Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Today in Civil Rights History: Roger Williams' early stand for civil liberties

R-Will2On October 9, 1635, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony met at New Town and banished Roger Williams for his refusal to retract statements he made in support of religious freedom and civil liberties. 

Williams had landed in Boston nearly four years earlier. He was a Separatist minister. He had renounced the Church of England and would not preach to any congregation that would not do the same. As a result, he made enemies of the Boston ministers. So, he bounced around the Bay Colony for several years before settling on a suitable congregation in Salem.

The General Court had summoned Williams  for a variety of reasons: he had denounced a law requiring citizens to attend worship, he had renounced religious oaths, and he rejected civil government’s authority to circumscribe dissenting religious opinions. 

Perhaps even more threatening to colonial authorities, Williams called into question the legality of the colony’s charter. According to Williams, the land belonged to the native peoples. Such was wrongdoing to those people that they deserved “a publike acknowledgment and confession of the Evill[,]” followed by the colonists “return[] againg to England[.]”

Before the General Court, Williams acknowledged that “the particulars were rightly summed up,” but refused to recant them. Instead, Williams reportedly said, “I shall be ready for the same grounds, not only to be bound and banished, but to die also[.]” 

The General Court ordered Williams to leave the Bay Colony on the grounds that he “broached & dyvulged dyvers newe & dangerous opinions, against the aucthoritie of magistrates, as also writt lres of defamcon, both of the magistrates & churches here[.]” Within six weeks, he was ordered to depart for “some place out of this jurisdiccon, not to returne any more without licence from the Court.” He was given six weeks to make his preparations.

Although a snowstorm delayed his departure, Williams would later abscond in the middle of a cold January night, leaving behind his wife and two daughters (Mary and Freeborn). The General Court had heard rumors that their worst fears had been validated—Williams had convinced some of his congregation of the virtue of his vision. The court determined to send Williams promptly back to England, but word traveled faster than their fury, and Williams was able to escape.

Together with several followers, Williams headed south where they settled along the Narragansett River. There, they drafted a compromise that outlined the citizens’ right to freedom of conscience, and conditioned the vote on acceptance of that principle. Years later, Williams proved his devotion to this cause when he disenfranchised a man who refused to permit his wife to worship according to her own conscience.

They named the new settlement Providence. 

Two years later, after the settlement had grown and a new compact became necessary, Williams and his followers reaffirmed their beliefs in individual religious liberty. Despite his disdain for non-Separatists, Williams would not deny them a place in the settlement. According to one scholar, “He established Providence as a refuge for ‘persons distressed of conscience,’ whatever their religious opinions might be.”

Another scholar claimed that Williams’ “grandest historical achievement” came in 1644, when Williams traveled to England and obtained a patent from Parliament that preserved the land upon which he had settled. The new patent secured a “free and absolute Charter of Civill incorporation” and protected freedom of conscience. Nearly twenty years later, King Charles I gave the charter legal legitimacy when he granted a new charter under the same conditions.

Indeed, years ago today, Williams took a bold stand for individual religious liberty. He rejected the authority of civil government to suppress his opinions, and he recognized the property rights of a class of individuals who since have rarely received such recognition.

Years later, when the Bay Colony agreed to lift his banishment if he refrained from propagating those views, Williams declined to return. He had maintained his commitment to civil liberty. To that end, near the end of his life Williams reportedly said, “It hath been told me that I labored for a licentious and contentious people…. But, gentlemen, blessed be God…for His wonderful providences, by which alone this town and colony, and that grand cause of truth and freedom of conscience, hath been upheld.” 

The reverence paid to Williams’ legacy seems to pale in comparison to the strength of his contribution to this country. He seems hardly remembered for his contribution to civil liberties (e.g. Williams’ statement about the wall between church and state is often wrongfully attributed to Thomas Jefferson). But, his legacy ought to carry on; his memory ought to be preserved; and his story ought to be told.

But, perhaps it doesn’t matter if his name remains or not. In the end, whether we pay tribute to him, his inconspicuous courage has reverberated within the American conscience since that day in New Town when he showed up and put his foot down.

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