Roger Williams and the Life of Faith (part 2)

The first section of the letter that Roger Williams sent to his wife discusses ten ‘trials’ which we endure as we find the beginning of a true devotion to Christ developing in our life. Williams discusses ten points, each of which follows the typical pattern in his writings of making an assertion, then following it with objections, which he then answers. In this section, the chief objection for each of the particular points has to do with hypocrisy. Williams is aware that there can be a false appearance of religious zeal that does not have at its heart true devotion to Christ. He is careful, then, to point out ways of discerning the true from the false. In these, we can see the echoes of his broader theology and his ecclesial battles. He begins by noting that spiritual maturity is begun by crying to God as Father. “Because you are sons,” Williams writes, “he hath sent forth the spirit of his Son crying in your Hearts Abba Father: Father pardon me, Father help me, Father give me, Etc.”[1] Hypocrites, Williams notes, may cry out “Lord, Lord” as well, but they falter in two respects. One they may call God Father, but they have many Fathers, mixing their religious devotion with other drives. Or, they may call God Father, but not fully submit to him, speaking the words of devotion but then serving their own desires.[2]

Secondly, “there is always a professed willingness to get more and more knowledge of this heavenly father, of his name, of his works, of his word, of his Christ, of his Spirit, his Saints, and Ordinances.”[3] True disciples seek to know more and more, deepening their understanding in ways which is not about adding facts, but about adding deeper devotion. “Hence his Disciples or Scholars petition to Christ Jesus, Lord teach us to pray: Lord increase our Faith, Etc.”[4] Williams is fully aware that education and knowledge do not make someone a true Christian. He notes that hypocrites will also seek knowledge, but rather than pursuing a holistic knowledge that they then apply to their whole life, hypocrites try to “make use of so much of God, and of Christ, as may serve his own ends.”[5] As such, they may know a great deal in certain areas, but they “pick and choose as Saul did,” leaving aside teachings which interfere in their particular interests.

In all his writings, from the very beginning, Williams is attuned to self-interest in the pursuit of religious ends. Indeed, this was a key area which marked him as dangerous and unsuitable to stay in Massachusetts. One of the principle reasons for his banishment was his increasing opposition to the legality of land grants from the King.[6] It was, he knew, the Indian’s land, not England’s. The ministers of Boston, in contrast, felt they had the right and indeed duty to take the Land from heathens so as to pursue their greater good of reflecting Christ’s kingdom in this world. This self-interest also sparked his increasing opposition to “hireling” ministers, who he felt were mercenaries rather than acting as true children of God.[7]

[1] Roger Williams, 7:60

[2] It is this charge which causes Williams to repeatedly assert a need for separation, and which he charges against other ministers. In The Hireling Ministry, Roger Williams, 7:164 writes, “He that makes a Trade of preaching, that makes the cure of Souls, and the charge of mens eternall welfare, a trade, a maintenance, and a living, and that explicitly makes a covenant or bargain (and therefore no longer penny no longer Paternoster, no long pay no longer pray, no longer Preach, no longer fast, &c.) I am humbly confident to maintain that the Son of God never sent such a one to be a labourer in his Vineyard: Such Motions spring not from the living and voluntary Spring of the holy Spirit of God, but from the Artificiall and worldly respects of Money, Maintenance, &c.”

[3] Roger Williams, 7:60.

[4] Roger Williams, 7:61. He continues, “Hence they ask him many Questions, and are by little and little instructed, though for a while they were ignorant of the mystery of his Death, and Resurrection.”

[5] Roger Williams 7:61.

[6] Roger Williams, 1:40, in his first response to John Cotton, repeats the charges against him: “Mr. Williams (said he) holds forth these four particulars: First, That we have not our Land by Patttent from the King, but that the Natives are the true owners of it, and that we ought to repent of such a receiving it by Pattent.” The list of particulars continues, “Secondly, That it is not lawfull to call a wicked person to Sweare, to Pray, as being actions of God’s Worship. Thirdly, that it is not lawfull to heare any of the Ministers of the Parish Assemblies in England. Fourthly, That the Civill Magistrates power extends only to the Bodies and Goods, and outward state of men, &c.” His respect for native Americans was very strong, even as he expressed his strong disagreement with their

[7] To be sure, this was not acknowledged as self-interest, but was rather invested with theological justification.


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