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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Roger Williams: the Prophet of Religious Freedom
By Edward Eggleston (1837–1902)
 
From ‘The Beginners of a Nation’

LOCAL jealousy and sectarian prejudice have done what they could to obscure the facts of the trial and banishment of Williams. It has been argued by more than one writer that it was not a case of religious persecution at all, but the exclusion of a man dangerous to the State. Cotton, with characteristic verbal legerdemain, says that Williams was “enlarged” rather than banished. The case has even been pettifogged in our own time by the assertion that the banishment was only the action of a commercial company excluding an uncongenial person from its territory. But with what swift indignation would the Massachusetts rulers of the days of Dudley and Haynes have repudiated a plea which denied their magistracy! They put so strong a pressure on Stoughton, who said that the assistants were not magistrates, that he made haste to renounce his pride of authorship and to deliver his booklet to be officially burned; nor did even this prevent his punishment. The rulers of “the Bay” were generally frank advocates of religious intolerance; they regarded toleration as a door set open for the Devil to enter. Not only did they punish for unorthodox expressions, they even assumed to inquire into private beliefs. Williams was only one of scores bidden to depart on account of opinion.  1
  The real and sufficient extenuation for the conduct of the Massachusetts leaders is found in the character and standards of the age. A few obscure and contemned sectaries—Brownists, Anabaptists, and despised Familists—in Holland and England had spoken more or less clearly in favor of religious liberty before the rise of Roger Williams, but nobody of weight or respectable standing in the whole world had befriended it. All the great authorities in Church and State, Catholic and Protestant, prelatical and Puritan, agreed in their detestation of it. Even Robinson, the moderate pastor of the Leyden Pilgrims, ventured to hold only to the “toleration of tolerable opinions.” This was the toleration found at Amsterdam and in some other parts of the Low Countries. Even this religious sufferance, which did not amount to liberty, was sufficiently despicable in the eyes of that intolerant age to bring upon the Dutch the contempt of Christendom. It was a very qualified and limited toleration, and one from which Catholics and Arminians were excluded. It seems to have been that practical amelioration of law which is produced more effectually by commerce than by learning or religion. Outside of some parts of the Low Countries, and oddly enough of the Turkish Empire, all the world worth counting decried toleration as a great crime. It would have been wonderful indeed if Massachusetts had been superior to the age. “I dare aver,” says Nathaniel Ward, the New England lawyer-minister, “that God doth nowhere in his Word tolerate Christian States to give tolerations to such adversaries of his Truth, if they have power in their hands to suppress them.” To set up toleration was “to build a sconce against the walls of heaven to batter God out of his chair,” in Ward’s opinion.  2
  This doctrine of intolerance was sanctioned by many refinements of logic, such as Cotton’s delicious sophistry that if a man refused to be convinced of the truth, he was sinning against conscience, and therefore it was not against the liberty of conscience to coerce him. Cotton’s moral intuitions were fairly suffocated by logic. He declared that men should be compelled to attend religious service, because it was “better to be hypocrites than profane persons. Hypocrites give God part of his due, the outward man, but the profane person giveth God neither outward nor inward man.” To reason thus is to put subtlety into the cathedra of common-sense, to bewilder vision by legerdemain. Notwithstanding his natural gift for devoutness and his almost immodest godliness, Cotton was incapable of high sincerity. He would not specifically advise Williams’s banishment, but having labored with him round a corner according to his most approved ecclesiastical formula, he said, “We have no more to say in his behalf, but must sit down;” by which expression of passivity he gave the signal to the “secular arm” to do its worst, while he washed his hands in innocent self-complacency. When one scrupulous magistrate consulted him as to his obligation in Williams’s case, Cotton answered his hesitation by saying, “You know they are so much incensed against his course that it is not your voice, nor the voice of two or three more, that can suspend the sentence.” By such shifty phrases he shirked responsibility for the results of his own teaching. Of the temper that stands alone for the right, nature had given him not a jot. Williams may be a little too severe, but he has some truth when he describes Cotton on this occasion as “swimming with the stream of outward credit and profit,” though nothing was further from Cotton’s conscious purpose than such worldliness. Cotton’s intolerance was not like that of Dudley and Endicott, the offspring of an austere temper; it was rather the outgrowth of his logic and his reverence for authority. He sheltered himself behind the examples of Elizabeth and James I., and took refuge in the shadow of Calvin, whose burning of Servetus he cites as an example, without any recoil of heart or conscience. But the consideration of the character of the age forbids us to condemn the conscientious men who put Williams out of the Massachusetts theocracy as they would have driven the Devil out of the garden of Eden. When, however, it comes to judging the age itself, and especially to judging the Puritanism of the age, these false and harsh ideals are its sufficient condemnation. Its government and its very religion were barbarous; its Bible, except for mystical and ecclesiastical uses, might as well have closed with the story of the Hebrew judges and the imprecatory Psalms. The Apocalypse of John, grotesquely interpreted, was the one book of the New Testament that received hearty consideration, aside from those other New Testament passages supposed to relate to a divinely appointed ecclesiasticism. The humane pity of Jesus was unknown not only to the laws, but to the sermons of the time. About the time of Williams’s banishment the lenity of John Winthrop was solemnly rebuked by some of the clergy and rulers as a lax imperiling of the safety of the gospel; and Winthrop, overborne by authority, confessed, explained, apologized, and promised amendment. The Puritans substituted an unformulated belief in the infallibility of “godly” elders acting with the magistrates, for the ancient doctrine of an infallible Church.  3
  In this less scrupulous but more serious age it is easy to hold Williams up to ridicule. Never was a noble and sweet-spirited man bedeviled by a scrupulosity more trivial. Cotton aptly dubbed him “a haberdasher of small questions.” His extant letters are many of them vibrant with latent heroism; there is manifest in them an exquisite charity and a pathetic magnanimity: but in the midst of it all the writer is unable to rid himself of a swarm of scruples as pertinacious as the buzzing of mosquitoes in the primitive forest about him. In dating his letters, where he ventures to date at all, he never writes the ordinary name of the day of the week or the name of the month, lest he should be guilty of etymological heathenism. He often avoids writing the year, and when he does insert it he commits himself to the last two figures only and adds a saving clause. Thus 1652 appears as “52 (so called),” and other years are tagged with the same doubting words, or with the Latin “ut vulgo.” What quarrel the tender conscience had with the Christian era it is hard to guess. So too he writes to Winthrop, who had taken part in his banishment, letters full of reverential tenderness and hearty friendship. But his conscience does not allow him even to seem to hold ecclesiastical fellowship with a man he honors as a ruler and loves as a friend. Once at least he guards the point directly by subscribing himself “Your worship’s faithful and affectionate in all civil bonds.” It would be sad to think of a great spirit so enthralled by the scrupulosity of his time and his party, if these minute restrictions had been a source of annoyance to him. But the cheerful observance of little scruples seems rather to have taken the place of a recreation in his life; they were to him perhaps what bric-à-brac is to a collector, what a well-arranged altar and candlesticks are to a ritualist.  4
  Two fundamental notions supplied the motive power of every ecclesiastical agitation of that age. The notion of a succession of churchly order and ordinance from the time of the apostles was the mainspring of the High Church movement. Apostolic primitivism was the aim of the Puritan, and still more the goal of the Separatist. One party rejoiced in a belief that a mysterious apostolic virtue had trickled down through generations of bishops and priests to its own age; the other rejoiced in the destruction of institutions that had grown up in the ages, and in getting back to the primitive nakedness of the early Christian conventicle. True to the law of his nature, Roger Williams pushed this latter principle to its ultimate possibilities. If we may believe the accounts, he and his followers at Providence became Baptists that they might receive the rite of baptism in its most ancient Oriental form. But in an age when the fountains of the great deep were utterly broken up, he could find no rest for the soles of his feet. It was not enough that he should be troubled by the Puritan spirit of apostolic primitivism: he had now swung round to where this spirit joined hands with its twin, the aspiration for apostolic succession. He renounced his baptism because it was without apostolic sanction, and announced himself of that sect which was the last reduction of Separatism. He became a Seeker.  5
  Here again is a probable influence from Holland. The Seekers had appeared there long before. Many Baptists had found that their search for primitivism, if persisted in, carried them to this negative result; for it seemed not enough to have apostolic rites in apostolic form unless they were sanctioned by the “gifts” of the apostolic time. The Seekers appeared in England as early as 1617, and during the religious turmoils of the Commonwealth period the sect afforded a resting-place for many a weather-beaten soul. As the miraculous gifts were lost, the Seekers dared not preach, baptize, or teach; they merely waited, and in their mysticism they believed their waiting to be an “upper room” to which Christ would come. It is interesting to know that Williams, the most romantic figure of the whole Puritan movement, at last found a sort of relief from the austere externalism and ceaseless dogmatism of his age by traveling the road of literalism, until he had passed out on the other side into the region of devout and contented uncertainty.  6
  In all this, Williams was the child of his age, and sometimes more childish than his age. But there were regions of thought and sentiment in which he was wholly disentangled from the meshes of his time, and that not because of intellectual superiority,—for he had no large philosophical views,—but by reason of elevation of spirit. Even the authority of Moses could not prevent him from condemning the harsh severity of the New England capital laws. He had no sentimental delusions about the character of the savages,—he styles them “wolves endued with men’s brains”; but he constantly pleads for a humane treatment of them. All the bloody precedents of Joshua could not make him look without repulsion on the slaughter of women and children in the Pequot war, nor could he tolerate dismemberment of the dead or the selling of Indian captives into perpetual slavery. From bigotry and resentment he was singularly free. On many occasions he joyfully used his ascendency over the natives to protect those who kept in force against him a sentence of perpetual banishment. And this ultra-Separatist, almost alone of the men of his time, could use such words of catholic charity as those in which he speaks of “the people of God wheresoever scattered about Babel’s banks, either in Rome or England.”  7
  Of his incapacity for organization or administration we shall have to speak hereafter. But his spiritual intuitions, his moral insight, his genius for justice, lent a curious modernness to many of his convictions. In a generation of creed-builders which detested schism, he became an individualist. Individualist in thought, altruist in spirit, secularist in governmental theory, he was the herald of a time yet more modern than this laggard age of ours. If ever a soul saw a clear-shining inward light, not to be dimmed by prejudices or obscured by the deft logic of a disputatious age, it was the soul of Williams. In all the region of petty scrupulosity the time-spirit had enthralled him; but in the higher region of moral decision he was utterly emancipated from it. His conclusions belong to ages yet to come.  8
  This union of moral aspiration with a certain disengagedness constitutes what we may call the prophetic temperament. Bradford and Winthrop were men of high aspiration, but of another class. The reach of their spirits was restrained by practical wisdom, which compelled them to take into account the limits of the attainable. Not that they consciously refused to follow their logic to its end, but that, like other prudent men of affairs, they were, without their own knowledge or consent, turned aside by the logic of the impossible. Precisely here the prophet departs from the reformer. The prophet recks nothing of impossibility; he is ravished with truth disembodied. From Elijah the Tishbite to Socrates, from Socrates to the latest and perhaps yet unrecognized voice of our own time, the prophetic temperament has ever shown an inability to enter into treaty with its environment. In the seventeenth century there was no place but the wilderness for such a John Baptist of the distant future as Roger Williams. He did not belong among the diplomatic builders of churches, like Cotton, or the politic founders of States, like Winthrop. He was but a babbler to his own time; but the prophetic voice rings clear and far, and ever clearer as the ages go on.  9
 
 
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