Roger Williams, The Father Of Political Pluralism
What do you think of when you hear the name “Roger Williams?” Perennial, persecuted “good guy”, right?
Roger Williams Rejects Correction
Everybody knows the story of Roger Williams. Persecuted by the Puritans, he was driven into the bitter cold New England winter as a champion in the cause of religious freedom. That popular caricature deserves closer examination.
The Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, written by Roger Williams, stipulates that civil rulers are to be chosen from a body of freemen with no regard for their religious convictions. Moreover, it presumptuously declares that this godless protocol will result in the blessing, happiness, and security of the people. Rhode Island was unique among the original 13 colonies in its religious neutrality.
Roger Williams was America’s first advocate of “principled pluralism,” a theory which promises peaceful coexistence of diverse beliefs, but almost always produces strife. Williams became so disruptive in Massachusetts that the Puritan fathers were left with no choice but to deport him back to England. Before that mild sentence could be executed, however, Williams fled into the wilderness and became a martyr in the eyes of the world.
Roger Williams Rejects Covenant
The government of Rhode Island bore no resemblance whatsoever to any of the other colonies. Massachusetts was typical in her requirement that public officials take a religious test oath in support of God’s law and be a member in good standing of the church. This was recognized to be the basis for social stability.
Such an oath was anathema in Providence. Law was defined by whoever was elected to govern, regardless of their religious persuasion or lack thereof. There was no reference to the Bible whatsoever, as in Massachusetts.
In the name of separating church and state, Roger Williams insisted on the separation of God and state. He rejected the Biblical model of civil magistrates swearing to govern by the Bible and thereby provoked the wrath of God. Like Israel of old he “despised the oath in breaking the covenant” (Ezekiel 16:59).
The Biblical approach requires a renewal of the broken covenant rather than rejecting it like Roger Williams. The Biblical covenant guarantees liberty and freedom of conscience for the stranger within Israel (resident unbeliever), but does not allow him to participate in the government (Ezekiel 22:23-24).
According to historian J. D. Davis, “The stranger was not a full citizen, yet he had recognized rights and duties” (1). In fact, he enjoyed equal protection under the law of God: “Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 24:22). Moreover, the Bible reserved a special malediction for any of God’s people who dared to take advantage of a stranger (Ex. 22:23-24).
Without the protection of Biblical law there was little that Roger Williams could do to prevent an influx of misfits and outlaws. They harassed him in the same way he had harassed the Puritan fathers in Massachusetts. In this way the stability of the social infrastructure was eroded as the state increasingly was transformed into “Rogue Island.”
It was ironic that Rhode Island was the last state to ratify the Constitution since it was her destructive system that was being adopted by the founding fathers. Since that time the Christian foundations of society have been steadily eroded by the shifting tide of pluralism and religious toleration.
The folly of Roger Williams’ theology became glaringly obvious on August 8, 1989 when Rhode Island declared the “religion” of witchcraft to be tax exempt like any other church. Ideas always have consequences although it may take a while for them to manifest.
(1) J.D. Davis, Illustrated Davis Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Royal Publishers, Inc., 1973), p. 87.
(2) Gary North, Political Polytheism (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), p. 315.