Prophet of Freedom

America’s pioneer prophet of freedom, a man intensively active as a Puritan but offensive to the classic American Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Company led by John Winthrop’s powerful vision of a “city on a hill,” is none other than Roger Williams. For our week long visit with Lukas and his family on Cape Cod I chose to read John Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul. This is one of the finest biographies I’ve ever read — magnificent in scope, able to keep the narrative arc clear and constantly in view, and incisive in analysis. If you care about the relationship of the church and state, Barry’s book is a must.

The Puritans came to the New World in the 17th Century out of angst over King James and the threat to purity for the Anglican Church that the Puritans envisioned; they came to the New World to create a Christian (Puritan, Calvinist) society and were both intolerant of others (they hanged and flayed Quakers). Barry’s depiction of the Puritans, which needs to be read against Edmund Morgan’s The Puritan Dilemma, is not unlike Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous The Scarlet Letter — to be sure, Barry’s not as relentless but neither is he worried about revealing their fastidiousness and hypocrisy, like demanding someone in each home have a light on 15 minutes after the city’s early bell rang.

Just as Puritan but of a completely different order, Roger Williams offered a completely different vision for what New England could be — instead of a city on a hill he wanted a refuge for liberty. Williams has suffered under historians, some of whom see him as nothing but a theologian and therefore unworthy of serious political though, while others (from Isaac Backus to Perry Miller) saw him behind America’s experiment in freedom. Some see him behind Jefferson and Locke. One man said the Puritans wanted freedom themselves but Williams wanted freedom for humanity.

Notably, Williams is on the Reformation Wall in Geneva. In the center (pictured to the right) are the four great Reformers: Farel, Calvin, Beza and Knox. To their left is Roger Williams (pictured above).

1. Williams was born in England, influenced heavily by Edward Coke and Francis Bacon (this needed more detail in Barry’s book for he often made the claim), observant of the way authority and power and freedom worked in England, came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to be a pastor but his strong statements about freedom of conscience and that the state was not to coerce humans with respect to the First Table of the Ten Commandments (about God) but only the Second Table led to his excommunication. He went to Salem but got into the struggle with the authorities of Boston leaning on Salem, went to Plymouth Plantation, then back to Salem where he was kicked out and escaped (barely because of a snow storm) into the wilderness where the Indians protected him … eventually to Providence Plantation which became “Rhode Island and Providence Plantation” (and is today the official name). He went back and forth to London a few times but eventually settled and established a Plantation that would respect and legalize freedom of conscience.

2. Williams was into what is called Soul Liberty, that is the freedom of a person to believe what they want, to express their mind without disturbing society (too much), and that the government was to protect that freedom. So Catholics and Quakers and Baptists and Anglicans and others all found a home in Rhode Island due to Williams’ vision.

3. At the heart of Barry’s book is the tension one finds in American history: between the Puritan vision of a Christian nation and the Williams vision of soul liberty. That tension exists today between some in the GOP and others among the Democrats, often enough between Christians themselves. It can be put like this: If the Bible is God’s will, it is God’s will for all, and if it is for all then the Christian is obliged to work for that will. That’s the Winthrop vision reduced to simplicities, but I think not overly so. Williams said we live in a world where not all are Christians and where not all Christians think alike, and since humans err and since government is the authority of the people (not the divine right of kings, as seen in King James, which is what the Puritans were trying to get away from), then the state is not to coerce its people into conformity to “God’s will” as perceived by the Puritans. Therefore, his key theme was liberty. Liberty first and the population will decide, but it will never coerce the conscience. The rule of law ensures that a king or a tyrant cannot take over the consciences of the people.

Christian politics today can be seen through the options: Is it Winthrop or is it Williams?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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