Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April 1 - Roger Williams, Theologian, Champion of the Separation of Church and State, Champion of Religious Toleration


Roger Williams was a bit of an oddity in the colonies. He supported the alien idea that the civil magistrates and rulers should not punish the people for religious dissent. Yes, his stance on this controversial issue was likely a product of his own experience in England but it was held passionately and consistently. Throughout his life, Roger was a proponent of religious liberty and toleration even for those with whom he disagreed. He had been raised in England and began to excite tensions among the British population as he used his fine and expensive education outside of the Church. He insisted that the way Church was being done in England was unhealthy and so he refused to participate. Separation was the goal for young Roger and so he emigrated to the North American colonies. When he arrived, he was asked to become a pastor of a local congregation but he hesitated because he wanted better to know the people who were calling him as their previous pastor was headed back to England. He ultimately decided not to accept the call because he discerned that they were not separated from the problems he perceived in England. He had crossed an ocean but he had not disconnected himself from the problems that plagued him.

Eventually, Roger found a home among a people who were eager to have a minister and willing to look beyond personality quirks in one who was available.Roger began to teach about the need for separation between the State and the Church if the Church was to maintain its purity and power. This attracted negative attention from those who supported the idea of baptism as an act of citizenship and the State. He aggressively opposed efforts by the rulers to enforce oaths of fealty and loyalty among the citizens. When they tried to use the Church to coerce the people, Roger could be counted on to resist it with the power at his disposal. He did, eventually, become a pastor but was exiled because of his controversial stance on the native Americans: he supported better treatment for them and criticized those who took advantage of them. He was kicked out of his home and would travel for many years between congregations.

At one point, he stopped in Providence, Rhode Island, long enough to become invested in a group of Christian believers who had been influenced by the likes of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. With the further influence of Anne Hutchinson it was only a matter of time until they began to value the separation that Roger thirsted for. He was baptized by these who would be known as "Baptists" and turned and baptized others accordingly. He journeyed with them for a little while before breaking from them and making the declaration that God was "too big to be housed under only one roof." Though Roger was cantankerous and difficult to get along with he should be remembered also for his unflagging commitment to reformation and healing within the Church. Just as the Desert Fathers had sought solitude and separation so that they might then turn and "pull the world to safety," Roger fought for the liberty of the soul and conscience and was not deterred by the powers that opposed him. Throughout his tumultuous life he remained committed to the ideals of religious liberty and equality for those for which the world didn't care. In his separation he had found unity with the poor and the outcast and in them he had found the face of his Lord.

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