Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Roger Williams: An Early American Radical

Michael A. Lawrence

Roger Williams (1603-1683) is the first person profiled in Radicals in Their Own Time, and he exemplifies the qualities that define a radical. Williams moved from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 at age twenty-eight to escape religious persecution and was was expelled from the Colony just four years later in 1635 for his nonconforming views on religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Yet with his views favoring unconditional broad tolerance of the views and practices of all (believers and non-believers alike) – “I plead for impartiality and equal freedom, peace and safety to other consciences and assemblies, unto which the people may as freely go, and this according to each conscience, whatever conscience this conscience be” – he set the template for governmental tolerance of religion in the New World in his new state of Rhode Island, which made the guarantee of religious liberty a part of its fundamental law.

Williams believed government must tolerate the personal autonomy of all citizens on the reasoning that matters involving individual choice not affecting the rights of others are natural rights pre-dating government itself. Indeed, Williams believed the term “tolerance” is itself a misnomer, as it implies government has the authority in the first place to decide whether or not to recognize the right; whereas, the idea of pre-existing natural rights forecloses government interference – period.

When it came to matters of religious orthodoxy, Williams like the other four radicals profiled in the book (Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, W.E.B. Du Bois, Vine Deloria Jr.) deeply objected to he elaborate superstitions and practices that arose around Christ’s teachings in the many centuries following his death, which variously punished, stigmatized, marginalized or victimized certain individuals or groups. He railed against the hypocrisy of religious wars: “The blood of so many hundred thousand souls of Protestants and Papists, spilt in the Wars of present and former Ages, for their respective Consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.”

In the end, for having “broached and divulged [such] diverse new and dangerous opinions against the authority of magistrates,” Williams was banished to the wilderness, where he founded his Rhode Island community dedicated to freedom of religion.

About The Author

Michael A. Lawrence

Michael A. Lawrence is the author of Radicals in Their Own Time: Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Liberty and Equal Justice in America (2011). He is a professor of law at Michiga...

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