Was Roger Williams a Separatist?

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Question: Was Roger Williams a separatist?

Answer: Yes.

The short answer is yes if your definition is the 17th century separatist movement which wanted to separate from the Church of England. I think it is fair to say Roger was a Protestant from a young child, he was ordained a Protestant Anglican Minister in 1629 in London, England, and became a separatist by the time he left England for the Massachusetts Bay Colony arriving in February 1631. In 1639 he completely separated from the Protestant religion when he became a seeker. He briefly converted to baptism and founded the first baptist church in America.

Modern Definition of Separatist

If you use the modern definition of separatist that includes intolerance of others, then Roger Williams was not a separatist. Furthermore, he supported all people living, and working together in the same community for the common good. Sometimes people forget the context of the time and conflate his desire to separate from the Church of England run by the government with the separatist movement based on races.

Let’s explore…

A separatist is a person who supports the separation of a particular group of people from a larger body on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or gender. For the sake of this article, I will use Racial Separatist for this full definition. Why? Because Roger Williams did advocate for separating from the Church of England on religious grounds which has caused much confusion and is frequently conflated to paint him as a racist.

Roger Williams wanted to separate from the formal government run Church of England because of valid reasons. Just because you separate from something does not mean you are a Racial Separatist. Many say Roger Williams was a staunch separatist because he wanted to separate from the Church of England. He didn’t want to separate, he wanted to change it. He wanted to separate from the formal government run church as a form of protest because it was government run, and required all, even non-believers, to support the church. Furthermore, they burned heretics at the stake. He was for the individual freedom of and from religion. He spoke out against persecution for the crime of thinking and believing something. After he failed to change the Church of England from within as a puritan, he separated from it so he could continue to speak out. Furthermore, over his lifetime, he did change the church! He exercised his conscious, not advocating for the Racial Separatist movement.

Roger Williams Lived with the Native Americans

In January 1636, Roger Williams left the Massachusetts Bay Colony and lived with two local tribes for about a half year. During that time, he worshipped, and if anyone wanted to worship with him, they were welcome. But, he did not force his religion on anyone.

Jewish Settlers Welcomed at Providence

Roger Williams welcomed Jewish settlers in his community. He did not say they had to live elsewhere. Roger Williams even visited with them in Newport.

In 1644, in his book, Bloody Tenent, he remarked that Jews:

“may be clear and free from scandalous offences in their life, as also from disobedience to the Civil Laws 0f a State”

In 1655, Roger Williams wrote a letter in response to the charge that he advocated infinite liberty of conscience. The story in the letter has become known as the Parable of the Ship. His famous parable is a short story in which papists, protestants, Jews, and Turks all live and work together for the common good.

Here is the relevant passage–edited for clarity:

“…There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, …and is a true picture…[of a] society. …papists and protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship; …All …I pleaded for… [were these] two hinges –

[FIRST] that none of the papists, protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.

[SECOND] …the commander of this ship ought to command the ship’s course, …and also command that justice, peace, sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services, or passengers to pay their freight; if any refuse to help…towards the common …defense; if any refuse to obey the common laws …if any shall mutiny …if any should preach…that there ought to be no commanders or officers…the commander …may judge…and punish such transgressors…”

 

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