While the Thanksgiving holiday is usually spent in commemoration of the semi-mythical 1621 festival between recently arrived Puritans and local Native Americans, a settler who arrived a decade later is a much more appropriate hero for the more freedom-loving among us.
Roger Williams, best known as the founder of Rhode Island, was a Puritan minister, an early advocate of the separation of church and state, and, as writer Sarah Vowell describes in her 2008 book on the early Massachusetts Bay Colony, “a full and quite educated nutcase, a man whom even Puritans dismiss as a little too fanatical.”
However, Vowell does have a soft spot for the often-zealous minister — one that I and many other libertarians share. As she writes, despite Williams’ eccentricities and bigotry, Williams is “nevertheless principled, confident, outspoken, and true to himself.”
While many early Puritan colonists can claim to have had the greatest influence on the American spirit – from John Winthrop and his “City on a Hill” to the enduring cultural power of the Plymouth colonists – Williams, in my opinion, surpasses them all . His commitment to individual religious liberty not only influenced the strictly secular government we have today, but he also set the example for a classic American force – the freedom-loving madman.
Unlike the theocratic magistrates of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the 1630s, Williams was not only a religious rebel but a political one as well. While others argued that theological unorthodoxy should result in state-sanctioned punishment, Williams disagreed. While he, along with his Calvinists, believed that religious dissenters and most believers could go to hell, he instead maintained that it was not the government’s job to set them on the righteous path.
This seemingly outrageous concept, along with a host of other idiosyncratic theological disputes (let’s just say there was a lot of pamphleteering involved), led to Williams—and by extension his 12 children—being airlifted out of Massachusetts Bay in 1636. It was winter, so the judges kindly offered to delay William’s banishment by a few months on condition that he keep a low profile and whistle down his crazy ideas. But never careful of fire when a bridge was nearby, Williams completely ignored this instruction. Further preaching resulted in his being expelled from the colony in mid-January.
Luckily, thanks to the kindness of the local Wampanoag tribe, Williams managed to escape certain death in the frozen New England wilderness. In the spring, however, Williams decided to found a new settlement, one in which his, as the Puritan John Winthrop put it, “different, new, and dangerous opinions” could flourish.
This new settlement, called “Providence Plantations,” was built on land that Vowell said Williams had received as a gift—not conquered—from leaders of the local Narragansett tribe. “It wasn’t the price or the money that could have bought Rhode Island,” Williams later wrote. “Rhode Island was bought by love.”
The colony was governed by very different rules than the other Puritan-run settlements scattered across New England. Rather than exercising religious authority over citizens, providential government referred solely to “civilian matters,” making it perhaps the first place in modern history with a separation of church and state.
The settlement would eventually grow to welcome a whole host of theological outsiders, from Quakers to Jews to my other favorite Puritan nutcase, Anne Hutchinson. Hutchinson had also (and, like Williams, her double-digit litter of children) been kicked out of Massachusetts Bay in 1638 after preaching too much for a woman (particularly of the “God speaks direct to me” variety). . Frankly, Williams thought that all of these people – except maybe Hutchinson – were doomed to eternal hellfire. But as he saw it, the punishment for theological falsehood was a task that belonged only to God himself.
Williams was a unique figure in America’s early colonial history. Fueled above all by a fierce devotion to a demanding god, Williams was unwilling to use that devotion to justify punishing those who dissented. Ironically, one of the most zealous Puritans eventually built one of the world’s first secular governments.