Sunday, May 27, 2012


Freedom of Thought too precious to ignore Providence, Rhode Island, had a unique beginning. Roger Williams’ 1630s “colony” was the first organized community that did not base its formation on a call from God. In addition, Providence Town was under no command from European kings or popes to bring the original inhabitants to Christianity. It was a time when the vast majority of Protestant and Catholic clergy were paid by governments for their services to God and country. The old saying, “He who calls the tune pays the piper,” was true in this case and still is. In New England, there were unnecessary burdens foisted on the believers by the clergy. For example: those who missed religious services were fined by the combined church-state system. Ministers were told where to preach in the early Puritan days. If a follower was excommunicated he or she could not even have conversation with town folks. Black-balled in the extreme. Roger Williams’ practical opinions on freedom of thought and speech caused him to be forced from his Salem church. The Puritans’ law was a combined church-state authority. The church elders kicked Williams out of church and the legal authorities banished him from living in Massachusetts. He was forced in the dead of winter to flee his home and family. He had learned the Indian’s language and was their friend. They saved him and he lived with the tribe before finally founding what is now Providence, Rhode Island. His colony in Providence (on land he purchased from the local Indians) provided not mere toleration, but an individual’s freedom from religious/state control and freedom of thought and speech. (For more, see the new book “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul” by John M. Barry.) Williams’ freedom of thought, speech and religion was a long-time in coming. He knew that such ideas had often led to torture and even death. Few clergy agreed with him, and certainly not Devine Rights kings. The Massachusetts, Plymouth, and Connecticut Christian leaders saw Williams’ ideas far too radical and definitely unscriptural; at odds with the Bible. The Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors resembled a tenth century Christian crusade to save Jerusalem and the Holy Land. European Catholic missionaries were in the front lines in the conquistadors campaigns. They were not like today’ military chaplains; often ranked with commanding officers as they claimed innocent tribes for their faith and king. Popes even had the nerve to divide the South American peoples between Portugal and Spain. It was like a religious Olympics as Jesuits and Franciscans and lesser Catholic orders fought for the souls of the savages. (The 1986 movie, “The Mission,” with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons is about 18th century Spanish Jesuits protecting a South American Indian tribe from falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.) In 1644 Roger Williams wrote on the seriousness of freedom of the church from man-made government: “When they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world, God hath ever broken down the wall itself …” (“The Complete Writings of Roger Williams,” New York: Russell and Russell, 1963.) The third president of the United States, and his contemporaries evidently had read Roger Williams’ books. Here is a quote from Thomas Jefferson’s “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia:” “We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities ...” The freedom of thought, speech and religion was won for us by scores of men with convictions like Roger Williams. It is too precious to ignore. These freedoms are threatened today, not by politicians, atheists, or Muslims, but by those seeking to revive the old Puritan spirit. Britt Towery writes a weekly column every Friday. His e-mail: His latest book “Strangers in a Strange Land” is about Texans in China, 1912-1950

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