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chiefly narrated by his most faithful interpreter, Bancroft, author of the History of the United States.
The historian's eulogistic style is appropriately employed in describing the character of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the apostle of liberty. Enthusiasm, in this instance, has been tempered by research; the facts fully justify the conclusions, and the whole sketch might be quoted as one of the best specimens of its kind :
• In February of the first year of the colony, but a few months after the arrival of Winthrop, and before either Cotton or Hooker had embarked for New England, there arrived at Nantasket, after a stormy passage of sixty-six days, “a young minister, godly and zealous, having precious” gifts. It was Roger Williams. He was then but a little more than thirty years of age ; but his mind had already matured a doctrine which secures him an immortality of fame, as its application has given religious peace to the American world. He was a Puritan, and a fugitive from English persecution ; but his wrongs had not clouded his accurate understanding ; in the capacious recesses of his mind, he had revolved the nature of intolerance, and he, and he alone, had arrived at the great principle which is its sole effectual remedy. He announced his discovery under the simple proposition of the sanctity of conscience. The civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control opinion ; should punish guilt, but never violate the freedom of the soul. The doctrine contained within itself an entire reformation of theological jurisprudence : it would blot from the statute-book the felony of nonconformity ; would quench the fires that persecution had so long kept burning ; would repeal every law compelling attendance on public worship; would abolish tithes and all forced contributions to the maintenance of religion ; would give an equal protection to every form of religious faith; and never suffer the authority of the civil government to be enlisted against the mosque of the Mussulman or the altar of the fire-worshipper, against the Jewish synagogue or the Roman cathedral. It is wonderful with what distinctness Roger Williams deduced these inferences from his great principle, the consistency with which, like Pascal and Edwards, those bold and profound reasoners on other subjects, he accepted every fair inference from his doctrines, and the circumspection with which he repelled every unjust imputation. In the unwavering assertion of his views, he never changed his position; the sanctity of conscience was the great tenet, which, with all its consequences, he defended, as he first trod the shores of New England ; and in his extreme old age, it was the last pulsation of his heart. But it placed the young emigrant in direct opposition to the whole system on which Massachusetts was founded ; and gentle and forgiving as was his temper, prompt as he was to concede everything which honesty permitted, he always asserted his belief with temperate firmness and unyielding benevolence.
"It was objected to him, that his principles subverted all good government. “ The coinmander of the vessel of state," replied Williams, “may maintain order on board the ship, and see that it pursues its course steadily, even though the dissenters of the crew are not compelled to attend the public prayers of their companions.”
• But the controversy finally turned on the question of the rights and duty of magistrates to guard the minds of the people against corruption, and to punish what would seem to them error and heresy. Magistrates, Williams protested, are but the agents of the people, or its trustees, on whom no spiritual power in matters of worship can ever be conferred ; since conscience belongs to the individual, and is not the property of the body politic; and with admirable dialectics clothing the great truth in its boldest and most general forms, he asserted that “the civil magistrate may not intermeddle even to stop a church from apostasy and heresy.”'
Meanwhile, Williams was elected as their minister by the people of Salem. The assembly of divines now declared every one worthy of banishment who would assert that the civil magis. trate might not interfere to stop a church from apostasy and heresy;' and, moreover, they decreed that, as a punishment, a grant of public land should be withheld from the people of Salem.
The breach was therefore widened. To the ministers, Williams frankly but temperately explained his doctrines ; and he was armed at all points for their defence. As his townsmen had lost their lands in consequence of their attachment to him, it would have been cowardice on his part to have abandoned them; and the instinct of liberty led him again to the suggestion of a proper remedy. In conjunction with the church, he wrote “ letters of admonition unto all the churches whereof any of the magistrates were members, that they might admonish the magistrates of their injustice.” The church-members alone were freemen. Williams, in moderate language, appealed to the people, and invited them to instruct their representatives to do justice to the citizens of Salem.
This last act seemed flagrant treason; and at the next general court, Salem was disfranchised till an ample apology for the letter should be made. The town acquiesced in its wrongs, and submitted ; not an individual remained willing to justify the letter of remonstrance; the church of Williams would not avow his great principle of the sanctity of conscience; even his wife, under a delusive idea of duty, was for a season influenced to disturb the tranquillity of his home by her reproaches. Williams was left alone—absolutely alone. Anticipating the censures of the colonial churches, he declared himself no longer subjected to their spiritual jurisdiction. “My own voluntary withdrawing from all these churches, resolved to continue in persecuting the witnesses of the Lord, presenting light unto them, I confess it was mine own voluntary act; yea, I hope
the act of the Lord Jesus, sounding forth in me the blast which shall in his own holy season cast down the strength and confidence of those inventions of men.” When summoned to appear before the general court, he avowed his convictions in the presence of the representatives of the state, “ maintained the rocky strength of his grounds,” and declared himself “ready to be bound and banished, and even to die in New England,” rather than renounce the opinions which had dawned upon his mind in the clearness of light. At a time when Germany was the battle-field for all Europe in the implacable wars of religion ; when even Holland was bleeding with the anger of vengeful factions ; when France was still to go through the fearful struggle with bigotry; when England was gasping under the despotism of intolerance; almost half a century before William Penn became an American proprietary; and two years before Descartes founded modern philosophy on the method of free reflection-Roger Williams asserted the great doctrine of intellectual liberty. It became his glory to found a state upon that principle, and to stamp himself upon its rising institutions, in characters so deep that the impress has remained to the present day, and can never be erased without the total destruction of the work. He was the first person in modern Christendom to assert in its plenitude the doctrine of the liberty of conscience—the equality of opinions before the law; and in its defence he was the harbinger of Milton—the precursor and the superior of Jeremy Taylor.'1
A sentence of exile was pronounced against Williams, and it was subsequently determined that he should be sent back to the old country. A warrant was sent to him, ordering him to come to Boston and embark; and when he had refused to obey, officers entered his house to enforce the order; but Williams had meanwhile escaped into the wilderness. Through the deep snow and the bitter cold, he wandered from his home, and submitted himself to the privations of savage life; ‘for fourteen weeks, he was sorely tost in a bitter season, not knowing what bread or bed did mean,' and sometimes hiding at night in some hollow tree. Happily, he could speak the dialect of the Indians, and they had not forgotten his kindness. He found shelter in the cabin of a chief; and, to use his own words, the ravens fed him in the wilderness.' The sympathy of friends had followed him, and even his foes could not hate him : their worst charge against him implied only that his mind, being more expansive than their own, must be unsettled.' The excellent Governor Winthrop privately wrote to Williams, advising him to steer his course to Narraganset Bay, where he would be free from English claims and patents; accordingly, the brave man embarked in a frail Indian canoe, and, accompanied by five friends who had joined him, paddled over to the opposite shore, and landed on a nook of Rhode Island. In gratitude, he named the landing-place • Providence,' and here he began to plant and build.
1 These statements are fully supported by the writings of Roger Williams; including his Hireling Ministry, and the rare tract entitled Mr Cotton's Letter, Lately Printed, Examined and Answered. By Roger Williams, of Providence, in New England. London. Imprinted in the yeere 1644. Small 4to, pp. 47. It is preceded by an address of two pages to the impartial reader.
The sequel corresponded with the beginning. Williams, the homeless exile, found friends among the Indians who surrounded his infant colony: through their kindness, he obtained a large tract of land. He was now in a position to make himself a wealthy proprietor ; but he reserved to himself not one foot of land, not one tittle of political power more than he granted to servants and strangers.' 'He gave away his lands and other estate to them that he thought were most in want, until he gave
He established a simple form of democracy, providing that the will of the majority should rule, but only in civil things,' and that God should be the sole ruler of conscience. Quakers, and followers of Anne Hutchinson and Samuel Gorton-indeed, men of all shades of religious opinion—were admitted into the new colony, which its founder declared to be 'a shelter for persons distressed for conscience.'1
But the noblest feature in the character of Williams remains to be told. He forgave his enemies; he did good to those who had severely treated him. For himself, he had no fear of the Indians: they knew him and loved him. Soon after the settlement of Providence, its founder discovered that the Pequod tribe had made with other Indians an alliance for the massacre of settlers in New England. Williams embarked again in his canoe, and cut through a stormy wind and great seas, every minute in hazard of life, in order to dissuade two chiefs from joining the alliance; and while he stayed in the cabins of these chiefs, he was surrounded by the Pequod warriors, and 'nightly looked for their bloody knives at his own throat.' This noble interposition was the main cause of the defeat of the Pequod conspiracy. It displayed the Christian heroism of Williams, and gave to his enemies one more opportunity of exposing their own character. Their conduct, in the sequel, proved that religious bigotry can hardly be compatible with generosity. When Governor Winthrop suggested that Williams might be rewarded and recalled from exile, the majority of the ministers of Massachusetts resolved that he should still abide in disgrace at Providence.
16No person within the said colony shall be molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences of opinion in matters of religion, who does not actually disturb the civil peace.'--Charter of Rhode Island, 1644.
No practical Christianity, however heroic, could hide his heterodoxy,
His services were more justly appreciated by the Red Men, especially by the two chieftains of the Narragansets, in whose cabins he had been sheltered. In one of his letters, he writes: "God was pleased to give me a painful, patient spirit, to lodge with them (the Indians] in their filthy, smoky holes, even while I lived at Plymouth, to gain their tongue.' In a later part of his life, he journeyed, once in a month, into the Narraganset territory to preach to the natives; and it is said that, not long before his death, when he heard that King Philip was marching to attack Providence, he seized his staff, and alone went out to meet the hostile force, whom he turned aside by kind words. In his civil dealings with the Indians, he gave an example which, if it bad been generally followed, might have prevented the fate of many tribes. He declared that the aborigines had a right to their native soil; and in purchasing their land, he "spared no cost towards them in tokens and presents. When the aged chief Canonicus was about to die, he sent for his friend Williams,' and desired to be buried in a piece of cloth given by the good missionary.
Such was the character of the founder of the colony of Rhode Island, the foremost man in asserting the principles which now form the basis of liberty in America. Religious toleration now appears to be a maxim of common sense; but it is the result of centuries of miserable experience. The attribute of the great teacher is to look far beyond his own times, and to anticipate the results which, by a slow process, experience must bring to light. Before the year 1630, or more than half a century before Locke wrote his treatise on toleration, Roger Williams, in New England, asserted the principle of entire religious liberty, carried it into practice, and suffered for it. So far was the reformer in advance of his age, that about the time of his death, and when twenty-five years of experience in Rhode Island had confirmed his doctrine, the Puritans of Massachusetts were enacting laws for the imprisonment, whipping, and barbarous mutilation of heterodox religionists !
After reading the life of Williams, we find a striking contrast in turning to the name of another prominent character of the old times-Cotton Mather, whose voluminous writings reflect the characteristics of his period.