Roger Williams (theologian)

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When Roger and Mary Williams arrived at Boston on February 5, 1631, he was welcomed and almost immediately invited to become the Teacher (assistant minister) in the Boston church to officiate while Rev. John Wilson returned to England to fetch his wife. He shocked them by declining the position, saying that he found that it was "an unseparated church." In addition he asserted that the civil magistrates may not punish any sort of "breach of the first table [of the Ten Commandments]," such as idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, false worship, and blasphemy, and that every individual should be free to follow his own convictions in religious matters. Right from the beginning, he sounded three principles which were central to his subsequent career: Separatism, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.

As a Separatist he had concluded that the Church of England was irredeemably corrupt and that one must completely separate from it to establish a new church for the true and pure worship of God. His search for the true church eventually carried him out of Congregationalism, the Baptists, and any visible church. From 1639 forward, he waited for Christ to send a new apostle to reestablish the church, and he saw himself as a "witness" to Christianity until that time came. He believed that soul liberty freedom of conscience, was a gift from God, and that everyone had the natural right to freedom of religion. Religious freedom demanded that church and state be separated. Williams was the first to use the phrase "wall of separation" to describe the relationship of the church and state. He called for a high wall of separation between the "Garden of Christ" and the "Wilderness of the World." This idea is one of the foundations of the religion clauses in the U.S. Constitution and First Amendment to the United States Constitution. In 1802 Thomas Jefferson, writing of the "wall of separation" echoed Roger Williams in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.[3]

The Salem church was much more inclined to Separatism, so they invited Williams to become their Teacher. When the leaders in Boston learned of this, they vigorously protested, and the offer was withdrawn. By the end of the summer of 1631, Williams had moved to Plymouth colony where he was welcomed, and informally assisted the minister there. He regularly preached and according to Governor Bradford, "his teachings were well approved." [4]

Life at Salem, Exile

After a time, Williams felt disappointed that the Plymouth church was not sufficiently separated from the Church of England, and his study of the Native Americans had caused him to doubt the validity of the colonial charters. Governor Bradford later wrote that Williams fell "into some strange opinions which caused some controversy between the church and him."[5] In December 1632 he wrote a lengthy tract which openly condemned the King's charters and questioned the right of Plymouth (or Massachusetts) to the land without first buying it from the Indians. He charged that King James had uttered a "solemn lie" when he asserted that he was the first Christian monarch to have discovered the land. Subsequently, he moved back to Salem by the fall of 1633 and was welcomed by Rev. Samuel Skelton as an unofficial assistant in the church.

The Massachusetts authorities were not pleased to see Williams return, and when they learned of his tract attacking the King and the charters, he was summoned in December 1633 to appear before the General Court in Boston. The issue was smoothed out, and the tract disappeared forever, probably burned. In August, 1634 (Rev. Skelton having died), Williams became acting pastor of the Salem church and continued to be embroiled in controversies. He had promised earlier not to raise the issue of the charter again, but he did. Again, in March 1635 was ordered to appear before the General Court to explain himself. In April he so vigorously opposed the new oath of allegiance to the colonial government that it became impossible to enforce it. He was summoned again before the Court in July to answer for "erroneous" and "dangerous opinions," and the Court declared that he should be removed from his church position. This latest controversy welled up at just the moment that the Town of Salem had petitioned the General Court to annex some land on Marblehead Neck. The Court would not consider the request until the Salem church removed Williams. The Salem church felt that this order violated the independence of the church, and a letter of protest was sent to the other churches. However, the letter was not read, and the General Court refused to seat the delegates from Salem at the next session. Support for Williams began to wane under this pressure, and when Williams demanded that the Salem church separate itself from other churches, his support crumbled entirely. He withdrew and met in his home with a few of his most devoted followers.

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