Roger Williams and the life of Faith (part 1)

As I’m studying for my comprehensive exams, I’m getting back into reading my major research from the last few years on topics of church history.  My first major study focused on Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and George Fox, trying to explore their basic contributions in light of a developing understanding of the Spirit and a desire for true religious freedom. This search for religious toleration wasn’t about them wanting to live more loose or godless lifestyles, they sought to be more Christian, embracing the fullness of the Christian life in increasing ways.  In doing this they often ran up against the barriers of the established church in their context, who were also supporters of a good Christian life, but wanted that life to make a lot more orderly sense.  The three I studied wouldn’t accept that version of faith, so pushed back, often to their own detriment. But they leave a very interesting model for us today in how they lived, what they said, and what they wrote.

I’m pretty caught up in my studying and in my teaching an online course on theological studies.  So, my blogging has fallen off. Hopefully this post and those that follow give a good insight into what I’m studying, how I’m going about this education process myself, and what is inspiring me these days:

Roger Williams is primarily now known for his contribution to the idea of separation of church and state in American history, yet it is fairly clear Williams was not primarily a political philosopher, nor was he, it seems, even primarily driven by the relationship between the state and the church.[1]  Rather, this was an ancillary topic to his significantly stronger drive. Even as he did not continue on in active ministry, nor does it seem he ever found a settled place in any particular religious community, Williams was a man who was driven by his quest for a deeper relationship with God, one that could not be separated from any part of his life, and one which insisted on an increasingly sophisticated coherence of doctrine.

It is in the context of Williams’s continued theological drive that we should place his various contributions. This includes his largest writings, which relate to religious persecution and religious freedom. Rather than being religiously open to whatever wind was blowing, Williams was, on the contrary, very particular in what he thought was acceptable religious doctrine. Indeed, he was so exact in his theological demands that one of the major causes of his earliest separation with the churches in Boston was his assertion they should be entirely separate from the Church of England, separating not only in geography but also in affiliation. Toleration, for him, meant something very different than it does in contemporary culture.[2]

Although, most of his major writings were written in a defensive posture, arguing against civil persecution and maintaining a strong call to respect freedom of conscience, in his Experiments of Spiritual Life and Health, and their Preservatives, we are given insight into his positive spirituality, which almost certainly was more of a constant pursuit of his rather than his occasional, combative and controversial writings.[3] While away on a trading trip, Williams received word his wife had been very sick and almost died.  In Williams’s consistently intellectual response to crisis, he penned a theological, indeed pastoral, encouragement to her to aid in her recovery. More than merely pastoral, however, it is likely that here, in the time of his wife’s crisis, Williams exposed a great deal of his own self.

He could not visit her in person, but he could send her what he thought was his best self, his best contribution to his family and to the broader society. He writes, “I send thee (though in Winter) an handfull of flowers made up in a little Posey, for thy dear selfe, and our dear children, to look and smell on, when I as the grasse of the field shall be gone and withered.”[4] This “handfull of flowers” consists of three main sections, which indicate the progression of the spiritual life through being drawn by God into his presence, into confidence and spiritual health, ending with practices of preservation of a strong spiritual state.


[1] For excellent studies on his contributions to the debate over the relationship between church and state see Timothy Hall, Separating Church and State: Roger Williams and Religious Liberty (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998) and Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1967).

[2] For Williams the key issue was the role of the civil authorities in responding to spiritual disputes. He writes, 7:179, “…Christ Jesus never cald for the Sword of Steel to helpe the Sword of the Spirit that two-edged Sword that comes out of the mouth of the Lord Jesus.” Williams greatly expanded on this basic theme in his books, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution and The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody.

[3] “It is true, I have been sometimes prest to engage in controversies, but I can really and uprightly say, my Witnes is on high… At other times I have been drawne to consider of the little flock of Jesus, his Army, his body, his building… At present, I onely examine who are the personall and particular Sheep of Jesus Crhsti, his Souldiers, his living materials, though scattered, divided, and not compos’d and ordred at their souls desire.” (Roger Williams, 7:48). In the foreword to this work, the publishers write, “For the student of Williams this devotional book is of basic importance. Placed alongside the two Tenents it shows how Williams’ ecclesiastical radicalism arose out of a profound Puritan piety. Here is the ‘root of the matter’ which even Cotton Mather admitted was in him.” (Roger Williams, 7:43).  This does raise the question, “What kind of Puritan piety?” Puritanism is more properly understood as a reaction against the established Church of England and as such can be defined more in terms of what it was against rather than a settled set of emphases, even if there were common shared themes. See Jerald C. Brauer, “Types of Puritan Piety,” Church History 56, no. 1 (1987). Williams’s theological questioning was certainly pushing his ecclesiology in decidedly different directions than the established Puritan movement of his day, and one can surmise this ecclesiological exploration was driven by broader theological and spiritual roving.

[4] Roger Williams, 7:56.

This entry was posted in emerging history, history, religion, spirituality, theology, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Roger Williams and the life of Faith (part 1)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *