Roger Williams: The Great Separationist
By Joyce E. Chaplin
Barry shows how controversial these beliefs were at the time, and in this way reinforces the standard image of Williams as an early proponent of liberty of conscience. But his emphasis on the English context for the controversy neglects Williams’s even bolder insistence that what was true for Christian Europeans was true for others, including Indians.
In his “Key Into the Language of America” (1643), a dictionary and a cultural anthropology of New England Indians, Williams called his native hosts and neighbors “Barbarians,” yet argued that they had consciences and rights as worthy of respect as anyone’s. He preached to the Indians, but thought that any coerced conversion of them would represent a false faith, an abomination to God. Nor did he think Indians should be deprived of their land. Against the near-universal assumption that America had more land than its indigenes needed or even knew about, he pointed out that they were “very exact and punctuall in the bounds of their Lands, belonging to this or that Prince or People.”
That was even more controversial than the doctrine of religious liberty among Christians. In the mid-1500s, a Catholic theologian, Bartolomé de Las Casas, had made a similar point. While cataloging Spanish atrocities against Indians, Las Casas defended them as inhabitants of a land to which they had rights, and said their lack of Christian faith did not justify abuse of them. Few were convinced. Consider the 18th-century Catholic missionary, Father Junípero Serra. He assumed that Spaniards had the right to take up land in California and that the church had the duty to reorganize Indians into Christian settlements, by force if necessary. Three thousand miles from Providence, at a rest stop on Interstate 280 in Northern California, a larger-than-life image of Serra faces the Pacific. Its back is turned against Williams’s far-off statue, as if also against his radical example of what New World societies might represent.
The United States is part Serra, part Williams. A “hedge or wall of Separation” between church and state was affirmed by the Constitution; rights for Indians were not. Williams would have considered it a battle half-won. He did not think an “American soul” needed to be created—such souls already existed within Indians. By largely confining Williams’s story to the establishment of liberties for America’s adopted populations, without equal attention to the defense of its indigenous inhabitants, Barry has perhaps underestimated his remarkable subject.
Equally important, he recognized the existence of Native religions. He felt Anglos had no right to forcibly convert Indians to Christianity.
Together, these beliefs refute the usual reason for excusing Euro-American genocide: that people didn't know any better then. That we can't judge them by our moral standards.
Of course they knew better, and of course we can judge them. Williams, Las Casas, and others recognized the crimes against Indians at the time. Nor was this some incredible feat of advanced thinking. It came straight from the Biblical injunctions not to kill, steal, or cheat. Anyone who wasn't a greedy, selfish hypocrite would've realized Christianity forbid harm to Indians.
But Williams wasn't flawless--as you may recall from Roger Williams, Slave Trader and Narragansett Official Opposes Williams Plaque. Like most people, he was a mixture of good and bad.
For more on evil Europeans, see "Man's Most Dangerous Myth" and Christians Reject Christ's Message.
Below: "Roger Williams takes shelter with the Narragansett in 1636." (Stock Montage/Getty Images: Engraving based on a 19th-century painting by Alonzo Chappel.)
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