God, War, and Providence approaches the story of Roger Williams by exploring the relationship between Puritan Massachusetts and Williams’s Rhode Island, and the relations both colonies had with the Indian tribes inhabiting these regions.
Plymouth Plantation was founded in 1620 by English Separatists. The plantation system had first been employed in Ireland to subjugate the “Irish savage.” In New England, the Pilgrim colonists enjoyed many years of peaceful relations with the American savages. Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoags, could have destroyed the settlement had he wished. Instead, he sought an alliance with the English for his own interests, “because he hath a potent adversary the Narragansetts, that are at war with him, against whom he thinks we may be some strength to him for our [firearms] are terrible unto them.” This was a pattern of behavior practiced by the natives to their ruin.
Separatists were distinct from Puritans, declaring complete independence from the Anglican Church. Puritans who arrived a decade later in huge numbers sought to purify and set an example for the church back home. They were more educated and upper bourgeois than were the Plymouth brethren. William Bradford, Plymouth’s governor, described his people as “not acquainted with trades nor traffic, but used to country life, and the innocent trade of husbandry.”
For want of capital, the Plymouth Colony never grew; eventually, they were absorbed by the Massachusetts Bay Company, a joint stock corporation for trade which expanded from Massachusetts Bay to Connecticut and Rhode Island. Inevitably, this brought them into conflict with the Native Americans over land.
The Puritans argued themselves out of the Roman Catholic Church, then out of the Church of England. Puritanism was fundamentally disputatious, lacking the authority and the unity, the hierarchy the papal system provided.
Roger Williams (1603-83), a Cambridge scholar and quarrelsome clergyman, left England to escape the persecution of Puritans by Archbishop Laud, who was known to have the ears of errant clergy cropped and their faces branded. Williams arrived in Boston in 1631, restless, still opinionated, and eager to assert himself and his convictions; he refused to teach at the First Parish Church when its members declined to confess their error in having communed with the Church of England. So he moved on to Salem. There he harangued women for not wearing the veil and induced John Endicott to cut the idolatrous “popish cross” out of the Flag of St. George. His agitation led him to seek refuge with the Separatists in Plymouth, but he soon quarrelled with them, too, for being inadequately separatist.
As James Warren puts it, “many of the local inhabitants surely thought that their pious brother was making too much of a trivial matter but when it came to Christ and religion nothing was too trivial to Roger Williams.” How Roger Williams changed from a religious zealot into the champion of religious toleration is an incongruity left unexplained by the author.
The Puritans were remarkably tolerant of Williams’s religious opinions, before he attacked the very existence of the state. According to him, the colonists of Massachusetts Bay had no right to the possession of their land, and he denied the magistrate’s power to enforce the laws: all this at a time when forces in England were threatening to revoke Massachusetts Bay’s governing charter.
At last, Williams was ordered to leave the colony. He refused to do so. The magistrates prepared to seize him and ship him back to England. Roger Williams was driven out of Massachusetts not because he believed in freedom of conscience but because his acts called into question the government’s right to exist. Alerted by the charitable Gov. John Winthrop to his impending arrest, Williams escaped and in 1636 founded a new colony in Providence, Rhode Island.
One seldom meets in the Puritan fathers’ writings the idea that natural phenomena are the creations of God that as such require our reverence as stewards. On the contrary, the Puritans were suspicious of nature and sought to distance themselves from it, even as they set God Himself at a distance in their Old Testament theology. They had a high regard for themselves as God’s pilgrims specially chosen to tame and master the wilderness. In some sense, they were forerunners of the American progressives.
Roger Williams believed the Indians were his brothers, who reflected the glory of God. In his attempt to understand them, he discovered that the Indian had no conception of ownership, and therefore sale, of land. In their treaties with the English, they sold what they thought was the right to occupy the land, together with themselves. In A Key Into the Language of America 1643, an introduction to the language and culture of the Narragansett Indians, Williams observed that “there is a savour of Civility and courtesy even among these wild Americans both of them themselves and towards strangers.” An outstanding and very able man, he was respected by these Indians whom he served as an honest broker in resolving various disputes. But Williams never went native. Unlike James Warren, he was confident that, while Western man is not superior to other human beings, nevertheless Western standards of truth are superior to those of other civilizations. (And chastised the English themselves for not living up to those standards.)
During King Philip’s War (1675-76), Roger Williams, now in his 70’s, served as a militia captain fighting for the English and cooperated with Massachusetts and Connecticut against the enemy. Following the war, he agreed with the heads of the other colonies to sell the Indian captives into slavery, and some of them were sent to the West Indies.
While God, War, and Providence contains much interesting history it is also historically provincial, viewing the past in the context of modern notions of progress that the author is unable to transcend. For him, then, Roger Williams’s ideas of religious toleration are “well ahead of their time.” But of course, toleration today means something utterly different from what it did in Williams’s time. For modern and postmodern people, “toleration” is simply indifference to truth, a reduction of religion and transcendent reality once recognized by all peoples (including the American Indians) to mere inconsequential opinion.
How Roger Williams, an opinionated and highly intolerant Puritan, came to believe in religious toleration and the separation of church and state has always been an interesting historical question. The answer is that, in America, “toleration” was born of sheer practical necessity. The colony of Rhode Island, comprising several separate geographical sections, was settled by extreme fanatics who were evicted from Puritan Massachusetts and afterward fell to quarreling among themselves for years. Williams’s solution—“toleration” or “soul liberty” and the separation of church from state—brought order out of chaos.
The Narragansett Indians are still with us. So, Wyndham Lewis said, are the intolerant Puritans who, having been recruited to the opposite extreme of licentiousness and sexual inversion, are just as “snobbishly intolerant on behalf of an immorality they now gleefully and with a sense of diabolical naughtiness have surrendered to.”
[God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians Against the Puritans of New England, by James A. Warren (New York: Scribner) 304 pp., $30.00]