than just love gone sour.  But we don’t know what happened to Roger Williams.  Yet surely there is a story there, and maybe a pretty interesting one, the story of this thing, this event, that  shoved his thinking in novel directions and kept it there for the rest of his life.

Perhaps some intrepid novelist will come around and offer a creative suggestion. I’ve got I, Roger Williams in the queue to read this summer -- I’ve no idea what that author’s take on Williams is.  I’m hoping that s/he will weave me a story that will showcase the many facets of Roger Williams and offer a plausible (and entertaining!) plot line for how he became who he was.

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