There was a man in history who regarded “barbarous savages” much as Luke, the beloved physician did. In the last newsletter, “Unusual Kindness” we considered the amazing story of Acts 28:1-10. Revealed in Luke’s profound appreciation for the barbarians of Malta, in his deliberate choice of words were two monumentally important things. The first was God’s heart towards such men whose righteousness He dearly loves. They are still in His image! The second was the ultimate judgment waiting those who persist, as Paul would write the Romans, in doing good to their fellow man.
Living some fifteen centuries after Luke was Roger Williams, unknown to most people today, and if known at all, mainly as the founder of Rhode Island. But he was so much more than that: he is the father of religious freedom in the modern world. From beginning to end, everything he said and did stemmed from how he viewed his fellow man, no matter who they were. As is very, very rare for a leader in Christendom, his view was not shaped by power politics or personal gain. It was shaped by Scripture:
He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth. (Acts 17:25b-26a)
Proving his belief by his words and even more by his deeds, he saw the great worth of human beings, even the despised and outcasts of his day. These were his fellow white men who could not conform their consciences to the state churches, and the red men he befriended and loved. In this he saw what Luke saw in the Maltans, and what the Savior of mankind saw in the Samaritans. The Good Samaritan of Luke 10:25-37 is one of the best known, but alas, only superficially understood of all the parables of our Master.
Our Master Yahshua, Luke, and Roger Williams all saw these despised ones as men — not as savages or heretics or depraved men — but as human beings made in the image of God. And they saw that these outcasts could and often did act in a way that put to shame those claiming either godliness or civilized virtue. The story of what Roger Williams has done must be told again and again to a darkening world. America and the entire free world owes him a debt that can never be canceled. If his lifelong burden to do the Indians good had burned in the hearts of the Christians filling the New World then, history, and the United States, would look far different.
Three hundred seventy-seven years ago, at this time of year, Roger Williams was wandering in the freezing, snow-covered landscape of New England, having been banished from “civilization” (by the General Court in Boston) for asserting that the Indians had legal rights to their land and that the authorities had no right to impose their religion on anyone, Englishmen or Indian. Without the great kindness of the Indians, he surely would have perished. Here is part of his extraordinary story…
Denied the common air to breath
Roger Williams came to the New World in 1631 with much the same hopes as the first Pilgrim Separatists. In William Bradford of Plymouth’s moving words, the Pilgrims desired to see “the churches of God revert to their ancient purity and recover their primitive order, liberty, and beauty.”* On his part, Williams desired to see a pure church raised up, one with no ties to the Church of England and its corruption, compromise, and oppression.
Ironically that desire is what led to his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the end of 1635. His outspoken zeal for “soul liberty” proved too radical for the Puritan leaders of the colony. They had brought with them the same spirit of religious intolerance from which they had fled.
Slipping away just before his arrest, Roger Williams fled into the wilderness and found refuge among the Indians. In later writings, Williams recalls how he was “denied the common air to breathe… and almost without mercy and human compassion, exposed to winter miseries in a howling wilderness [for fourteen weeks] not knowing what bread or bed did mean.”**
During these bitterly cold winter months, whatever shelter he found was in the dingy, smoky lodges of the Indians. Their hospitality to him in his time of need was something he sought to repay with kindness all the rest of his life.
Purchased by love
The affection was mutual, as the extraordinary founding of Rhode Island shows. There is perhaps nothing like it in the history of the world…
As soon as it was known that Roger Williams had started a settlement, men of various beliefs who had also been oppressed by the hierarchy of New England began to gather around him. Unlike the Boston settlement, which claimed that the King of England had the right to give them land that belonged to another, Williams would have purchased the lands that became Providence — if the Indians had let him. Such was the mutual affection and trust between the two, Williams and the Narragansett Indians, that the great sachems, Cononicus and Miantonomi, gave him the land.
Before leaving Salem, Williams already had arranged with the sachems for a tract of land large enough to support a colony. They would not accept money in payment for the land. “It was not price or money that could have purchased Rhode Island,” Williams wrote later. “Rhode Island was purchased by love.”***
The Indians of New England were fully as capable, if not much more so, of keeping the golden rule (treating others as you would want to be treated) than their new and largely unwanted English neighbors. Such human decency and fairness was exactly what his “Christian brethren” in Boston and Hartford refused to do. Recognizing (or not) the humanity and rights of one’s fellow man determines your treatment of him, and hence your eternal destiny.
Eventually, Williams obtained a royal charter for the colony, which later became the State of Rhode Island. That precious document was based on this mandate:
No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be anywise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion … but that all persons may … enjoy their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concernments.
What is most significant about the royal charter is that it acknowledges at the foundation of Rhode Island’s government two important principles. They were republicanism (democratic governments made up of representatives elected by its citizens) and religious liberty — what Roger Williams would call “soul liberty.” These principles characterize our American government and are later expressed in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
Neither republicanism nor religious liberty can be found in any of the charters of the other colonies in which the church and state were united. It is therefore easy to determine the original source of those principles which have protected our religious freedom and made America a refuge for the oppressed of every land. The nation’s debt to Roger Williams is a debt that can never be cancelled.
Can such freedoms long endure?
This is just a small portion of the story of Roger Williams and its importance. Today the battles he fought for freedom of religion and conscience seem “won,” but they are actually entering a more perilous phase. Increasingly, these freedoms are regarded by earthly powers as “freedoms of thought” and not “freedoms of actions.” Where men do not willingly conform to the leveled norm of society, laws annulling the most Roger Williamsfundamental rights of individuals, especially parents, are quietly passed, even at the international level. To understand better both Roger Williams and the prophetic insight he had, as well as the times we live in, please download and read this paper: “Roger Williams — Waiting for the Restoration of the True Church.”
We urge you to soberly consider where this world is going and where it is taking you. We saw these things and we wanted out. If you do, too, please write or better yet, visit. Our homes and hearts are open to you.
First distributed as Newsletter #13 on March 3, 2013.
* William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Random House (paperback edition), 1981, p. 1-2. This was the topic of Twelve Tribes Newsletter #10, “The Fair Pretenses of Necessity,” about the demise of their spiritual movement to restore the early church.
** Roger Williams, Complete Works, Vol 1, p. 319 (Mr. Cotton’s Letter Examined and Answered, p. 1), Russell and Russell, 1963.
*** “Testimony of Roger Williams relative to the deed to Rhode Island, dated Providence 25, 6. 1658.” In the Letters of Roger Williams, p. 305, ed. J. R. Bartlett (Narragansett Club, 1874).
Part 1 of this was the previous newsletter, “Unusual Kindness.”